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  • Writer's pictureDusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 42 - OkCupid During the Covid Pandemic: PR Messaging and Online Dating Apps

Social distancing could have been cataclysmic to the world of online dating, but OkCupid chose to embrace it anyway.



When the unstoppable force of online dating met the immovable object of global pandemic social distancing, there was no road map for what would come next.


Michael Kaye is the director of brand and communications for the online dating app OkCupid. And, in the early days of the Covid lockdown, he and his team faced decisions that weighed on no less than the continued existence of the company.

It's tough to "meet the one" when you can't... meet.

After all, what is a stay-at-home order if not an existential threat to a company whose customers want to get matched up with new people to meet and date?


Facing this and other previously unthinkable realities in 2020, Michael and his team made the bold decision to retool their messaging—and indeed their core operating strategies—to embrace social responsibility over conventional profit.


It was a calculated risk that panned out in the long run, as we'll learn from Michael and a pair of OkCupid users—Lauren Stines and Jake Sandvik—who each have their own stories of love finding a way, even in the midst of global crisis.


Special thanks to London indie musician Garlen Lo for sharing his song, "Lover's Lover" for this episode! Visit www.garlenlo.com to learn more.


Subscribe to the Podcamp Media e-newsletter for more updates on the world of strategic communication.



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

All right, here's a quick puzzler for you. Over the last 10 years, what two forces have changed the patterns of human social behavior more than anything else? I'm talking about the ways we interact, the ways we meet new people, the ways we look for love or relationships. And you probably see what I'm driving at, technology being the first major factor that's come to reshape human interaction.


Certainly social media, but specifically dating apps have swung from a novelty to a part of everyday life for many relationship and company seekers. According to Pew, 30% of U.S. adults report that they've ever used a dating app, but more than 50% of those under the age of 30 have dipped a toe in the online dating pool. That's an exponential increase from the pre-smartphone era.


Archival News Footage:

We have 15% of our logins that occur on a mobile device. A year ago, that was virtually nothing.


Dusty Weis:

Last year, online dating companies generated nearly $5 billion in revenue. But then, of course, the other recent cataclysmic shift in the way we interact with other human beings was the COVID-19 pandemic, which just three years ago had much of the world gripped in ironclad lockdowns.


Archival News Footage:

Non-essential businesses, such as gyms and bars, have closed as restaurants offer only takeout and delivery service.


Dusty Weis:

And when the unstoppable force of online dating met the immovable object of global pandemic social distancing, there was no roadmap for what would come next.


Michael Kaye:

We have no idea how this is going to impact online dating when we were forced to go home and not leave our home. So how are people going out and continuing to date?


Dusty Weis:

Michael Kaye is the Director of Brand and Communications for the online dating app OkCupid. And in the early days of the COVID lockdown, before any of us really knew what the heck was going on, he and his team faced decisions that weighed on no less than the continued existence of the company. After all, what is a stay-at-home order, if not an existential threat to a company whose customers want to get matched up with new people to meet and date?


Facing this and other previously unthinkable realities in 2020, Michael and his team made the bold decision to retool their messaging and, indeed, their core operating strategies to embrace social responsibility over conventional profit, a calculated risk that panned out in the long run, proving that even in the midst of global crisis, love does find a way.


Lauren Stines:

Can I hug you goodbye? Is that ethical for us to do?


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis. From Podcamp Media, this is Lead Balloon, a podcast about compelling tales from the world of PR, marketing and branding told by the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them. Thanks for tuning in. Make sure to follow this show in Apple Podcasts or whatever your app of preference is as we tell a new story each month about strategic communicators facing down long odds and usually coming out on top.


The business of online dating is one that is rapidly evolving, as are the attitudes about it. It feels like it was back in the Stone Age, but when I was still in the dating pool, before I met my wife 10 years ago, is right when I'd say that we were reaching a social tipping point. Prior to that, I'd say that there was still kind of a general stigma against finding love online, and most people preferred the old-fashioned way. But, in fact, the dating app OkCupid has been around for almost 20 years. Originally launched as a website by a group of former Harvard students in 2004, the dating service entered the mainstream right as smartphones were really taking off, gaining popularity as one of the only dating services at the time that didn't charge users a fee.


OkCupid was acquired in 2011 by the match.com division of the massive $12 billion media conglomerate IAC, which also launched the dating app Tinder a year later as part of IAC'S startup incubator. IAC would continue to bring other dating apps under the umbrella, including Bumble, Hinge, Plenty of Fish and many more until Match Group's spinoff as an independent company in 2020. And through those years of corporate restructuring and strategic tilting, OkCupid's Director of Brand and Communications Michael Kaye says the app retained its niche of using survey questions to connect singles based on shared interests and personality traits rather than just users' profile pictures.


Michael Kaye:

We're the only dating app in the world that matches you on what matters to you through in-app questions, and we have thousands of them. They cover everything related to dating, relationships, and sex, but also everything that's top of mind for Gen Z and millennial daters from climate change to reproductive healthcare to racial justice, marriage equality, gun control. You name it, we're asking about it.


Dusty Weis:

Michael joined OkCupid as a public relations manager in 2019 after running up an impressive collection of blots on his New York agency bingo card, having spent time at Edelman, Weber Shandwick and Ruder Finn, to name a few. And he says that, as a professional storyteller, OkCupid's trove of user survey data provides him with opportunities that he wouldn't get working at any other dating app.


Michael Kaye:

That keeps things really exciting because one day I might have a really unique story for Cosmopolitan, and the other day I'm going to have a really compelling story for the Washington Post. So it's never dull, it's never boring, and it's never the same story. And that keeps it really fresh and exciting.


Dusty Weis:

Well, and especially in the world of strategic communication, these last 10 years especially, the emphasis has been on, "ive us the data. What's the data? We need to look over the data and let the data drive the decisions." Who is your target demographic at OkCupid, and how does that stack up to some of the other apps that are out there, some of which I should mention are owned by your parent company, Match.


Michael Kaye:

Yeah, so on OkCupid, from an age perspective, our largest demographic are millennials, followed by Gen X and Gen Z, but overwhelmingly most of our users are millennials. Where we differ from our competitors is that if you're on OkCupid, you are probably more intentional with how you're dating. We, full transparency, are just not going to be the app that people think of when they want a quick hookup, and that's okay. But we make you do a lot of work when you're creating a profile on OkCupid. there's a lot of steps to take.

And, honestly, that's by design because we want to bring in a higher intent dater. We want to bring in users who take dating a little bit more seriously, so our biggest differentiator in terms of the people who are on our app are probably people who are looking for a longer term, more meaningful relationship. Probably not their first foray into dating apps. They've probably tested out a couple and then landed on OkCupid when they're ready to settle down. But that's really our target, and that's who we're always speaking to.


Dusty Weis:

Learning how to speak with that very specific audience was just one of the challenges Michael faced as the calendar flipped from 2019 to 2020.


Michael Kaye:

I was not even a year into OkCupid yet, and I already had a lot of firsts under my belt. So I had never been in-house. This was the first time I was in-house. This was the first time I worked at a dating app. This is the first time I worked for a tech brand, and this was the first time I was in a global role. So one of the first things I did at OkCupid in my first six months was expand the brand internationally, launch us in Australia, in Germany, in Israel, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and then came March 2020.


Dusty Weis:

Like a lot of us, for Michael, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic wasn't exactly something to which he was paying close attention. That is, until it landed right in the middle of his world.


Michael Kaye:

I don't think I was hearing the name coronavirus, but I did hear rumblings about a virus that was spreading pretty quickly. I did not think anything of it. I was still going out business as usual in February. And then it started to get a little bit more serious at the way beginning of March. And I remember at that time there was a lot of conversations about having to wash your hands. And it's so ridiculous to think back of now that our concern was like, "Oh, get to the office and immediately wash your hands and you're golden."


Dusty Weis:

Right, right. There was this wonderful naivety where nobody really knew what we were getting into, and I think a lot of people shared the same experience that you did because we do, we remember this period there when there was this background chatter almost about COVID, this virus that's over in Asia. But at what point did you realize then that it was going to radically change the way that your company did business?


Michael Kaye:

Probably the last week we were in the office. At that point, there was a lot more panic than there had been in the previous weeks. So I remember that Monday everyone came into the office. By Tuesday, we dropped to half. By Wednesday, we were down to a handful. And Thursday, it was only myself and a colleague from my team-


Dusty Weis:

Oh, wow.


Michael Kaye:

...in the office. And I remember I had been planning my first press event for OkCupid in a couple of weeks, and I remember taking a couple of items from my desk, and I was going to work from home the next day, which was a Friday. And I remember looking at my coworker and saying, "Well, I guess we'll see you at the event. I assume we'll just take a Lyft there since we're not going to be coming from the office." And she was like, "Great, see you then." So even leaving my office to go work remotely, I still did not think it was going to impact this event that was happening at the end of the month. It still wasn't that serious to me.


Dusty Weis:

And we thought, "It'll be a few days, it'll be a few weeks."


Michael Kaye:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

"It'll be over." But from a strategic perspective, at what point did you and your team then huddle together and decide, "All right, we need to come up with a new strategy. This is something that is going to impact the world of dating, it's going to impact our customers, and we need to build a plan for this"?


Michael Kaye:

Yeah. Well, we luckily are a very data-driven brand, so we're always looking at the numbers. We're always analyzing insights on user behavior. So we were monitoring how our users were behaving every single day, regardless of the pandemic. And there was definitely a period where we thought, "There's not much happening. We really don't understand if there's going to be a slowdown in new users, if people are going to delete their dating apps, if they're going to be so panicked that they are just not going to be active. How do I navigate a future that's so uncertain?" We had no idea how this is going to impact online dating when we were forced to go home and not leave our home. So how are people going out and continuing to date?


Dusty Weis:

But as much as Michael and the team at OkCupid felt like they were in uncharted territory, their users, the people trying to meet new people and date and fall in love during the early months of COVID, were completely lost. Lauren Stines was 26 in March of 2020. She had just moved to Portland, Oregon, from her home state of Iowa a couple years prior.


Lauren Stines:

I was just starting to feel like, "Okay, I have a good group of friends. I'm settled into the house and with the roommates that I live with." And then, like it did for many people, everything changed.


Dusty Weis:

Everything got snatched away from you, essentially. Yeah.


Lauren Stines:

Yeah. Pulled out from under me.


Dusty Weis:

Sounds like you had roommates, which I can imagine helped with the social isolation of those early COVID years. So tell me, I guess, how your experience using OkCupid changed from that early phase when you were in it to then once the lockdowns began.


Lauren Stines:

I had used OkCupid in the past and met a couple people off of it before, and I had a brief relationship through the winter that ended and we decided to be friends, and I was using OkCupid to get back into dating. And then I, personally, and the roommates I lived with had a more conservative stance on COVID as it relates to, "We don't know what's going down, so let's close our social borders, if you will, and focus more on being a maintained unit."


And so what shifted for me was, "Oh, I can't really date anymore. I can't use this platform to the same degree." So a lot of my activity on there, if there was any, was turning down dates and telling people that I couldn't see them anymore, and that if they didn't know already, that there's a global pandemic happening.


Dusty Weis:

But there was one person in her OkCupid app who she couldn't quite bring herself to quit cold turkey. And so Lauren agreed to one date with him on March 11, 2020. Now you might not recognize that date, but that's the day when the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci discussed the growing American caseload before Congress.


Congressional Committee Chair:

Is the worst yet to come. Dr. Fauci?


Dr. Fauci:

Yes, it is.


Dusty Weis:

Tom Hanks announced on Instagram that he had COVID and the NBA canceled games while players were on the court warming up.


Archival NBA Footage:

We're not really sure here, folks. We're going to get some information for you.


Head coaches have gone back and you see the teams heading back to the locker room.


Dusty Weis:

And then suspended the rest of its season later that evening.


Archival NBA Footage:

This is the last night of NBA games for the foreseeable future.


Lauren Stines:

Then it became very real. And how that impacted the relationship was we had a very question mark moment after that first date. He tells it how he received a message from me saying, "Hey, have you heard? This seems actually kind of real and kind of serious. I don't know if I can keep dating." Because I had three roommates to consider. One that was having their worst nightmare come to fruition and trying to be mindful of that while keeping us all sane so we didn't have a major downfall in my living situation.


Dusty Weis:

Right. It sounds like your roommates and you sort of arrived at, I guess we called it, bubbles at the time.


Lauren Stines:

Yes.


Dusty Weis:

Sort of a bubble pact going on where you were going to be the only people you all saw.


Lauren Stines:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

How did your significant other take the news that, "We've got a thing going, it's maybe kind of working, but we've got to put the brakes on for a minute"?


Lauren Stines:

He's really nice and really flexible, and the intention of our relationship starting out was to keep it casual anyway. But I think the pandemic maybe adjusted that for us. How he tells it, he was hanging out with a friend when he received the message. And he said that he was starting to feel excited about us after that first date and turned to his friend and was like, "I don't think I'm going to see this girl ever again. I don't think it's going to happen."


Dusty Weis:

So coming up after the break, a surprising trend puts OkCupid in a position to thrive, if they can only harness the power of the data at their fingertips and get their users to do the right thing.


Michael Kaye:

We don't want to encourage anyone to meet up, but we did encourage them to match.


Dusty Weis:

Plus, can Lauren Stines find love in the time of corona?


Lauren Stines:

Emphasis on try. We tried to keep a six-foot distance, but there was a lot of chemistry, so that became difficult.


Dusty Weis:

That's all coming up in a minute here on Lead Balloon. This is Lead Balloon, and I'm Dusty Weis. It was spring of 2020, and most of us were becoming familiar with social distancing, a term I would personally come to loathe, even as I recognized the necessity and importance. As the weeks dragged, on the stir crazy really began to set in. I think we all have memories of the healthy or maybe not so healthy ways that we dealt with it.

What are you helping Daddy do?


Dusty's Son:

Mix drink.


Dusty Weis:

That's right. Welcome to another COVID cocktail hour. That's my boy coming to you from the bunker.


But for single people, especially those living alone, the isolation was particularly acute. Jake Sandvik is another person who found himself on the OkCupid app in the early months of the pandemic.


Jake Sandvik:

You really couldn't be physical three years ago when the death virus was going around. People were alone. Before I moved back with my parents, I was living in my apartment about an hour and 15 minutes away, and my roommates had moved out and I was by myself, and I hadn't had a conversation with someone other than at the store in a span of two or three weeks. So when I went back and I moved in with my parents, it was just my parents I was talking to and I was like, "I need to find someone. I just want to make sure that they're breathing and that's all I care about."


Dusty Weis:

So Jake logged in and created an account on the dating app OkCupid. It wasn't his first account or his first foray into online dating.


Jake Sandvik:

I was on online dating for 10-plus years.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, my gosh, really?


Jake Sandvik:

Yes. I've been on and off OkCupid. I probably had made 10, 15 profiles because I was like, "I'm never going to find anyone." Then I delete it. Then you have to go on there and answer all the questions again.


Dusty Weis:

But with time on his hands and nowhere in particular to go, Jake says he was able to get intentional about his dating. Confined to his parents' place in northern Ohio in the midst of COVID lockdowns, suddenly it didn't matter so much whether the people with whom he matched worked local or not. And so he began chatting with a young woman in Norway with whom he shared a number of interests.


Jake Sandvik:

I remember the first message. I was like, "Hey, I'm Jake. I saw that you like fitness and movies and music. I do, too. Do you want to chat?" And she just said, "Yeah, I do." And we just took it from there. And a lot of times on dating sites, you see people just say, "Yeah, okay, haha, that's funny." But with her, it was paragraphs. Or if it wasn't a paragraph, it was like she was thinking about the message that she was writing, and I was doing that, too. And as corny as it sounds, that's how I knew that I was in love. And two weeks after I started talking to her, I asked her to be in a long distance relationship and she said yes.


Dusty Weis:

Would you have considered dating someone long distance at a time when there wasn't a global pandemic going on?


Jake Sandvik:

There were times when you feel really lonely, I was more open to it. But then some days it was just kind of, "No, I want to date someone at least in Ohio or southern Michigan." But yeah, I think COVID really helped push that along.


Dusty Weis:

Jake and Nicole dated for two years during the pandemic without ever getting to meet in person. He went to visit her for the first time in spring of 2022, popped the question a week later, and they were married that summer, a life turn he said would never have happened if not for the COVID lockdowns and the OkCupid app.


Jake Sandvik:

Here we are three years later, and I'm living in Norway and I'm taking a Norwegian class. This is the happiest I've ever been.


Dusty Weis:

That's awesome, man. Congratulations. I'm so stoked for you guys.


Jake Sandvik:

Thank you very much.


Dusty Weis:

But Jake and Nicole's story is not atypical, according to Michael Kaye, the Director of Brand and Communications at OkCupid. In fact, as Michael was adjusting to his work from home arrangement, fretting over the heavy New York caseloads in April of 2020 and worrying over a potential decline in dating app use, he and his team were shocked to discover an inverse trend in OkCupid activity.


Michael Kaye:

The numbers started to show huge increases in engagement. So we started to notice that all over the world, matches on OkCupid were increasing 10% and conversations were increasing over 20%. And they sound like low percentages, but they really aren't when you're thinking of the fact that there are millions and millions of people on OkCupid.

So once we realized really early on that people are actually still active on our apps and they're more engaged than ever before, we realized that we had to just alter how we were talking to our users. We changed a lot of our language, especially when it came to our CRM efforts. We stopped saying the word meet, for example. We didn't want to encourage anyone to meet up, but we did encourage them to match. And we encouraged them to have conversations and stay engaged on the platform. So the first pivot for us was really all around the language and how we were speaking to our users via the app, also on social, and then obviously there were a ton of changes to happen after that.


Dusty Weis:

Under Michael and his team's direction, OkCupid urged its users to follow the latest health guidance from experts in the early months of the pandemic. In blog posts and on Twitter, they advocated mask use in public spaces and cutely suggested ideas for virtual dates or socially distanced experiences that users could enjoy together.

One tweet from May of that year playfully declared, "A lot of OkCupid daters have been moving up the meet the family dinners just because when you're quarantined with mom, she has a way of appearing in the back of every Zoom call." But in that highly polarized political atmosphere of 2020, Michael says they realized that coming down strong in favor of public health measures might have upset some folks.


Michael Kaye:

It was a no-brainer for us that we wanted to protect our users. So for us, we wanted to make sure that we were really aligned with local governments in certain states, regions, countries, especially how we were talking to them and what action we were encouraging them to take.


So for us, it was all about making sure that our users stay safe. And if that meant that they had to stay home and not be going out and meeting with other people on OkCupid, that's what we wanted to encourage. We definitely encouraged them to stay home in the beginning. And then, as the pandemic went on, we encouraged them to wear masks, get vaccinated, take all those actions that our government was telling us to do as well.


Dusty Weis:

What I remember about the pandemic was really just feeling at times like I was getting an information overload. It seemed like there was new news coming in every hour. When you looked at the tallies, particularly in places like New York where I know you're based, the tallies of deaths of cases there, watching those skyrocket, in those early weeks, it felt really, really scary.


But it also felt like the guidance and our understanding of the virus were evolving day to day because they were, essentially. So we were all getting new information, new best practices every day. How often was your team meeting and how were you making decisions about which of that new data to incorporate into your messaging going out?


Michael Kaye:

Yeah, that's a great question. We're meeting daily, again, regardless of the pandemic, but we're definitely more closely aligned and in conversation around these really pivotal moments, so spikes during the pandemic. We definitely had a ton more conversations around Black Lives Matter during the pandemic, Stop Asian Hate during the pandemic. So if there's something that's really impacting culture and society, we're obviously even more in lockstep than other moments, but we as a brand, were navigating this as best and as quickly as we could.


We were experiencing it just like everyone else. We didn't have a leg up. This was still new for all of us. So just like it was a new concept, at least, I think for both of us, this is the first global pandemic I've ever been in, hopefully the last, but this is new for us as a brand as well. So I truly think looking back, we were all just doing our best and trying our best.


Lauren Stines:

Everyone was telling me to wash my hands. I'm sure OkCupid was, too.


Dusty Weis:

Lauren Stines, the OkCupid user who we met in the first half of the show, doesn't have any specific recollection of seeing messages from the app about its public health recommendations. But in retrospect, she says she's happy to hear how the brand's values align with her own.


Lauren Stines:

I do have a sense of respect and appreciation there. As someone who wanted and did my best to be conscious of my health and the health of others during COVID, I'm appreciative that they took that stance and they sent that message and gave a platform for some of the people who were feeling isolated at that time, that they could still connect with people and make new connections, and still in everything feeling kind of upside down, have a sense of normalcy of the familiar app to go visit.


Dusty Weis:

You'll recall that Lauren had met a promising match for a first date, but then stepped back in the early days of lockdown.


Lauren Stines:

What happened next was we decided to go on a second date, and in trying to be pro-social and morally ethical, we decided it was going to be a distance date. So we went on a walk together and tried to keep, emphasis on the try, we tried to keep a six-foot distance, but there was a lot of chemistry, so that became difficult. But we did a pretty good job, considering.


Dusty Weis:

I'm going to let the listener's imagination expound upon what that might mean.


Lauren Stines:

Yeah. It might have impacted, it definitely impacted how the relationship progressed in terms of... I'm big on consent, but it added a whole other level of consent, too of, "Can I stand next to you? Can I hug you goodbye? Is that ethical for us to do?"


Dusty Weis:

And with the crackle of chemistry bridging the six-foot social distance between them, Lauren said she felt empowered to open a discussion with her roommates about allowing each person in the house to add one other person to their bubble.


Lauren Stines:

We essentially just took the leap. "Okay, if we're going to keep seeing each other, in order to do this in a way that we both feel okay about, we're going to be in a bubble together now", which takes a casual relationship to, "You're one of the only people that I have permission from myself and my household to be in proximity with."


And I don't remember the exact script of it all, but remember that conversation of like, "Should we be in a bubble together? Is this crazy? I just met you, but I really like you." And then, yeah, we went on from there.


Dusty Weis:

Around the world, these sorts of COVID romances were playing out in wildly varied sets of circumstances. And in his role at OkCupid, Michael saw more than just an opportunity to use its reach and influence to urge people to do the right thing. He saw an opportunity to tell those stories, leveraging the company's vast trove of anonymous user data.


Michael Kaye:

When I joined OkCupid in 2019 and learned more about our questions and the amount of data that we were sitting on, and I looked at different brands in our category with significantly bigger communications and PR teams, I realized early on, "I need to find a way to stand out." And it's the data. That's what's going to make us stand out from our competitors. But I need to make sure that I can be the best possible resource to media. And with that comes the need for speed. So I went to our data science team and I asked them to train me on the tools that they're using every day so that when a reporter emails me, within five minutes, I can get them the data they need. I don't have to go to multiple people on different teams and sift through the data. I can do it all myself.


And that's been really beneficial. There have been times where I've had to work on a story in a Lyft ride on the way to an office, and I'm just able to get it done quickly because I understand how to use these analytic tools. And 2020 was my first full year in the job, and it was also the year with the highest amount of press coverage for OkCupid in its nearly two decades of experience.


So I'm proud of how efficiently and effectively we used our ownable data to drive conversations and stand apart from all the competitors in our space, many of whom have a lot bigger teams than we do. We're still a really small company, and our marketing team is only five years old. So we're still in our infancy stage, where it still feels like a startup, which is kind of odd because we've been around for almost 20 years.


But I'm really proud of how fast we worked. And while I'm on this soapbox for a hot second, I will say to anyone listening, you cannot be afraid of numbers. I am the person who was terrified of numbers. I literally changed my major from business to communications because in college I thought, "I'm never going to grasp how to use numbers." And it wasn't until OkCupid that I began to understand how you could look for stories within these insights and pull numbers together and build a narrative around it. So today I get to be the one to pull data.


Dusty Weis:

It's an incredible insight, Michael, and thank you for sharing it because I've said it before, and I'll say it until I'm blue in the face. We live in a world now where it used to be there were five PR people for every reporter. Now it's closer to 10 PR people for every reporter. Newsrooms are wildly understaffed, and very often a reporter on deadline is reaching out to multiple sources to get the same piece of information that they need for their narrative.


And so if you can be the one to provide it to them first, fastest, speed kills. You're going to get the headline. And certainly I think you've seen that in the way that you have been able to quick turn stories for OkCupid and get the kind of media placements that brands like yours really hunger for. I'll say this. A couple of interesting statistics that stick out to me from the pandemic that you got headlines about. That profile mentions of coronavirus increased 2200% in that first year of the pandemic.


That mentions of the word mask on people's profiles increased by 185% during that year. From November of 2020 to January of 2021, mentions of the word vaccine increased by 137%. And people in the United States who answer yes to the matching question, "Will you get the COVID-19 vaccine?" were receiving 20% more likes and 12% more matches during that time. Now the numbers themselves are interesting, but from a strategic communications standpoint, I cannot help but notice that you were very deliberate about collating those numbers and then making them public, making them into news. Was this essentially a peer pressure campaign to get people to do the right thing here?


Michael Kaye:

Ooh, was it peer pressure? I don't like to say we peer pressure.


Dusty Weis:

I do, because, Michael, the statistics that I've seen on persuasion, and I saw many of these studies come out during the pandemic, they all incorporated the same wisdom that you're less likely to get people to do what you ask by telling them, "Hey, do the right thing" than you are by telling them, "Well, your friends and neighbors are doing this thing. Maybe you should too." That that is in fact statistically a much more effective persuasion technique. So I'll ask you again. Was this a well-executed and clever peer pressure campaign, a benign peer pressure campaign?


Michael Kaye:

We are very mindful about what we put out there, and we know that we have a very large audience, both on our app and across all our social channels. And for us, it was just a no-brainer that you should be following guidelines for the pandemic. So for us, if a push notification or a social post or an in-app question meant that one extra person would wear a mask or get vaccinated, then we were going to continue doing just that.

Again, we all wanted to return to normal as quick as possible, and that meant that we had to make sure all of us were taking the necessary precautions. And then, again, we watched the data and the data showed that our users were interested in doing this. The phrase "I'm vaccinated" on OkCupid profiles increased over 1400% in May 2021 compared to a few months prior. So this became a trending topic amongst our users. And if it's important to our users, it's absolutely important to us.


Dusty Weis:

In that vein, when the COVID vaccines began to roll out early in 2021, Michael made sure that OkCupid was not just messaging its user data about getting the shot, but getting even more deeply involved in the public persuasion campaign.


Michael Kaye:

We actually supported the White House's efforts to get more people vaccinated, especially Gen Zers and millennials. And where are those younger audiences? They're on dating apps. So we actually added in a new profile badge called the I'm vaccinated profile badge. And if you answer the question, "Do you want to add a badge to your profile to tell others you've gotten the COVID-19 vaccine?", you would then get the I'm vaccinated profile badge, and we would allow you to match with other daters who self-reported that they're vaccinated. And as an added incentive, we also gave all those participants a free boost just to help them get seen by even more profiles. And that's another proud moment to hear OkCupid data in a White House press briefing.


Archival News Footage:

According to one of the sites, OkCupid, people who display their vaccination status are 14% more likely to get a match. We have finally found the one thing that makes us all more attractive, a vaccination.


Michael Kaye:

That was a first in my career. Probably a last, but still a fun win.


Dusty Weis:

I will say this, Michael, I think that hearing these stories, a lot of PR and marketing professionals are going to be very, very jealous of you and the authority that you get to wield at OkCupid in taking PR and marketing objectives and getting the company to incorporate them in a very quick, very deliberate, very nimble way. It's incredible that you as now the Director of Brand, but then your role was more of a public relations role, were able to go to the company and essentially say, "Hey, we need to incorporate this into our programming. We need to be able to offer this new product to our people." And to have the company pivot with you as its axis, that's a pretty rare thing in the world of public relations.


Michael Kaye:

Yeah. Well, I will say I am blessed to be part of a marketing team that I think is the best in our category. We have a really strong marketing team. My colleague Jane Reynolds, who is our Director of Product Marketing, has been here for over six years and really is close to the product that we offer to millions of people around the world. So I'm part of a very strong team, which just makes this work that much easier.


Dusty Weis:

So certainly it sounds like you were meeting your customers, meeting your users, where they were in a lot of these issues, and again, doing the right thing. But we live in a super polarized society right now, and one needs only Google Bud Light this week to see the evidence of just how much blowback that can create for a brand. Did you experience any blowback from your embrace of coronavirus best practices, and did you have any concerns about either a drop-off in dating activity or any animosity that might have been kicked up against the brand during this time?


Michael Kaye:

Well, it's ironic that you brought up Bud Light and Dylan because our most recent criticism has been our partnership with Dylan Mulvaney. And for us, on that piece alone, I just want to say that OkCupid supports the LGBTQ+ community, including all non-binary and transgender people. And we believe there needs to be more transgender inclusion in advertising and marketing and are so incredibly proud to have worked with Dylan last year in 2022.


But in regards to everything we've done during the pandemic, there hasn't been a lot of pushback because we know who our audience is. Our users tend to be more progressive. They're a lot of Gen Zers, they're a lot of millennials. These are very progressive, left-leaning, liberal generations, and a lot of our users tend to reside in large metropolitan areas. So we know that when we launch a Black Lives Matter badge or a climate change advocate badge or a I'm vaccinated profile badge, it's going to resonate with our users because we know our target so well.


So we've gotten a lot of really positive feedback from a lot of the work we've done. I will say there was a campaign we launched during the pandemic that angered some conservatives for sure. In fact, Sean Hannity on Fox News went on a little rant about OkCupid's subway ad. So not everyone always loves what we do, but the majority do, and we just care about the people on our platform. The rest is just noise that we're going to not listen to.


Dusty Weis:

OkCupid user Lauren Stines says she appreciated the app's incorporation of features that asked people about their health and safety protocols.


Lauren Stines:

Do you wear a mask? Yeah. Which is a really helpful portion of that app because you can just right away see where people land socially and politically and just in general.


Dusty Weis:

And as for that fella with whom she went on that adorable socially distanced second date, walking around outdoors, well, they're still together too.


Lauren Stines:

We live together now.


Dusty Weis:

You live together now? Oh, my gosh. That's great.


Lauren Stines:

Yeah. We all have that moment in a long-term relationship where you learn how the other person responds in a crisis, whether it's a flat tire on a road trip or what have you, some family mishap. But, yeah, we started out in a crisis, so we got to figure out how the other person responds to stress, too. And I think just the nature of experiencing a pandemic in your lifetime, really just buckling down with that other person as a way to survive that crisis, it makes a lot of sense to get real about what you're looking for.


Dusty Weis:

And for Michael Kaye, the Director of Brand and Communications at OkCupid, Lauren's story also tracks with the data they're seeing.


Michael Kaye:

I think the biggest change we're seeing now that we're slowly coming out of the pandemic is that people have become way more intentional with how they're dating. The pandemic gave all of us, whether we were in a relationship or not, an opportunity to sit back and really reflect on what's important to us when it comes to friendships, when it comes to romantic relationships, when it comes to work.


Conversations that we've shied away from in the past, that's not a thing anymore. So an example is we've seen that discussions around mental health have become a huge turn on for daters. More than nine in 10 daters on OkCupid say they're sensitive, and this honesty is really paying off when it comes to dating, especially for men, which historically is a demographic that was a little bit less likely to talk about things like therapy or anxiety or depression. But last year, men who said they were sensitive on OkCupid received 107% more likes and 86% more matches, and they also had 113% more conversations than men who aren't, so-


Dusty Weis:

See, there you go with that benign peer pressure again.


Michael Kaye:

Yeah. You know it.


Dusty Weis:

No, I love it. I love it. You use the leverage that you have and make society a little bit better in the process.


Michael Kaye:

It's important to have these conversations and talking about it normalizes it. And that's really, really important to us. We're also seeing people are just more open about what they want in a relationship. For example, open relationships are no longer taboo. Non-monogamy has been around for centuries, but post-pandemic, young generations are embracing them, which is also helping alleviate the stigma that they once carried.

Sex positivity is on the rise. Sober dating is on the rise. So all the trends we're seeing just makes me really hopeful for this next generation of daters and all the relationships that are forming this year and beyond. So it's been a really exciting time, and I'm really hopeful for what life looks like for singles this year.


Dusty Weis:

Well, certainly, you've been in a position to shape it more than most, and they always say, "Leave it better for the generation that comes after" and certainly I think you've been able to do that in your time at OkCupid, but I have to ask, what about you? Professionally, over the last three years, you have been promoted three times at OkCupid, most recently to Director of Brand and Communications, so congratulations on that. But certainly there are professional lessons from the last three years that you take away from the experience and you'll hold onto for the rest of your career. How can other PR practitioners learn from your experience and implement those lessons going forward?


Michael Kaye:

I would say the biggest lesson for me over the past year, for sure, has been to not be afraid to be an expert in one area. So for years on the agency side, I let myself be pigeon held into being an expert in earned media, which is always going to be my favorite part of this job. I absolutely love telling stories. But over the past year, I thought, "There's so many other ways to tell stories. It's not only via press."


And that's actually allowed me to expand my role and absorb influencer marketing and social media. And, really, that common denominator is still being a storyteller. It's just finding new ways to tell stories and new ways to create content. So don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. It could be extremely beneficial, and it doesn't mean you have to leave anything behind.


Dusty Weis:

Well, Michael Kaye, Director of Brand and Communications for OkCupid, I've certainly learned a lot today. Thank you for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Michael Kaye:

Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.


Dusty Weis:

The COVID-19 pandemic took a lot away from us. Most importantly, we lost nearly 7 million of our fellow human beings. At least, those are the ones whose governments have been honest in accounting for their loss. More than a million of our fellow Americans are among the dead, a staggering loss. Those numbers would have been several times worse, at least, if not for social distancing, masking, and vaccination efforts.


Those efforts undoubtedly saved lives, even if they had their own human costs that we all had to bear. It's been a tough three years for all of us. But looking back now, here from the other side, we find hope, comfort, and maybe even joy in the fact that even in the midst of a deadly pandemic that forced many of us to put our lives on pause, love finds a way. And the human experience keeps evolving.


Garlen Lo:

(singing).


Dusty Weis:

Additional thanks to Lauren Stines and Jake Sandvik for sharing their stories of finding love on OkCupid during the pandemic, and kudos to them and their significant others for making it work during an otherwise tough, bleak time. Thanks as well to London musician Garlen Lo for sharing this delightful little diddy with us for this episode. I honestly cannot imagine a more appropriate soundtrack, but sometimes in the podcast business, kismet strikes. And in this case, the musician himself saw my Twitter post about searching for OkCupid users to interview about their coronavirus dating experiences, and he just linked me to the track.


It's called Lover's Lover, and it's available for free at Bandcamp, Spotify or wherever you stream music. And you can learn more about Garlen Lo at G-A-R-L-E-N-L-O.com. Myself, I've been singing this tune nonstop in the car. Additional music for this episode by Dr. Delight, Cast of Characters, Fairlight and Taiyim.


Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses. Our podcast studios are located in the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but we work with brands all over North America. Podcamp media.com.


I was the producer, story editor and writer for this episode, and Beatrice Lawrence helped out with dialogue editing. And if I may, as an aside for a moment, Beatrice joined us about a year ago, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin as our first paid intern here at Podcamp Media, and it's with a bursting proud heart that I'm excited to announce that she has accepted an excellent position as Multimedia Producer at Wisconsin Public Radio. Congratulations, Beatrice. You've earned it.


Please do follow Lead Balloon in Apple podcasts or whatever your favorite podcast app is. Check out Podcamp Media on social. And until the next time, folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.


Garlen Lo:

(singing)



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