Every fortnight we interview a different member of the dating community.  This week we spoke to Andrew McClelland, who replaced George Kidd as Chief Executive of the Online Dating Association at the end of last year.

1) For those who haven’t met you, what were you doing before you became Chief Exec of the ODA?  What skills will you be bringing to the job? 

Having spent close to 14 years involved in the trade body for online retail, I have seen how consumers and organisations change with the development of digital channels. I spent a lot of this time representing the online retail industry to UK Government, EU and other key stakeholders; including during the negotiations around the Consumer Rights Directive, drafting of the General Data Protection Regulations, Privacy regs and online dispute resolution. I also ran the trust mark for online retailers; Internet Shopping Is Safe. This background has given me a unique view in to how business and consumers interact and how key stakeholders might view an industry. For example, I did a lot of work around age verification, fraud and cyber security. However, at the core of these activities, I have always been helping businesses with their commercial challenges, including selling more ‘stuff’ to more people using digital channels. More recently, I have been consulting to a range of businesses looking to use digital channels as a route to market, marketing, conversion rate optimisation and developing cross-border operations.

Not only do our customers use digital for purchasing products and services at home, they are increasingly using mobile devices to do so internationally. We now operate in a truly global market place where a competitor is only a click, or a swipe, away.

2) What do you think the biggest challenge facing the online dating industry is at the moment?

The biggest challenge depends on your perspective. We need to recognise that our customer is now predominantly mobile. Whether this is by App or mobile optimised website will depend on the brand and offering. In the retail world, nearly 70% of site traffic now come from a mobile device. Where this becomes really interesting is around commercial models and how these might change. Monthly subscription models have been de rigueur in the industry for years and there is still space for this model. However, in-app purchases are much more common amongst the new digital generations; just look at Angry Birds and other games where micro-payments have made businesses massively profitable very quickly. Likewise, services that are free at point of delivery and funded by other commercial models have a place. I think the future is a blend of these where consumers chose based on a number of factors. Device, life stage, objective for interaction and of course, recommendation.

As an industry very dependent on rich user data, we do need to keep an eye on the new data protection rules. Longer term I believe they will build trust and help ensure that it is the quality service providers that endure. Our role is to ensure that our industries consumers are looked after, whilst also allowing us to market appropriate services and process data in a way that helps them achieve the outcome they desire. In the short term we will have to look at areas such as user consent, marketing activities and how third parties help us to get products and services in front of our prospects.

 This leads us to security, perception thereof and the attractiveness that our industry might have to those with less than honest intent. As we get more successful at attracting new users we need to be cognisant of the fact that not all of them will be either ‘digital natives’ or even ‘digital savvy’. Therefore, we have a role in helping them have a safe and enjoyable experience with our services whilst acknowledging, and educating, the fact that in essence, the digital part of our service is only as an ‘introducer’. We can foster great relationships online. However, there is a limit to what can be done by us in the physical setting.

ODA members already do a lot to help customers understand the differences between knowing someone online and meeting them for the first, second or third times offline. As an industry we also know that there are three sides to these relationships; the user, the prospective partner and the platform. All have responsibilities and one of the industry challenges is to help the other parties understand where we can help and where the limitations are.

Public education campaigns are part of this activity, as is reviewing the ODA code of practice, stakeholder engagement and a proactive approach to understanding all side of the issues. Not forgetting of course that there is a strong success story that often gets overlooked.

 3) What is next for the ODA? How will things be changing in the coming months?

 The organisation has a great track record for industry representation, both with key stakeholders and the media. In fact, media representation has taken up a large proportion of my time since starting; but then I did start just before peak trading! We will of course continue this activity but a common theme has been explaining to the media the different types of services that get combined in their eyes to be online dating. This has led me to believe that there is a wider role for the organisation in getting in front of the media to discuss the industry as a business; talking about trends, values, customers and wider inight.

There is also a role for the ODA to be compiling and curating a range of industry statistics, not only to inform the media but more importantly, provide our members with data points that are commercially interesting.

A range of industry briefings and tactical round-tables are also being planned. Again, this is insight that helps members trade their businesses; a direct ROI on membership. The first of these Industry Breifings takes place in the afternoon of the 16th May. We have some great speakers lined up and drinks afterwards. Please contact Ann at the ODA to register your place.

This is a project that we have just started and I know from experience that it can take some time to build insightful data sets, but it is this information that will further enhance membership value; the  ODA won’t just be the voice of the industry when things have gone wrong, but also as the ‘go-to’ resource for business press looking to better understand the industry, investors looking for independent insight and of course, providing direct commercial benefit to membership.

 As I mentioned earlier, helping business sell more ‘stuff’ to more people.

 4) Why would you encourage mobile dating companies to join the ODA?

 Our collective customers are increasingly technology agnostic and who knows where the next ‘device’ will come from. Whatever the digital route to market, our users often float across all of them. Mobile customers has also become a euphemism in the press for ‘casual dating’ and it is these services that we are increasingly talking about in the media.

However, customers of these and more traditional desktop services all deserve quality service, already benefit from consumer protections and use the platform of choice depending on their requirements. A typical response from an industry association is to say that Government and others are all looking at online dating services collectively so we should act collectively. I am certainly a fan of self-regulation and services are welcome that support the ODA objectives; irrespective of the technology. Mobile, web or App, they are all data driven services offering the user with a match of some description based on a number of preferences.

My message is that the technology isn’t a barrier to getting value from the organisation. Everyone see’s the value differently but the focus for 2017 and beyond is driving commercial benefit for our members, and that will be inclusive of the technology. The service however will still have to comply with the ODA Code of Practice.

5) How can companies who do not directly run dating sites or apps, but work in the space, get involved?

Associate membership is an interesting area. Industry bodies, for various reasons, often have trouble involving suppliers to the industry in their actives. Now, there have to be some rules of engagement but I strongly believe that the individual challenges faced by the dating platforms are best answered by the people who see the issues day-in, day-out. Often, this expertise comes from the supply-side sector.

Part of our drive to deliver more commercial insight is being driven by opening up Associate membership to a broader range of businesses. They have to provide some insight and knowledge about the industry, they can’t use membership solely as a sales driver. However, where they provide value, useful insight and are perhaps interesting in terms of their market reach, then they are more than welcome to apply for Associate Membership.

 The ODA membership area is being refreshed as a home for useful data and insight, supplier profiles and as a membership communications tool.  Yes of course, the suppliers are looking for leads but I am interested in hearing from thought leaders, perhaps in payments, marketing, cyber security or consumer trends. The ideals of the Code of Practice will apply to them i.e. they won’t bring the industry in to disrepute.

In closing, I would like to highlight the sterling work that the ODA team, past and present, have carried out and look forward to working with you all to help this industry grow; who knows what’s next?