Romance has gone to the cloud—now the biggest venue for meeting. But would-be couples eventually need to take it offline and into real life.

Now Match (formerly is seizing on the IRL phase of courtship, branching beyond algorithms to provide its own dating coaches. “This is the first time a dating app is going beyond just a first date, to stick with our members and help them be successful,” says Hesam Hosseini, who took over as Match CEO in January 2018.

Introduced in New York City in May, the AskMatch coaching service is now available in 18 states and Washington, D.C., with plans to expand to all U.S. subscribers by January 2020. The coaching—typically over the phone—is included in Match’s standard subscription, which averages around $35 per month, depending on how long people sign up for. Four months into the program, Match has identified some overriding concerns and trends among its subscribers, which it shared exclusively with Fast Company.

[Image: courtesy of Match]

By adding coaching, Match is pursuing the very aftermarket that it and sister services owned by IAC subsidiary Match Group helped create—but at a steep discount. Traditional dating and relationship services may charge several hundred dollars per session, or thousands for a multimonth package.

The push to personal is also Hosseini’s way to differentiate the 24-year-old brand. Tinder currently tops all the dating app rankings and has been the dynamo of Match Group, which overall grew both total revenue and average subscribers by about 18% over the previous year, according to the company’s latest quarterly earnings report.

We’re still human

Technology has made it easier to meet people. A new study by Stanford University and University of New Mexico researchers (based on a national survey from 2017) found that online has outstripped other ways to meet, like introductions by friends or real-life flirting. About 39% of straight and 65% of same-sex couples in the U.S. now connect through sites and apps.

But algorithms haven’t fixed human vulnerabilities, misperceptions, and bad habits. It may have made them worse. “This sounds crazy, but we get people who say, ‘I need help flirting. I forgot how to flirt,’” says Katie Wilson, a veteran dating coach who came to Match in December 2018 to build its team.

That’s no surprise to independent coaches. “Flirting is something that a lot of people have a hard time with,” says Maya Diamond, a Bay Area dating and relationship coach who isn’t affiliated with Match.

Related: How Match Group CEO Mandy Ginsberg helps people find their person

What else do AskMatch customers need help with? “We get everything under the sun,” says Wilson, who spent four and a half years as a manager and director at matchmaking company Three Day Rule. The L.A.-based boutique service has had a partnership since 2014 with Match, which refers users who want to “get a high-touch approach,” as founder Talia Goldstein describes it, including personalized matchmaking. Three Day Rule coaches will appear in tips videos for AskMatch.

Among common problems, men often get stuck in the “friend zone,” says Wilson, with pleasant dates that don’t progress to romance. Should they try to be more of a “bad boy,” they’ve asked Match coaches. Men also request more help in general on strategies for getting replies to their first messages.

Coaches also help temper unrealistic expectations, where New Yorkers seem to excel. “We know New York City-based women are more likely to call about dating fatigue than the rest of us,” says Wilson. They are fatigued from going on a lot of dates without finding the right person—unsurprising since many are looking for “perfection that obviously doesn’t exist,” she says.

New York men are also picky in their own way, according to Michelle Frankel, founder of NYCity Matchmaking, a full-service boutique matchmaking company that’s not affiliated with Match Group. “Most men want really high physical attributes,” she says. Basically, every guy thinks he should be dating a supermodel.

High expectations happen outside New York too, says Nicole Ellison, a professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in computer-mediated communication, including online dating. The expectation for perfection emerged back in her 2010 study called “Relationshopping.” “[Online dating] potentially encourages this mindset of, ‘All I have to do is go through enough profiles until I meet the perfect person,’” says Ellison.

Most dating issues cut across sexual preferences, says Wilson. For instance, men have similar troubles connecting to women as to other men, she says. But a few special concerns are emerging among LGBT clients. They’ve had more trouble finding other relationship-minded people in the real world, says Wilson. Transgender members ask advice on when and how to reveal their status.

Match aims to staff coaches who can relate to users. “We are actively looking for LGBTQ coaches,” says Hosseini, who adds that they don’t have any yet. “That’s still a gap for us, but there’s a lot of focus in filling that gap.” Match recruits coaches for gender, ethnic, cultural, and other diversity as well, he says.

Though job candidates all have previous experience, Match still screens them with a personality test. “It takes a special kind of person to listen to other folks’ dating trouble for eight hours a day, every day,” says Hosseini. “When the personality is a fit, not only do they excel, they actually love their work.”

Match wouldn’t tell me how many coaches it has, aside from saying that it hired a dozen last month and plans to quadruple its staff by the end of the year.

Technically, AskMatch is an unlimited service, at no extra charge, but that could change if subscribers actually start utilizing it without limits. Just as MoviePass once provided virtually unlimited cinema visits, these early days of AskMatch may offer the best deal.

How it works

Hosseini, who was 10 years old when launched in 1995, is charged with reinvigorating the brand. The conglomerate owns eight major dating services, including PlentyOfFish, where Hosseini served as CEO for about two years before taking over Match.

Though a digital native, Hosseini is pushing back against the blind faith in technology that Match Group has helped to foster over the years. Take OkCupid, which Match Group acquired in 2011. Promising computer-aided couplings based on huge amounts of user data from seemingly endless personality quizzes, OKC is a heavily algorithmic service. 

“I think in our industry, the human touch is paramount. We can’t let algorithms rule us,” says Hosseini, who vaguely teases that coaching is “just the first step” for other human services Match will continue to expand. (He declines to say more.)

Match is the right service for the personal touch, he says, because its client base (mainly in the late 20s to early 40s age range) is focused on developing long-term relationships.

“I would say Match is still tried and true for people who want a relationship,” says Diamond. But it’s not the only place. “I met my partner on Tinder, and we’re in a long-term, committed, monogamous relationship,” she says.

I tried a coaching session myself. Like a lot of men, apparently, I also suck at getting women to reply to my messages on Tinder and Hinge, as well as Bumble—which is not part of Match Group. I thought I was doing well by reading profiles in detail and commenting on something specific we had in common, like the same obscure book or movie or off-the-beaten-path locale.

But comments don’t garner replies, said Heather, the coach who fielded my call. Women respond best to questions that prompt an expansive reply. I ask just such questions in real-life conversations, but I didn’t always carry that wisdom over to online.

As a GenXer, I embodied another stereotype. “Our older population generally calls needing help with their online interaction,” says Wilson. Another in-hindsight-obvious thing that my coach taught me: Profile photos should directly relate to how you describe yourself. If you say you like hiking, there should be a picture of you hiking.

But each generation has its challenges. “I don’t think it’s going to come as a shock, but millennials are actually less likely to request help on building their profile,” says Hosseini, “but they almost always want help establishing a connection with someone else.” At least millennial dudes do. “I would say with the male clients that come to me in that age population, yeah, for sure,” says Diamond. “The women, not as much.”

Whether it’s underdeveloped flirting skills or wondering whether your interests are actually interesting, date coaching can provoke some painful self-evaluation. Heather describes herself as a “holistic” coach. As the stress came out in my voice, she asked me to close my eyes and take deep breaths. Perhaps I feel disconnected from myself, and that’s why I don’t feel more interesting, she offered. Sleep, exercise, and a good diet are essential to overcome that.

Related: How Bumble re-engineered online connections for women

Users typically drop off Match after they have met a few people and started dating, says Hosseini. “With our coaches, that relation [with Match] doesn’t have to end,” he says. “It just turns into an experience where you can access your coach, you can text them, you can follow up with how the dates are going.”

“[Dating is] not just something where you meet the perfect person and then everything is effortless. It’s an active, ongoing activity,” says Ellison, the University of Michigan professor.

What the numbers say

Match is tracking what people call about in order to identify trends, says Hosseini. That information isn’t going into algorithms or other automated analysis yet, although it may in the future. But Match is leveraging data collected over the years to improve its coaching services.

“We were coaching a client the other day, and we noticed that the majority of his messages were getting sent out at 11:30 PM,” says Wilson. “Based on this data that we’ve got, we know that the time [he was] sending out these messages isn’t going to be effective.” The client said he wasn’t looking for casual hookups, but that’s the impression he was giving.

It may not take a data scientist to figure that out, but accessing users’ online activity and analyzing trends helps coaches craft their advice, according to Match. “It’s that marriage of tech and expert viewpoint that allows us to say, ‘Actually let’s send those messages at four o’clock [PM]—or even more optimal, [during] lunch break,’” says Wilson.

Early users seem pleased, according to Net Promoter satisfaction scores. (For the uninitiated, companies use an NPS to measure customer experience and predict business growth.) Ninety-five percent of Match survey respondents say they are satisfied with the coach, according to the company; and 95% say they found the information “really helpful.” Match subscribers who have used the coaching service are 60% more likely to recommend Match to someone else.

Coaching may eventually help Match level up. Most of its traffic comes through its apps, where its downloads (relative to competitors’) and revenue have been flat or declining, according to data that mobile insights platform App Annie provided to Fast Company. In Q2 2017 and 2018, Match was the seventh most-downloaded dating app, on iOS and Android, in the U.S.; but by Q2 2019, it dropped to number 10. In U.S. consumer spending, it dropped from second in Q2 2017 to third in 2018 to fourth in 2019, displaced by Bumble and newcomer Hily. Another analytics firm, SensorTower, also places Match in fourth place in user spending, with revenue down 4% in the past year.

On the desktop and mobile browser side, traffic has generally declined, according to data provided by analytics firm SimilarWeb. “It is evident that has experienced steady decreases in traffic since 2017,” says SimilarWeb marketing analyst Ilana Marks. “Looking at January-July year-over-year, visits to the site decreased by 31% from 2017 to 2018, before further decreasing by another 16% as of July 2019.”

Tinder has been picking up the slack for Match Group. Even though its basic service is free, paid upgrades are growing. Match Group doesn’t break out growth or revenue data on Match, and it declined to comment on data from App Annie, Sensor Tower, and SimilarWeb.

The competition isn’t worried

The dating coaches I spoke to say they aren’t worried about competition from Match, as they still offer something more extensive or specialized.

“I work with people in a four-month capacity,” says Maya Diamond. “There’s a lot of patterns that need to be shifted [and] also a lot of tools and lessons that I teach.” She works mainly with women, from their 30s to 80s, and specializes in “helping single women who are stuck in the pattern of attracting and choosing unavailable men.”

“When I go to sleep at night, I’m concerned about my clients. I’m thinking about them,” says Frankel. “When you work for a large company, I’m not sure it’s the same level of vestedness.”

NYCity Matchmaking starts at $2,000 for an intensive six-week program including a stylist, photographer, and profile-writing assistance (with higher prices for more extensive services). Three Day Rule starts at $5,000 for three months. (Diamond declines to specify her fees.) Match subscribers won’t be getting that level of attention, but they will get access to the same coach each time they call. “That ongoing relationship with a coach is part of this process in a huge way,” says Wilson. Members can ask to be reassigned if they aren’t jelling with their coach.

“Bringing this fairly small industry that’s been inaccessible to the masses [to more people] is a great goal and one that could truly differentiate us,” says Hosseini.

That differentiation is worth the investment, he says. “Monetization is not something that’s in the near term,” says Hosseini. For now, it’s a value-add to attract and retain customers.

Should coaching become really popular, Match might have to reevaluate the economics. “If somebody says, ‘I want to speak to my coach every week, I want to have dozens of calls, I want to follow up with them,’ at some point that does become cost-prohibitive to do at scale,” says Hosseini. “I wouldn’t rule out [charging extra] if we do find that our members want to have a consistent relationship and follow up with our coaches.”