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Happy 20th Anniversary Banner Ads

Twenty years ago I was working with Tangent Design and Modem Media to develop interactive content for AT&T and Zima. The guy who’s place I took at Tangent Design ended up founding Razorfish a few months later. Anyone remember The Blue Dot?

This Is The’s World’s First Banner Ad:

first ever banner ad

This is almost the exact size, almost the exact resolution, exact ad.

Of course, it’s not *technically* the first banner ad. There was no “one” first banner ad. Instead, there were around 12-14 banners, which all went live 20 years ago today, on October 27th, 1994. That was when the website HotWired.com first launched on the internet.

When Tangent launched the first paid banner ads on Hotwired, the WIRED Magazine digital network, we were all excited to see what would happen.

The AT&T ad enjoyed Seventy percent clickthrough rate and the number one banner ad on the Internet for over seven months. Today those numbers are unimaginable, but back then we were setting records because there was no competition.

zimalogo

Around the same time, we created the first episodic web site for Zima with Modem Media. All but forgotten today, it was ground-breaking when it launched.

I have both fond and frustrating memories of working on the Zima website, updating the content every week or so with new stories, images, sounds and other cool stuff. All I had was an FTP client and the HotDog HTML Editor. I’m always amazed at how low-fi web design tools have remained over the years. Dreamweaver was a nightmare and today people still hand-code almost most everything if they want to get it right the first time.

I went to WIRED’s office once, sat down with Brian Behlendorf, who did much of the work on the original Apache web server. He had a small SGI machine on his desk, covered with soda stains. I asked what that machine was, and he said, “That’s HotWired.” One machine for the html, images, database and ad server.

The Internet History Podcast has a great audio and text writeup of those early online advertising days. Just about everyone involved is represented, a great history lesson for anyone interested in online marketing.

Seventy percent clickthrough. I wonder how that compares with ads on POF?

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Dating Profile Moderation In the Philippines

Most social sites, and some dating sites and apps, use humans in the Philippines to moderate profile content. Over 100,000 people there spend their days looking at the most disturbing things you could imagine, and then some.

Everybody hits the wall, generally between three and five months. You just think, ‘Holy shit, what am I spending my day doing? This is awful.’

“It’s like PTSD…. There is a memory trace in their mind.” Denise and her team set up extensive monitoring systems for their clients. Employees are given a battery of psychological tests to determine their mental baseline, then interviewed and counseled regularly to minimize the effect of disturbing images. But even with the best counseling, staring into the heart of human darkness exacts a toll. Workers quit because they feel desensitized by the hours of pornography they watch each day and no longer want to be intimate with their spouses. Others report a supercharged sex drive. “How would you feel watching pornography for eight hours a day, every day?” Denise says. “How long can you take that?”

I can’t imagine having to look at dating site profiles for eight hours a day, let alone stuff from Whisper and other anonymous apps. Kudos for these people’s efforts to keep our online experience a bit safer and trigger-free.

Read more at WIRED.

Second Life Creator Builds Next-Gen Virtual Worlds

High fidelity

In the early 1990’s I was part of the Boston Computer Society Virtual Reality Group. We built clunky virtual worlds viewable in scary head-mounted monitors and at any time someone in the group had very expensive high-performance computers on loan from various vendors. Things died out over the next few years, the computing power just wasn’t there to make the worlds look realistic.

Fast forward to 2003 when Linden Lab launched SecondLife. More computing power and no head-mounted display required, but the navigation and tools were too geeky for most people. After that wave of hype, SecondLife sputtered along into obscurity.

Now, the creator of SecondLife, Philip Rosedale, is at it again. His new company, High Fidelity, is developing a set of tools to create even more stunning virtual environments.

In an article for the MIT Technology Review, Rosedale talks about High Fidelity, and of course gives a demo. The demo is a nightclub.  This got me thinking about the handful of virtual environments that have launched in recent years targeting online daters looking for a more immersive dating experience. Unlike traditional dating sites, users can experience an online date, including flirting, gifting, a selection of different environments and other offerings.

The only problem is that these companies never went anywhere.

Some of what his company is creating is much the same as Second Life. You download some software and then enter a virtual space where you can steer your avatar around and build stuff. This time, though, building is much easier, the lag mostly eliminated, and the graphics more impressive. As in Second Life, a digital currency (convertible into real currencies) can be used to buy things such as virtual outfits. You can earn it by offering up your spare computer processing power to other people in High Fidelity’s metaverse—a system Rosedale hopes will make it easier to corral the computing power needed to run complex simulations.

At first glance, it appears that High Fidelity could be a great platform for an online virtual environment for dating. Easier tools, Oculus Rift headsets and computing performance improvements mean millions of singles could log in at any time and look for a date. Or perhaps they meet on a traditional dating site, and then have their first date in 3D. I don’t expect the dating industry to dive into 3D dating anytime soon, but it’s a safe bet that some intrepid entrepreneur is going to give 3D dating a shot again.

Tinder Turns on The Revenue Tap

Tinder is going to offer freemium services in a few weeks.

The new premium service will likely let users break away from location limits and expand their Tinder reach. “We are adding features users have been begging us for,” said Rad. “They will offer so much value we think users are willing to pay for them.”

Greg Blatt, the head of IAC’s Match division predicted Tinder could earn $75 million in 2015. Let’s put that number in an envelop and revisit it a year from now. What’s the over/under for them reaching $75 million?

I would imagine that around 5% of Tinder users will go for the premium feature.

The service could have travel-focused features that help move the co ‘into markets beyond dating’.

More at Forbes.

Crowdfunding A New TV Pilot, Love’s Bounty Hunter

loves bounty hunder

 

Love’s Bounty Hunter is a new comedy series that reveals the inner workings of a fictional online dating company and the people who play Cupid there.

Our story follows Claire Desmond, who is coerced into signing a contract with America’s largest online dating company, Love’s Bounty Hunter, as a “featured dater” in Los Angeles. She’s entirely at the whim of the Love’s Bounty Hunter computer algorithms and must go on at least one date with every match the computer finds for her.

In the series, the regular cast of characters will be supplemented with featured cameos from actual online dating insiders: dating coaches, matchmakers, and professional wingmen, just to name a few.  In addition, the show will feature reenactments of crazy dates sourced directly from YOU the audience, featuring celebrities and well–known actors playing opposite the lead characters.

I can think of a pretty solid cast of dating industry folks who could play it real on a show like this. Looking forward to my cameo.

More at Indiegogo.

Cupid Subscriber Count Plummets

I always thought of Cupid as Spark Networks with more adult services. Judging by their current situation, I stand by this.

Cupid, which runs subscription-based dating websites such as Cupid.com, UniformDating.com and LoveBeginsAt.com, announced £3m ($4.9m) in pre-tax losses for the six months ending June, an increase of 20% from the previous year.

Show me niche dating network that’s not running a deficit. This is par for the course. But then, scary subscriber numbers.

At the end of June 2012, Cupid’s sites had 113,000 paying subscribers; by June 2014, they had just 48,000, each of whom pays the company only about £20. Increased competition and a rise in marketing costs to attract and retain customers has weakened the firm’s position, according to Phil Gripton, its boss. In the first half of 2012 Cupid spent 48p on marketing to attract each new user across its sites; now it has to spend four times as much. The development of specialist dating websites for groups as varied as wrinklies and clowns have also made it difficult for Cupid’s main websites to make money.

That is a tremendous drop in paying customers. Again, reminds me of Spark Networks, specifically American Singles.

In 2013, Cupid PLC sold off all of their casual (adult) dating businesses, which represented 70% of their overall revenue. In retrospect, that doesn’t seem like a very good idea. But probably necessary if they want to appear as a more legitimate dating network.

To combat the rise of free dating apps, Cupid developed its own free location-based dating app, basically a Tinder clone, called Tangle, which it will launch in October.

It looks like several people are increasing their stake in Cupid stock.

Read more at The Economist.

Zoosk IPO: The Offering Price Is Everything

Seeking Alpha has an article about the planned Zoosk IPO. A couple of datapoints for those tracking this evolving situation.

High Operating Expenses Raise Red Flag: The extremely high operating expenses (72% of revenue in fiscal 2013) raise concerns that this is a company simply buying its users with little network effects and/or organic growth.

Based on options granted in April 2014 at an exercise price of $7.72, we can assume the pricing discussions are in the range of $8-$16. The question arises though: Is any price in that range a good incentive to purchase shares, or could this be a short candidate once it goes public?

IBISWorld estimates only six online dating companies, including Zoosk, with 1% or greater estimated market share, with only 2 companies having greater than 10% market share.

The company is the number one gross dating app and a top 25 grossing app on the iPhone in the United States.

Read more at Seeking Alpha.

HowAboutWe co-founder: How to Avoid Delusional Thinking in Start-up Growth Strategy

Over the years I have posted many links to Andrew Chen. Andrew has a great guest post written by Aaron Schildkrout, co-counder of HowAboutWe, which Match recently acquired.

While we’re talking about the industry, SFGate has some great stories about the online dating industry.

For IAC, it was just another day at the top of the digital dating food chain. HowAboutWe needed an exit; IAC was the only one buying.

“It was opportunistic,” said Sam Yagan, CEO of IAC’s dating division, Match Group. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, we need to have HowAboutWe.’ It was an attractive financial transaction.”

Aaron has a few pearls of wisdom for online dating startups.

The online dating industry is a petri dish for delusional startup growth strategies.

Couldn’t agree more. The quick-money times for the online dating industry are over. You better have $5-$10 million to get going, otherwise you’re toast. Case in point, lot’s of niche sites launched, most of the struggling to own their respective markets.

Paid Acquisition / Direct Marketing: For dating, this is by far the most interesting category. It is the ONLY strategy that has ever worked to build a truly mainstream dating brand over time.

I can’t begin to remember how many times I’ve told this to dating site startup entrepreneurs, ignore at your peril. If you raise money, make sure to raise enough to survive at least the first six months, including marketing costs. Otherwise you’re gonna have a bad time.

Lot’s of other fantastic thoughts from Aaron I won’t bother with here. Between the two articles, lots of great information about the dating industry.

Thinking of starting a dating site? Read How to Avoid Delusional Thinking in Start-up Growth Strategy to get an industry veteran’s thoughts on what it takes to be successful in the online dating industry.

Siri, Get Me A Date

viv
The team of engineers that created Siri, Apple’s voice-driven intelligent assistant, are creating a an advanced form of AI which “will be able to teach itself, giving it almost limitless capabilities. The stealth startup, Viv Labs, has been working on the new service, called Viv, for two years. In time, they assert, their creation will be able to use your personal preferences and a near-infinite web of connections to answer almost any query and perform almost any function.”

See Cortana from Microsoft and Sherpa for Google Glass for other voice-driven options.

Reading the article, all of a sudden, this.

“Intelligence becomes a utility,” Kittlaus says. “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if you could talk to everything, and it knew you, and it knew everything about you, and it could do everything?”

That would also be nice because it just might provide Viv with a business model. Kittlaus thinks Viv could be instrumental in what he calls “the referral economy.” He cites a factoid about Match.com that he learned from its CEO: The company arranges 50,000 dates a day. “What Match.com isn’t able to do is say, ‘Let me get you tickets for something. Would you like me to book a table? Do you want me to send Uber to pick her up? Do you want me to have flowers sent to the table?’” Viv could provide all those services—in exchange for a cut of the transactions that resulted.

Dating sites have tried to sell date offers to members, with varying levels of success. But what about using a voice-driven AI to find a date?

Over the years I’ve worked with a number of dating site search aggregators. None of them really panned out. Dating sites instead are exposing members to trusted partners, like the Match and Are You Interested deal.

It would be really interesting to see dating sites partner with Siri, Cortana or Viv to find you a date sourced from multiple high-quality sites. Not only to find you a date, they can schedule it for you as well.

How long until something like Viv is smarter than the Match or eHarmony matching algorithm?

Google recently paid a reported $500 million for the UK deep-learning company DeepMind and has lured AI legends Geoffrey Hinton and Ray Kurzweil to its headquarters in Mountain View, California. Facebook has its own deep-learning group, led by prize hire Yann LeCun from New York University. Their goal is to build a new generation of AI that can process massive troves of data to predict and fulfill our desires.

That’s far more money and resources than any dating site has ever put into matching systems. How difficult would it be to add people-matching to the mix?

Interesting to learn than Match members go on 50,000 dates a day. I wonder how that stacks up against the competition?

Read Siri’s Inventors Are Building a Radical New AI That Does Anything You Ask.

Can Dating Sites Make Us More Civil?

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on YouTube or Tinder quickly understands that thought-impaired people spewing invectives using terrible grammar make up the majority of commenters and right-swipers. Thankfully we now we have apps like Tinderliker to do the swiping for us.

Nudging uses technology to push people gently towards a specific outcome. When you pay your taxes or buy a domain on Godaddy, alert boxes pop up, asking you to donate to health or political causes. Those are nudges.

The Atlantic has two good articles, Nudge, Nudge: Can Software Prod Us Into Being More Civil? and  Why It’s OK to Let Apps Make You a Better Person. There are lots of apps out there to count your steps, measure your fitness levels, measure your posture and scores of other Quantified Self apps. See Internet of Things, Fitbit, etc. These apps measure something that you are doing, and if you are doing it too much (surfing Reddit) or not enough (walking 25 feet a day), there are a plethora of apps out there to tell you to shape up.

While billions of dollars are being poured into technology-assisted behavior analysis and modification (Hello Apple HealthKit), why is it that the dating industry refuses to analyze member communication and nudge people towards better behavior? I’ve been pushing this for many years, and it appears that only a handful of sites offer any type of suggestion functionality during the message creation process.

Today’s question, is the dating industry smarter than a 13-year old girl?

13-year-old Mighty Girl Trisha Prabhu wants to put an end to cyberbullying so she decided to investigate an important question: would teens still post hurtful content online if they had to think about how it would affect others first? To answer this question, the young Chicagoan — who has now made it to the finalist round of the 2014 Google Science Fair — designed a software system that measures the number of mean or hurtful messages that adolescents were willing to post after being encouraged to “rethink” the impact of their messages. Trisha’s study found that such re-thinking resulted in a tremendous 93% reduction in the number of hurtful messages posted.

You see where I’m going with this. The dating industry needs to take some advice from a teenager about how to ensure safer, more positive interactions between members. I know a lot of sites will balk at this, claiming that this would put undue stress on an important part of the online dating process, The First Email. The more messages that flow, the more money they make. So why the ongoing reticence of the dating industry towards making dating a more enjoyable experience for singles?

“Yo baby let me hit that”, is not something that should ever be spoken to another person on a dating site. I don’t care where you live, the color of your skin or your socioeconomic standing.

Dating sites shouldn’t allow that kind of messaging on their services. That’s never going to happen, so let’s entertain the middle ground.

ToneCheck allows you to do a quick once over check of your message to prevent you from accidentally saying something that you might regret. currently works with Outlook, Gmail and Lotus Notes. Embedding this in a dating site would be pure gold.

But there are two sides to the story here. One one hand, forcing people, (let’s face it, men), to alter their communication style, is a difficult task. Most men would bail on a site that forces this on them. To those cretins I say, good day sir, and goodbye. The chief revenue officer of a top dating site is going to shoot this down immediately. Too much friction, lower signups, higher churn rate.

OTOH, we have message filtering. What dating sites give women the opportunity to block messages containing lame bro-speak? None, zero, bupkis. Women must resort to embedding rules in their profile. Must have photo, must mention my favorite color, etc. Why can’t dating sites pick either option, or a nuanced blend of both? Someone has got to test this so we have some real-world metrics to evaluate.

In the end it comes down to what’s going to work better, helping men become better communicators or giving women the ability to block the jerks? Or the industry can do nothing at all and continue to suffer due to their unwillingness to try new things?

As a counterpoint, Do apps that promote ethical behavior diminish our ability to make just decisions?