Small Business Spotlight: What Your Startup Can Learn from OkCupid (Even if You’re Not a Dating Site)

By Emily Stanford

I’ve been engrossed in a new podcast lately (no, not Serial). It’s called StartUp, currently in its second season. For those of you who prefer Netflix to podcasts, each season chronicles a new startup from inception to success — or failure. This season follows Dating Ring, a female-led startup fresh out of Y-Combinator looking to become “Uber for dating.”

In a recent episode, the founders detailed one of the central conflicts of starting a dating company — you want to amass a large volume of users and fast (the bigger the dating pool, the greater chance of finding “the one”). But as any young business will tell you, attracting new users can be as painful as a first date. And this isn’t a problem unique to just online dating companies.

To intrigue a new group of users, startups need to cut through the noise and stand out amongst a sea of similar companies that might be more established, better funded, or considered the leaders in a field.

My interest in this particular episode peaked when one of the hosts of the podcast spoke to OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder about how the popular dating site, founded in 2004, was able to break into a market that was already oversaturated with online dating sights and scale to such a massive rate (over 4 million active users as of 2013).

It wasn’t just that OkCupid was a free site, as opposed to its competitors, including and eHarmony, it was that the site offered free valuable content, with a blog that consistently posted super viral articles about, what else? Dating.

Here’s what Rudder had to say:

By far the most effective strategy for us was to appeal to the users ourselves or to people, everyday people; 9 of 10 people coming to the blog were not OkCupid members. We really wanted people to read the post itself — you make it a little funny, you make it a little interesting, you don’t make it about how great your company is, because nobody gives a shit about that. So you make it a real article that people can laugh at and repeat and remember certain facts and jokes from it. And, you know, if the thing is good and the title of the thing is good, it can take care of itself.

Even as a content marketer who manages a blog at Salesforce, this comment surprised me. Although most companies now see the need to produce a company in order to stay competitive, rarely does the blog get the bulk of the credit for appealing to new potential users (especially when 90 percent of visitors aren’t customers!).

Rather than using their blog to explicitly pitch their product, OkCupid created blog posts that were data-backed, fun to read, and applicable to readers even if they weren’t OkCupid members.

Check out this post as an example, which gives you the best first date questions to ask depending on what you want to learn about the person. You know, those topics you don’t want to approach dead-on. Want to learn if your date is aligned with your same political beliefs, but don’t want to break this first date faux pas? Ask if they prefer the people in their life to be simple or complex. OkCupid researchers found a 2:1 correlation between liberals and people who prefer complexity, as well as a 2:1 correlation between conservatives and people who prefer simplicity.

OkCupid user or not, the post is incisive, fun to read, and (in my opinion) forward-thinking. So what’s the lesson from this?

As a small business, when you’re starting a new blog, the time, money, and effort often seem best spent if you use the blog to promote your product or service. This pressure to use the blog as a promotional marketing tool may come from upper management as well. But by producing fun, relatable content that your audience wants to read, even if that audience doesn’t immediately turn into leads and then customers, you’re creating positive awareness and, thus, value.

Got any other podcasts I should add to my queue for my daily commute? Let me know in the comments!

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