eHarmony’s new CEO offers a lot of clues to what’s next
Steve’s breakdown: For instance, they still have not really nailed down the Compatible Partners brand. It’s their service for Gay and Lesbian Singles. Also, Neil Clark Warren is retiring as CEO and will not be in their advertising. Looks like a good time to make the introductions.
PASADENA, CA: Before Tinder, Grindr and OKCupid, there was eHarmony, an old-fashioned dating site dedicate to long-term relationships. You’ll never be able to swipe right on eHarmony’s app.
Grant Langston met his wife through eHarmony.com and married her in 2008. To be clear, an eHarmony colleague introduced them — they didn’t actually meet on the site. On Monday, Langston, 50, took over as chief executive of the company from co-founder Neil Clark Warren, 81. Warren has long claimed in interviews and on television commercials that the site’s secret sauce, or “29 dimensions of compatibility,” helps singletons find long-lasting relationships rather than Tinder-style hook-ups. But while eHarmony still focuses on personality and values before physical attraction. Langston says he also needs to bring eHarmony into the 21st Century.
He spoke with MarketWatch about the ups and downs of a site that aims to reduce the divorce rate in the U.S. — some research shows that people who meet online are more likely to stay together long-term than people who meet in real life — and hints at some changes he would like to make:
MarketWatch: So how long have you been CEO?
Grant Langston: The paperwork was signed Sunday.
MW: What was your previous position?
Langston: Vice president of brand marketing.
MW: There must have been a few people interested in the top job.
Langston: We do not have a lot of people in the senior ranks at eHarmony. Maybe there were a few, but we run pretty thin in terms of years of service and familiarity with the company and the brand. There weren’t many folks that were eligible for the job.
MW: Are you sad to see Neil Clark Warren go? He was the public face of the company on television commercials and steered the company through some difficult times.
MW: What have you learned from him?
Langston: I worked with Neil since 2000, except a period when he retired for about four years. I was the third or fourth employee at the company. He’s a guy who’s about authenticity even when it’s not cool to be himself. There’s no pretense. That’s something that I’ve learned from him. eHarmony was not a company started by three smart internet guys who pivot and be what the market wanted. It wants to help people get into good relationships.
MW: What do you mean by when it wasn’t “cool to be himself?”
Langston: Neil is 81. There are people who say he’s too old to be out there in the world and talking about relationships. He says, ‘This is who I am and this is what I believe.’ He’ll cry in a meeting. He’ll give you a handshake and tell you that he loves you. He’s an emotional and real person and he’s not afraid to let that show. Working with that is inspiring, really.
MW: This is your Sweet 16th year at eHarmony. What have been your most challenging times?
Langston: Decisions have been made over the years with the best of intentions that have proven to be detrimental. In the past, we decided, ‘Let’s go and get the casual dater.’ But we built products that were completely antithetical to our belief system. The serious minded dater says this isn’t the company I thought it was. The casual dater doesn’t bite either. You end up with no constituency at all. We went through a period where we didn’t know who we were. We found ourselves without any real fans. We had to get back to our mission.
MW: What was this casual dating product called?
Langston: We had a product called Jazzed. It was a casual browsing site. And we changed our advertising. We said let’s not talk about serious dating anymore, let’s talk about fun dates. It didn’t take very long for our customers to be confused.
MW: I don’t blame you for giving it a shot. If you invented Tinder, you probably wouldn’t be complaining.
Langston: Maybe. People’s values are wrapped up in their decision about this purchase. It’s easier for someone like Match [founded in 1995, five years before eHarmony], which doesn’t have a position on relationships to take a significant stake in Tinder and make it part of their world. If we did that, I don’t think it would work as well.
MW: And let’s not forget that Tinder is probably responsible for relationships too. It just puts swiping photos at the forefront because physical attraction is important too.
Langston: A lot of people misunderstand our opinion on physical attraction. We just don’t want it to be the primary criteria by which people kick off relationships. Think how people are attracted out in the wild. They say, ‘We’re pretty well matched. We should move forward with this thing.’ The areas where they’re very dissimilar are buried deeply beneath the surface. They don’t come to light for a long time.
MW: I was looking over the wedding announcements in the newspaper a couple of weekends ago and several said they met on OKCupid. That site, which is part of IAC Corp., IAC, -4.01% crowd sources questions. There are so many that people have a pretty good idea of what they’re getting.
Langston: I know a couple who met in a bar. And they are as happy as they can be. You can find love in a lot of different ways. OKCupid does have a lot of different questions. You can see what people are like and filter out who you’re not going to work with. There is one important difference. We have tried to do research for things that correlate with a happy relationship, which is proven through science. It doesn’t mean that you can’t find long-term love in a number of ways. It’s just about the odds.
MW: Science is your secret sauce, but it’s also a big part of your marketing.
Langston: It is.
MW: So what do you mean by things that correlate for a happy relationship?
Langston: Ambition. It’s not something that I think about. I did most of my dating before I worked at eHarmony. What we’ve learned: If one person is a go-getter and the other person likes to spend a lot of time on the couch, that causes friction. The more you have, the more it’s going to matter.
MW: Ambition is a good thing for both parties, unless they’re both workaholics.
MW: But eHarmony tries to adjust for that?
Langston: Neil used to say that was one of the reasons he got out of the marital counselling game. He’d realize, ‘These two people should not be together. They’re terrible for each other. They’re not going to have a happy life.’ He’d try to tell them this news and they’d just laugh in his face. He realized he had to get further out ahead of it and that’s what eHarmony is trying to do.
MW: How many members do you have?
Langston: We have around 700,000 to 750,000 members. The standard full retail price is $59.95 a month, but less if you subscribe for a longer term.
MW: That’s six times the cost of a Netflix subscription. It’s not cheap.
Langston: It’s not cheap. That’s right.
MW: What’s happening with Compatible Partners, the website for gay and lesbian people?
Langston: It’s very profitable. We couldn’t be happier with where it’s going.
MW: How many members does that have?
Langston: We don’t break them out.
MW: Any plans to include that under the main eHarmony brand? Or will you keep them separate?
Langston: We’ve spent 10 years building that brand. We’ve started to market it various places. We’ve got to think hard about changing that. It’s one of the many things I’ve been reviewing.
MW: What other changes are afoot?
Langston: If I had to sum up the changes? The product, mostly the apps, needs to be much easier to use. We have taken our sweet time in evolving our product, the apps especially. It’s work to use our site and that’s got to change.
MW: Do you have location-based dating? I don’t even want to meet someone on the other side of Central Park!
Langston: You have the capacity to pick the geographic range of your dates. We don’t do GPS matching. We don’t do that kind of GPS. It’s kind of a Grindr thing. We don’t do that. In a city like New York, it’s hard for eHarmony.
MW: Almost every single person in New York City must be on a dating app.
Langston: I’m sure they are on many different apps.
MW: You make poor New Yorkers sound like a promiscuous bunch of heathens.
Langston: You need to keep your efforts broad and strong.
MW: It’s just as well you didn’t meet your wife on Match.com. That would have been awkward.
Langston: I’d have to think of a good lie if I did.