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Let’s hear it for sunburn, jet-lag and being back in rainy Boston. Last week was in LA to meet with clients who were attending the iDate LA conference so I decided to stop by the show to check out the west coast version of iDate.

For those of you who have never been to an iDate event, a quick primer. iDate has been around long enough to be considered a must-attend event for the online dating industry. It has the unique position of being the only dating conference in the US. There was a previous conference organizer, SITRAS, which folded after only two shows. Turns out that at the time the US dating industry could only support one show a year. iDate runs two US shows a year, one held in the Jan-Feb time frame in Miami and a summer show in Los Angeles. There are also European and Asian versions of the conference. Most major US and some EU and Asian players invested in the online dating industry attend the Miami show. However, many of them don’t go to LA unless that’s their back yard.

Given the importance of an event of this magnitude, a large number of people came up to me during every iDate show show to give me their personal assessment, some of which I have included below, along with my own observations. Feedback came from a wide spectrum of people, from first timers and speakers to people and companies who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on sponsorships and entry fees over the years.

To get an unbiased reaction to the show, let’s hear from @aprilblackbox, who did this video review of iDate LA. I started the #idatela2009 hashtag on Twitter. Only 4 messages which was disappointing. April’s tweet was “@ “idate” conference in LA.dominated by white men & theres zero inovation.classic rinse & repeat of what’s out there:pay 2 look at profiles.” There’s your unbiased opinion.
Overall, the consensus seems to be that the conference is stuck in first gear. For the $100-$300,000 that these shows bring the organizers, attendees think they deserve a better experience overall. What then, are the perceived issues with iDate?

For the most part the sessions aren’t delivering the content, insight and commentary that industry executives expect. This is the number one statement I heard from attendees. Topically, the sessions need to be improved to better reflect the interests of online dating executives. Where, for example, are the sessions on acquiring, driving and trading traffic between dating sites and social networks? What about technology issues, or dating software? Where is the track on usability and user testing? These are the topics I focus on with my dating industry clients, where is the external support and discussion for these pressing issues? The lack of any focus on these common denominators is a source of frustration for attendees. Their words, not mine.

There are issues with the conference which clearly need attention. None of the changes required are rocket science, it’s about listening to your customers, especially when their are other options emerging for connecting with our peers and learning about industry best practices and vendor exposure.

Attendees want more from the industry overview. The industry is hungry for insight and commentary. We know where we are, where are we going?

Areas where sessions need improvement: moderators need to ask more/better questions and keep the energy in the room flowing. And the microphones should work, all the time.

Sponsors seem a bit too closely tied to speaking slots for some people’s tastes. Some speaker/sponsors seem mismatched with their topics.

The final session, which many people take later flights for, did not deliver enough value to justify sticking around. More on this later, because I think this year’s LA closing session reflects much of how the online dating industry thinks and perceives itself.

IMG_0056.jpgThe buyers and sellers session was sparse, not enough dating sites for sale in attendance. I didn’t go to this but this was the feedback from several people who were there. this is understandable, the dating sites worth buying have been looked at by everyone in the industry and are in general way over-valued.I hear the Google Insights panel was chock-full of interesting data. I need to see that PPT deck for sure.

IMG_0052.jpgPatti Stanger, missed this one. Either you love her show or you don’t watch it. I heard it got contentious for a while, at the same time she also basically gave away everything that she has done to get where she is today.

3 Mobile Dating Strategies That Work. Brendan O’Kane, Messmo. Their offering seems just right for certain dating sites wishing to capitalize on mobile. He was swamped with interest during the show. Ted Verani at Jumbuck is a veritable wealth of knowledge, having worked at just about every mobile company ever involved with online dating. I heard they are making $20 million a year with their applications. I’m trying out their Powerchat iPhone app right now, lot’s of kids on there.

Deepak Thomas at Match shared some good stats, I really wanted to sit down one-on-one with him to ask some non-trivial questions. Maybe next time.

Top 10 Decision Criteria For The Selection of Your Mobile Dating Enabler was very good. Christine Loredo at Trilibis knows her business through and through and is a lot of fun to hang around with. Her presentation (marketing) with her compatriot Austin(technology) was a great look into what dating sites need to think about as they develop their mobile dating strategies. The online dating industry simply cannot ignore mobile any longer. I learned a lot and walked away feeling like these were two of the key sessions of the show.

Skout, which offers a mobile dating platform, did not attend, I know Christian and Redg are up to some very cool stuff right now which I’ll be breaking here soon.

IMG_0051.jpgDr. Jim Houran’s  session (seen here with Larry Michael from MatchMatrix), Assessing Profiles for Compatibility, was by far the most entertaining. Jim is one of the people I’ve been following for years and it was great to sit down and finally get a chance to connect. I love when I finally get to meet people in person that I’ve only communicated with online. Part of me wishes that his was a panel session with the creators of other testing systems (Fernando and someone from eHarmony or Perfect Match would be a great group to hear from). The overview of various online dating compatibility systems was well received and I applaud Dr. Houran’s willingness to realize this is early times in the matchmaking sciences and his openness was refreshing. This is round one when it comes to compatibility testing, we’ve barely even begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible.

I missed Increasing Customer Retention and various Product Demos, ended up interviewing a few people instead and getting pulled into random conversations.Payment processor demos and talks I skip in general. Vindicia is a solid bet for chargebacks and anti-fraud services and a few the other payment-related vendors are doing very well in the space.

On Friday, Alex Mehr absolutely killed it with his talk, Online Dating & Social Networking: A Marriage Made in Heaven? Best presentation of the show, hands down. The social dating application companies are so far ahead of most dating sites in terms of understanding their customers, viral marketing and the minutiae of working with social networks like Facebook, its no wonder they are gaining market share quickly, especially in the UK.

Alex was super informative and he even sported ripped holes in his jeans to show off his Zoosk boxers. During the session I was sitting near to Cliff at SNAP, makers of Are You Interested. They are doing very well in the space as well. Social gaming and to some extent social dating is huge yet remains underground for the most part. There are tons of small teams out there making millions of dollars off social networking advertising. But they don’t go to iDate. I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to that side of the industry in coming months. That’s where all the action, money, funding and excitement is these days. Check out All Facebook and Inside Facebook to see what I’m talking about.

Viximo talked about virtual goods. I know them well as they are local to Boston, so I went outside and talked to some more people. They hallways, as always, was where the action was. How many more times to dating sites need to hear the pitch to understand the importance of virtual goods?

I missed Marina Glogovac at her talk, Lessons I Learned As The CEO of Lavalife. What were the key takeaways?

I also missed Instant Messaging: “To IM or not to IM” – A Review of All Available Services Suitable for Internet Dating Websites. OnlinePersonalsWatch broke the rumor that AOL was shutting down Userplane and I heard there were various Userplane executives at the session refuting this. Hopefully someone at Userplane will read this and tell me the story. It’s frustrating that I didn’t have the time to talk to them, feels like I fell into some sort of LA time wormhole.

Topicfox emailed me today to announce that due to a conflict of interest with AOL / Userplane, Topicfox will be shutting down operations immediately. That’s too bad, I liked how the system was coming together. Regardless of the Userplane situation, Flashcoms was exhibiting. They have a number of high-profile customers and a full suite of communications services.

CS Identity was an exhibitor, as was Vindicia and a whole bunch of payment providers. Here’s the full list of iDate LA sponsors.

Mike Baldock, who used to run Vintacom, is now a marketing/strategy guy for Courtland Brooks. It was great to catch up with Mike, haven’t seen him in several years and he is one of my favorite people in the industry.

Jonathan from Manhunt, who told a number of fascinating stories about how he started the business and what it takes to keep it running.

This brings us to the final panel. The title was something like “How to go from a $1 billion to a $5 billion industry”. To cut to the chase, it bombed. I actually left early. I *never* leave the final panel early. Colleagues and beer and a chance to let yourself go with a microphone, what’s not to like? this year there was too much ranting, not enough moderation and the session was far too unfocused. The time spent messing around with Google Trends was way off topic and had the audience rolling its eyes often. This has simply got to stop.

I would have replaced the panel of industry insiders with singles, some of which are on dating sites, others that aren’t. The industry people talk about moving the knobs and tweaking the dials, instead of the great shifts of focus required to entice the 60 million people who haven’t tried online dating to come take it for a spin. I do agree with panelists about better CRM systems and there may be some validity to simply increasing conversion rates, but I consider that fiddling with knobs, albeit incredibly powerful ones.

With this stronghold on the industry comes the reasonable expectation that iDate is going to deliver the goods. After attending iDate for several years, I would personally peg the quality of the conference at a C+, maybe a B- if there is a fantastic speaker or two on the schedule. Mostly it’s about the people, not the agenda. The face to face networking is unparalleled. There is simply no other way to see the majority of the online dating industry in the same place at the same time. This is the blessing and the curse of iDate, in a nutshell.

I had lots of other interesting conversations with people which I will get to once I’m settled back in and get a good night’s rest. In the meantime, here’s some of my personal LA experience.

chuckrosen.jpg On Wednesday I went over to the UCLA campus to meet with Chuck Rosen. Chuck and his daughter Janey run Showbizzle. In a previous life Chuck produced the original 90210 and Dawson’s Creek. He gave me a great tour of the campus and the sculpture garden.

IMG_0037.jpg On Thursday night, after almost knocking over Ron Artest in the lobby and then having dinner 10 feet away from Lindsay Lohan, several of us piled into a car with this guy and went to the Michael Jackson vigil. His badge said Eons, bonus points if you can tell me what his previous gig was.

IMG_0066.jpgThanks to Tai for the ride in the Ferrari. Fast enough to give me the shakes and loud enough to wake the dead. Awesome.

IMG_0077.jpg Over the weekend I drove down to Laguna Beach to meet with a client and then hang with a friend I haven’t seen in 20 years. Rob and Bill, it was great to reconnect with you both.
And there you have it, iDate LA 2009, at least part of it. Add your comments about the event, I’m sure other readers and the organizers will appreciate the feedback.