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Emerging markets need dating apps with fresh flavor and flair, says Andy Tian of Asia Innovations Group

Written by Stephanie Pearl Li Published on     6 mins read

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VCs targeting emerging markets don’t invest enough in the mobile dating sector—and that’s a mistake, says Tian, co-founder of AIG.

With social distancing measures still in place all over the world, many people have resorted to using mobile dating apps to explore their options. To add a much-needed human touch to the experience, video-based interactions have been developed to make dating apps a bit more appealing. Lamours is an app that makes video chats the center of its user experience.

After signing up on the platform, users will be greeted with an array of photos of their potential dates, who can be reached directly via texts, voice messages, and video calls, depending on the subscription plan. Users can also watch livestream videos of their matches, play video games together, and send virtual gifts along the way to interact.

What makes Lamour stand out is that it has navigated socially conservative markets like Pakistan and India, where online dating still carries a social stigma. Launched in June 2019 by Beijing-based firm Asia Innovations Group (AIG), the platform claims to be the most-downloaded social dating app in major emerging markets. 

In India, Lamour registered 14 million users as of December 2019—just six months after its local launch—becoming the most downloaded dating app in the country, as per data by Sensor Tower. In comparison, Bumble, the second most popular dating app in the US after Tinder, has only amassed 4 million users in India as of July 2020, according to a local media report. Bumble expanded to India in October 2018.

Even so, Lamour has been at the center of controversies. It was accused of using bots and hiring women to pose as interested users to chat with men and lure them to pay for advanced services, according to an investigative report published by Quartz in March 2020. From September 2020, the app has been banned by the Indian government, as it was included on a list of 118 Chinese mobile apps that were deemed “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.”

Although Lamour has had to deal with a rocky path in India, AIG co-founder Andy Tian remains sanguine about the region’s mobile dating market potential. “Lamour has a total of 60 million users as of December 2020. It is the most downloaded mobile dating app in emerging markets,” he said.

Tian recently spoke to KrASIA about the state of dating apps in emerging markets, his response toward the accusations, as well as how dating apps can fit into more complicated social and cultural landscapes in developing countries.

Serial entrepreneur Andy Tian previously worked as general manager for American social game developer Zynga in China. Prior to Zynga, he was one of the early members of Google in China. Courtesy of Asia Innovations Group.

The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

KrASIA (Kr): What inspired you to build Lamour?

Andy Tian (AT): Dating is one of the oldest categories for the mobile social setting, and is also a fundamental human need for young people. But the global stage has been dominated by western dating apps, while so far there isn’t any global dating app that comes out of Asia. We believe that mobile dating in emerging markets has become more and more sophisticated, and users need dating apps of their own flavor. Also, western dating apps like Tinder and Bumble focus more on high-end users living in first-tier and second-tier cities. However, there is a huge vacuum left in the second-tier or even third-tier cities.

In the meantime, our livestreaming app, UpLive, has been operating for five years, and we saw that young users on the app want to do more than watch livestream videos; they crave one-on-one video and voice chat features to connect with other people. However, two years ago, none of the western dating apps offered such a feature, so we had the idea of doing a spin-off to leverage UpLive’s livestream functions. This is how Lamour was born.

Kr: What makes Lamour stand out? What are the business models and main streams of revenue for Lamour?

AT: Tinder and Bumble target subscriptions, but services for emerging markets need to be more diverse when it comes to sources of revenue. While 30% of our revenue comes from subscriptions, the majority of the revenue comes from our virtual gift-enabled business model, which allows users to send virtual gifts through livestreams and video calls, and to buy decorations through in-app games.

Kr: The app was banned in November last year owing to accusations of using bots and hiring women to pose as organic users to chat with men. What is Asia Innovations Group’s response to these accusations?

AT: Unfortunately, dating apps tend to be controversial when they grow. Unlike social media platforms, we can only tolerate users up to a certain extent. In many emerging markets, some male users’ behaviors have a lot of room for improvement. When male and female users are having a conversation, some male users may not have the best intentions. That’s all I can say.

Kr: How do Asian dating apps navigate a far more conservative landscape in terms of dating, sex, and marriage? How can dating apps swipe away the stigma of online dating by creating environments that fit the region’s culture?

AT: Online dating markets in emerging countries are still at an early stage. In terms of the cultural landscape, online dating markets are very diverse—some markets are very conservative, and some are very aggressive, even on the border of harassment, like India. Women in Asia are more concerned about their safety online. Religion plays a more crucial role in emerging markets too. Muslims, Hindus, and Christians are very different, and those walls will dictate their dating circles. For example, North Indians do not want to date South Indians in many cases [because of the cultural differences, language barriers, and varied family customs]. The class differences across emerging markets are much wider too. In general, emerging markets are very diverse, and they are fragmented as well, which is why there isn’t any app that can serve many different countries in large regional markets.

Asia’s online dating market is projected to reach USD 1.4 billion in revenue in 2021, up 14% year-on-year, according to Statista. Screenshot of Lamour courtesy of Asia Innovations Group.

Kr: What are the established norms for mobile dating apps in Asia’s emerging markets? Is there a shift from text to video or audio? How can dating apps turn new user behaviors into revenue streams?

AT: There will be more live options. Livestreaming is a standard function of dating apps in emerging markets now, so it is not a differentiator anymore. Livestreaming is already proven to generate revenues. The issue is that it is hard for an average user to find people that are willing to pay them every day. That doesn’t happen. So putting livestream videos and games into the app will help extend a user’s time spent using the app.

Kr: What does Bumble’s IPO in the US mean for Asian online dating apps? What will the mobile dating market in Asia look like in the coming two to three years?

AT: Bumble’s revenue is quite large, but most of the money comes from western markets. Users in western markets do pay a lot more than users in emerging markets. I do not see any dating apps in emerging markets that could generate that kind of revenue, but it shows a growth potential. Mobile dating in Asia is very diverse, hopefully, Bumble’s IPO will inspire more dating apps to innovate the [virtual dating] experience. To be honest, there is very little innovation in the field now.

In terms of capital injection, VCs do not devote enough to the mobile dating market, and that’s a mistake. Emerging markets are dominated by many western social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, while social startups have limited innovation and experience. We should call for more investments in the field.

Kr: Are there lessons for dating apps in Asia learn that can be gleaned from their Chinese counterparts?

AT: Chinese dating apps are good at offering diverse experiences, instead of just swiping and chatting. Chinese dating apps do not limit the user experience to dating and tend to offer more entertainment options, such as livestreaming and video games. These apps usually gamify the user’s experience, which actually helps drive revenue and user engagement.

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