Marriages, it is said, are made in heaven. For many Indians, they are now increasingly being made on the Internet through matrimonial portals. Although still a fledgling industry, online matrimonial matchmaking, a uniquely Indian phenomenon, is seen by many to be brimming with potential. The reason: The sheer reach and convenience that the Internet provides.
“As more and more people go online, they find that the medium lends itself very well to matchmaking because it takes away geographical limitations and is more efficient and more effective than the traditional avenues,” says Anupam Mittal, founder of Shaadi.com. Shaadi, incidentally, is the Hindi word for marriage.
“It’s a perfect match between tradition and technology,” adds Murugavel Janakiraman, founder and chief executive officer of BharatMatrimony.com. Janakiraman has a personal reason for his enthusiasm about the medium: He found his wife, Deepa, on BharatMatrimony.
Janakiraman and Mittal say that over the past five years, the online matrimonial market in India, which they estimate to be currently around US$50 million, has grown at a compounded annual growth rate of 50% to 70%. They anticipate the same pace of growth in the coming years. They should know: The two are not only the founders of their respective matrimonial portals but they also pioneered this segment a decade ago. The India Online 2008 Matrimony report by JuxtConsult, a New Delhi-based online research and advisory firm, identifies Janakiraman and Mittal as market leaders with nearly 70% of the market between them in terms of the user base.
The industry has a host of small players, including those with extremely niche positioning like secondshaadi.com (for second marriages), idontwantdowry.com (for those against the practice of dowry), h1bmarriages.com (for non-resident Indians and technical professionals), positivesaathi.com (for HIV-positive people) and so on. The significant ones, however, with financial muscle and good brand recognition are very few. These include JeevanSaathi.com from Info Edge, which runs India’s leading job site, Naukri.com; and SimplyMarry.com from the Times Group, a leading Indian media house.
A recent media entrant is the Kerala-based Malayala Manorama Group which owns the Malayala Manorama newspaper, the largest selling regional daily in India with a circulation of over 1.6 million. With a view to leveraging its reach and brand value, earlier this year Malayala Manorama launched its own matrimonial portal called m4marry.com, exclusively for users from the Malayalee community.
In an interview with afaqs.com, an online community for advertising, media and marketing professionals, Mariam Mathew, chief operating officer of Manorama Online, the group’s main portal, said: “Classifieds have always been a revenue earner for our group and digital is the best media for classifieds.” According to Mathew, m4marry.com received 55,000 registrations in its first month and she expects that figure to cross 150,000 by the end of December. Deccan Chronicle Holdings, another media house, is also planning to launch its own matrimonial website.
Janakiraman of BharatMatrimony.com sees these as very positive developments for the industry. Media companies entering this space will help educate readers and expand the market, he says. “It will help established players like us to get a whole new set of customers who otherwise may not have looked at the online option.”
Venture capitalists, too, are showing great interest in the sector. Gopal Krishna, vice president and head of audience for emerging markets at Yahoo, which along with Cannan Partners, invested US$8.65 million in BharatMatrimony.com in 2006, explains the rationale behind Yahoo’s investment in this space. “Our primary audience is the youngster and the young adult. Anything that is relevant to their lives and can be made more efficient by digital means is of interest to us, and we see a great opportunity in the online matrimonial space.”
Sandeep Singhal, managing director at Sequoia Capital India, which has invested US$8 million in Shaadi.com, adds: “So far in India, the Internet has panned out more for things that are ‘must have’ rather than ‘nice to have.’ The two main verticals that have seen strong Internet adoption in India are online jobs and online matrimony, and this is because they fulfill very strong customer needs.”
JuxtConsult pegs matrimonial search as one of the top-10 online activities among Internet users in India. The firm’s online matrimony report estimates that there were around 15 million users for the year ended March 2008. According to Sanjay Tiwari, director of JuxtConsult, “This category is very brand driven and prefers specialized portals. Only 11% of matrimony users visit general portals like MSN or Yahoo. This clearly indicates the seriousness of their intent.”
Young Users in Control
The industry’s growth and the optimism of the players are fuelled by multiple factors. Take India’s demographics. It is estimated that there are around 450 million people in India currently below the age of 21. On the socio-cultural front, the dominant tradition is that of arranged marriages, where the parents or family elders find a suitable match for the young adults. Traditionally, this has been done through contacts via family and friends, individual marriage brokers, marriage bureaus and classified advertisements in newspapers. Matrimonial portals are a fairly recent channel. Match the demographics and the tradition of arranged marriages and there is clearly a huge market for match-making — whatever the medium.
With its reach, convenience and relative privacy, the Internet provides a superior alternative to any other medium. Users need to simply log on to a matrimonial portal and upload their profiles, sharing as much or as little information as they choose. They can then search for partners according to their individual preferences. They also have the option of exploring the medium by registering without any charge and then becoming paid users only if they see value in the portal by way of ease of use and suitable responses. All this at the click of a mouse.
Narendra Agrawal, professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, points out that the increasing mobility of younger professionals and the breaking down of traditional family networks are also responsible for driving the traffic on matrimonial portals. “Today’s young adults see this as the cool, new-generation medium, one that puts them in control of choosing their life partners and at the pace that they want,” he says.
The bulk of the players’ revenues comes from subscription fees. On offer are various membership plans that differ according to the length of time a profile is posted, and features like level of personalization, special highlighting of the profile, access to verified phone numbers and so on. At BharatMatrimony.com for instance, the membership fee ranges from a minimum of Rs. 1,790 (US$38) for three months to Rs. 5,790 (US$125) for nine months. BharatMatrimony.com also offers a premium service at Rs. 8,650 (US$180) for three months. According to the portal, under this plan “a personalized match maker works exclusively” with the member. At Shaadi.com, the price ranges from Rs. 1,950 (US$40) for three months to Rs. 4,450 (US$95) for 12 months. At Jeevansaathi.com, it ranges from Rs. 1,295 (US$25) for two months to Rs. 3,500 (US$75) for nine months. (Rates also vary by country.)
Given the dependency of revenues on subscriptions, the race between the players is to attract as many new users as possible (who register for free) and then convert them into paid users at the earliest opportunity. Some of the sites are quick to share their number of new users per day: Janakiraman says it is 10,000 for BharatMatrimony.com, Mittal says that it’s 8,000 for Shaadi.com, and Sanjeev Bikchandani, founder and CEO of Info Edge that runs Jeevansaathi.com, pegs it at 2,000. None of them, however, want to reveal their conversion rates.
“Apart from the size of the database, the success in conversion depends pretty much on how much intelligence there is in the product and how well it empowers the users to find more and better matches in the quickest and easiest manner,” says Bikchandani. Easy user interfaces, customized community offerings, horoscope matching in multiple languages, health checks, verifications, and voice and video recordings are some innovations that players have been introducing to ensure better conversion rates. Says Mittal: “It is the ability to discover hidden customer needs and add increasing value through innovation that will give a sustainable competitive advantage in this business.”
When it comes to attracting the new users in the first place, the biggest limitation that matrimonial portals face is that of Internet penetration. It is estimated that India, which has a total population of over one billion, has only 50 million Internet users. These are primarily in the metros and the large cities. “The online matrimonial market can explode only when Internet penetration in India grows,” says Info Edge’s Bikchandani.
Janakiraman adds that even among many of the current Internet users, online payment is an issue. “Many Indians still don’t have a credit card, and even if they do they are not completely comfortable with the concept of making payments online.”
Krishna of Yahoo raises another point. In line with Internet penetration, the current users of matrimonial sites are primarily from the metros and the larger cities. This profile of users is typically more open to trying out nonconventional avenues for matchmaking. As Internet penetration grows, new users will come from smaller towns and semi urban areas. But first, he notes, it will be important to determine how these untapped users regard marriage and matchmaking and what it would take for them to think of online matchmaking as the primary channel for finding a life partner. “The players need to be aggressive, but in a subtle manner, and they have to place themselves in the context of the other available alternatives.”
Faced with these challenges, the portals are coming out with new and innovative ways of accessing and influencing their target group. For instance, some of them are extending their offerings through brick-and-mortar networks; organizing matrimony meets across the country; entering into tie-ups with mobile service providers, mobile equipment makers and direct-to-home satellite television service providers; partnering with banks and post offices for payment collections and so on. According to Janakiraman, “The idea is to reach out to as many people as possible in an environment that they are most comfortable with.” Bikchandani adds that another critical ingredient for success is building the brand and creating top-of-mind recall. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime service, and one does not know when the potential customer will need it.”
Herein lies another key challenge: The very nature of the matchmaking business is that of a one-time transaction. The moment a user finds a partner, he or she has no further reason to visit the portal. Krishna of Yahoo puts it succinctly: “It is one of the very interesting businesses where your efficiency is detrimental to your business health.” He says that in order to grow the business, players need to look at adjacent businesses and try to capture the dollars there.
While there are no firm figures regarding the size of the Indian marriage market because of its very fragmented and unorganized nature, back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that it is a sizable number. Janakiraman and Mittal estimate that if one were to include every aspect surrounding marriage like jewelry, clothes, catering, gifts, event management and other categories, the size of the market swells to nearly US$10 billion to US$15 billion.
Much of this market, however, is very logistics driven and local in nature and does not lend itself to scale. In areas where they see room for growth, players have been quick to set up shop. These include posting wedding directories and partnering for honeymoon packages, astrological services, etc. “Perhaps once wedding gift registries become popular in India, we will look at that, too,” says Mittal.
For the moment, though, matrimonial portals are thriving in space they are operating in. Says Bikchandani: “With India’s young demographics, the online matchmaking market itself is big enough and holds immense promise.” Janakiraman adds, “It’s an evergreen business. It is not seasonal and is totally recession proof.”