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Online Dating Association Interview
What is the Online Dating Association and what were the reasons behind its birth?
The ODA is just over a year old and was set up by a group of founding members who were keen to see the dating industry step up and raise standards. There was a general feeling that it was time the sector took some collective responsibility for the market and its users. The dating industry was maturing and recognising that it could not rely on the States’ use of a framework of privacy, data and consumer law to protect users and the market as a whole.
Who are the members of the association and how can one become a member?
The members of the association are listed on the website and include niche sites such as Muddy Matches and Christian Connection alongside well-known brands such as eHarmony, Guardian Soulmates and Match. We are keen to grow further and membership is open to all those who have services operating in the UK and who can commit themselves to the principles in the ODA Code of Practice and who can demonstrate commitment to our policies. Our membership focuses on sites that look to build new relationships, friendships and love and for the present we do not think it is appropriate for us to cover adult services. This is not a moral judgement by the ODA but recognises the fundamentally different characteristic and purposes of services.
Where do you think online dating is heading in the UK?
That’s a $64,000 question. If I knew I would be a rich man. Some things seem evident, others are not.
There are some really creative things happening in terms of offering users more than on-screen profiles, search capabilities, good matches and a way of getting to know others….amazing though that can be. Users clearly enjoy date-event evenings, sport, art, cookery and other even more creative ways of creating a social environment in which dating is just part of a broader experience.
And then we have the “move to mobile“. People want to use services when and where it suits. The majority of use of “mainstream” online dating sites is already happening on tablets and smart phones. Apps add a further dimension and raise new questions. Apps bring in a new age and social demographic. Apps are generally free but providers are going to need to make money sometime and somehow. Apps have many social-networking cross-over characteristics: is Tinder more about networking and social sharing than dating? That raises issues around age and access to services. Dating as a practice started when I was lucky in my mid-teens but online dating is run as an 18+ product. There are privacy and safety considerations with apps with a location-based driver but what too of all the creative things to be done with this sort of technology?
The recent research by MINTEL shows rapid past growth in dating services and steady if less dramatic growth now. Their model sees this continuing. I tend to agree. There are more people living single and/or living in households not based on marriage. Separation rates show no sign of falling and people are going to want to look beyond work, family and friends for their new relationships.
Online dating when its working really well allows you to think what you are looking for in life and in relationships and communicate that. It allows you to search out those who seem to share what you are about. And it allows people to begin to get to know each other in a way and at a pace they are comfortable with. But it is still about you as a person….you are not dating a laptop or Bot: dating services can help people find others but after that it’s back to us to make what we will of new relationships.
What standards of responsibility do the ODA promote?
The ODA Code sets out what is expected of members under four key headings which centre on delivery of the service;
- 1. being honest and clear in what they offer
- 2. having measures in place to protect users
- 3. delivering to meet the needs of the user
- 4. protecting data and privacy.
As part of the membership application process we test sites and seek assurances and evidence of compliance around the Code.
How is this Code Of Practice applied by members?
We produced a Code that was “outcome-based” setting out what is expected of members but without being prescriptive. This gives our members the opportunity to work out how best they can comply with the requirements in a way that suits them and their users.
The Code is not there to shift the relationship between sites and their users or, in particular, the responsibility sites have for customer service. Sites should be dealing with any issues or complaints directly. We make it clear the ODA should only get involved in an issue if it seems clear the problem is widespread and serious and a risk to users generally and to the health of the market. It’s assuring that we have not seen any such need to step in to date.
What are the biggest current problems in online dating?
This is another tough question. I think trust is critical. It runs through the four themes in our Code: registration and subscription and terms that are clear, work to make sure sites work well and never mislead or confuse users, action to protect the data users share with us, action to keep out those who would come online for all the wrong reasons – those who might scam or pester or cause offence or worse.
Identity is at the heart of this. There is a wish and a value in the ways people can create user names and use communications channels that protect their privacy. The other side of this is the challenge right across the web in proving you are talking with the person she/he says they are. Members use technology and skilled staff to monitor profiles. The new audio-visual capabilities that come with smartphones, tablets etc should increase everyone’s ability to be sure they are talking to Mr or Ms Right!
What have you achieved so far?
To have the Association up and running with its own Code of Practice along with a good solid and supportive membership group in the first year has been an achievement. We have effective communication arrangements with members and regular briefings and seminars on key issues.
We have worked on our consumer guidance throughout the year particularly focusing on the issue of safety which has resulted in our Date Safe campaign. We will continue working with police and other agencies with an interest in this area and we are very pleased to have produced our first infographic video.
We have also been an influential voice for the industry briefing ISPs and Government about filtering, with the ICO on ensuring compliance and with the media.
We have delivered practical member benefits: workshops on scam prevention, data protection, VAT and on new regulations on contract and contract cancellation terms as well as a broad package of legal support including a free Helpline for members from Wiggin LLP as a tier 1 partner.
With the vast amounts of money involved in online dating is there a trend of company profits coming before consumer interests? If so then how can we challenge that?
I do not buy into the assessment. People offer all sorts of services as businesses. Are carers, funeral directors, restaurateurs or others indifferent to customers because they are businesses?
I think it is important we remember people are coming online to make new contacts, relationships and friendships and, yes, to find love. Sites will deal with that differently. Some, perhaps one or two large offshore free sites, will use the digital capability to create big melting pots and leave users alone to get about searching, chatting, meeting etc. Others, and the niche, free and larger pay-services in ODA membership in specific, try to remember that human angle, to allow people to create good profiles, to build communities of those with shared interests, to come up with new ways of making those first steps to a new relationship and to give advice, guidance and signposting to make sure it is a safe as well as enjoyable experience.
I think digital power helps make that possible but I also think there is a proper limit to the roles these provide. Unless it is agreed to the contrary sites are creating places where those with shared interests might seek each other out. Sites are not “brokers” making one-to-one introductions and chaperoning couples. It would be wrong, indeed, dangerous for people making new relationships to absolve responsibilities to a website or a match maker or Guru!
We tell users to go into dating using their heads as well as their hearts, to use good sense and never feel too proud or silly to give up on something that does not feel right.
What are the plans of the ODA for the foreseeable future?
It might sound boring in a way but we need to consolidate and keep delivering practical benefits for users and the sector.
We will keep working on the safety and trust agenda with new content, partnerships and messages. We will use research and market reviews to increase political, regulator and media awareness of the sector and the millions of people in the UK who are signed-up and have online dating as a part of their daily life.
We will review our Code looking, in particular at how we and the Code should deal with mobile app services and social networking where dating is part of what they are about and where there is a low or no age rule on users.
And we will keep delivering member benefits – speaking for them with Government, ISPs, mobile carriers and the likes of Google and Facebook, hosting events and bringing-in partners who themselves offer benefits to our members.
Thanks to George for taking the time to write such thoughtful and informative answers. We’re totally behind what the ODA’s bringing to the UK’s online dating industry and we’re excited about the positive actions they’re promoting to keep online daters safe and protected.