Donell Roberson had done his share of online dating. Like the nearly 30 million other singles across the country who subscribe to services such as Match.com or eHarmony.com, the 33-year-old spent hours viewing online profiles of potential mates and exchanging e-mail messages before setting up a date.
By the time he actually met the women, though, the pressure to enjoy himself had become too intense. And then there were the times when some showed up looking nothing like their photographs -- and admitted they had used pictures of a cousin or sister instead of themselves.
"I don't have enough time as it is," said Roberson, a medical sales account executive. "I'd get moody after spending all of that time e-mailing someone, and then not have fun on the date."
Then Roberson heard about TeamDating.com, a new site that puts groups of friends together for mixed socials. "This sounded fun," Roberson said.
Like Roberson, other singles frustrated with typical online dating services are increasingly turning to alternative "socializing" sites that send couples out on double, even triple, dates, to relieve the tensions of going out one-on-one. The main dating sites, responding to the shift, are also coming up with new strategies to try to keep customers coming back for more.
Frustrated singles looking for love, or at least a bit of fun, continue to turn to online dating services in greater numbers every year since the trend took off in 2001, when the market exceeded $100 million in the United States. During its peak growth in 2002 and 2003, the online dating market grew by more than 70 percent each year, reaching around $500 million, according to Jupiter Research, a market research firm. But growth has slowed to about 7 percent for these sites, while sites such as TeamDating.com or Meetup.com, another socializing site, are growing more quickly.
The new low-key singles sites, most aimed at people over 30, allow individuals to join group activities or socials based on hobbies or interests. Other more loosely organized noncommercial social-networking sites like MySpace have also become extremely popular, especially among 15- to 34-year-olds.
Although the main dating sites haven't figured out an alternative to one-on-one dating, the sites are more aggressively courting singles with free trials and new sites designed to take some of the work out of the hunt for a partner. Match.com recently introduced a spin-off site called Chemistry.com that, like eHarmony.com, matches customers based on personality profiles.
After taking a 30-minute test designed to determine estrogen and testosterone levels, among other factors, clients receive their personality type, with labels like "builder" or "explorer." If they're satisfied with the profile, Chemistry.com then sends the client five matches who can be accepted or rejected. As soon as a customer rejects a match, Chemistry.com sends another. Once the customer receives an appealing match, he or she can send a "hello" message or an e-mail message to that person.
Six months ago, Ray Doustdar, 33, and a friend launched TeamDating.com, where teams of friends could register online and meet with other groups for dinner, drinks, a movie or a ballgame. The site's membership -- consisting primarily of 25- to 35-year-olds -- didn't start to grow until about three months ago. Doustdar says they now have 7,500 members, mostly in the Los Angeles area. They are stepping up marketing efforts this summer to expand to big cities such as New York, San Francisco and others listed on the Forbes list of "Best Cities for Singles." (If you're curious, the Raleigh-Durham area ranked fourth in the most recent Forbes list. Charlotte came in at No. 33.)
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