Almost a quarter million South Africans have used online dating services – and those who engage in it take it very seriously. This is one of the key findings in The NETucation Report: Online Dating in South Africa 2004. According to the survey conducted in June 2004 by NETucation, an independent Internet Marketing company, 67% of people using online dating services in South Africa take them seriously enough to pay for the privilege.

People pay real money for the privilege of connecting with other prospective mates via online dating,” says Ramon Thomas, Managing Director of NETucation. “The market is worth approximately R20 million in 2004 and there are currently between 200,000 and 250,000 people who have tried online dating in South Africa.” This is still only 7.5% of the total population of Internet users and is substantially less then the 1 million online banking users reported earlier this year by World Wide Worx.

However, the findings suggest that online taking may well be one of the four big applications of the Internet, after e-mail, banking, and news.

And there is a strong indication that this market is set to challenge the big three for leadership. There are 11 substantial online dating website operating in South Africa with three launched in the last year. The most popular online dating service chosen by the respondents is DatingBuzz (63.5%), followed by MSN Match (9.7%), part of the international network, and Galaxy Singles (5.6%).

About 10% of users become paying subscribers who shell out from R30 to R130 a month for the privilege of connecting with like-minded individuals.

There are several factors that are bringing online dating into the mainstream, such as people getting married at an older age, a high divorce rate, disillusionment with the bar and club scene, and people being busier then ever before.

According to Dr Andrew Thatcher, a psychologist in the School of Human and Community Development at the University of the Witwatersrand, “Online dating allows you to meet people in a safe environment; you cannot catch STD’s or HIV/AIDS through sending a message.

Says Thomas: “The leading age group is the 25 to 32 year old category, who still considers themselves young adults by modern standards. Perhaps surprisingly, about 54.5% of people are looking for companionship and friendship, not sex.”

The biggest alternatives to online dating are SMS dating and speed dating.

NETucation also conducted a website analysis of 9 participating online dating companies, using the Webagility web analysis tool from World Wide Worx. The three best-performing websites all achieved a score of 70% or more, namely DatingBuzz (70%), LoveFinda (71%) and LoveMail (71%).

“There is still much that can be done to improve the online dating experience for the average South African hoping to meet someone on the Internet,” suggests Thomas. “More marketing will certainly help to remove the stigma that people used to associate with dating via the Internet. It is clear from our survey that the average online dater is not a nerd or a lonely person. Instead, they are between 24 and 32 years old, single, having a tertiary qualification, working in IT or Finance and earning more then R10, 000 per month.”

For the most current research on Online Dating in South Africa go here.