Bumble—the Austin, Texas-based startup founded by CEO and ex-Tinder entrepreneur Whitney Wolfe Herd, best known for having broken new ground as the female-first dating app—is getting ready for a February listing on Nasdaq under the stock ticker “BMBL.”
Herd was on the founding team at Tinder before falling out with the leadership in a big way—filing suit against her former employer for sexual harassment and discrimination—circumstances that she has since credited in part for inspiring her to build a dating app that put women at the helm of the online dating experience.
In addition to empowering women to take the lead in kicking off possible romantic connections, Bumble has been leaning in on scores of other matchstick issues ranging from banning profile pics that show men (or women) posing with firearms to her recent fight against fat-shaming on the Bumble app.
But how exactly Bumble will be received across the globe—heavy investment in global expansion is one of the purported uses of the funds raised in the forthcoming IPO—in cultures where gender roles and scores of other cultural nuances are quite different from those in the US, is still very much an open question.
Although Bumble’s PR machine has been a bunch of busy bees, buzzing in overdrive and making much out of its early traction in India’s online dating market, it did so as an early-mover in a country that had been slow to pick up on the global online dating phenomenon for young singles until COVID-19 effectively forced traditional avenues for courting on the back-burner.
How Bumble and Tinder, the 800-pound gorilla of the US dating space, will fare as they begin to go head-to-head overseas with online dating apps that originated abroad and have a better grasp on the manifold and complex cultural, linguistic, religious and gender-roles across Asia, the Middle East and Africa is giving some long-time observers of online social media a reason for pause.
Take for example, India—considered by many to be the crown jewel of the Asian dating app world. With a population exceeding 1.3 billion, of which nearly 20 per cent is in the prime age demographic for dating, it’s a prize both Bumble and Tinder have the hots for.
Tinder entered the Indian market in 2017 with its ‘Tinder Lite’ app which aims to soak up fewer minutes of mobile airtime in a country where many still pay for data on a per kilobyte basis. Yet four years later and after burning through considerable sums of cash, the company has still yet to amass a user base that compares with its success in North America.
But Tinder’s struggles in the developing world are not limited to India. In 2019, Tinder’s parent company, Match Group, acquired Harmonica, an Egypt-based dating platform, in the hopes that it would gain a presence across the Muslim world; however, neither Tinder nor any other Western-based peer has yet to crack the top 20 social apps in emerging Muslim-majority markets.
Another heavyweight on the global online relationship stage is Badoo, the brainchild of embattled Russian entrepreneur Andrey Andreev, which lays claim to being the world’s largest social connection app with over 400 million registered users.
Despite posting impressive numbers, Badoo had failed to define itself as a place for those serious about finding love, which partially explains why the Blackstone Group, the company’s majority shareholders, ended up merging it with Bumble.
One likely reason that major U.S. or European-based international dating platforms are struggling in Asia, Africa and the Middle East is the sheer level of diversity of ethnic groups, religions, cultural norms and languages in these regions.
The main drivers and market opportunities which propelled companies like Tinder and Bumble to success in North America—a region with a largely homogenous religious and linguistic group sharing a collective set of cultural norms—is unlikely to be easily replicated en masse across emerging markets, each with its own unique set of courting traditions.
In fact, many times, large countries—take India and Nigeria as prime examples—have multiple and distinct subcultures within them; understanding and mastering those subtleties takes boots-on-the-ground knowledge and a true commitment to localisation that goes beyond the glossy pages of an annual report.
For example, in many cultures, the role of the parents and other family members is a sine qua non component of the courting ritual. Religious practices in many Muslim countries have a long-standing practice of requiring young people of different genders to maintain social distance—long before the onset of COVID.
For these users, dating models predicated on the notion of connecting a prospective couple with an aim towards quickly fostering a real-life, in-person rendezvous will completely miss the mark. In many parts of Africa, finding someone who not only shares your language and religious beliefs but also has a common tribal affiliation is paramount.
Against this backdrop, dating apps that originate in specific emerging markets and hire local country managers are likely to have a better understanding of local practices and the ability to translate these norms into a better app experience.
“The fact that Bumble, Tinder and other U.S.-born businesses that call themselves ‘dating apps’ in societies where the mere concept of dating—at least by Western standards—is completely different, exposes their Achilles’ heel. This type of one-size-fits-all approach will not work in the rich mosaic of cultures you find spread across much of Africa and Asia.
Local market dynamics do not lend themselves to a global ‘winner takes all’ phenomenon in the online dating corner of the social media landscape,” observed Ethan Bearman, an analyst for Fox Business News who closely follows global social media trends.
“More likely what we are going to have is a series of dominant mainstream apps that do quite well in Western cultures—Europe, Australia, North America and perhaps Latin America—and then a few significant players that really understand the tremendous nuances involved in how the courting process works in the rest of the world that is, generally speaking, far more conservative in its approach to dating, sex and marriage.”
“Global online dating will almost certainly not be dominated worldwide by one or two U.S.-based companies,’’ emphasised Bearman. “I expect to see companies like Lamour give Tinder and Bumble a real run for their money in developing markets across the Middle East, Asia and large swathes of Africa.”
Lamour: The Tinder of the east
Lamour is the brainchild of Asia Innovation Group (AIG), a Hong Kong-based holding company that also owns Uplive, a popular live streaming social network that competes—or in many cases, replaces—Twitch, Facebook and YouTube across Asia and other parts of the world.
It’s a business model that lives and breathes localisation. “Few Asia-based companies have successfully introduced new services to so many countries around the world. AIG uniquely attracts the best international talent and empowers them to develop and deliver engaging social offerings at a time when the world is so lacking in human connection,” commented Jason Zhao, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers China, which has been a major backer of AIG.
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