Interview: eHarmony CEO Talks Donald Trump

Research from eHarmony has uncovered a number of significant online dating trends in 2017. The ‘Future of Dating 2050’ report (covered by GDI here and here) revealed an imminent rise in the mean age of daters, a relaxing of social attitudes regarding non-traditional romantic arrangements, and the potential rise of technology as a relationship substitute for the financially disadvantaged youth.

Separate from the report, eHarmony also found politics was becoming significantly more important to daters. US research has shown both that Donald Trump is being mentioned in nearly 50% of profiles, and that users who mention Trump have their matches initiate communication 17% of the time.

Further, eHarmony saw a huge spike in memberships following Trump’s election and inauguration. Strikingly. the only comparable event in the history of their data was the spike they saw in the weeks after 9/11.

GDI got in touch with CEO Grant Langston to find out more about the effect Trump was having on the dating world. Read the full interview below:

Before we get into politics, I think it’d be good to just start off by doing a couple of general questions. How has 2017 been for eHarmony? Have you had a good year? What have been the high points?

GL: We have had a good year. We’ve had a year of change here I would say. I took this job as CEO in August last year, and, having been with the company a long time, I had a long list of things that I knew needed to be changed.

We’ve been doing that work now since last year, and for a big part of this year. We’ve been changing the communications system, implementing nice dashboards that tell our users why they were matched with someone, and making a few other public-facing changes.

We’ve also changed the way that we market the company, or at least we’ve started on that change. We’ve been a TV advertiser for 14 years and we get 75% of our subscribers from television, but we’ve began using radio more and using digital more.

It has been a good year, but there are a lot of things that we need to do to stay relevant, fresh and different, and to remain committed to our mission.”

Brilliant! It sounds like it’s all going very very well, and it sounds like it’s a very exciting time. So let’s go over to the politics – the first question we’ve got is ‘pre-Trump’. If you imagine a politically calm period, say the middle of the Obama administration, a time like that – do you notice politics having an impact on the dating world? What is the ambient level of political concern for daters and the dating industry?

GL: I would say, not just for some random period of Obama’s term, but for 99% of the lifespan of eHarmony since 2000, politics has had no role at all in online dating. When I talked to people during those periods about politics, essentially people say to me ‘if a person is attractive and compatible with me, I don’t care what their politics are.’

That has been the position that pretty much everyone has held for the better part of 17 years. The idea is that it’s hard to find someone that you connect with, that’s a tough enough thing to do, and if you do find that person you’re not going to let it be sidetracked by disagreements about politics.

I think there was this notion that you can agree to disagree – how many people are that political anyway? Maybe they have an issue or two, but it was very rarely mentioned in profiles. It was something that was not talked about on the first 2, 3, 4, 5 dates, it wasn’t considered one of those ‘gatekeeper questions’.

That’s how it had been. If we were talking in 2015 and you asked me what role politics plays, I would say ‘none at all’. That’s the history of politics in online dating in general I would say. Obviously, you’ve got your politically passionate edges, very conservative people and very liberal people that have always had a tough time together, but they were a very small percentage of the whole.”

Trump was elected on the 8th of November 2016. When did you begin to notice that he was having an impact on the business, and what was your reaction when you realised?

GL: Well, I think if we think about when he announced his run, it had almost no impact at all. Donald Trump had run for president before, and the general consensus was that he wasn’t serious about it. He was promoting his TV show, or pumping his ego, or getting a couple of cycles of press. He always dropped out for one reason or another – I think he first mentioned running for president in the 80s.

I don’t think there was any sense, back in July 2015, that he was serious about it. It didn’t make any impact. What you see from that date until inauguration day is just a linear rise in mentions. It’s remarkable. The line goes up and down some – as events happen there’ll be a spike – but if you normalise that line it goes from virtually 0% to 50% of people mentioning him.

This great mass of people, who were not political but who had been using eHarmony and existing in the world, they’re now highly politicised and highly polarised. People who in 2015 said ‘politics isn’t that big of a deal to me’ – they now have an opinion. That opinion largely came to be in reaction to Donald Trump.”

It’s one of the things you have to credit him with, regardless of your opinions – he’s managed to get people very democratically engaged.

GL: It’s true! We had a [local] election here a couple of weeks ago, and there are record numbers of women, for example, running for office. There’s a tremendous upsurge in the activity of certain groups, and it’s directly traceable to one thing – that’s Donald Trump.

The other thing I would say is that, in the past, you may get some political chatter as you get right up to a presidential election. That’s a normal thing, but then it quickly dies. People say ‘okay, the other guy won, time to move on with my life’.  

Trump is so good at continually saying things that agitate that you don’t get much of a decrease in activity. He just has a real knack for saying things that must be commented about. I don’t think it’s going to diminish anytime soon.”

The most striking figure in your report is that the change in membership you saw, and the change in engagement you saw from your users was in some way analogous to the change you saw after 9/11. What have been the parallels between the two events in your mind, and –  obviously this was a democratic election – what have been the points of difference?

GL: I think the first thing to say is that online dating is a pretty seasonal business. It is very very popular in late December through early March, because you get New Years and you get Valentines Day. All those things drive an interest in online dating.

It gets very quiet until summer – until July and August – then it zooms back up. It’s typically very quiet in September, October and November. Because we know about this seasonality and we’ve observed it year after year after year, it’s very easy to see things that disrupt it.

You’re not going to have a mid-September, for example, with a lot of interest and activity unless something drives it. You’re not going to have an early November jump unless something drives it. It’s tougher in January because it’s already the high season.

In each case, with 9/11 and with the Trump election, you’ve got an event that is destabilising in some way. It sets the world on an unknown path. Even if you’re the biggest Trump supporter in the world, you must admit that his election puts the country, if not the world, on an unknown trajectory.

It seems to me that the similarity between these two things is that life gets a lot less predictable after they happen. What we see as a result is that people come to eHarmony and seek the thing we’re known for providing – quality, enduring relationships.

I think other online dating services reported less activity, and I can understand that. If you’re an app or a company that provides more casual dating, people might say ‘I want to step away from dating, because the world just got scarier and weirder’. I can understand that for those companies.

A company like eHarmony, that’s really about providing connection and security and finding someone to build a life with, we become more attractive during times of instability. That’s what we see between those two things.

I’ve been here long enough – I was here for 9/11 and I was here last November – I can’t remember another event that has happened between those two things that had a similar impact on our membership.

The USA went to war in 2003 – that did not create this kind of change, probably because it was happening ‘over there’, outside the country. These two events are unique – they seem very close to home for people and very destabilising.”

The most interesting thing that came to my mind there was that something like 9/11, in spite of everything, unites the country. Everyone is on one side of that debate. With politics, you’ve got a real deep divide down the middle of the country, and quite a vitriolic rivalry between the two camps.  It’s interesting to see that people are coming together in the same way, or at least in the same proportions as they were on either side of those two events.

GL: I think that’s right, and I think that makes sense, because people arrive at eHarmony with the expectation that they’re going to find someone like them. That’s part of our value proposition – ‘we match people on similarity’. In some very foundational ways that is what we do.

What we see with this increase in politicisation is that people are saying, in very overt ways on their profile, ‘I am a liberal anti-Trumper. If you are a fan of Trump, do not contact me’. Or vice-versa, ‘I am a very vocal supporter of Donald Trump. If you have a problem with him, do not contact me.’

We’re in an opposite situation to where we were in years past. People that said ‘if the rest is good, I can look past the politics’ have moved to a place where ‘if the politics aren’t aligned, I don’t even want to get to know you. I don’t want to know how good you might be for me, because politics is a deal breaker’.

People now come to eHarmony pretty assured that they’ll find someone who shares their political bent. We have a lot of people, so it’s true that we have a lot of people from both sides.”

Do you think that trend of ‘politics as a filter question’ or ‘politics as a deal breaker’ is now here to stay, or do you think there might be scope for the two sides to reconcile through something like online dating that connects you with total strangers?

GL: Well, that is a great question. I’m an optimist, but I think the situation we have now is here for a while. We now have an entire industry, or two or three, that exist just to exacerbate the differences between us. The media landscape here is constructed, basically, on party affiliation or political bent.

Here, they drive ratings for their networks by whipping up anger and fear and loyalty on both sides. With those things cranking that out 24/7,  you do wonder what it would take for some uniting force to occur.

Unfortunately those uniting forces are usually very traumatic things – wars and crises. I’m hopeful that somewhere down the road we can have a politician who is looking to work on issues that both sides share.

The fact of the matter is there are those issues – there are things that both sides want to do, but there doesn’t seem to be any political hay to be made by working on those things. This seems like the status quo for now, and I’m optimistic that someday we will come to a more agreeable place.”

I think there are reasons to be optimistic – we reported on a study a couple of days ago that showed online dating was having a huge impact on the amount of interracial relationships in the US. It can take communities that were previously quite segregated and, by connecting two individuals, connect entire families and bridge old gaps. There is scope for more of that, but, as you say, it’s difficult to see at the moment.

GL: I love to hear that! I love to hear about that force for creating connection. People fall in love without regard for these traditional lines that separate us, so I love to hear that it can be a force for connection between different groups. That is good!”

One of the last findings from your study here is that there’s a gender difference. It shows that females have become more politically involved, and that they bring politics into the dating world seemingly more readily than men. Do you have any theories about that difference, and what accounts for it?

GL: I do. I think. I’m not sure what the objective person would say, but women certainly feel that Trump is a force for ill with regard to their gender. I think that’s what’s happening here. As you’re aware, he has quite a history with women that preceded his election. I think many women are outraged by that.

I think many of the things he says that appear insensitive are oriented towards women. He goes after women physically, and if I had to guess, women feel a real need to do something. I think that’s what’s driving their increased communication about this. It feels like there’s more at stake for women.

You know, I can see how they think that. If you just put Trump on your Twitter feed, he says a lot of things that are head scratchers and seem a little out of line and threatening to women. That seems to me, as I see this line being driven higher and higher, like he is being viewed by women as a real threat.

That also goes back to the increased political involvement of women as candidates. It’s having a tremendous impact on political participation (which, as you say, is a good thing). I think that accounts for the increase in activity.”

To play devil’s advocate on that point – another factor, I suppose, would be that not as many people are willing to say that they were pro-Trump online as anti-Trump. The online community is predominantly anti-trump. I’m wondering if, given that more men voted for Trump than women, whether this difference might just be a reflection of that?

GL: Could be, although I think Trump won college-educated white women. He did well with certain segments of women. eHarmony is an expensive service and a premium site, so there are certain people we don’t have based on income. There are likely a lot of Trump supporters on eHarmony, and a lot of people that find him incredibly distasteful.

This might also be a bit of a cycle: say you are a Trump supporter, but you don’t have it on your profile. You might get matched with three women who all proclaim that they don’t like Trump. Maybe it seems logical that you’d need to go into your profile and state that you do. The politicisation just keeps getting pushed higher and higher.”

Grant closed the interview with GDI by talking about some of the upcoming features users can expect on eHarmony in 2018. Notable among them is ‘humour matching’ – the science of this, Grant told us, has been more or less worked out.

Audio clips from the interview with Grant will be available soon. Follow GDI on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you get to listen!