What media can learn from dating apps

“Uninstalling is not leaving, and deleting is not departing.”

Mobile technology changed the nature of creating and maintaining connections. Grindr — a geographically based networking application geared towards gay, bisexual and bi-curious men — launched in 2009.

Grindr was transformational — it sought to make ephemeral connections based on location and proximity. That might be commonplace now, but it was groundbreaking half a decade ago. Grindr now has over 4 million active users.

A direct comparison between Grindr and a news organisation is unlikely to be helpful. Yet, media organisations can learn from the way Grindr and other dating apps like Tinder create connections; understanding how these apps alter their users’ behaviour and create habits is important.

Specifically, let’s look at the user behaviour of those who actively use Grindr and its ilk, and those who’ve stopped. Who are these users? Where are they? Why did they stop using these apps? When did they decide to leave and when did they actually do so?

Researchers in California explored these questions in 2012. They found that while Grindr users left for different reasons, their method of departure was often similar. Before “leaving” users reduced the number of times they visited the app. The time they spent on the app lessened.

This behavioural change means there are specific, trackable, and identifiable behaviours pre departure. Often, leaving is a passive, rather than an active behaviour [lesson 1]. Furthermore, once someone meaningfully reduces their app use, they have already transitioned into non-users — an organisation may be too late to re-engage [lesson 2].

The California research notes many users kept the app but stopped meeting people through it. For media organisations with a paywall, we can think of this as moving from a paid reader to registered, but keeping all the email alerts; or, a user keeping the email alerts but no longer opens them or clicks through to articles. These users are still getting some value and are loosely engaged, but do not meaningfully help the bottom line.

That was the how. But, what about the why?

According to the research being a “waste of time”, and not meeting specific needs (like suggesting the “right” type of person a user wanted to meet) are reasons for departure.

Media organisations need to make sure that we are meeting the needs of their audience (for news, insight, analysis) [lesson 3]. Furthermore, they cannot take it for granted that their audiences understand exactly what they are signing up for; they need to educate them about the value proposition [lesson 4].

There are more mundane reasons for departures, of course. Lack of familiarity with the technology or how to use it, for instance. Like Grindr, this can be an issue for media companies. On-boarding new users, making the site or app easily comprehensible, and attracting younger users is important to a company’s longevity [lesson 5].

As Grindr is a social app, the process of leaving is not the same as just leaving. It is an attenuated process and everyone relates to that departure in a unique way.

While presenting the research, one of the paper’s authors said “we need to look beyond technology as a singular point of departure and focus instead on the relational possibilities and spatial arrangements around which people group. thinking about leaving is not an on or off, but a process of movement.”

What this means is media companies should think about audience members as unique, but within a larger network. We should consider how they move within that network, and how the network can pull them back and act as glue [lesson 6].

To recap:

  • Lesson 1: there are identifiable behavioural changes that predict a user’s departure
  • Lesson 2: the further along this cycle someone travels, the more likely they are to depart
  • Lesson 3: We need to make sure we are meeting the needs of our audience so we don’t give them a reason to leave
  • Lesson 4/5: educating our audience about the proposition is important. On boarding users, making sure they understand how to access content and get the full value out of the company is part of this process
  • Lesson 6: Networks are likely to act as the glue that keeps users active

While media organisations and Grindr have widely different uses, the warning signs of departure and the implications for habits are more similar than not. As an industry, we need to look outside our own borders to learn and to continue to develop.

At the most basic level, it is about making a commitment to understanding the audience, giving them value and keeping them engaged.

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