After defining the category, Tinder faces increasing competition and marketing challenges
As a new academic year gets underway on college campuses nationwide, Tinder and rapper Saweetie are playing Cupid. The dating app has enlisted the Gen Z artist, who references Tinder in her track “Tap In,” to get students swiping during a prime flirting moment: freshman orientation.
Tinder sees the highest influx of 18-year-old members during this month, and the school most active on the app will win a free concert by Saweetie and a special guest.
For Tinder, the college contest is a return to its roots. After launching in 2012, its first marketing leader Whitney Wolfe Herd (who later founded rival dating app Bumble) toured universities and introduced the concept of swiping—then a novel way to seek romantic connection. After selling the swipe to students, Tinder would go on to redefine dating culture.
Eleven years later, the stigma around online dating has largely dissolved, but other marketing challenges have emerged for the crowded category, including increasing reports of dating app fatigue.
Against this backdrop, Tinder and its rivals are ramping up efforts to woo Gen Z, the first generation to come of age in the dating app era. But as Tinder hits campuses this time around, it is finding that what Gen Z wants from dating has changed—and so, too, must the stories it tells about connections.
“Gen Z is showing up more authentically than any other generation,” Melissa Hobley, Tinder’s chief marketing officer, told Adweek. “They want to feel no judgment and be able to seek out the kind of connection they want, when they want it.”
A Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year showed the ubiquity of dating apps. Three in 10 U.S. adults say they have used a dating site or app, but this figure soars to 53% among people under 30.
Dating is a bit scary and vulnerable, and we brought to life those emotions. That hit a nerve.
Melissa Hobley, CMO, Tinder
Tinder is the most popular among the apps, with 46% of online daters using it. That number is even higher among those under 30, with 79% having used the platform. By comparison, 31% of online daters have been on Match, 28% on Bumble and 19% on Hinge.
Though Tinder retains dominance in the category it helped shape, its downloads dropped by 5% in 2021 as it faced a misperception. Among many users, it had become known as a hookup app that only facilitated casual encounters.
Meanwhile, some rivals positioned themselves as tools for finding meaningful connections. Bumble, founded in 2014, bills itself as a more equitable app because only women can make the first move. Hinge (bought by Tinder’s parent company Match Group in 2018) launched its “Designed to Be Deleted” campaign in 2019 and subsequently built a reputation as the best app for seeking a relationship.
“Tinder is a global player but had never said what we’re about. The narrative had gotten away from the brand,” Hobley said. “The perception [of Tinder as a hookup app] was true—but the reality wasn’t.”
Under Hobley, who joined Tinder in 2022 from fellow Match Group-owned platform OkCupid, the app launched its first-ever global brand campaign earlier this year. “It Starts With a Swipe,” created by agency Mischief @ No Fixed Address, told “a story we’ve never told before,” said Hobley: 40% of users surveyed by Tinder were looking for a long-term relationship.
Rather than shying away from the prospect of hookups, the campaign reclaims what that could be to a new generation, said Hobley: “A hookup means something very different to Gen Z. It’s not this negative thing.”
“It Starts With a Swipe” subverts typical narratives about app-based dating and puts all kinds of encounters on the table. One ad’s voiceover says, “Some Tinder dates turn into one-night stands. But some turn into two nightstands,” as a couple moves from a first-date kiss to furniture shopping.
“Tinder supports any kind of connection you want,” said Hobley. “You want tonight, I got you. You want forever, I got you.”
Tinder’s campaign is also unapologetically inclusive. Diverse Gen Z daters, including LGBTQ+ people—the fastest growing group on Tinder—appear in the films and outdoor ads running across markets including the U.S., Europe and Australia.
“We continue to never be done creating an experience that affirms who you are and who you might want to date, fuck, marry or see Berlin with,” Hobley said.
So far, the campaign appears to be paying off. In its latest earnings call, Match Group credited “It Starts With a Swipe” with increasing Tinder’s user sign-ups, particularly among women and young people. Tinder’s second-quarter revenue outpaced its owner’s, increasing 6% year on year to $475 million, compared to Match Group’s overall revenue growth of 4% to $830 million.
Hobley put the success down to the creative: “Dating is a bit scary and vulnerable, and we brought to life those emotions. That hit a nerve.”
Despite these promising signs, Tinder and its peers recognize that dating apps need an image overhaul.
Pew Research found online daters had mixed reviews of their experiences. About half (49%) said dating sites and apps are not safe, while 48% reported encountering negative behaviors on those platforms, including receiving unsolicited sexual messages or images, unwanted continued contact or physical threats.
There is also a growing conversation about dating app fatigue, epitomized by headlines like “A Decade of Fruitless Searching: The Toll of Dating App Burnout,” in The New York Times last year.
To counter that feeling, apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble have begun allowing users to “pause” their accounts without losing matches or messages.
“There has been a positive societal shift in how we prioritize and talk about mental health. We’re seeing this mirrored when it comes to dating,” said Naomi Walkland, vp of EMEA and APAC marketing at Bumble. “In some cases, people have slowed down their approach to dating and set more boundaries. … People are also being more intentional with how they date, focusing on quality over quantity as they reflect on how they spend their time.”
The lonely generation
Though Tinder’s poll concluded that Gen Z are less jaded about online dating, young users come with their own set of expectations. Its 2023 Future of Dating report identified that Gen Z daters prioritize qualities such as authenticity, personal growth, diversity and open-mindedness. They are also more candid about political and social values up front.
In this spirit of authenticity, Bumble has introduced profile badges that have proved popular among Gen Z users, helping them signpost everything from hobbies to political leanings.
“This generation feels more empowered to date on their own terms,” Walkland explained.
Another difference: Gen Z is often referred to as “the loneliest generation,” with a 2022 study by Eden Project Communities revealing that 19% of 16- to 24-year-olds often feel lonely—three times more than people aged 65 to 74.
To help Gen Z combat loneliness and find intimacy, Hinge recently released a Distraction-Free Dating Guide with date ideas and advice. It also supports the Foundation for Social Connection and Active Minds, a nonprofit that provides mental health education for young adults.
Dating apps should play a role in supporting such issues, especially “in an era where people are feeling increasingly disconnected,” Hobley observed.
Moving to IRL
However, even among digitally native Gen Z, there remains skepticism about whether dating apps are the best tool to facilitate authentic connections.
“Even if you’re making a digital connection, there’s always this yearning for meeting in person,” said Shaina Zafar, co-founder and CMO of Gen Z marketing firm JUV Consulting, during Brandweek last week.
With social platforms like TikTok, Gen Z are more open about sharing their dating experiences and frustrations, Zafar added. Yet even if more are seeking non-traditional relationships, a major commonality is a desire for “meaningful connection,” she said.
Loneliness or wanting a relationship aren’t experiences unique to Gen Z—but at their age, many of them are grappling with these challenges for the first time, Zafar noted. She suggested that since so many dating app interactions stay at the surface, those brands could introduce more features or events that encourage people to move offline and meet in person.
“If Tinder was the reason I went on a first date with someone, and then I ended up going on five more dates with them and somehow living my life with them—I would never forget that,” Zafar said.