Saturday, July 01, 2006

Team Dating Is All The Rage

Donell Roberson, like nearly 30 million other U.S. subscribers to services like or, had spent hours viewing online profiles and exchanging e-mail messages before setting up dates.

By the time the 33-year-old Los Angeles resident actually met the women, though, the pressure to enjoy himself was too intense. And there were dates who looked nothing like their photos.

"I don't have enough time as it is," said Roberson, a medical sales account executive. "I'd get moody after spending all of that time e-mailing someone, and then not have fun on the date."

Then he heard of, a new site that puts groups of friends together. "This sounded fun," he said.

Like Roberson, other singles frustrated with typical online dating services increasingly are turning to alternative "socializing" sites that send couples out on double or triple dates to relieve the tensions of going out in pairs. The main dating sites, responding to the shift, are also finding new strategies to keep customers coming back for more.

Frustrated singles have turned to online dating services in greater numbers every year since the trend took off in 2001, when the U.S. market exceeded $100 million.

During its peak growth in 2002 and 2003, the online dating market grew by more than 70 percent each year, reaching around $500 million, according to Jupiter Research, a market research firm. But growth has slowed to about 7 percent for these sites, while socializing sites like or are growing more quickly.

The new low-key sites, most aimed at people older than 30, allow individuals to join group activities or socials based on hobbies or interests. Other more loosely organized non-commercial social-networking sites such as MySpace have also become extremely popular, especially among 15- to 34-year-olds.

Although the main dating sites haven't figured out an alternative to pairs dating, the sites are more aggressively courting singles with free trials and new sites designed to take some of the work out of the hunt. recently introduced Like, it matches customers based on personality profiles.

After taking a 30-minute test designed to determine hormone levels and other factors, clients receive their personality type, with labels like "builder" or "explorer." If they're satisfied with the profile, then sends the client five matches who can be accepted or rejected. If a customer rejects a match, sends another. Once the customer receives an appealing match, he or she can send a "hello" message or an e-mail message to that person.

But the service might be missing the point for some customers. The concept sounded promising to Mike Wallace, a 36-year-old IT project manager in Washington. Though he subscribed to several months ago, he said he didn't feel very comfortable with writing his profile and putting himself online for anyone to see. He rarely checked the site and never e-mailed any women.

But when e-mailed him an offer to try for free three months ago, he decided to try it. "The personality profile was what was so cool about it," Wallace said. "And as far as the profile they gave me after I took the test: dead on."

However, in the three months he's been using the service, Wallace hasn't gone on a single date. The women who e-mailed that they had received his profile as a match didn't interest him; one was in North Carolina. And the few matches he contacted haven't responded to his e-mail messages.

Will he keep trying? Probably for a while, he said. He said he realized meeting someone would take time, and admits he hasn't put much effort into it, checking for matches weekly at most.

Ray Doustdar, 33, had the same feeling when he and a friend thought up TeamDating a year and a half ago. With a busy job as a corporate consultant and several friends moving away or getting married, Doustdar's social circle was dwindling. He had tried and Yahoo personals, but felt as if he was spending too much time online.

So six months ago, he and a friend launched TeamDating, where teams of friends register to meet with other groups for dinner, drinks, a movie or a ballgame. Membership -- primarily of 25- to 35-year-olds -- didn't start to grow until about three months ago. Doustdar says it now has 7,500 members.

For now, the site's free to subscribers; he and his partner hope to keep it that way by generating revenue through advertising.

Roberson's team now is off the site because he has started seeing a woman he met on a team happy hour.

"It's just like going out any other night with a group of my guy friends," Roberson said. "But we don't have to sit in the bar trying to hit on people."