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China’s matchmaker apps vie with tradition

By Sarah Mishkin

For singles in China under pressure to get married, there are plenty of professional matchmakers, and busybody parents. But for young people seeking to avoid such interference, there is now a bevy of smartphone apps offering a less formal approach.

With the requirement to marry remaining strong – one park in Shanghai is still the site of a weekend marriage market, where elder relatives try to broker matches – a significant number of educated urban dwellers are choosing new ways to pursue relationships, while pursuing their careers.

Enter apps such as Momo, the most popular of China's mobile dating services. It uses a phone's built-in GPS to help users find the profiles and photos of others in the area they can talk to online, or offline. So popular has it proved, that it has added 30 million registered users since July, taking the total to 80 million.

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Lane Oatey/Blue Jean Images | Lane Oatey/Blue Jean Images | Getty Images

"Everyone uses it just for fun, not taking it too seriously," said one young man who uses the app but asked not to be named. "We are too young to get married, too young. Maybe some girls' parents want them to get married so early, but my friends' haven't."

Other new Chinese dating apps include Zhantai, which matches users who live by or commute through the same subway stations, and Dou Jiang You Tiao, a launch with backing from Irish venture capital group SOSventures.

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Jiang Yucheng, a project manager on Blued – an app for gay men which now has 2 million users and $3 million in funding from a Shanghai investor – believes apps have a great advantage over dating websites, which are generally designed for desktop PCs. "People can use a phone app in their down time, and we think a person's down time is actually the majority of a person's day," he explained.

However, for other developers of dating apps, such as Tinder, making money in China can be more of a challenge than elsewhere.

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One difficulty is that marriage preferences in China remain traditional and focused on a partner's family background or economic status, pointed out Rui Ma, who runs the seed investor 500 Startups in Beijing. The fact that few matches on Momo are likely to turn into something long-term means people are less likely to pay a lot for the service.

"People are looking for certain education qualifications and height requirements and asset requirements," she said – noting that, at offline dating events, "people bring their parents because literally your whole family's buy-in is needed".

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Michael Lewis, the Chinese-American founder of Dou Jiang You Tiao, has also acknowledged that the targeting of older users by marriage-focused websites is what makes them lucrative.

Nevertheless, developers are continuing to focus on mobile services, having seen the rapid adoption of smartphone social networking, via Tencent's popular WeChat app.

Even Jiayuan – the leading Chinese dating website, which boasts a US stock market listing and a lucrative program of offline matchmaking events – has shifted to mobile to reach a younger audience.

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On China's Single's Day last month, the Nasdaq-listed group launched a mobile product called Dali to target 18-to-25 year olds, who might be looking for "a little bit less serious relationship," according to Shang Koo, Jiayuan's chief financial officer. For the group, which has recently seen a decline in its active user numbers, diversifying into Dali and two other mobile apps expands the addressable market, Mr Koo argued.