By Roger Riddell
— Medill News Service
— By taking its events-oriented approach to the Internet with a new website launched this month, Chicago-based Social One hopes to deliver a winning formula that’s different from existing online dating sites.
Joining an already crowded online dating marketplace, the site (www.SocialOne.com) plans to differentiate itself by matching members with common interests using a “natural dating methodology” and pre-planned events. “Think of every meaningful relationship you’ve ever had and you’ll find that you were probably doing something you loved, something that comes naturally to you,” Mary Vallone, the company’s founder, said in a release. “Online dating technology has never changed that.”
Vallone launched the company in 1996 as a young adult when she left her home in Wisconsin for an internship in Chicago. She started the business to help others meet people with similar interests, according to the website. The company, which also has offices in Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Costa Mesa, Calif., currently has 2,200 members in the Chicago area who meet at events ranging from kayaking and ski trips to sporting events and pub crawls.
David Evans, editor of Online Dating Insider, pegs the size of the online dating industry at $1.5 billion. Social One is operating in a market flooded with competition from established companies like Match.com and eHarmony and free sites like OkCupid and PlentyofFish.com.
Services like Social One have existed offline for years, Evans said. What’s more, the events-oriented approach isn’t for everyone. After attending a singles events, some people “go back home and go back to Match.com,” Evans said.
Match.com also tried an in-person events approach similar to Social One’s in 2009, Evans said. “We tested a similar concept for a few months targeting younger singles,” said Jaklin Kaden, a Match.com representative. “However, we made the decision to shut down that site and focus our efforts on what we do best — creating connections online.”
HowAboutWe.com, a fee-based singles site based in the New York area, matches users by asking them to suggest ideas for dating activities on their profiles. “The whole idea is you search for people based on date ideas,” Evans said.
Fee-based vs. free dating sites
But many competing dating sites are free to users. “There are so many free sites now, a lot of people don’t want to shell out $50,” said Stephany Alexander, a relationship and dating expert who founded a free date-screening site, WomanSavers.
Social One charges $79 a month, but is offering a six-month special for $237, which works out to $39.50 a month. Unlike many sites that help match people based on psychological profiles, Social One’s approach attempts to pair people through face-to-face interaction. When clients register on www.socialone.com, they don’t create a profile. They gain access to events publicized on the site’s calendar. The events range from kayaking and skiing trips to sporting events and pub-crawls.
Although nonmembers can view the calendar, only paying members can participate in the events. “Our clients can decide which events appeal to their personalities,” said Toni Scheinbaum, the company’s director of marketing. The calendar is viewable at Social One’s website and has events scheduled most days of the week.
The events are diverse enough to attract members of various ethnicities and ages, ranging from young singles to Baby Boomers. Upcoming Chicago events include live horse racing at Maywood Park, a Magnificent Mile chocolate tour and a White Sox game.
Amy Talbott, a 25-year-old editorial assistant in Louisville, Ky., who has used Match.com, said she would prefer a site that would incorporate Social One’s concept. “I think I would like maybe a hybrid model,” Talbott said. “I love this option of being able to meet people through activities, but profile scouring can have its upside, too.”
Traditional online dating still appeals to many people, said Adam Gilad, a relationship adviser. “I think you have to use all available avenues in the search for finding the right person,” Gilad said.
By avoiding the profile-scouring approach of other services and conducting background checks to verify applicants are legally single and have no criminal records, Single One also aims to sidestep the negative aspects of profile-based online dating services — misinformation and dated photographs.
Cancellation policies vary
Some companies make it difficult to cancel memberships and leave profiles up after memberships have been canceled to give the appearance of higher volume, Alexander said. Social One’s Scheinbaum said members can cancel within three days of signing up by calling the company’s local offices. Memberships are on a month-to-month basis, and the company does not provide a refund after the three-day grace period.
Alexander of WomanSavers said she is personally familiar with the problems of online dating sites. Though she met her husband five years ago on Match.com, she had several bad experiences during the early days of online dating in 1995 and became “very jaded with the whole experience,” she said.
Social One should have good results since people tend to develop bonds based on common interests, Alexander said.
Read more about another Chicago entrepreneur who has launched an events-oriented networking business on Small Business Chicago.