How Bumble Grows
A masterclass in building a consumer product, with concrete lessons on finding a hook, reaching & acquiring customers, and making sure you keep them.
Hi, I’m Jaryd. 👋 I write in-depth analyses on the growth of popular companies, including their early strategies, current tactics, and actionable business-building lessons we can learn from them.
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Hi, friends 👋
Today, we’re venturing into the business of online dating.
Up until October 2019 — i.e my life before moving to the United States — I’d never used a dating app. But within just a few hours of my co-founder and I landing in New York City, shortly after a crude awakening to housing in NYC as we entered our criminally overpriced (and God awful) “apartment”…we met our roommate.
TJ was this burly, larger-than-life character. Huge smile, bottle of tequila always in arms reach, and oddly into watching Pocahontas before bed (which I know because I had to listen every night through our cardboard thin walls). His cow-bell was his catch phrase, “Let’s goooo!”, and when he asked if we were on any of the apps, to which we said no, he eagerly took that opportunity to show us.
Now, TJ was wrong about a lot of things, but he got one thing right. Being on a dating app here in the city of productivity is how people meet each other. So, still jet lagged, we downloaded Hinge, Tinder, and Bumble. And shoutout to him, because on my first-ever online date, I met Julia.
We’re getting married in December.
Needless to say in a city of 8.5M, we probably wouldn’t have met without one of the apps. So, in that sense, they helped us solve one of the biggest “problems” we all encounter at some point — connection, love, and finding a life partner.
And given that (1) those are some of the main drivers of happiness, (2) the majority of people in the U.S are now meeting online, and (3) globally this will keep trending upwards as more young people opt for online dating — I’d argue that dating apps could well be one of the most important products out there. 🤔
A stretch, maybe. But all of the weddings we’re going to this year are to celebrate couples who met, you guessed it, online. And they’d (hopefully) all say meeting their partner was one of the most important events in their life.
So, this post is somewhat of an homage to dating apps. And to TJ, I guess. Wherever in the world you’re busy watching Pocahontas.
To take us on the journey through the dating market today, we’ll be studying Bumble. They’re one of the most fascinating companies in the space due to their clever counter positioning against Tinder, deep focus on the most important side of the market (women), and how they tackle the endemic churn of dating apps.
Bumble has built the most popular dating app in the U.S in terms of paying subscribers ratio, and #2 to Tinder in terms of downloads. So, besides knowing how to nail monetization, clearly Whitney Wolfe Herd (who co-founded both) knows how to grow a dating app.
Let’s see how she did it, and of course, unpacking all the actionable lessons we can learn along the way. 🛠️
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Ok, let’s start with the worst and least romantic way to think about dating.
As commerce. 🥲
The Dating Market, and The Business of Love
The unsexy truth is that today, dating is analyzed like a market.
It’s a business everybody is trying to make more efficient. People on the apps are often seen and treated like commodities who are “back on the market” when they’re single, and “off the market” when dating. The app experience often feels like it mimics online shopping in many ways, with your profile as your storefront and people scrutinizing it to see if it “checks the boxes”.
But, this is just the way the world is moving. No doubt it’s more romantic to bump into someone at a cozy New York coffee shop in December, lock eyes, and run along to have babies.
And while that can still happen… the odds are you’ll find your partner while scrolling on the toilet. 🤷♂️
With that, let’s get an overview of the (smaller than I expected) $10B global dating economy. We’ll look at the evolution of dating, the game all the dating apps are playing (as well as the one working against them), and who all the players are.
The three evolutionary stages of dating
In my favorite fashion, we’ll break up the evolution of meeting a partner into three stages:
Through mutual connections (IRL)
With AI (who said romance is dead!)
Pre 1990s 📰
Obviously, that represents a pretty big time frame. But the similarities are clear, from all the way back to the agricultural revolution up until more recently when folks could start Googling each other.
They met through friends, family, religious circles, or directly in person.
Most of the time, the people you knew were the cupids who set you up. You’d meet in real life, and hopefully hit it off because there’s only so many people in your shared circle. Otherwise you might meet at work, school, a party, or the serendipitous encounter while out.
These were the days of handwritten love letters and boomboxes.
But, the grandfather of online dating began in Feb, 1976. People across LA drove to a windowless, one-room office — the first office for Great Expectations, the soon to be national dating franchise. In a room crammed with two TVs, two chairs for interviewing, and a bunch of tapes, they trail-blazed the future of dating.
The company’s founder, a 26-year-old named Jeff Ullman, ushered members over to a video camera, where he recorded a three-minute conversation introducing each person to the world. Ullman cycled through questions like, “Do you work hard? What makes you angry? What really motivates you? What are you looking for in a man/woman?”
Then he added each videotape to the Great Expectations library and let members peruse the rest of the tapes. Appended to each was a one-page résumé outlining the person’s height, location, job, and so on, so that members could filter out candidates before popping in a tape.
This was video dating. 👇
Then, in the 90s, the option pool for who you could meet started to get a lot bigger.
The 1990s - Present 📱
For starters, video dating moved online with the adoption of the internet. This meant you didn’t need to physically get your hands on a bunch of VCR tapes and manually go through them. Now, those all lived online and you could easily make your way through a lot more people.
We then saw the first online dating sites launch, with Kiss.com in ‘94, and Match.com in ‘95. Match offered profiles, a database to find matches, and they also introduced the subscription-based model to dating. In other words, they set the status quo for every other dating app that followed.
Today, the Match Group is an all encompassing behemoth in the dating space, owning a substantial number of the dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, Match.com, OkCupid, and Plenty of Fish. They even attempted to buy Bumble multiple times.
Of course, the opportunity quickly became clear and more online sites spun up, each trying to appeal to a different niche of people. If they were lucky, Match acquired them.
Then along came the iPhone. Suddenly, you could find matches on the couch, the train, or under the table during a boring presentation. The adoption of online dating skyrocketed.
And in the pursuit of quicker, cheaper, hook ups and maximum dating efficiency, this is where we are today. Human innovation, right. 🙃
But, as Tim Berners-Lee (the computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web, as well as research fellow at Oxford and professor at MIT) famously said:
Legend has it that every new technology is first used for something related to sex or pornography. That seems to be the way of humankind.
Well, 2023 has ushered in a tidal wave of AI innovation…
Need I say more?
Any minute now - onwards 🤖
I don’t want to freak you out just yet, so let’s hold off on this up-and-coming, super controversial phase of dating until the end.
So, staying in the safe lane of phase 2 (strangers online). With countless online dating services all working to attract the same people, single men and women, let’s look at game they’re playing against each other.
The game, and the players
The market for dating apps is super saturated. What’s more, most people use more than one app at a time, because why wouldn’t you? This makes dating apps a commodity business.
And being a commodity creates a tricky dynamic for companies. As Mario Gabriele from The Generalist says:
[Dating apps] want to monopolize your attention and dollars — but the reality is that there are virtually no costs to trying a new app. [They] have some network effects (there is value in having a large selection), but there's no switching cost, unlike other social apps. Whereas leaving Facebook or Instagram means leaving your friends behind, you want to avoid those you know with dating apps.
Much like if your go-to toilet paper gets too expensive, you can just use another brand without a care in the world. This is the fierce competition when playing a commodity-based game.
So, how are the different apps trying to win?
Niche, and building quality supply in that niche, is the game. Each app aims to appeal to a certain type of person, focuses their positioning around it, and then builds up enough people for there to be diversity and optionality. Below is a list of the players, and their unique selling point.
Once they have enough supply, it’s about making good matches happen as fast as possible, as well as designing a product around ensuring connections at least lead to conversations. Because, a new message is the magic moment, and the apps that generate more conversations are the ones people will talk about (a key growth driver for these apps).
That’s how to steal market share in the dating market. It’s basically a game of unbundling broad dating sites designed to appeal to the masses, like Match.com, and carving out verticals that allow you to be much more targeted.
But, while everyone is playing this game, another force works against all of them.
Your own worst enemy?
A dating app’s goal, theoretically, is to get you off it and keep you off it forever.
The better they do their job at matching, the sooner you don’t need them anymore.
This creates a situation of endemic churn, and somewhat of a conflict of interest as a company very much in the business of making money from you through premium subscriptions.
Each new feature they build to make finding a better match easier will (1) win over new customers, and (2) lead some customers to find success and bounce. This makes it very hard to measure real churn.
Hinge leans into this seemingly unavoidable issue with some brilliant marketing, making their whole shtick around being “The dating app designed to be deleted”.
But, Bumble are doing something even smarter. While the other sites largely accept they can’t do much about this churn (besides witty marketing), they’re busy figuring out how to avoid it. 💡
The Beginning of Bumble
Kindling, and building an enemy fire 🔥
The story of Bumble begins in Hatch Labs (a startup incubator powered by IAC) with Sean Rad, Justin Mateen, Chris Gulczynski, Whitney Wolfe Herd, and a credit card loyalty business.
After Cardify ran into issues with the App Store, the four of them shifted their focus to a totally new area — online dating.
The idea, which stemmed from an earlier hackathon, was to build an on-the-go "flirting game" designed to solve the problem of “fear of rejection” inherent in the other dating apps.
Initially called MatchBox, it was pitched (with this deck) to be the first to leverage mobile phones, use FB as the only sign up option (skipping long questionnaires), localize potential matches, and require double opt-ins for a match. No swiping just yet.
Whitney’s backgrounds was in sales and marketing, and she led their genius grassroots marketing push into college campuses. This instrumentally changed how the younger generation viewed the then-stigmatized online dating scene — paving the way for a myriad of other online dating apps like Hinge.
Carving out a niche of young students, campus by campus, dating (and hooking up) online was the hot new thing all the cool kids were doing.
In 2012, MatchBox was renamed.
Curveball………to Tinder. 🔥
And for 2 more years, Whitney helped grow Tinder into what’s now the most popular dating app on the planet, seeing the introduction of the classic “swipe” nestle it’s way into dating culture.
Until in 2014, she left due to issues with sexual harassment and discrimination. Eventually filing a lawsuit against them which was settled for a reported $1M payout and Tinder stock.
But it didn’t take her long at all to get revenge.
Building her own hive 🐝
Just 8 months after leaving Tinder, Whitney’s new dating app, Bumble, went live.
Rightly pissed off with how things went down at Tinder, she set out to build her own company with a focus on empowering women in the dating world. Her goal was to create a platform that would give women more agency and power in their dating lives, prioritize women's safety and comfort, and go against the hook-up culture of Tinder. As she recalls:
When I founded Bumble, it was because I saw a problem I wanted to help solve. It was 2014, but so many of the smart, wonderful women in my life were still waiting around for men to ask them out, to take their numbers, or to start up a conversation on a dating app. For all the advances women had been making in workplaces and corridors of power, the gender dynamics of dating and romance still seemed so outdated. I thought, what if I could flip that on its head? What if women made the first move, and sent the first message?
And while building Bumble during the Summer/Fall of 2014, the lawsuit she had filed against Tinder was generating her significant attention. As stressful and upsetting as I’m sure this was, she was able to capitalize on this recognition as she pushed the women-first narrative in the dating space.
When they launched in December ‘14, Bumble went to market with their key differentiator: men can’t message women they are matched with; women must initiate the conversation.
This focus was revolutionary, and still almost 10 years later, has not been copied by anybody else.
Why was this so smart?
For starters, and this shouldn't shock you one bit, heterosexual dating is full of gender imbalances. Tinder’s use base is 75% male, and on all the apps it’s usually women getting swamped with messages from guys who just blast out one-lines that mostly go unread. This asymmetry isn’t great for the user experience on either side, and often leads to frustrated men bombarding matches with more (often rude) messages and unwanted pictures of their friend Richard.
According to a study by Business Insider:
An average man who sends 18 messages to women his own age can be 50% certain he'll receive at least one response. For women, they need to send only 5 messages to be 50% certain they'll get a response.
And this chart plots out the response rate of messages for heterosexual matches.
Not exactly Pulitzer Prize winning findings here, but an important visualization to show how much more selective women are, and also understand the strategic value in Bumble’s go-to-market focus.
By putting women in the drivers seat and removing the question, “who should message first?”, their product hook solves a brand, supply, user, and an experience problem:
Brand: It minimizes the risky dynamic of gender imbalances noted above, doing away with a lot of the toxicity that plagues online dating. This is great counter positioning to Tinder, and made for excellent earned media attention.
Supply: Women love this pitch, making it the most appealing app for women to use. And this is the hardest and most important side of a dating app to build. That’s how Bumble has 40% of their user base identifying as woman - much higher than average.
User: When a women sends the first message, there’s a 250% higher chance in it ending up in a date. This added signal is particularly helpful here, because the swipe is low-cost, and doesn't carry strong intentions (as we saw with the Tinda Finger). So, when a convo is started, it’s a sign the women was serious about the swipe.
Experience: There’s no more stalemate around who should initiate the convo. This minimizes women getting bombarded with messages, and avoids male frustration of not getting a reply.
As Whitney described a few months after launch:
If you look at where we are in the current heteronormative rules surrounding dating, the unwritten rule puts the woman a peg under the man—the man feels the pressure to go first in a conversation, and the woman feels pressure to sit on her hands... If we can take some of the pressure off the man and put some of that encouragement in the woman's lap, I think we are taking a step in the right direction, especially in terms of really being true to feminism. I think we are the first feminist, or first attempt at a feminist dating app.
And this hook worked really, really well. Whitney’s new baby quickly shot up the dating app charts, raking in 1M users in their first year. A year later, they had 8M users. Bumble has also always wanted to go beyond just dating, and have expanded into also helping people find platonic friendships and network. This has put them on a path to becoming a preeminent global women’s brand, which Match Group (who owns Tinder) tried to acquire in 2017 for $450M.
Whitney said no, and in 2021, she took Bumble public — making her the youngest woman to take a tech unicorn to an IPO.
Revenge is a dish best served cold. 👏
The takeaway 🛠️ Once you have your unique insight into the market [online dating is harder for women], and your specific target audience [women on college campuses], you need to find your hook that will get their attention [women-first matching]. Your hook/pitch should help people understand why they should they pick your product over another. In the words of Seth Godin, "Competition is so fierce that you have to create something remarkable in order to succeed. Something remarkable is worth talking about. Worth noticing. Exceptional. New. Interesting. The opposite of remarkable is very good." > For further reading on crafting your pitch
Now let’s take a look at how they hit those impressive user milestones, and continue to win market share today.
How Bumble Grows
We’ll break up our growth analysis here into 3 parts.
And because Bumble….bee 🐝….I’d regret not using a corny analogy about beehives. I know I shouldn’t, but it’s an itch I must scratch. So, here’s how we’ll do it:
How they bring people into the Hive: The 6 main ways that Bumble reach and acquire new users
How they keep people in the Hive: Bumble’s unique counter-move to endemic churn and building retention
How they expand into new Hives: The Ansoff Matrix, and how they scale with new market development
And at the end, we’ll circle back to that third evolutionary stage of dating and look at How the Hive might change with the applications of AI.
Bringing customers into the Hive — a B2C acquisition toolkit
Going back for a sec to how dating apps win in a crowded space:
Niche, an building quality supply in that niche, is the game. Each app aims to appeal to a certain type of person, focuses their positioning around it, and then works to build up enough people for there to be diversity and optionality.
Now, we know Bumble’s niche is “the dating app for women”, and we know why this hook from a GTM perspective is so valuable. Once women are using the app, the men naturally follow.
So, let’s talk distribution — the tricky part for B2C when you need a lots of users.
Investigating all things Bumble, it looks like Whitney and the team have done a bunch of different things to build up supply:
Meeting their target audience where they hang out (colleges) - from Day 0, adjusted over time to an ambassador program.
Getting press - from Day 0, onwards
Reaching targeted strangers through socials, UGC, and paid - from Day 0, onwards
Hosting/sponsoring events and getting physical placement - from 2015, onwards
Leveraging ambassadors - from 2016, onwards
Partnerships, experiential marketing, and showing up in unexpected places from 2016, onwards
Let’s unpack each one. If you’re working on a consumer product, these are all great tactics to think about in terms about reaching and acquiring early customers, through to long-term growth.
1. Meeting their target audience where they hang out (colleges)
The single most popular [over 50% of consumer businesses], effective, and highest-ROI strategy for finding your first 1,000 users is to find an existing gathering spot for your super-specific who (this is why it’s important to be very clear and focused about who these people are) and get in front of them there to pitch them. This can include niche online forums, events, transit hubs, Hacker News, Product Hunt, college campuses, malls, or even an REI.
Ideal for: Most products, if a community or meeting point exists
Key: Provide real value to people (vs. just spamming your pitch)
Takeaway question: What are 1-2 places where your super-specific who already gather?
— Lenny Rachitsky, How to kickstart and scale a consumer business—Step 4: Find your early adopters by doing things that don’t scale
And after seeing how effective her grassroots marketing on college campuses was for Tinder, Whitney replicated the same thing this time around. As she recalls on NPR.
I kind of had a little bit of a playbook [from Tinder’s launch]. I had maybe done it once before. I went right back to SMU, this time decked out in yellow. And I went back into all those sororities and I spoke from the heart. Listen, I have lived through the pain points of male-dominated relationships. I have felt it. I know what it feels like. And guess what? Every other woman in that sorority house, chances are she’s felt it too. I’m speaking from the heart, and I’m speaking to them about how they can be empowered and they make the first move and they go after what they want.
And me and my early team members—the girls are at my office right now; they’re still with us—we went in there, and we took pizza boxes with stickers on it and offered a piece of pizza to the fraternity boys that would get on [the app]. We wrapped cookies in Bumble stickers. We took all sorts of goodies and we kind of growth-hacked our way to success.
In the very early days, before product-market-fit, this push on campuses was led by Whitney and the core Bumble team. This was important because it allowed them to test their product and get direct feedback on their beta before jumping into a wider, more planned ambassador launch —which today, is how they drive their efforts on campuses.
2. Getting press
PR can bring a really nice boost to your growth. And the best part — once you get some decent press, other outlets are more likely to cover you; “Oh, the Times covered them?! We should too!”. And the benefits of PR go beyond just brand visibility and user acquisition. It also helps with interest from investors, partners, and talent.
Whitney had a great story, attention already from Tinder and the trial, and Bumble’s hook was certainly an interesting and novel one. All ingredients that make press a solid growth strategy to peruse.
In short pace Bumble was being covered by publications with plenty of eyeballs, namely: TechCrunch, Washington Post, Business Insider, Vanity Fair, The Guardian, NYT, and others.
So, bringing this to the practical, what steps can you take to get press?
Create and submit a press release. First, try and find a newsworthy event and/or the angle to pitch. If you're literally just starting up, you could pitch a piece about your launch and why you’re different. Otherwise, things like funding rounds or big milestones can be a hook. You can then use platforms like PR Web or PR Newswire to submit your press release to thousands of potential news platforms at once. The downside is you miss the opportunity to personalize any outreach.
Reach out to individual journalists. Instead of blasting your release out, you try build a relationship with one journalist. Maybe you have a mutual in, or based on their work you think there’s an excellent fit. Great for in-depth pieces or interviews.
Do something controversial. Running a more edgy campaign that grabs attention and gets people talking can be great for earned media. Obviously, don’t blow up your brand, but there’s a sweet spot that veers on risqué.
‘Newsjack' existing stories. AKA, find something culturally relevant and insert yourself into the conversation.
The power of one-to-many broadcasts you get from press is great for quick/meaningful boosts in traffic. But PR isn’t a year-round thing. A slower game (one you have more control over) that pays more regular dividends is investing in social media.
3. Reaching targeted strangers through socials, UGC, and paid
As a consumer business, social media is an important channel to invest time building up.
Because there’s just a handful of ways people discover new products, and for B2C, while browsing online and seeing a promotion (or organically) is a big one. And where do people spend most of their time scrolling?
Yup, Instagram and TikTok.
So, making sure your brand is discoverable where customers are spending a lot of their time is essential. Especially when considering 40% of Gen Z are now using TikTok and Instagram as their primary search engine. 👀
And Bumble knew this. From the get-go they focused on posting fun, shareable, and relatable dating experience content like screenshots of in-app convos and terrible/great openers. Their consistent brand voice was light-hearted, funny, and feminist — helping target their niche audience of women.
They also regularly throw some fuel onto the fire with paid campaigns (including ads and influencer partnerships) to boost their reach to the right people.
Then there’s how Bumble tapped into UGC, which brought them a ton of benefits, like:
Increasing their authenticity and credibility (people trust people like them)
Helping to build an engaged community around Bumble
Opening up a source of fresh, relatable, perspective and ideas
Helping to generate buzz and increase brand awareness (sharing/word of mouth)
Improving conversions from social content (UGC is ~4X better than traditional brand content)
Creating a cheaper and more scalable source of content
Just look at their TikTok — it’s all UGC. Also, notice the gender distribution.
Last thing to call out here, which while I really like, is not cheap or predictable.
Introducing high quality brand videos once they had some traction.
UGC makes up the bulk of Bumble’s content, but every now and then they invest some big bucks in commercials with big faces. Like this one, which they made during the pandemic.
Or, going all out, this SuperBowl ad featuring Serena Williams that certainly gets attention and drives home the core narrative of Bumble’s difference.
Videos or ad campaigns that go viral can be excellent turbo boosts for growth, and they don’t always have to be big-budget productions. Dollar Shave Club’s ad cost just $4,500 — and while many have tried to copy it without success, it highlights an important point in viral videos. They’re super hard to plan for. But, by telling a timely, authentic, and culturally relevant story, you definitely increase your surface area for luck.
For more tactical advice on how to go viral, check this out.
4. Hosting/sponsoring events and getting physical placement
In the early days, to help court more students on campuses, Bumble would partner with frats and sororities throwing parties. This opened up an opportunity to get stickers, flyers, and Bumble gear (like beer cups) in front of people. Not just where they were hanging out either, but where they’re also very likely thinking about dating/hooking up. Once they had more capital, they also started sponsoring popular music festivals, and even offering safe rides for student to get around campus.
The perfect time, place, and context to drive their pitch home to the right people.
And most recently, they launched Bumble IRL, their series of exclusive, in-person events for their community.
Each city will have its own special offerings, from free concert tickets and singles-only indoor cycling classes to food-focused happy hours, volunteering experiences, and much, much more. These local events will be where you can meet cool people in your city who are into the same things you are, whether that’s spin class, sipping cocktails, or serving your community.
The takeaway 🛠️ There are smaller events happening all the time where your customers may well be heading, and they most likely wouldn’t say no to some free beer/wine. A small budget with some creative marketing can open you up to more conversations with potential customers and give you a chance to squeeze some branding in there. Like we saw with Atlassian, this kind of stunt marketing to the right communities can work for both B2C and B2B.
5. Leveraging ambassador
In 2016, Bumble launched their ambassador program, Bumble Honey.
Focused on building an extensive network of (predominantly) women who are in college, here’s how they pitch the opportunity to ambassadors:
The Honey Ambassador Program gives you the unique opportunity to expand your network and gain real-world marketing and project management experience. You’ll bring Bumble into your community by planning events, creating content, distributing branded merch, partnering with local businesses, executing engaging stunts, and working with different student organizations. You’ll also work with Bumble HQ employees on local and national campaigns to bring awareness to the Bumble brand and mission.
It’s also a paid program, compensating ambassadors in cash, gift cards, flight vouchers, and festival tickets. So, all in, an attractive opportunity for students looking to afford their next weekend, network, and gain some resume points while they’re at it.
And as Jacob Westphal (consumer partner at a16z) says:
Ambassador programs are an excellent way to use a college campus to kickstart network effects within a group of like-minded target users with potentially lower costs than other strategies like digital advertising. Indeed, college campuses are natural environments for developing, testing, and growing consumer products.
A college ambassador program is ultimately, though, a user acquisition strategy that takes advantage of this consumer behavior petri dish. Brand activation strategies used by these ambassadors can catalyze word of mouth (WOM) sharing on campus, leading the product to find its users. Other benefits of college ambassador programs include brand exposure (an ambassador’s core objective is to show off the brand to their peers through both digital and physical activations) and lowering customer acquisition costs (CAC) over the long run.
[But], a critical point to recognize is that if you don’t yet have product-market fit within your target demographic (especially if it’s college-age students), an ambassador program is not likely to drive retention and long-term usage. Instead, it is more likely to drive a lot of initial new users who then churn out of the product because it doesn’t yet meet their needs – burning through a lot of your core audience and making it harder to win them over later.
There is no marketing strategy that will fix a product that its core audience won’t use! Instead, leverage a smaller, tight group of college students in different micro groups to test your product and give you insightful feedback on your beta before jumping into a wider, more planned ambassador launch.
This is how Bumble have managed to keep a strong brand presence in their most important customer hot spots, generate buzz, and consistently acquire the right customers for a low CAC.
6. Partnerships, showing up in unexpected places, and experiential marketing
Lastly in terms of our breakdown on Bumble’s acquisition channels, here are two of the less common things (from a B2C perspective) that they’re doing to get new users (as well as keep them).
Both are all excellent examples of creative marketing that get people seeing and talking about your product — including the press. And while harder to measure the impact of these campaigns in terms of app downloads, brand awareness is particularly important when you’re a commodity.
Because, even if people already use Bumble, making sure they see yellow more than they see red is how to ensure they open Bumble on the train…not Tinder.
Partnering with other brands and cross-promoting in unusual ways
Partnering with fashion and beauty brands, like Glossy, to offer exclusive promotions and discounts.
Partnering with fitness and wellness brands to promote Bumble's values of health and self-care, and drive IRL date activities.
Partnering with travel and adventure brands, like Airbnb, to offer unique experiences or trips for Bumble users (like virtual dates during Covid).
Partnering with food and lifestyle brands, like OpenTable, to launch local guides for date spots.
Partnering with entertainment brands, like Netflix and Apple TV, to facilitate interactive conversations and games between people about their favorite shows and films (including a big push during the hype of Stranger Things and Ted Lasso).
Partnering with music apps, like Spotify, to enable swiping based on someone’s favorite music.
Working with non-profit organizations and social causes to promote activism and community involvement through Bumble.
Partnering with BABE movers for a campaign for those relationships that just didn’t work out.👇
Bumble’ partnership playbook is clear. First they identify the things their customers love. Then they pick brands with great distribution advantages in those markets, find a relevant way to collaborate with them that adds value to both of their audiences, and then cross-promote each other. Both user bases win, so, both brands win.
And the way these collaborations are brought to customers help the Bumble brand gain visibility in all sorts of physical and online places that customers wouldn’t expect. Like on the side of that moving truck, or this city bench partnership:
Which leads us to…
Experiential marketing with the Bumble Hive
First, what’s experimental marketing (XM)?
Simply, it’s marketing that interacts with people (usually live) and delivers a real brand-to-customer experience. And there’s plenty of benefits for why brands use it:
XM is B2C networking. Live events are the ideal B2C answer to “networking” in-person and getting in front of your prospective customer base beyond smaller user groups.
XM offers direct interaction and feedback. Getting in front of your customer base also puts them in front of you. This opens up face-to-face interactions which are more organic than user interviews.
XM lets you “show, don’t tell”. Live events allow you to put your product directly in front of consumers early on without needing to hard sell it. This gives them a chance to try it, and share immediate feedback.
XM creates memorable experiences. For startups who are still crafting their brand identity, engaging and entertaining live events where users have a chance to literally immerse themselves in a new brand can be a powerful way to build that up.
XM gets people talking. Because people are having experiences, they are much more likely to tell others about it. It creates a sense of brand loyalty, and helps drive word of mouth growth.
Many of Bumble’s partnerships are experiential — like their trivia game with Netflix. But their most unique example of doing something unique here is with their Bumble Hive initiative.
With Bumble Hive, they actually launch physical (very yellow) spaces all around the world with the goal of in-real-life (IRL) connections. They look something like this:
With spots all over the US, they’ve basically launched a series of experiential destinations where Bumble reps can organize events for the community. Each Hive is kitted with Bumble merch, bars, branding, and all the infrastructure needed to organize parties and networking events.
This type of immersive marketing opens up a really nice path to engage with their audience make them feel valued, and it got them plenty of press for being the first dating app to transition from an online service to a brick-and-mortar location.
The takeaway 🛠️ Think bigger about how to reach your customers in original ways. So many channels are full of noise, but when you do something none of your competitors are doing, you help your brand stand out.
And as we start to look at how Bumble is retaining their users, you’ll see how this space fits into their broader strategy of becoming a place to connect beyond dating.
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Protecting the Hive against endemic churn
People will leave a dating app for one of two reasons.
The app doesn’t do a good enough job at creating matches (i.e low supply, missing features)
The app does a great job at finding the perfect match (i.e lots of supply, the right features)
Let’s start off by looking at how Bumble makes sure nobody leaves because of #1.
1. Going deep on dating
The first product strategy at Bumble is to go deep on their core Job To Be Done — helping people go on dates and find a partner. Going deep is essentially putting more wood behind fewer arrows. It’s when you prioritize being an excellent solution to the core problem instead of being a good solution to many problems. When we looked at Stripe a few months ago, we saw how effective this strategy of laser-focused development was in making them the best-in-class payments company.
To go deep on a problem, you need to have a excellent understanding of who your customers are, their goals/motivations, and all the pain points and areas of friction they experience around solving their JTDB. Once you know what all those surrounding hurdles are, you can shape your product to solve the problem better than anyone else — and it’s the remarkable products that win.
So, Bumble spends a lot of time figuring out what people are worried about in the world of online dating. They dig into the data around what leads to matches (and what doesn’t). They hone in what people don’t like about the other apps (and what they do), and stay keenly tuned in to trends and shifting behaviors by speaking to users.
This helps them continuously roll out new features/improvements that beef up their Date product, several of which live behind a paywall. And they test which features should be free vs premium, helping them find the most efficient paid membership feature-mix. Combine that with testing the different upsell pathways; that’s probably why they have the best free→paid conversion rate in the dating market.
In an excellent piece on growth inflection points, Lenny figured out that the majority of successful products we know found their growth inflections came from product improvements. This is good news for us PMs. 👍
Though Andrew Chen popularized the Next Feature Fallacy —the mistaken belief that the next new feature will suddenly make people use your product—interestingly, the most common source of growth unlock appears to be adding that one additional feature. This doesn’t mean that you are one feature away from 🚀, but it does tell me that a better product experience is often at the heart of unlocking growth.
So, here’s a quick rundown of Bumble’s product improvements that have helped them drive growth.
The introduction of video and voice chat to enhance conversations and drive engagement (solving for more authentic connections and de-risking scams)
Adding a 24-hour match expiration period, encouraging users to make connections quickly and reducing the number of inactive profiles on the app (creating a more engaged supply)
Adding some AI-powered features, like SmartSwipe and SuperSwipe — improving the app's matching algorithm (faster time to value)
Adding virtual dating features while everyone was locked away at home during the pandemic (responding to changing needs)
The rollout of new safety features, like photo verification and the Private Detector (increasing trust and safety)
Adding enhanced discovery features, like Spotlight, to help people get more views (faster time to value)
Rolling out advanced filters to help people curate who appears in their feed (faster time to value)
Adding a travel mode, allowing people to find matches in cities they’re visiting
And once you’ve gone at least deep enough on a problem, you can start sending arrows in other directions. Just like how Bumble did with BFF and Biz. 👇
2. Locking people in by going beyond dating
I’m a perfect example of the problem all dating apps face.
I signed up, subscribed to premium, quickly met Julia, and then cancelled my memberships. That’s two users gone because they did their job well.
A tough predicament for people in the business of love. Once they’ve solved the problem people jumped on their app for, there’s no reason for them to stay.
So, dating apps have a pretty simple formula for net growth: sign new users up faster than existing ones leave.
Now, we’ve seen how Bumble drives user acquisition. But, unlike Hinge who are “the dating app designed to be deleted” and doesn’t do anything about slowing down this kind of churn — Whitney says screw that…people should have a reason to stay.
And she’s doing that by making Bumble for more than dating. This is strategically valuable for two reasons:
It expands their user base and addressable marketing. Now, people in couples who don’t need a dating app have a reason to download Bumble. This is where networking events with influential female speakers at those Bumble Hives comes in.
It solves for some of the endemic churn in dating. Instead of leaving after finding a partner, people can switch to the other modes instead of deleting the app.
Today, Bumble has three products inside one app:
Bumble Date — the core dating app
Bumble BFF (2016) — a mode focused on helping people make platonic friendships.
Bumble Bizz (2017) — a mode focused on professional networking
These three modes makes Bumble a more comprehensive social networking platform, and gesture towards their more expansive vision of being a "preeminent global women's brand." As Whitney says:
Over time we will help our community not only build but strengthen and nurture their relationships: through break-ups, engagements and weddings, fertility and parenthood, first job, career promotions and retirement, menopause, empty nesting, grief, and new beginnings.
And while they’ve continued to go deep on Date, they’ve also (1) invested in strengthening BFF’s social network game with a bunch of community/group features, and (2) launched Bumble Fund, an investment arm that invests in female founders.
A dating app dishing out venture capital checks? What gives?
Creating a carrot for Bumble Bizz
We’re aiming to build a bigger table in the world of venture capital, investing early-stage and focusing primarily on businesses founded and led by women of color and those from underrepresented groups. We’re committed to ending bias in venture capital and beyond, and invite women entrepreneurs to download Bumble Bizz and stay tuned for the opportunity to pitch.
That last part perfectly captures the real strategic value in creating a fund, simply:
Open a fund that invests in women founders (pushes the Bumble narrative and mission)
Link access to that fund inside their networking app (more usage of Bizz)
In other words, “if you want a shot at investment and our investment resources (i.e community, access to experts, how-to guides) — you better be on Bumble Bizz!”
So, Bumble BFF and Bumble Bizz have extended the core offering of Bumble Date, in theory creating a path for users to stay in the ecosystem instead of leaving it. A fantastic idea to widen their customer base and seal up the hole in the bottom of the Bumble bucket.
But, the real question now. How well does it work? 🤔
While I couldn’t find exact usage numbers of Bizz and BFF, seemingly each has a few million active users. Compared to the ~50M users on Bumble Date, we can optimistically assume around a 15% conversion for each. It’s unclear how many of those users are also active users on Bumble Date — an important stat to know when we’re trying to see how effective these sub modes are at keeping users who would otherwise have left. Also, Bumble hasn’t hasn't monetized BFF yet — only having vaguely hinted at ads, virtual goods, and cryptocurrency payments for the platform in the future.
But, at best, these modes are providing value to a lot of people in the Bumble community, and it’s a step in combatting the endemic churn of dating apps — just not from a revenue perspective yet.
The takeaway 🛠️ Users will churn from your product for a bunch of reasons — your job is to find out all of them and patch up the holes as best you can. Sometimes this means going deep on one problem, in other cases, it means solving different problems in the user's life. Growth with a leaky bucket is unsustainable. The importance of understanding and solving for churn before ramping up acquisition can’t be overstated.
And the last pillar of their growth we’ll look at today…
Pushing into new Hives
Pretty much every product that grows eventually reaches a point where there’s not much pie left to eat in the current market. It’s called market saturation.
The logical next step…go find some new pie.
A helpful way to think about this is with the Ansoff Matrix — a market expansion framework that breaks down the relationship between a product, the target market, and the riskiness of that combination.
Market Penetration = further selling an existing product into an existing market.
i.e Uber getting more riders and drivers in LA
Market Development = introducing an existing product into a new market
i.e Uber launching ridesharing in NYC (geographic expansion)
Product Development = introducing a new product into an existing market
i.e Uber launching Uber Black (category expansion)
Diversification = introducing a new product to a new market
i.e Uber launching Uber Eats
We just looked at how Bumble grows with product development/category expansion. So, let’s see how they’re pushing into new geographies.
Bumble’s geographic expansion playbook 🗺️
Jumping straight to the actionable stuff. This how Bumble is driving growth outside of the U.S into 150 countries:
Analyzing local dating culture and customs in the new regions
Adapting the app to fit the needs and preferences of different demographics
Partnering with local influencers and businesses to promote the app in new regions
Offering language support for users in new regions
Conducting market research to understand the local competition and user behavior
Launching targeted advertising campaigns to reach specific demographics in new regions
Hiring local staff to provide customer support and improve user experience
Establishing partnerships with local organizations to host events and meetups for singles in new regions
A case in point, by Gaurav Arora from WebEngage:
When Bumble entered India, it aimed to counter the old-fashioned judgement accompanying women's pursuit of independence.
With this, Bumble launched a movement called #EqualNotLoose
#EqualNotLoose aimed at encouraging Indian women to feel liberated from societal judgements.
To widen the reach, Bumble roped in Priyanka Chopra Jonas [an Indian actress] for the launch. The movement received an overwhelming response from women across the country.
Simultaneously, Bumble released newspaper ads asking women to fill in the blank with a description of themselves
" ______ not loose"
This opened up another avenue of conversations with influencers jumping onto the movement & sharing their description of
"____ not loose"
The takeaway 🛠️ Once you’ve grown nicely in your core bread-and-butter market, you can push into new markets by rolling out new adjacent categories (very common with marketplaces), launching in new cities/countries, or making bigger bets through diversification. Just remember, selling the same product in different places requires localization.
And to close us out today…let’s opine (briefly) on phase 3 in the evolution of dating, just for the fun of it. If you’re not interested—because there’s nothing actionable here besides maybe a conversation starter—I’ll wish you farewell today. If you enjoyed this piece so far and learnt anything new, I’d love it if you shared How They Grow. 🙏
Still with me?
Put your boots on and tighten the laces. We’re venturing into a world of weirdness you might want to run from. 🥰 🤖
How the Hive might change
AI can, and likely will, change most things in our lives.
I’ll repeat what Tim Berners-Lee famously said:
Legend has it that every new technology is first used for something related to sex or pornography. That seems to be the way of humankind.
History has a great track record of repeating itself…so I think it’s a safe bet to say AI is going to become a part of dating. From new AI-first dating products (where we’re already seeing entrants), to the existing apps weaving in more AI-powered features.
Is that a good thing? I guess that depends (1) where on the spectrum you sit between romance and efficiency, and (2) how far we’re talking AI will go here.
Let’s take the first part. The idea of AI predicting chemistry and helping with conversations at first glance is alarming, and seemingly like the end of realness and romance in dating. But, when you think about how we already trust AI with so much (entertainment recommendations, flying a plane, directions), it’s not that far-fetched to think we’ll seek the same efficiencies when it comes to finding love. Most people would rather be doing other things—like going on actual dates—than swiping through profiles, finding bad matches, and dealing with ghosting.
If AI promised to help you find the best potential matches much faster, and interact with those people better, with the goal of less swiping and more dating — what’s so bad with that?
People by themselves have clearly demonstrated we don’t need any help being offensive in online dating conversations (specifically, to women) — so, maybe a well-trained AI-coach can help nudge those folks towards better conversations.
So, with match-making efficiency and AI-assistance in mind, let’s look at what almost definitely will make it’s way into dating apps like Bumble, et al.
AI applications in dating
Since I am no expert on AI, I (in now cliche-fashion) asked AI how it might affect the future of online dating. Here’s what GPT-4 said (with some tweaks):
Improved matching algorithms to “predict chemistry”: AI will make its way into more sophisticated matching algorithms that take into account a wider range of factors beyond user-provided data. People often don’t know what they want, but better machine-learning could tailor your matches to your actions, rather than your stated desires.
Virtual dating experiences: As VR technology improves, AI could be used to create more immersive and realistic virtual dating experiences. This could include things like realistic avatars, simulated environments, and more interactive communication tools.
Automated messaging: AI could be used to automate some of the messaging and communication on dating apps, allowing users to more easily and efficiently connect with matches. This could include things like automated icebreakers, suggested conversation topics, and even chatbots that can carry on basic conversations.
Real-time feedback, analysis, and coaching: AI could be used to analyze user behavior and provide real-time feedback and analysis on things like conversation quality, likelihood of a match, and overall success rate. It could also help people make better profiles, and generally just improve their dating skill.
Better fraud detection and safety: AI could be used to detect fraudulent or malicious behavior on dating apps, such as fake profiles, scam artists, or abusive users. This could help improve user safety and prevent negative experiences.
Voice and facial recognition: AI could be used to enable more advanced voice and facial recognition on dating apps, allowing users to more easily verify matches and ensure that they are who they claim to be. This could help reduce the risk of catfishing or other types of fraud.
In short, this would be like a CupidGPT— a hypothetical dating assistant designed to make dating better—and duller. Clearly possible, and some of the dating apps are already making this happen:
Loveflutter, a UK dating app, has AI that matches people based on personality traits it decodes from their tweets. It also plans to use AI to coach users through meeting offline after analyzing their chats. Going further into the coaching arena, Match launched Lara last year. The digital personal assistant is activated by Google Home and suggests a daily match as well as dating tips and activities. Then there's Badoo's creepy Lookalike feature, which uses facial recognition to match you with people who look like your favorite celebrity.
Beyond all that is AIMM, a voice-activated dating app which launched last year and has 1,000 users in Denver (it's planning to expand throughout the U.S. in coming months). An AI matchmaker, which sounds like Siri, asks you questions for a week before sending you matches. Along with those suggestions come personalized photo tours and audio snippets of your match describing their perfect date or telling an embarrassing story from childhood. There's no tapping or swiping. Once both you and your match have agreed to chat, AIMM will set up a phone call, and you decide from there if you want to meet offline.
AIMM will throw in a joke now and then as it talks to you, too, said Kevin Teman, AIMM's creator. It can also pick up on your values through subtle conversations. For example, if someone talks a lot about money, AIMM could infer that money is important to them.
And it’s not just Loveflutter and AIMM — there’s an AI in dating landscape already.
My view so far? I’m Switzerland for the most part.
But then there’s Black Mirror territory (which…is happening already), like:
Gene matchmaking. I know…but there’s already companies like Pheramor, DNA Romance, and Instant Chemistry who all analyze users' DNA to make matches. The gene-matching evangelists propose that certain genes connected to your immune system, known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), govern who you're attracted to. Way too suspect for my liking. Still, eHarmony expects a bunch of lab-made romances by 2025. 🤦
People just outright dating AI. Apps like Replika (a YC backed company) already have AI chatbots designed to offer romantic companionship to users. On the market since 2016 (and only getting much better) they allow users to create avatars for chat, video calls, and even AR experiences. Could this eat away at traditional dating to some degree? Don’t think it’s possible? Many users already have feelings for their AI companion, and people have certainly married stranger, less interactive, things.
And on that eerie note, let’s call it a day.
As always, thanks so much for reading and supporting my writing. 🙏 If you enjoyed this post and learnt anything new, feel free to hit the like button below, tell a friend about it, and subscribe for more if you have’t already.
Until next time.
— Jaryd ✌️
Really cool story, will use some of their tactics for our audio dating app called TalkNow
Really nice playbook for kickstarting and scaling a consumer app! Thanks for this cool story