Chinese online dating should have everything going for it -- vast numbers of singles, an even larger Internet population, and an ancient tradition for matchmaking.
Yet for most companies, profits seem as elusive as ever, and most are still looking for a business model that will turn all that romantic feeling floating around the Chinese Internet into tangible cash.
"How to make money is the problem for every Internet dating company in China," said Zhang Kuan, president of Jiaoyou.com, an online dating site.
"We're really struggling with this, and I think most Web sites are struggling with this," Zhang said.
There is no obvious reason why it should be so hard. With 110 million Internet users, and counting, China would appear to be brimming with potential for anything that can be traded online, including dates.
Even more important, the social and cultural context is being transformed in ways that would seem ideal for promoting online dating on a truly massive scale.
"Basically the social environment is changing and the number of Internet users is growing. Those are the key drivers," said Jason Tian (
Chinese men are increasingly moving from their home towns to large cities, where they have a limited social network to find a mate, according to Tian.
Uniquely, they are also part of the one-child generation -- the products of the most restrictive population policies in Chinese history -- giving them certain common characteristics.
"Parents became very tolerant. Children didn't know how to cooperate with others, how to tolerate others. They're very self-centered," Tian said.
"After they grow up, they find it's very difficult for them to change and adapt to another person," he said.
Based on factors like these, companies such as Shanghai-based consultancy iResearch estimate the online dating market could reach 653 million yuan (US$82 million) in 2008, up from 91 million yuan last year.
But realizing the potential will hinge partly on an industry-wide migration away from a free business model that relies on advertising revenues, executives said.
"We have to make a healthier industry here. At the end of the day high quality services cannot be free," said Li Song (
Executives said the principal challenge would be to build trust among potential customers who are accustomed to finding love the old way -- through introductions by family and friends.
The solution, according to the chief executive of the Web site eFriendsNet.com, Marine Ma (
eFriendsNet.com acts primarily as a social networking site where friends can link to each other's friends via a "relation chain" -- a service provided by many other sites such as Friendster of the US.
"We help the users, just like in the real world, to meet each other. Know each other, make friends, then date," he said.
eFriendsNet.com then charges a subscription fee for enhanced services such as the ability to chat with a potential date by mobile phone using a secure connection that protects both parties' identity.
"The most important thing is that we charge users to generate revenue, and we're profitable, that's quite different," he said.