Monday, June 20, 2011

Test of your skills: What not to do on OKCupid

(Read about the end of my OKCupid saga, after you're finished here.)

If you’re like me, you’re wary of online dating sites. Face to face interactions are just so much more robust. Online, body language is invisible; response times delayed; spontaneity manufactured. And the pictures and descriptions – they (ick) might not even be the real person.

So of course, I joined OkCupid yesterday. 5 days ago, an acquaintance of mine, who’s 25, convinced me of the viability of this new medium of guy-girl interactions: “Everyone’s on it now. There’s no stigma anymore.” And, she noted, did you know that 20% of all relationships now start…online? Who was I to argue with those numbers?

Making a profile on OkCupid was easier and more efficient than signing up for Google, Facebook, or Twitter. I was literally inside its not-so-walled-off ecosystem in 20 seconds. And with its game mechanics (“Add a picture to increase your profile to get to 25% completion!”) I couldn’t resist but enter my basic information (Asian), then start filling out match questions (“Right now, are you happy with life?”), submit personal details (“What’s the most private thing you’re willing to share?”), upload some pictures, and view my “best” matches….really, it was like Yalestation Dating on steroids. Except that here, most profiles on the site seem to be serious business.

By yesterday night at 3 a.m. (don’t ask me how late I stayed up, because I won’t tell you it was 6 a.m., 2.5 hours before I had to be at work), I was at 75% completion – and for the next stage, I needed to send out 20 messages to potential matches. I stopped then. I don’t think I was mentally ready to engage with this online world. And left to my own devices, I’m not really sure if I would have sent out any messages. Thankfully, my college roommate (let's call him by his middle name...pinball) took care of my decision for me. While I was at work, pinball (whom I’d given access to my account, though email) sent 100 messages to 100 females. This was the text he used, verbatim:

"Hey you look really cute! I'm brand new to NYC, so would love to have a partner in crime to explore the city with-- let me know if you'd like to meet up for a drink!”

On the whole, not too shabby. (Reminds me of the couple messages he sent on Yalestation, heh, a couple months back.) But I did a little more digging, what with all the data mining power in Web 2.0 (3.0? which version are we at?), and found this: Exactly what to say in a first message. OkCupid’s team of engineers analyzed thousands of first messages to determine which mix of words produced the highest rate of response. I encourage you to read it. For the rest of this entry, let’s focus specifically on pinball’s message. How successful was it, framed against OkCupid’s metrics?

According to OkCupid, the first commandment of online “message game” is to be literate. Messages containing “ur,” “r,” “u,” and “ya” literally do 20% worse than the “average” message on OkCupid, which has a 32% response rate. So, for pinball’s message? Check. No misspelled words, subtle punctuation cues approximating real talk (“…with – let me…”), and laconic prose “…so (I) would love to have…” Great stuff.

The second commandment is to avoid physical compliments. “Sexy,” “beautiful,” and “hot” do 10-20% worse than normal; “cutie” checks in at 26%, under the average rate by 6%. On the flip side, “cool,” “nice,” “fascinating,” and “awesome” all do very, very well – messages with “awesome” almost hit 40% response. Pinball’s message? Not so hot. He starts out with “Hey you look really cute!” that’s staid pick-up lingo; the message conveyed is more “let’s hook up” than “you seem like a really cool person.” Of course, the flip side to this is: females who actually respond to the “cutie” message will probably be more down to…uh…yea. (Or just nicer! Or less attractive – but that's a different post.)

Rule 3 is to use an unusual greeting. “How’s it going” gets nearly a 55% response rate; “what’s up” and “howdy” are almost as good, at 45%; on the flip side, “hi,” “hello,” “hey,” and “holla” are all between 25% and 32%. Pinball used “hey” – at 30%, it’s just below par for the course.

Rule 4 is to bring up specific interests. Niche words like “band,” “metal,” vegetarian,” and “zombie” actually produce 40% response rates when put in messages! If you write, “you mention,” “good taste,” or “noticed that” as syntactical cues to your interest, the percentages are similarly as high. Pinball’s message? The statistically deviant words were “brand new,” “partner in crime,” “explore,” and “drink.” Interesting words, but not tailored to the receiver.

Rule 5 is to be self-effacing (for males only). Saying “sorry,” “apologize,” and “awkward” are all 10%+ moves to make online. Online, humility wins the day. Was pinball’s message humble? Not really—but he wasn’t arrogant, either.

Conclusion? Pinball’s message was nice, naïve, and generic. Not negative, but not positive either – more like an automated spam message sent to an email account, either deleted or left on the linoleum floor to gather virtual dust. My prediction for the actual response rate? I’m guessing 8% -- of all the moves made, the lack of personalization will play the largest negative role. The “cute” opener comes in a kind-of-close second. The 8% who respond, of course, won’t care, having already been *blown away* by my ceiling-to-floor Myspace picture poses (jaykayyy).

And as for future steps: an A/B randomized trial – how much does a personalized message improve responses rates? Stay tuned.

One final thought: there’s an entire post that needs to be written about my philosophy on dating, thoughts on online dating efficacy, the role of statistics in interpersonal relationships. For now, take this evaluation of OkCupid messaging with a grain of salt.


  1. Did you ever publish a follow up to this? Im curious to know what the response rate was like.

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