By Rachel Tiplady On Feb. 13, thousands of young people will pour onto the streets of Paris, Milan, and Barcelona. But they won't be protesting -- they'll be looking for love. The Valentine's Eve street parties, dubbed "St. Single's Day," are sponsored by Paris-based Meetic.com, Europe's leading Web matchmaker. The festivities will include DJs and speed-dating stands, where singles have only a few minutes to chat up a potential partner.
Yes, now even Latin lovers need help playing the seduction game. Online dating, virtually unknown on the Continent five years ago, is taking off in a big way, even as the phenomenon seems to be slowing on the other side of the Atlantic.
SPREADING CONNECTIONS. Revenues of the leading European dating Web sites will more than double over the next five years, from $200 million to $450 million, predicts Paris-based analyst Olivier Beauvillain of consultancy Jupiter Research. While sales in the U.S. are still higher than in Europe, they're expected to grow only 9% this year, to $515 million. "The European market is the most exciting right now," Beauvillain says.
The region's biggest online dating service is Meetic.com, a private company launched three years ago by Web entrepreneur Marc Simoncini. The site is set to hit 10 million members around St. Single's Day and will book around $55 million in sales this year. In France, a country inextricably linked with romance, one adult in 15 is a Meetic member. In Italy and Spain, it's one in fewer than 50.
In these and Meetic's eight other country sites -- Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and Britain -- membership is soaring by as much as 20,000 a day. Over the next six months, four more country sites will be added -- Poland, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland.
PROFILE VETTING. Meetic works similarly to the well-established and world-leading U.S. dating sites like Yahoo! Personals (YHOO) and Match.com, a property of IAC/InterActive (IACI). Members may join for free, post their profile, and browse those of other members. To use premium services, like personality matchmaker MeetShake -- which cross-references members' preferences -- prices start at $18 a month. About 10% of Meetic's members pay a subscription fee.
To keep things clean, each profile is individually checked by a Meetic moderator. Another software system weeds out users who post rude messages during subsequent chat sessions, which can lead to being blacklisted from the site.
Europe may be playing catch-up on Internet dating, but it's not copying the American model from A to Z. "We don't date exactly the same way, so it's logical we should offer something different," Simoncini points out. For example, a U.S. dating service would be unlikely to invite members to a street party, since most Americans wouldn't consider that a great venue for meeting people.
SEEKING LA DOLCE VITA. But street parties are a natural for Europeans who are accustomed to casual encounters on street corners and in sidewalk cafés. Francesca Colombo, 38, an asset manager in Milan, says she's looking forward to the Feb. 13 fiesta in the city's fashionable Corso Como area. "I went to a party Meetic organized in a club last July, and it was amazing," she recounts, although she didn't meet Mr. Right.
Other differences exist, too. Visit almost any dating site in the U.S., and one of the first search criteria is "location." "We're products of the McDonald's generation," says Marc Lesnick, New York-based conference organizer for e-dating and personals' Web sites. "Not only do we want the love of our life to be tall, blond, and intelligent, but also within 50 miles from home!" he explains with a chuckle. But according to Simoncini, Europeans are more inclined to move if their perfect match is far away.
Hence, one of Meetic's premium-search criteria is common languages. Says Milanese asset manager Colombo: "I speak Italian, French, and English, so I'm not necessarily focused on dating an Italian." Even the first baby born to a couple who met on Meetic was between a francophone Swiss woman and a French man based in Canada.
Distance may not always be a huge issue, but it doesn't stop Europeans from having fixed ideas about other nationalities. According to a Match.com survey, Swedish women are most interested in dating British men, and vice versa. But only 12% of French and Spaniards would consider pairing up with a Brit. Top on almost every country's love wish list: the quintessentially romantic Italians. Plus, a Meetic-commissioned study by French polling firm Ifop found that among all Europeans, Germans have the hardest time finding a date -- online or off.
NICHE PAIRINGS. Web matchmakers say once Europeans -- whatever their nationality -- decide to take the plunge and date someone, they stick to one at a time. "Whereas New Yorkers are often happy to see three people at once," comments Kevin Cornils, Match.com managing director for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
The dating-style differences across the Atlantic haven't stopped veteran U.S. sites from seeking to draw European interest. Match.com has 9 million European members in 13 countries. It also has affiliates like MSN, Tiscali, and T-Online, which pay to use Match's member database. Match originally launched in Britain in 2001 and hit the Continent 18 months later, applying its U.S. know-how to new markets.
Just as well, because e-dating services are struggling in the saturated U.S. market. Match.com cut 30 U.S. employees last September, while an American rival, True.com, let go of 90 employees. Competition from niche sites such as ChristianCafe.com and DateMyPet.com is pressuring general Web matchmakers.
MOBILE BET. Does the same fate await European dating sites? Not yet, says Lesnick, adding, "but many may have to differentiate their offers to survive." The U.S. site Gay.com, for example, boosted revenues from its gay and lesbian membership by adding an online clothes shop and partnering with travel-booking sites. In Europe, Match.com is considering a photo service similar to America's LookBetterOnline.com, which does a roaring trade charging $129 or more for 12 professional digital-portrait shots that online daters can post with profiles. The photographers can even come to your home or work.
In Europe, mobile-phone dating services could offer hot growth potential. Meetic has paired up with mobile operator Vodafone (VOD) throughout the Continent to offer matchmaking on the go. Using SMS (Short Message Service), Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), or iMode services, singles can access the Meetic database and choose to contact other members.
Although mobile revenues now account for less than 3% of Meetic sales, Simoncini expects this to rise sharply by next year and predicts it could eventually hit 50%. Match.com plans to launch a European mobile service this year as well.
PRODUCTS "DELIVER THEMSELVES." Could European investors fall in love with online dating? Simoncini hopes so: He plans to seek an initial public offering for Meetic in the next six months. He's encouraged by the success of PlanetOut (LGBT), the U.S.-based gay-themed dating site that raised $41 million when it went public last October.
"As business models go, online-dating sites approach perfection," says Simoncini. "All we needed was two months of free services, and then word of mouth took over. Now our customers are our products, and they deliver themselves to each other."
That's not all they deliver. Remember the Swiss-French baby? It was born only nine and a half months after Meetic launched. Today, the site receives daily e-mails with news of many more Meetic weddings and children. Looks like online dating's European honeymoon could go on for quite a while. Tiplady is a reporter for BusinessWeek's Paris bureau