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Picture 1.jpgFree dating sites have had a good run the past few years. Everyone starting a free dating site jumped, and continues to jump, on the free dating bandwagon. Meanwhile, top paid dating sites are making hundreds of millions of dollars, while free dating site are scraping to get by. According to various reports, the current online ad market has undercut revenues significantly. What’s a free dating site to do?

If you’re PlentyofFish, you start charging for premium memberships. Markus, founder of PlentyofFish, just wrote me to say PlentyofFish charges for premium services. Before your head explodes, realize that existing site features will remain free.

In the next serval days I’ll be releasing a paid feature on plentyoffish. With this optional upgrade you can signal to the community that you are serious about meeting someone. This upgrade will last either 3, 6 or 12 months.

1. On paid dating sites most buys are impulse and in the signup process. Paid sites monetize on Impulse, plentyoffish is going to monetize on user intent. I believe we will have far more members that are serious than paid sites. Its one thing to be tricked into paying (paid sites), its another to go out of your way and pay for something.

2. There will be no addtional features and funcationality for users, this upgrade will be strictly to signal intent to the community.

3. There will be no changes to existing users or new users. The site will continue to work as it always has, except some members can now choose to stand out more.

I’ve always told free dating sites that they need to diversify their revenue by offering a paid level of service, or some other revenue stream. And here we have it, the largest free dating site in the world is now going to be charging for “Serious Member Profile Upgrades.”

Granted, Markus has been fairly transparent about his desire to further monetize his members, going as far as to mention the thought of turning PlentyofFish into a social network (where is that link, his blog search stinks). He had to start charging, especially in this ad market.

But just what is a serious member? Turns out it’s someone who has a Serious Member star on their PlentyOfFish profile. Now we get to see just how serious the singles are on PlentyofFish. Leave a comment with you guess as to what percentage of users actually end up paying for the shiny badge.

PlentyofFish can be described as mid-market casual. These are people who for the most part refuse to pay for for online dating. Either they don’t have the money, are cheap, or are ignoring the idea that using a subscription fee as a filter is as close to narrowing down your search to serious daters as you’re going to find. Casual daters simply don’t like to pay for the privilege of meeting other casual daters.

Interesting that until now Markus has always said that being free kept him from various lawsuits, most of which are part and parcel of running a dating sites. That’s why he didn’t go for paid virtual goods or background checks and identity verification.

PlentyofFish is not known for it’s nuanced marketing. I bet the upsell process will be “Pay $20 and date better people” or something simple like that. And you know what? It will probably work, although to what extent nobody, including Markus, knows.

It will be interesting to see how the payment process is integrated into the site and what vendor got the deal.

All the hype and hyperbole about free dating sites killing off paid dating rings just as hollow now as it did in 2006. Nobody talks about the four dimensions, free, paid, casual and serious. When you plot dating sites on this grid, you start to see where the money is, and where it’s going. Pure free is going away, just watch. The model I’ve been pushing for years is a blend of VIP services, ads and whatever else is hot in terms of bolt-on services and pay-to-play functionality. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the casual dating apps on Facebook, which are free for the most part and absolutely dwarf the majority of free dating sites.

Free dating sites need to consider adding paid VIP levels of service, or other paid features, *in addition to* the 10’s of millions of pageviews necessary to run a successful ad-supported site. Contact me if you want to learn how I can help you get there.

Please Digg, share, social bookmark, favorite on Facebook, etc. Interested to see how viral the story gets before the mainstream media gets ahold of it.

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