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Sam Yagan is co-founder and CEO of, the fastest-growing free online dating service. Yagan was previously co-founder and CEO of, maker of SparkNotes, and president of MetaMachine, which[…]

Analyzing OkCupid’s vast store of behavioral data yields some interesting—and perhaps counterintuitive—advice for online daters.

Question: What statistics and trends should online daters be aware of?

Sam Yagan: We did some research that showed that the very first word of your message that you send a girl—when we looked at men sending messages to women—the very first word can have a tremendous... can have a very accurate prediction of whether you’re going to get a reply. 

If you just say, “Hi.”  You’re gonna do... you’re much less likely to get a reply than if you say, “Howdy,” for example.  That one simple word choice can drive how that person perceives your entire message and is going to impact the success you have in online dating.

There are all kinds of gems that we’ve managed to dig up.  Some of them are somewhat obvious, but when you put a number to them, it makes them more interesting.  So for example, for – any woman who has ever gone out to a bar knows that what you wear impacts whether guys will come and talk to you.  and in particular, how low-cut your shirt is, is a very important driver of interest.  So that’s not a surprise.  But what we were able to do is to actually quantify the impact of showing some cleavage in an online dating photo. 

So it turns out that you do get more messages if you have a more revealing photo.  But we found that was actually more insightful was that the cleavage advantage, as I call it, actually increases with age.  So when you’re 18 years old, if you have a photo that’s more revealing, you’re going to get about 24% more interest than a non-revealing photo.  By the time you turn 32 that advantage increases to 79%.  So that impact that everybody knows exists, you might not have realized actually changes with time and increases with age. 

It turns out there are a bunch of things you can do to make your profile pictures better.  Don’t use flash; we learned that if you use flash, it adds seven years of age.  So a 28-year old using flash has the same attractiveness as a 35-year-old who doesn’t use flash.  Right?  So we have some insights that are a little bit more trivial, if you will, and don’t have the social impact, but some do.

There are similar effects for men.  One thing... we did some research hoping—I don’t have very good abs—we did some research hoping that we would finally convince men that showing your abs in a picture was not the right thing to do.  Well unfortunately for me, the data turned out to show that if you show your abs in a photo and you’re male, you get a much higher response rate. 

Now as we did some digging and we did some thinking about this, it turns out that only men with nice abs show their abs, and them men with flabby abs, like me, don’t show their abs.  So we generalize that conclusion to say: definitely show your best assets and put your best foot forward.  So there are all kinds of gems that we found.  Some of the more simple to explain, you know, like that, some of them are more complicated.

So what do you do if you don’t have great abs and maybe you don’t have cleavage and you’re just a guy sitting there trying to get a girl to write you back?  One think that we’ve found is, to not compliment the woman’s physical features when writing a message.  So if you use the words, "sexy" or "cute" or "beautiful" in a message, you’re going to get about a 30% worse response rate than if you talk about interests that she has in her profile.  So if you use words like, "Oh it’s fascinating that you have this interest" or if you talk about a band that she likes or something that’s actually written about in her profile.  You’re going to do twice as well as if you’re someone who is focusing on her physical looks.

Question: Given your familiarity with the data, what should people keep in mind when building their profile?

Sam Yagan: When you’re thinking about building your own online dating profile, especially on OkCupid, you should go through the same steps you’re thinking about when you’re going out to meet someone new.  You want to put your best foot forward.  So there are a couple of things that we really recommend.  And I think about it in two categories.  One is your photos and one is the text on your actual profile. 

So on the photos we’ve learned a bunch of things.  We’ve learned that you should be doing something interesting.  We’ve learned that if you are a man, you shouldn’t look straight into the camera because that’s intimidating to women.  If you are a woman, you should be looking into the camera because men don’t want to imagine you looking at some other guy.  They want you looking straight at them.  So we’ve learned that if you take a photo in your bathroom or a photo taken with your cell phone, those have a more authentic, more intimate appeal and those actually do very, very well.  So we’ve learned a bunch of things on the photo side.  I already told you about the flash example. 

And then on the text side, what we’ve learned is, grammar matters. If you use poor grammar that is the same thing as having bad breath or body odor when you go to a bar.  Right?  It puts a very unorganized and it puts forth the impression that you don’t care.  You need to be funny.  People value humor a lot.  You need to be not... don’t share all your problems with people.  So don’t talk about all your previous breakups and why you’re going broke and how you still live at home with your mom.  Those aren’t thing that are, again, put your best foot forward. 

So we’ve learned a bunch of things when you send a message to people, keep those message short.  Imagine walking up to a girl in a bar and going into a four-minute speech about how great you are.  No one wants to hear that.  Your goal in an online dating profile and in your first message to somebody is to strike up a conversation.  Ask a question. Put forth a challenge.  Ask someone, “What are your favorite restaurants in New York?”  Let people... give people a little hook that they can grab onto and make it easy for someone to send you a message back.

Question: What would you say to someone who’s having trouble succeeding at dating online?

Sam Yagan: The first thing we’d suggest is, read the blog, look at the tips that we’ve got.  We’ve covered what the best profile photos are; we’ve covered how to send a message; we’ve covered a lot... it’s sort of our best way of giving a dating advice blog. It’s not really our brand to tell you how to date, it’s not really what we’re here to do, but we think that using the quantitative research that we have can help you. 

I think the second thing to do it to really invest in your profile.  So what we’ve found is that if you actually, you know, take the time to write a very careful profile, think about who am I really and how do I get my best foot across?  How do I put my best foot forward.  What are my hobbies?  Do I write about them?  Do I write about them in an engaging way?  Put as much effort into your online dating profile, into your OkCupid profile, as you would a conversation with somebody that you’re having in a bar that you’re trying to impress. 

So it is a little bit of a marketing game, but it’s also a numbers game.  So you should be reaching out to more people.  Don’t be afraid about sending a message to somebody, even if you think you might be, you know, out of your league or not necessarily the best match for you.  You have to go out there and you have to put those messages out there.  You have to try.  Don’t just cut and paste the same messages you sent to the last girl. Customize it. Think about "How do I actually get this specific person, guy or girl to write me back?"  And if you put the effort in, you spend the time on the site, you answer a bunch of match questions, you find the people who are the best matches for you, I can almost guarantee you that if you have someone who is a 90% match or better on OkCupid, they’re gonna write you back because there are so few of those people out there that it’s just, you know you’re going to have a lot in common with them.  You know, that even if you don’t find them attractive, even if they’re not going to be our soul mate, you know that you’re going to go and have an interesting time because you have so much in common.  We have vetted them for you. 

So invest in the matching algorithm, invest in your profile, and invest the time in reaching out to people and giving people a chance even if they don’t seem perfect for you at first glance.

Recorded on November 4, 2010
Interviewed by Teddy Sherrill

Directed & Produced by Jonathan Fowler