OPW INTERVIEW -- Jan 1 -- Yahoo! Personals ranks as the top internet dating site in the U.S.A. according to Comscore Mediametrix and Nielsen//NetRatings, and #3 on Hitwise. Egon Smola is the new General Manager at Yahoo! Personals after Anna Zornosa's ~two years as GM. I met with Egon for breakfast in Mountain View for this interview. - Mark Brooks
Egon, congratulations on your new role as GM of Yahoo! Personals. What's your background with Yahoo! Personals?
I've been with Yahoo! Personals for the past 4½ years and what an amazing ride its been. I initially joined to lead international expansion before moving into the lead product management role, where I spent time learning more about our users and translating that insight into a vision and road map. Then I shifted my focus to driving customer acquisition from various channels and increasing customer satisfaction. One of the things we did to increase conversion was tweak our search and browse requirements. Non-registered members must now register and create their own profile before viewing multiple profiles. As a result of all our efforts, the most-often-cited reason why subscribers leave Yahoo! Personals is that they "found someone." Now, in taking the general manager position, I truly feel blessed to have such a strong leadership team in place to continue driving innovation focused on enhancing our customers' experience.
How do you think the social networking industry affects the Internet dating industry?
What we see today are people using social networks to find friends, stay in touch and occasionally meet new people. Online dating services such as Yahoo! Personals have a clear advantage in our value proposition. We provide access to a pre-qualified number of people who are serious about finding a mate. We offer anonymity, safety and security up to the point where the user is willing to reveal his or her personal information to someone else. We capture the relevant information of interest to online daters, and we provide users with the tools to make establishing a relationship efficient and fun. Finally, we charge for our service. In interviews with consumers we found that price is a signal of quality, both of the service and of subscribers to that service. Today, social networking services provide none of these advantages and I think they will be hard pressed to do so in the future.
Do you think in the future we'll see online personals services costing $100 a month or more?
I think the prices we see today, in the $20 to $40 range, is the sweet spot for the market. There will always be an opportunity for premium services that appeal to a very niche segment. What we're focused on is both satisfying our existing customers and appealing to potential users. This requires listening very carefully to the customers and making enhancements to the site that best meet their needs. This is no longer a game where we can look at our customer base as a homogeneous mass. Every dater is unique in their own way and requires a personalized approach to dating. We want to leverage our technology so that different subgroups have different user experiences, but the process is still fun.
What's important for online personals companies to bear in mind to make sure they are still around in 2012?
2012 is a long way off, and just look at how the industry has changed and matured in the past five years alone. The way for any online dating service provider to succeed going forward is by delivering a customer experience that truly delights. It delights by providing profiles that are easy to browse, a search algorithm that hones in on people that are of most interest, and tools that allow members to make contact. Scale is also tremendously important. Good services must offer a large number of potential dates in a geographically constrained area. Anyone who is doing this in a straightforward and honest fashion while providing users with safety and security will still be around in 2012.
You seem to be implying the largest sites will ultimately win the game. Yet there a number of niche dating sites emerging and doing quite well. Why is this?
What we're finding is that online dating has rather low points of entry. There are a lot of niche providers that can break-even. However, because these sites are not generating as much revenue, they are finding it is very hard to drive acquisition or reinvest in their businesses. In addition, some of them are employing tasteless and inappropriate tactics that Yahoo! Personals would simply not employ.
What is Yahoo! Personals doing in regard to Reverse-Search?
What we've invested in most recently is new search technology that allows us to highlight more relevant potential dates then ever before. We've added a number of new search features, two of which are We Match and I Match. I Match is what you refer to as reverse search. You can now search for anyone who is already looking for someone exactly like you. To give an example, if you are a single parent you may limit your search to include people who are specifically interested in people with kids. The We Match functionality is a mutual match. It searches for people who are looking for someone like you, but only if you are looking for someone like them.
Is Yahoo! Personals working with the academic world?
We are benefiting from the relationships that Yahoo! has established with a number of top universities across the country, particularly in the search field. We also have a specific relationship with the University of Berkeley. We initiated a research project that was so interesting that the National Science Foundation actually gave the doctoral student that we're working with a grant.
What features on your site have been the most successful?
This summer we launched new functionality that allows users to add captions to photos. This allows daters to identify the individuals in pictures that could otherwise be misinterpreted. For example, is that man seated next to that woman her brother or her ex-boyfriend? In addition, the captions allow for more context to be added to the photos, drawing attention from other users with similar interests. The photo and captions features made a big difference for our users and we've seen a four-fold increase in the photos that are added to our service. Again, most people are looking for someone else who has posted a photo so it makes a big difference because it opens up new potential dates.
We've also launched a feature called Who's Viewed Me, which tells users who has looked at their profile. Users like this feature because they know people on this list are likely already interested in them. We've also launched Side by Side, which allows users to quickly compare what they are looking for in a mate with characteristics of a particular profile, side by side, in an easy to read chart. At the end of the day, we focus on enabling our daters to make connections in a safe, fun and easy-to-use environment. And we are proud to have achieved the highest customer satisfaction rating among the major online dating service providers!