Image Source: Visual China
2021 had been a bad year for matchmaking platforms in China.
Users had lost their trust in matchmaking platforms when the scandal broke out that staff could see users’ chat history and promote products to them accordingly.
Jiayuan.com was the Chinese matchmaking platform that was exposed of such misconduct.
In early December 2021, Chinese news outlet the Paper reported that Jiayuan.com violated users’ privacy by accessing users’ chat history. Jiayuan.com would access users’ chat history and browse history on its platform to market products to users accordingly via telephone.
Relevant authorities have started an investigation on the matter after the news report was released.
On December 10, 2021, the Jiangsu Province Consumer Protection Commission summoned Baihejiayuan, Marry & Love Holdings and Zhenai for online regulatory talks. Later on the 15th, relevant authorities in Shanghai also summoned Baihejiayuan, Zhenai, Marry & Love Holdings and Yijianyuan to discuss issues such as privacy violations and scams.
However, the scandals did not attract much attention from young users on social media in contrast to their reaction to Zhihu and Douban being punished by the authorities.
Jiayuan.com’s apology released on Weibo on December 7 only got comments from 45 users as of December 26. This is not uncommon. Although Jiayuan.com has over two million followers on Weibo, it barely gets any comments on most of its posts. Zhenai, another matchmaking platform in China, faces similar situations on Chinese social media.
Baihejiayuan and Zhenai had 6.87 and 5.38 million monthly active users respectively as of the first half of 2021, according to statistics from BigData Research. Baihejiayuan and Zhenai are the two biggest matchmaking platforms in China. The third biggest matchmaking platform, Yidui, had only 2.52 million monthly active users, which is significantly lesser than the top two players.
Jiayuan.com, Baihe and Zhenai’s lack of presence on Weibo reflects the current matchmaking industry in China – the lack of popularity among Gen Z users.
Statistics from Weibo’s 2020 User Development Report released in March 2021 show that 80% of Weibo’s 224 million users were Gen Z users born in the 1990s or 2000s.
It is unusual to see scandals that involve privacy violations not receive much attention and criticism from Gen Z users.
It appears young people do not care much about matchmaking platforms.
The crumbling business model
Matchmaking platforms no longer work mainly because users have lost trust in them.
Jiayuan.com, which was the first matchmaking company in China to go public, has not developed a healthy and sustainable business model yet since its founding.
In Q4 2011, Jiayuan.com registered a net loss of 1.2 million yuan. The Q4 fiscal report sent Jiayuan.com’s price downhill on Nasdaq, marking a key moment for the company.
In 2012, Jiayuan.com started to promote its high-end matchmaking service, which is very similar to the traditional matchmaking business. The service is provided by professional matchmakers who headhunt for good candidates that are marriage material. The high-end matchmaking service became an important business model for Jiayuan.com. Its contribution to the company’s revenue continued to increase over years.
According to the company’s Q4 report in 2011, offline events and high-end matchmaking services only accounted for 14.3% of the total revenue. The number for matchmaking services then grew to 10.6%, 26.8% and 36.6% in 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively.
High-end matchmaking services performed by professional matchmakers then became an important income source for Jiayuan.com before being acquired. Zhenai, which gained traction from its combined model of online matchmaking and professional matchmakers, made such high-end service its main source of income.
Baihe also pays special attention to high-end professional matchmaking services. According to open information on Baihe’s website, the company has around a hundred brick-and-mortar outlets in 76 cities in the country, which mainly provides high-end matchmaking services.
This shows that professional matchmaking service has become the main way for matchmaking platforms to generate revenue.
Compared with matchmaking platforms, dating platforms require users to take on many risks. When browsing on dating apps, users themselves are wary about catfishes and scammers on the platform. But the case would be different for matchmaking platforms. Users of matchmaking platforms expect trustworthy services. In short, people choose to use matchmaking platforms because they want to meet decent people that are marriage materials.
That’s why a series of scandals from matchmaking services that were exposed to the public have drastically decreased people’s trust in such services and platforms.
There have been many scandals from high-end and expensive matchmaking services.
One of the most widely reported matchmaking scandals was the tragic marriage between Su Xiangmao and Huo Xinxin. The story was simple. Huo purposefully tricked Su into marriage and scammed him into spending millions of yuan for her. Su eventually committed suicide because of the toxicity in their marriage. According to the post Su wrote before he took his life, he met Huo through Shijijianyuan’s VIP membership service. Shijijianyuan’s matchmaker set them up. Huo actually had a marriage before which could show a lot of red flags. However, Huo’s profile on Jiayuan.com did not show any information about her first marriage.
Jiayuan.com’s valuation went down by 1.63 billion yuan on September 13, 2017, after the scandal broke out
Such incidents are plenty. There had been many cases in which people found themselves being scammed by matchmaking services, such as being tricked into paying for more premium services. Search any keyword related to matchmaking, one can find a series of complaints since 2017.
Top matchmaking platforms all have their brick-and-mortar outlets in major cities in China. It is not cheap to operate with physical stores. However, one-on-one professional matchmaking is already a mature business model in comparison with the online plus offline business model. According to Zhenai’s unaudited fiscal report, the average fee for one-on-one professional matchmaking service was 15,915 yuan, 15,725 yuan and 16,099 yuan in 2015, 2016 and 2017 (January to May) respectively. It seemed that it was easier to get users to pay for premium personal service than having them pay a membership fee to a platform. After all, Chinese users have already gotten accustomed to free online services.
But of course, such business models might anger some of the consumers as well.
A new mindset about marriage
Besides trust issues, young people’s new mindset about marriage also makes them less interested in traditional matchmaking.
If You Are the One, a Chinese matchmaking dating show aired in 2010, showcases everything that young people fear about matchmaking and blind date. At the dating show, male contestants are judged by a panel of 12 female guests who could turn off their light anytime if they find the contestants not worth dating. The male contestants would have to not only tell their background and personal stories to win over the female guests but would also face harsh questioning by the panel.
The show mainly targets viewers born in the 1980s and before. This clearly shows that people who were born in the 1990s and after are less interested in matchmaking tradition.
Influenced by traditional Chinese values on marriage, matchmaking sites like Shijijiayuan and matchmaking dating shows like If You Are the One enjoy a massive market in China. “Leftover women”, a derogatory term used in China to describe women who remain unmarried in their late twenties and beyond, reflects a deeply rooted cultural norm that tells women that they must get married.
Young people in China are pushing back traditional thinking on marriage as the awareness of gender equality increases in society. Young people nowadays pay more attention to their own feelings and happiness instead of conforming to traditions and getting married when “it is time for getting married.” The increasing costs associated with marriage also push people farther away from considering marriage. The rise of “lying flat” culture and the increasing popularity of nihilist thinking have also made marriage a less desirable path.
Chinese people are unwilling to get married or tend to marry late as a result.
In 2005, 47% of the 20~24 years old age group were married. In 2020, the number had slumped drastically to 18.6%. People aged between 25 and 29 years old accounted for 34.9% of the married population in 2020.
The number of married couples has been decreasing over years in China. According to statistics from the 2021 China Statistical Yearbook, around 8.14 million couples received their marriage certificates in 2020, a sharp decline from 2013’s 13.46 million, the lowest since 2003.
Ma Jie, who was using a pseudonym for privacy reasons, said that her family back home often pressures her to look for a boyfriend. Ma was born in 1995 and currently lives in Shanghai. During the Spring Festival in 2020, she downloaded the dating app Soul and started using it for a while. But she eventually deleted Soul from her phone because the “love alert” function on Soul would often make her feel panicked. From Ma’s view, marriage is not something people can rush. “Going to work and taking care of my cat are already tiring enough. I don’t want to create more trouble for myself by worrying about getting married,” Ma said. “The most important thing to prioritize is your own pleasure.” When asked about matchmaking sites like Shijijiayuan and Zhenai, Ma simply stated that such sites are not well-known among her peers.
The rising awareness of gender equality has inspired Chinese women to really think about the value of marriage. In the past, it was common to see people using derogatory terms such as “dinosaur” (ugly woman) and “leftover woman” to describe women. Shijijiayuan’s founder Gong Haiyan called herself “Little Dragon Lady” because she was also once called a “dinosaur” by netizens. Today, we can see derogatory terms that describe men are becoming popular. “Ordinary but overly confident men”, which is a term to describe men who think they are some kind of hotshot but are losers in reality, has become extremely popular on Chinese social media. Such changes came from the cracks of the patriarchal system in Chinese society. Women are starting to have their voice on social media.
The changes in Chinese women’s value system can also be reflected by their stance on recent social issues.
The controversial divorce drama between famous singer Wang Leehom and Lee Jinglei sparked heated discussion online as Chinese women voiced out their opinions on child-rearing, marriage and stay-at-home mom etc. Coco, who kept track of the incident, said that the important takeaway from Wang and Lee’s drama would be women should maintain their independence in their marriage instead of sacrificing for their marriage.
Matchmaking dating shows such as If You Are the One and Who Can Search in the Crowd have also lost their mojo in recent years. Reality shows that feature content of strangers falling in love naturally have become a new trend.
In matchmaking dating shows, female guests would brutally rate male participants based on their appearance, profession and income, whereas on dating shows that are popular among young people focus on showing participants’ personality, interpersonal skills, hobbies and personal charm.
Image: Reality Show If You Are the One
From matchmaking to social networking
If young people no longer trust matchmaking sites, then where are they finding their dates?
The answer is dating apps that focus on social networking among strangers, which generate less pressure on the users.
Developers have been rolling out social apps that target social interaction between strangers in China, designed specifically for Gen Z users. According to statistics from market research firm iiMedia, 239 financings that took place in the Chinese Internet industry between January 2011 and September 2021 were from social apps that focused on the interaction between strangers. The involved total investment was 8.836 billion yuan.
There have been many innovations in the dating app scene. Some apps focus on social networking and dating based on photo sharing and some specialize in voice messaging. There are also popular apps that focus on social interaction based on video sharing and livestreaming. In 2021, we had witnessed the emergence of apps that feature dating and social networking based on AI algorithms. Developers also came up with social and dating apps designed for specific demographics, such as young people living in third-tier cities in the country.
Tantan and Soul are amongst the fastest-growing platforms.
In May 2021, Soul filed its prospectus and planned to get listed on Nasdaq. According to Soul’s prospectus, daily active users on the platform reached 9.1 million in March 2021, registering year-on-year growth of 94.4%.
Users of traditional dating apps would generally leave the platform once they found a boyfriend or girlfriend. What distinguishes Soul from the crowd is its plaza feature, which allows users to post photos, voice messages or videos to get interaction and gain followers.
It has become a norm for Soul users to post their meetup experience with other users on the plaza. Soul users would comment on such posts to help analyze what went wrong during the meetup to help their fellow Soulers to have a better date next time.
Soul gradually transformed into something more than just a social or dating app as its users discuss literature, music and many other hobbies on its platform. The platform does not seem to worry about the shift created by its users. In early 2021, Soul announced that it will build a social metaverse for young people. The company has been working on this concept in the past year.
Soul seemingly wants to appeal to all Gen Z users with a comprehensive social platform. Dating is merely part of it.
Momo, another social app in China, shares similar a metaverse concept with Soul.
Momo had already shifted its focus from dating to social networking and broad entertainment, Momo’s founder Tang Yan said in 2018 when the company acquired Tantan. Since the acquisition, Momo has been investing more in social apps for social interaction with strangers, rolling out apps such as Qiaoqiao, Duidui and Kaka.
In June 2021, some users discovered that an anonymous social function named “Mini Universe” had been added to Momo.
Momo’s Mini Universe functions in a way that is similar to Soul’s plaza. Users can publish their posts on Mini Universe where strangers can see them. Another feature named “Gravity” connects different users for an audio chat.
Chinese Internet giants such as Tencent, ByteDance and Baidu are also experimenting with their social metaverse concepts.
Matchmaking platforms that still indulge themselves in the traditional matchmaking business model have not only lost their edge among young users but also failed to keep up with the industry.
Note: Interviewees are mentioned using pseudonyms for privacy reasons in this article.
Translator: Garrett Li