Hot but Virtuous Is an Unlikely Match for an Online Dating Service
The women who appear in Web ads for the dating site True.com almost certainly do not need to look online for a date.
The buxom and often barely dressed models, posing next to slogans like “It’s nice to be naughty,” are plastered across the Internet these days, and are hard to avoid on the social networking site MySpace.
In part because of its provocative ads, True.com, based in Irving, Tex., has seemingly come out of nowhere to become one of the most visited sites in the $700 million-a-year online dating industry, attracting 3.8 million people last month.
True’s rise has been controversial. The company has riled competitors like Match.com and Yahoo Personals, which say that True’s lowbrow advertisements clash with its high-minded lobbying and legal efforts. True, which conducts criminal background checks on its subscribers, is the primary force behind a two-year-old campaign to get state legislatures to require that social Web sites prominently disclose whether or not they perform such checks.
True also says it is preparing to sue an ex-convict from Florida in Texas state court for violating its terms of service by joining the site.
“I want to make sure that our members have a wholesome environment for courtship,” said Herb Vest, True’s 63-year-old founder and chief executive.
Rivals dismiss the company’s piety as a play for publicity. They also assert that the company makes it especially difficult for users to cancel its $49.95-a-month service, and that it has a history of generating automated messages that appear to be flirtatious “winks” from other users.
“True is the controversial child in the Internet dating industry. They are loathed by everybody,” said Joe Tracy, publisher of Online Dating Magazine, a Web site on the industry.
Mr. Vest, a Vietnam veteran with a Texas accent, brushes off the criticism. “If there was a popularity contest among the entire population of the United States, I most assuredly would come out at the very bottom of that,” he said. “But you are not going to stop me by calling me names.”
True joined the crowded online dating scene in 2004. To distinguish itself from the pack, it offered a range of personality and sexuality surveys. It also hired the data broker ChoicePoint to perform background checks on customers to ensure that they had no criminal record and were not married.
The company then tried to have laws passed in several states that would require other sites to conduct background checks or disclose that they do not.
Companies like Yahoo, Google and IAC/InterActiveCorp, which owns Match.com, lobbied against the proposal through NetCoalition, an industry trade group. Markham Erickson, the group’s executive director, said background checks were ineffective, partly because felons can easily circumvent them by providing false information. “Their initial sound bite sounds great, but once you get past that, you realize it’s totally unworkable,” he said.
True has had little political success so far, but is backing bills that legislators are considering in Florida, Texas and Michigan.
Mr. Vest has used political tactics before. His first company, the financial firm H. D. Vest, helped pass legislation in nearly all 50 states that allowed certified public accountants to earn commissions on the sale of securities. Critics who said the move would influence the financial advice of accountants — and benefit H. D. Vest, which offered tax and investment guidance — were overruled.
Mr. Vest sold his company to Wells Fargo for $128 million in 2001, then gravitated to the online dating market, with the professed aim of restoring family values. “I looked at the divorce rate and said, ‘That’s a bunch of nonsense. I can do something about that,’ ” he said. He himself underwent what he called a painful divorce in 1991 and has remarried.
True.com grew too quickly in its first year and sailed into financial trouble. At the end of 2004, Mr. Vest, its primary investor, laid off 90 employees, more than half its staff.
Soon after, True became more aggressive, and sex-themed, in its advertising. While the site continued to pitch itself as a safe way to date, its ads now featured voluptuous women and slogans like “Come and get them while they’re hot.”
Newer True.com video ads depict models in their underwear, imploring men to visit True and chat with them over live Web cameras.
According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, True.com spent $52.2 million over the first 11 months of last year on Web ads, more than double the amount its rivals spent online. (EHarmony, which runs TV ads, is the offline leader with $110.1 million in spending.)
Mr. Vest said the company’s ad budget continues to expand. He said the company is profitable and has 16 million members, but he declined to say how many of them actually pay the company, and how many use the more limited free services or no longer visit the site.
Match.com and Yahoo declined to discuss True.com. But David Evans, who writes Online Dating Insider (onlinedatingpost.com), a blog about the industry, said the competition was upset with True because its ad blitz, which included text ads tied to dating-related search terms, is driving up advertising costs while harming the industry’s reputation.
“They worked hard to overcome the stigma of providing these services,” Mr. Evans said. “And True comes in, grabs the lead in page views and drives up the cost of dating keywords on the search engines for everyone else.”
The ad campaign has also brought some strenuous objections. MySpace users have started four groups on the site asking it to reject True.com ads. Mr. Vest denies that his ads are exploitive or semipornographic. “We are very conscious of our reputation,” he said. “Pornography brings perverts, and we do not want perverts on our site. On the other hand, you can state from me in bold letters that True is in favor of sex.”
The ad carpet-bombing has worked in one way: last year, True jumped to the top of several lists of the most visited personals sites. According to comScore Media Metrix, True.com’s 3.8 million visitors in February put it slightly behind Yahoo Personals and Match.com, but ahead of older rivals like eHarmony and Spark Networks, which owns JDate.com and other sites.
However, True still significantly trails those players in more important categories, like time spent on the site. That suggests that many users are either not signing up for paid memberships or are quickly dropping the service once they do.
Or at least trying to drop it. On many Web forums, online daters have shared horror stories of trying to cancel their True.com accounts. True requires members to telephone the company to cancel, but it appears to go the extra step of sometimes failing to honor those requests.
Preston Roder, a 54-year-old liquor store manager in Mundelein, Ill., said he tried to quit True.com last September after an unfruitful yearlong membership but was still hit with an array of charges over the next four months.
“True is a big company, but they could care less when you try to cancel,” said Mr. Roder. “They got your money so they are through with you.”
Mr. Vest said the company recently revised its policy on cancellations. “We are not as good as I want to be. We still have an ongoing project to improve,” he said.
The site has also been criticized for generating random “winks” — the industry term for messages of interest from other members. Dan Consiglio, a 49-year-old engineer from Vancouver, Wash., said he received dozens of winks from women after signing up for True, and responded to many of them. He got only one response, from a woman who kindly informed him that she had not, in fact, winked at him.
Mr. Vest acknowledged that the service sends artificial winks, but he said users have the option to disable them and that they serve an important purpose. “We try getting people who otherwise might be very retiring or shy to meet each other and fall in love and have children,” he said. “We are just trying to do our job as a matchmaker.”