Charlie Rudder, founder of the popular online dating site, OKCupid, posted a TED-Ed session in mid-February to explain how the matching software that he had sold worked. Match.com had purchased it a year earlier for $50 million.
“We’re known for the analytic approach we’ve taken to love,” Rudder says in the video, with appropriately cutesy animation running on the screen. “Basically, OKCupid’s matching algorithm helps us decide whether two people should go on a date. The math behind [it] is surprisingly simple.”
Cedric Hurst (pictured) and Gary Turovsky, engineers at Chicago-based software development firm Spantree, watched the clip. They’d been working on a similar events-themed project for several months. That site, now called HostedBuyer.com, revolved around a scheduling component. Specific to a single conference or event, it handles meeting requests between attendees and exhibitors based on timing as much as potential chemistry.
At the Meeting Professionals International (MPI) annual TechCon event, a preshow hackathon—a 48-hour coding marathon where contestants race the clock and each other to come up with the best software—allowed the pair to dive into matchmaking for events and meetings specifically.
“We had both seen that TED talk about how that algorithm could be used to organize study groups, find roommates—that sort of thing,” Hurst says. “We could take the OKCupid dating algorithm and try to apply it to a business context, where you’re at a tradeshow and you’re trying to meet your next client, your next employee, your next vendor. We could set up a question-and-answer structure related to an event or business relationship and apply that toward helping people discover who their ideal contacts are at events.”
The formula was sound, but the questions users were expected to answer needed…tweaking. OKCupid asks: “Do you want to have kids one day?” and “How often do you brush your teeth?” Hurst and Turovsky changed that to: “How many events do you run each year?” and “How much do you use technology in your events already?” Ideally, event planners will insert their own industry-specific questions here, Hurst says.
The end product—a site called OKMercury.co—won them the contest.
Hurst and Turovsky’s premise isn’t new. Dozens of companies across the U.S. are doing similar things. That’s why it’s critical to be sure that you, as an organizer, have the right matchmaking program for your event.
Access is the first step. Attendees need to sign up for there to be value.
“There’s a network effect,” Hurst says. “The more people you have participating, the higher-quality matches you’re going to get, you’ll get a better question pool.”
That’s why Hurst and Turovsky allowed for the use of social logins. Users can register for OKMercury via their Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn accounts. There’s no form to fill out, no extra passwords to remember.
Eric Ly, a co-founder of LinkedIn and the current CEO of matchmaking software provider Presdo, follows the same basic tenet: ease of access. His program builds profiles out of a user’s LinkedIn account and registration data.
“As the number of participants gets bigger, there’s more value to these types of products,” Ly says. He places the minimum number of attendees needed for a worthwhile ROI at about 300.
Face-to-face matchmaking happens in real time at an event, but matchmaking software gets its heaviest use in the pre-show phase.
“A couple weeks before the show starts to the beginning of the show is when we see the most usage,” Ly says.
Attendees browse for colleagues who’ll be there; exhibitors mine the data for leads. Scheduling features built into many matchmaking programs are used to set up appointments between friends or clients.
Nicole Cote, digital media and technology manager for Solar Energy Trade Shows, says her main event, Solar Power International, saw a significant return from prospects who accepted invites from already registered attendees.
“We had 61 conversions in the first year,” she says. “So, 61 times anywhere from, depending on when they registered, $700 to $1,000—that’s up to $61,000.”
Cote notes that it’s not a perfect correlation—some of those conversions could have been planning on coming anyway—but still firmly believes matchmaking software adds value. It’s a self-sustaining resource that lives at and beyond the show. Rather than replacing the live exchanges that occur, it adds another layer to the experience.
Hurst agrees. Matchmaking has proven itself in the pre-and post-show periods, but its future lies in augmenting the event experience in real time.