Executives at eHarmony know their system works. After all, more than 43,000 marriages in the United States last year were between people who met through the online matchmaker.
But will eHarmony's magic work overseas?
The Pasadena company is making a big bet that it will. It has started introducing its questionnaire-intensive system to Western countries recently, and soon it will take its biggest cross-cultural test ever: It will try its luck in China.
EHarmony has been bolstered by a Beijing University study that shows its matching technology can be successfully adapted there.
"We found the models to be highly effective in that we can predict successful marriages in China," said Galen Buckwalter, who leads a team of six Ph.D. psychology researchers at eHarmony.
A panel of psychologists, through focus groups in China, validated the translations of questionnaires and found that cultural differences matter little when it comes to measuring personality types and values.
If eHarmony seems confident, it has some rationale. It recently reported a 25 percent increase in registered users over the past year. A significant portion of them are subscribers who pay $59 each month or $250 annually for its services. In all, 20 million people have used eHarmony over its eight-year life.
Besides moving overseas, the company is strengthening its investment in research. "Marriage lab" scientists working long hours in the basement of its Pasadena headquarters have begun researching what executives said will be 400 couples over a five-year period. The goal of the project is a better understanding of the mystery of compatibility, which will make for improved matchmaking science.
The company, which spun out of a marriage therapy practice in 2000, already enjoys a high level of brand awareness, thanks to a five-year television ad campaign featuring its figurehead, Neil Clark Warren. Company executives said its best marketing tools are its results: an average of 118 eHarmony marriages every day, according to findings in an independent poll conducted by Harris Interactive. Wedding guests often visit the site after finding out the couple met through eHarmony.
"The people who get married have a huge sense of attribution to eHarmony," said Chief Executive Gregory Waldorf. "If you meet someone at a bar, you're not going to, for the rest of your life, thank the owner of that bar. At eHarmony, people definitely have that sense, since we were the ones who suggested the match."
The company, which has 232 employees, has completed research and launched the site in other English-speaking countries first Canada, a year ago, then Australia in February. The United Kingdom will get its own version of eHarmony in June and other European countries will follow.
Entretech, a Pasadena non-profit that provides support for tech startups, gave eHarmony its annual entrepreneurship award in March, mostly in recognition of the company's efforts to sell its matching system overseas.
Stephanie Yanchinski, executive director of Entretech is fascinated by the prospect of eHarmony translating across borders and cultures.
"Marriage is such a cultural institution," Yanchinski said. "How will this scientific method of matching people translate across cultural lines?"
Zia Daniell Wigder, senior analyst for Jupiter Research, said that transferring eHarmony's domestic success would depend on whether the company's research measures more than just individual personality and values.
"Yes, they can measure an extrovert in China just as well as they do in the U.S., and these are core values and personality traits," said Daniell Widger. "But they also have to take into account that what people look for in a mate may differ in China compared to another country."
EHarmony, along with competitors Match.com and Yahoo! Personals, lead a U.S. online dating market that brought in $890 million in subscription fees last year, according to Jupiter. The market research firm projects the industry will grow by about 16 percent annually, reaching $1.9 billion in revenue by 2010.
Going international is not new in the online dating industry. EHarmony competitor Match.com, based in Dallas, has a presence in 35 countries, including 1.5 million members in Scandinavia since launching there in 2003.
The difference at eHarmony is that taking business abroad doesn't mean just launching and marketing a Web site in a different language. It entails adapting its complex matching system based on what it calls psychometric algorithms, determined by 256 questions that users must answer before they can become subscribers.
The algorithms were developed by Buckwalter, previously a research professor at the USC. It's based upon hundreds of personality questions tested on 5,000 married couples. The answers were correlated to the couple's marital happiness.
Now, the company wants to improve its algorithms with more robust research. The study of the 400 married couples is designed to quantify how couples resolve conflict, support each other and maintain chemistry.
For example, one couple may be asked to talk about a point of contention in the relationship and the wife may bring up the fact that the husband doesn't spend enough time with her. While the couple, on camera, converse about the issue in one room of the research lab, eHarmony's team of psychologists monitor them from another room and note everything from body language, facial expression and word choice to code into psychometric algorithms.
"It's really an ideal study the kind that I would have liked to have completed before we launched the company," Buckwalter said. "But we didn't have the resources then."
The premise of eHarmony's methodology is that similar people are most compatible. The company's extensive questionnaire is aimed at matching people who have comparable values and personalities.
So what about the old saying that opposites attract? Attraction is one thing, but a marriage that lasts decades is something else, said Gian Gonzaga, who holds a Ph.D. in marriage research from University of California at Berkeley and has been with the company for three years.
"The idea behind similarities is that when you understand the person, you can validate them more fully," Gonzaga said. "People want to be right. You share being right and you like that person more. That relationship lasts and over time gets deeper."
EHarmony invests about $3 million annually in research, including what's done in its lab and internationally. Other online matchmakers use algorithms, but they don't have six Ph.D. researchers on staff or anything like eHarmony's marriage lab.
While the company may outpace its competitors on research and science, that emphasis is not a rarity elsewhere in the world of successful media and tech companies, said analyst David Card of Jupiter Research.
"It's usually not with psychologists and anthropologists," he acknowledged. "But a successful media company like Google invests mostly in Ph.Ds and algorithms."
Eharmony Chief Executive Waldorf said that investment in research and expansion overseas makes business sense, just as its controversial decision not to serve the gay market.
The company has gotten a beating by the press and is the subject of a discrimination suit because the site will not match gay couples. The company's position is that eHarmony's matching system is based on traits and personality patterns of heterosexual marriages.
The company is accused of excluding gays based on Warren's Christian values. But Waldorf said it's all about the money.
"There's a real business issue here," Waldorf said. "You've got to decide what market you're going to put resources against. For example, we've decided that the Chinese market will be a big enough opportunity. We have a lot of things to go after and the gay community is not a market we're going to pursue and that's it."
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