By Eric Auchard
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - For the twenty-first century problem of how to move from a casual online encounter to a real-world one, a London-based website is proposing a very traditional solution: double dates.
Double pairs up two Facebook friends to go on a joint date with two other friends they meet through the website's local network, tackling some of the perils of meeting virtual strangers face-to-face by making dating literally more social.
"It's more fun, less awkward and safer," said Double co-founder Gary MacDonough. "If the date isn't going well, you can still have fun as a group of four."
The online dating market exploded to life two years ago among under-35s when Tinder revived an unapologetic, meat market approach to eyeing possible dates by simply letting users swipe through a stream of photo profiles on their phones.
The model for older, more established sites required users to fill out elaborate questionnaires, but demographically they were settling uncomfortably into middle age as younger users flocked to social networks and mobile chat applications.
Tinder has built on the earlier popularity of the "Hot or Not" app, a face-rating site set up in 2000 by two Berkeley engineering graduates that inspired legions of successors.
Mark Zuckerberg was nearly expelled from Harvard University for creating face-rating site Facemash before going on to start Facebook, the world's biggest social network.
The lack of personal information on such dating sites, however, raises the chances of disappointment when users meet up in the real world, and a larger gathering can provide a valuable escape hatch when things don't go to plan, according to Double.
Its app for Apple smartphones (http://www.joindouble.com/lets two friends anonymously check out photos of other pairs to spot potential matches, then get acquainted and make plans via group chat. An Android phone version is promised soon.
NOT SO HOT MONEY-MAKERS
Double also thinks it can find a solution to another problem that most, if not all, casual dating sites have: making money.
For many users, the appeal of these apps is that they are free, anonymous, often raunchy forums for casual online chat, a game for voyeurs, whether or not they plan to date.
That makes charging for the sites difficult, while the limited amount of user information and male-dominated customer base offer little appeal to many advertisers.
Even Tinder, which reportedly attracts as many as 15 million daily users and is controlled by online dating giant IAC/Interactive, owner of more established, money-making dating sites such as Match.com and OKCupid.com, has gotten off to a slow start introducing premium, paid services.
Still, its popularity has inspired thousands of imitators, many of them aimed at niches ranging from Grabble, for fashionistas, to High There!, to hook up with fellow pot smokers, to BarkBuddy, an app for finding pet dogs.
"Casual dating is what's working for users these days," says David Evans, a New Hampshire-based dating industry consultant and blogger at http://onlinedatingpost.com/. "The question is whether these apps can make a little money."
Double's founding team thinks it can by appealing to more women, making its user base more attractive to marketeers. It is also looking to strike promotional deals with bars and restaurants as potential dating sites.
Starting in London, it plans to expand in cities across Britain, before looking to the United States and worldwide.
(Editing by Mark Potter)