NEW DELHI : India finally seems to be waking up to online dating applications which have tripled their user base in the country over 2018. A Google report released this May said dating searches are catching up with matrimony queries, with a 40% increase in the former over the past year. Executives overseeing dating apps peg the dating app market to be valued at $100 million in the next five to eight years.

Currently dominated by firms like Tinder, TrulyMadly, OkCupid and the newly launched Bumble, user penetration in the Indian online dating market that stands at 2.7% in 2018 is expected to hit 3.2% by 2023, according to online market researcher Statista.

“Indian society has seen a rapid cultural evolution over the last decade, accelerated by the widespread access to technology, especially smartphones," said Taru Kapoor, head—India business for Tinder and Match Group. Launched in India in 2016, Tinder last reported 7.5 million daily swipes in the country, and the highest average number of messages exchanged per match in the world. Cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Gurugram figured in its 10 most superliked markets globally for the year of 2018.

“As education and financial independence levels among the youth, especially women, continue to rise, along with increasing digital penetration, we expect online dating to become more widespread as people seek to forge new relationships based on shared interests and compatibility," Kapoor added.

With their lives becoming busier, it’s difficult for the current generation to have large social circles, or to find dates offline, said Rahul Maheshwari, India head at Tantan, a Chinese dating application that was launched in India last year and is doubling its user base every three months in the country. In such a scenario, dating apps are investing and educating people about new ways of interacting with each other and seeing life beyond their circle, Maheshwari added.

While dating has, for long, been a taboo in India, believes Snehil Khanor, chief executive and co-founder, TrulyMadly, love marriages have been happening for ages. “The acceptable age for marriage is being pushed by our generation. Plus, we are the first generation of India that is responsible for our own marriages, and not dependent on our parents who don’t want us to be dependent on them either," Khanor said.

TrulyMadly has 5 million users in India and is recording 300,000-500,000 messages exchanged and 15,000 mutual matches per day.

To be sure, even though the user base across these apps is predominantly male (women only comprise 20% of the profiles at best), the change currently, dating companies believe, is being driven by the female population of India.

“Since customizing the product for India in September 2018, we have witnessed an overwhelming response with active female users on the app tripling," said Melissa Hobley, chief marketing officer, OkCupid, an app that has over a million users in India and has tailored its ecosystem to likes, dislikes and life choices relevant to women in the country. For instance, while signing up, women answer questions like whether they would want to continue working after marriage and how they would want their partners to respond to the same, or how they view the #MeToo movement. Knowing how potential matches have responded to these questions helps women filter dates.

“One of the reasons driving this (change) is women in India. They want their relationship to be their choice, not their parents’ or family’s. Dating apps allow for that kind of a safe environment where you can experience these ideas and thoughts," Hobley added.

To be sure, the change is not just restricted to India’s metros, though cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are still the biggest markets for dating apps in the country. Khanor said towns like Indore, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Bhopal, Ranchi, Rajkot and Vadodara have come up in the last two years as TrulyMadly’s top revenue grossers and the app sees a 40% growth in revenue quarter-on-quarter beyond the top 10 cities.

Further, there is much focus on diversification. Sanyam Sharma, marketing director, at Blued India, a gay dating and social networking app, 20-30% of whose user base comes from small towns, said they allow for customization in seven Indian languages including Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi and Punjabi.

“In tier 1 and 2 cities, we see society being less conservative than before. People are getting comfortable with meeting strangers online and exploring relationships," Maheshwari of Tantan said, adding that the northern part of India is less conservative when it comes to dating apps and the south is definitely catching up.

The big numbers aside, there may be more to India’s online dating market than just financial independence and technological evolution, and it may not all be rosy. A lot of the motivation for dating app participation, experts say, may not even stem from the search for love. “I’m not sure how many people on dating apps are looking for real romance even if they are going on dates," said Parul Bhandari, visiting scholar, University of Cambridge who researches on marriage, gender, romantic relationships, middle class, and elites. Bhandari pointed out that not in all cases do dating apps serve as a motivation for love or relationships, they could also be seen as a desire on the part of the young population to share an experience with their friends and peer group or to be a part of a new culture popular all over the world.

“Also, can this also be a way of claiming to be modern, because now they share an experience with youth all over the world?" Bhandari asked.

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