Digital Matrimony — A case study on shaadi.com

So you’ve reached the ripe age of 27, you’re sitting on the sofa flipping tv channels and then your Dad suddenly says, ‘toh beta shaadi ka baare mein kya khayal hai?’ There is a 95% chance that you’ve not really given this question much thought and you tell your parents to find you a partner. If you’re among the remaining 5%, then there’s a 2% chance that you’ve found someone and will be opting for a love marriage and a 3% chance that you’ll settle for a love-cum-arrange marriage. Also, these aren’t random figures but have been quoted based on a survey of 1.6 lakh Indian households in 2019.

Now, lets assume you’re a part of the herd and outsourced the job of finding a partner to your parents. Let’s travel back to 1995, before internet was a thing in India and we didn’t spend all day looking at pictures of cats. Your dad would call his relatives and spread word within the network that he’s looking for a ‘bahu’. He’d also drop newspaper ads in the matrimonial section, exonerating your features and lineage and would start getting multiple calls and recommendations on potential matches. There would be a bunch of people who’d come to your house and ask your parents what kind of bride they’re looking for. After multiple cups of tea, this individual would have information on the age, religion, caste, height, complexion and qualifications expected from your potential partner. They would also have the same set of information about you and would then start finding a suitable match. These people are called marriage brokers and take the responsibility of finding you a suitable match, ensuring that the horoscopes of bridge and groom match and then will get a priest to carry out the relevant rituals to get two people married. Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the finding your life-partner is now directly tied with the caliber of your marriage broker and the size of his network or as Seema Aunty would call it, his database. Also, even if you’re marriage broker was as capable as Seema Aunty (who claims to be India’s best matchmaker), you’d still need to compromise i.e. settle for less than what you’d expected.

Interestingly, one such encounter led to the formation of the website now called Shaadi.com, now relevant in pop culture because Anupam Mittal made fabulous shikanji’s (lemonade) on Shark Tank India. Anyhow, in 1997, Anupam was working with a Business Intelligence Software firm in the US and was on a trip to India when one such marriage broker tried to get him hitched. While Anupam didn’t partake his services back then, he did realize that the broker could be made redundant by creating a matchmaking service on the internet. Thus, sagaai.com came into existence in 1997. While sagaai.com started as an experiment, the site started gaining traction and in 1999, Anupam quit his job in the US and invested all his efforts in sagai.com. The website in fact was relaunched as shaadi.com, a domain name for which Anupam paid 21 lakh rupees, a sizeable sum in 1999.

But hold on, life wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies for Shaadi.com and the site in fact struggled from 1999 to 2008. To begin with, shaadi.com was an online matrimonial website and in 1999, only 0.1% of India’s population, about 10 lakh people were actually using the internet, compared to about 50 Crore internet users today. Moreover, marriages are a big deal in India and customers found it hard to trust an internet based startup for such a major life decision. However, Anupam Mittal and shaadi.com weren’t just going to sit around and crib. They focused on three main areas to overcome these hurdles: (a) product design, (b) strategic partnerships to obtain traffic and © breaking out of an only digital shell.

Product Design: matchmaking through a traditional matchmaker is a very personalized process where your parents sit down with a matchmaker and go on and on about the kind of bride they’re looking for. The internet however, enables businesses to provide a standardized service at scale. So how did shaadi.com balance the trade-off between personalization and selection? To begin with, shaadi.com finalized the most important criteria that influence one’s choice of partner: religion, age, education, height, work area and caste. There are 23 other filters apart from these to further streamline matches. Users can browse any number of profiles using these filters and once you find a profile that catches your eye, you’ll need to pay a subscription fee that ranges between ~1200 INR per month to 3000 INR per month. To add an extra layer of personalization, in 2014, Shaadi.com launched personalized plans through Select Shaadi that offers a relationship advisor, handpicked matches and also facilitates meetings and introductions. This service is priced at ~10,000 INR per month and considering an average time of 6 months to obtain a match is cheaper than the average fee of 1–1.5 lakh that’s charged by traditional matchmakers.

While the product features mentioned above improve discovery, we also need to talk about how shaadi.com verifies profiles and protects clients against exploitation through fraudulent profiles. This wasn’t a pressing concern when shaadi.com had a low user base i.e. till about 2010. However, in 2014, a woman had been cheated of ~2.5 lakhs by a conman she met on a competing matrimonial site, BharatMatrimony. After a prolonged legal case, in 2016, the Mumbai High Court ruled that BharatMatrimony was not liable for fraud. Shaadi.com In 2018, shaadi.com started asking new users for their aadhar number to further weed out fraudulent profiles. This is in addition to the government ids that shaadi.com already asks for. Moreover, in a survey, 82% women said that they are more likely to visit verified profiles and Gaurav Rakshit, CEO of shaadi.com in 2018 had recognized verified profiles as a key step in earning customer trust.

Since we’re talking about customer trust through verification, lets quickly touch upon how shaadi.com maintains privacy. Now, lets dial back to the pre shaadi.com era where newspaper ads was a preferred mode of getting leads for a potential match. This scenario though, exposed your contact information to the world, a pretty undersirable situation for most people. On shaadi.com, if you’re interested in a particular profile, then you’ll need to express interest (through a button) and only if that profile accepts your interest, will you have the person’s contact details. A pretty neat solution to the privacy problem.

We can go on and on about the product, but a product would be useless unless it attracts traffic. So let’s talk about how shaadi.com brought in traffic through strategic partnerships. In 2002, shaadi.com partnered with Yahoo.com, a leading online search engine back then to create a tab for the matrimonial services it provided. This allowed shaadi.com to attract users that visited Yahoo.com to its website that served as a major competitive advantage. In 2009, shaadi.com partnered with Star Plus to launch Star Vivah, a reality tv show that aimed to find suitable partners for contestants through shaadi.com. This helped create awareness regarding online matrimony and the features of better discovery offered through the portal. Moves such as this helped drive significant traffic to matrimonial websites and in 2009, about 12 million people (48% of India’s internet users) started using matrimonial web-services, up from 4 million, just a year back.

To further attract customers to shaadi.com, in 2004, shaadi.com launched brick and mortar shaadi centers. A family could go to these centers and an attendant would help you register on the shaadi.com portal, assit you with the services and provide printouts of suitable profiles. This service, complemented shaadi.com’s larger vision, helped increase the number of registered users on the platform and provided the right customer experience, in line with the form of commerce prevalent at the time.

Well, enough about the past. Let’s talk about shaadi.com’s future growth prospects. Specifically, let’s look at two things: (a) network effects that will drive organic growth and (b) acquisitions to stay relevant in a changing market.

Shaadi.com’s user base has closely been tied with the internet adoption in India. As of 2019, internet adoption in India stands at 41% and is expected to grow by 45% (~10% CAGR) by 2025, leading to an increase in the addressable user base for shaadi.com’s core business. Shaadi.com as of now is a stable company with a registered user base of 3.5 Crore people and an active user base of 50 lakh people. Such companies grow through network effects. Network effects help social networks to grow through word of mouth once the network reaches a critical mass i.e. a minimum number of users. The company then primarily attracts new users through word of mouth from existing users. With respect to shaadi.com, network effects plays out as follows: As the number of registered users keep growing, the opportunities of finding a better match keep’s growing, thereby attracting more people to the site, leading to a virtuous fly wheel. In this case, you can see similarities between Jeff Bezos’ philosophy of virtuous cycles and Anupam Mittal’s idea of just simplifying the process of marriage.

The important thing for network effects to keep playing out is to stay relevant. Apart from acquisitions that I’ll explain shortly, shaadi.com stays relevant through a strong social media content game. In 2012, they launched a Facebook game called Angry Brides to raise awareness on the ills of dowry. The game featured an eight armed woman, an avatar of goddess durga, armed with various household items that are thrown at a man shaped character as he demands dowry. The game was very well received and the facebook page garnered 270k followers. In 2014, shaadi.com launched Shaadi Cares, as a social initiative to spread awareness on the ills surrounding marriage such as child marriage, domestic violence etc. Since then, shaadi.com has consistently launched well placed social media campaigns such as #NotForSale and #FastForHer that have improved the brand’s association with social change.

Now coming back to acquisitions, while a growing internet adoption and network effects are tailwinds for shaadi.com’s growth, Indians are also going through a paradigm shift in terms of how relationships are perceived. Casual dating was earlier frowned upon, however, it is now seen as far more acceptable and global dating websites like Tinder, OkCupid and Bumble as well and Indian brands such as TrulyMadly and Aisle have capitalized on this changing ideology. Casual dating apps are essentially matchmaking apps like Shaadi.com, though with a very different end goal.

All the matchmaking apps ranging from Tinder to Shaadi.com, can be placed on a spectrum with apps such as Tinder and okcupid covering the left side of the spectrum and specializes in casual relationships, while shaadi.com and BharatMatrimony cover the right side of the spectrum with products centered around facilitating arranged marriages. The middle portion of the spectrum is occupied by apps such as Aisle that’s centered around high intent based dating that have the potential to translate into love marriages. It is a middle path between Tinder where relationships end up being too casual and don’t end in meaningful union and BharatMatrimony where the primary decision drivers are parents.

Shaadi.com too is looking at capturing the potential love marriage space and acquired the Thrill group in 2016, which owns the Apps Frivil and Fropper. As per Anupam Mittal’s earlier ideas of making marriage simpler, he’s looking at creating a smoother transition from dating to marriage and is seeing these acquisitions as play towards creating an India-centric dating app. That being said, marriages in India are still highly skewed towards arranged marriages with 95% of marriages in India being arranged marriages, 2% as love cum arranged and 3% as love marriages. While these acquisitions acts as a hedge for People Group (holding company of shaadi.com) against long term changes in attitude towards relationships, the numbers don’t suggest any deterioration for the core business.

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Sagnik Mukherjee

I'm building products to aid social workers and Non Profits in India. I also like to write about relevant social issues.