India’s Big Fat Online Wedding

India’s thriving US$83-million online matrimony bazaar welcomed a new member to its club recently – a portal christened www.Iitiimshaadi.com. The service will cater exclusively to the alumnus of the world’s 100 top educational institutions including blue chip universities like Harvard and Yale who are searching for the perfect marriage partner.

Iitiimshaadi is just one of a growing number of online matrimonial websites that have upended traditional players like astrologers and pundits who had for centuries dominated the market by fixing matches between Indian families based on caste, religion, social/ economic status and horoscopes, changing the face of Indian romance. The presence of these agents is still vibrant in rural/semi-urban areas though where internet penetration has been slow.

The portal is only one of the 100-odd that dot India’s booming online matrimony market. www.Iitiimshaadi.com’s owner Ajay Gupta, 51, claims to have more than 1,800 registrations already. He says he has also successfully connected 120 people after his team filtered the "right candidates" from a pool of resumes to help subscribers find a suitable spouse.

India, often seen as the land of arranged marriages, is experiencing robust growth in the online matrimony business. The industry started to gain traction around the turn of the century when private internet service providers (ISPs) were allowed to determine tariffs for services in accordance with guidelines laid down by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. This allowed websites to charge for their services and expand their repertoires.

At present India has 100 million internet users but as that number skyrockets, more than 2,600 wedding portals are expected to mushroom by 2020 according to an industry estimate.

Matrimonial websites – predicated on the idea that potential couples will bond and eventually wed – succeed for the same reason every online resource does. They offer convenience and expediency in a market teeming with high demand.

Such services are also increasingly turning into a better option for Gen Next in their search for potential mates, especially for the NRIs –non-resident Indians – a 25-million diaspora inhabiting every corner of the globe looking for an Indian match for their sons and daughters. And the payoff is big as it provides a global choice of thousands of members transcending groups, professions, regions, religions, and communities.

Says Riti Shah, 32, a Miami-based computer engineer who met her husband online, “Wedding portals offer a platform for individuals to browse for his/her ideal spouse among a catalog of potential candidates organized by the personal information that apparently matters most in the country: religion, caste, income, fairness of skin, family background etc. It’s a convenient and safe way to meet potential partners.”

Online experts ascribe the growth of this phenomenon to the lack of a dating culture in the country unlike the West. “As traditional family networks weaken and young professionals migrate to cities, online marriage portals are becoming the prime source of matchmaking,” said New Delhi-based sociologist and professor Veena Das. Convenience, time-saving and efficiency are some of the other benefits which accrue to the users of such sites.

“As in other forms of e-commerce, the web offers the widest choice, be it for people or products,” said market analyst Sudershan Prayag, a consultant with the Reliance group. On average, the most popular portals see about 10,000 new registrations daily with a full tenth resulting in marriages, the analyst added, with websites catering to niche segments like castes, divorcees, religions which further widens their catchment area.

Of course, the biggest driver of this boom is the Indian wedding market, a juggernaut pegged at US$40 billion with an estimated annual growth rate of 20 percent—second only to China’s globally. Interestingly, the ratio of women compared to men registering on wedding portals has also seen a surge – from 20:80 five years ago to 30:70 now, an official of Bharatmatrimony.com, one of the more popular marriage websites, told Asia Sentinel.

One of the first movers, BharatMatrimony.com, has also notched up over 300 websites targeting different segments from divorcees to single mothers to the elderly. And it is pretty good business too. Though portal owners are wary of discussing numbers, the high demand is an indicator of the profit margins.

At Elitematrimony.com, which caters to the upper crust, subscribers cough up US$1,000 for a three-month subscription. Bharatmatrimony.com – which offers a US$60 monthly subscription boasts over 15 million subscribers. The other significant players like Shaadi.com and Jeevansathi.com charge an average premium of $250 per year.

As for the revenue model, subscription is key. According a senior official at jeevansaathi.com, its website gets 95 percent of its revenues from subscriptions and 5 per cent from advertisements. At any given point, a website has between 750,000 to 1 million active users who have visited and viewed profiled at least once in a week.

While these numbers augur well for portal owners, the exclusive service also spells connubial bliss for a tech-savvy India where over 22 million Indians—around one of every eight who use the Internet—tap into such sites, according to an industry survey. Due to the sector’s exponential growth, online matrimony in Asia’s third largest economy will acquire a market size of about US$300 million by 2017, predicts industry body ASSOCHAM. It is expected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 65 percent.

The figures by ASSOCHAM in its report "Rising trends and popularity of online jobs and matrimonial alliances" also reveal that matrimonial alliances through the internet has more takers now. Last year, about 55 million online subscribers registered their profiles and 2.5 million uploaded their profiles per month to take advantage of this facility mainly on account of it being economical and less cumbersome.

Similarly, between 2011-12 and 2012-13, business transacted through online advertisements for matrimonial alliances registered a growth of 56 per cent and 52 per cent, respectively.

According to a paper published in 2010 by Jiban K Pal, professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, the biggest advantage for these sites comes from their integrity and scalability, which “substantially make the difference in their efficiency and use. Most of the developers look for a homogeneous solution in order to address the complex information requirement of heterogeneous people in different degrees. Free registration attract information seekers,” the paper said.

To further protect their integrity, and check online fraud, many portals are also tapping into technology like `proprietary security algorithms’ to weed out fake profiles.

As competition heats up, portal owners are scrambling to adopt innovative measures to keep business buoyant. Concerned that the rising tide of divorces across urban India could threaten their businesses, many are also coaching the young on living a happy married life. In a concerted bid to ensure lasting unions for couples who meet online, counseling services are being offered as well as free books on the dos and don'ts of a happy marriage.

Mailers and links to social media and blogs are also being offered. Shaadi.com – which claims to have 20 million subscribers – has even launched a series of online campaigns and counseling services at its over 100 contact centers.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based journalist/editor. Twitter – neeta lal@neeta_com