A small red heart is taped to Amy Woodson's third-floor office window in the Old Port, one of the many that were plastered around the city on Feb. 14 by an anonymous Valentine's Day enthusiast. Woodson says she appreciated the unknown romantic's sentiment, so she grabbed one heart for herself.
A single red heart in a window seems an appropriate sign for Woodson's business. For the past 18 months, she's been running a personalized matchmaker service called Affinity, setting up dates for those who are put off by the bar scene or who don't want the exposure of having a public Internet profile. Some, even, are so VIPish that they have clauses in their job contracts forbidding them from online dating, she says.
Woodson matches her clients after checking their backgrounds and interviewing them, probing them for personal insights such as the woman they most admire and the friends they most enjoy being with.
Now, however, after working with "several hundred clients," Woodson wants to take her business to the cyber level. Today, she plans to launch an Internet dating site, offering it as a separate service for her clients, or as an auxiliary to her one-on-one work. She says she hopes the site will attract new and younger clients; right now, the majority of her customers are between 35 and 65 years old. Woodson says she will still vet all the singles on her website to ensure, as much as she can, the veracity of their profiles.
By entering the universe of online dating, Woodson joins an industry that includes about 1,500 sites and generates a steady $1 billion in annual revenue, according to experts. The industry is splintering, too, with websites targeting specific demographics, such as older singles, or focusing on geographic regions. "Niches are hot right now," says David Evans, the editor of an online dating blog called the Online Dating Insider. "A lot of sites match people based on age, sexual orientation, religion or politics."
Evans says Woodson has "her work cut out for her." Competing against the giants, such as Match, OKCupid (recently purchased by Match for $50 million), PlentyOfFish, eHarmony or the many lesser known sites, is a challenge. "It's a cutthroat market," he acknowledges.
The smallness of Maine and of Portland, however, could possibly work in Woodson's favor, because it's easier to saturate a compact market with an advertising campaign. Evans' advice for smaller online dating companies is to throw events, reach out to local media, do radio spots and other advertising.
Woodson, who has a background in marketing and operations and is originally from Dallas, says she advertises in some local media, as well as attends networking events. She uses online coupon sites such as Living Social and DealsinME, advertises on Google and markets her services at local coffee shops, health clubs and restaurants.
To differentiate her business from her competitors, Woodson says she promises a more personal, confidential, safer alternative to Internet dating sites. "Some people have tried Internet dating and found it disappointing that people aren't who they say they are."
She insists she will be a live presence behind her website. Though participants can freely contact one another at will, they can also, if they want her opinion, call her up to ask, "Can you tell me more about this guy?"
So far, Woodson says none of her clients have gotten married, but some are dating. Her fees for her personalized service include a $39 membership fee, and she sells her first three matches for $250. The online component will be separate and cost $49 a month, with a lower rate if someone signs up for six or 12 months.
While Woodson doesn't divulge her financials, Evans says revenues from successful dating sites can range from a few thousand a month to as high as $200 million a year. Match, for instance, earned about $343 million last year.
"A lot of them run their sites in their PJs," he says. "But there's a huge amount of money to be made." He adds that more than half of the 110 million singles in the United States still have not tried online dating. "It's a huge, unaddressed market," Evans says.
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