Love in the Time of Algorithms

Online Dating Coaches Help Hapless Singles Meet Their Mates

"Courtship is about winning."
Consultant Laurie Davis, client Chanel Omari, and fellow dating coach John Keegan. (Photo: instagram.com/eflirtexpert)

Consultant Laurie Davis, client Chanel Omari, and fellow dating coach John Keegan. (Photo: instagram.com/eflirtexpert)

Michelle’s path through the world of online dating has been littered with frauds, phonies and disappointments. Take the cop who claimed he was on disability leave. On their first date, he let slip that his “leave” was actually a suspension, the result of charges that he had beaten an ex-girlfriend.

Then there was the runway model who claimed to divide his time between New York, Miami and Houston—“It’s always a red flag when there are multiple cities,” Michelle said with an eye roll—but couldn’t produce a single nonprofessional photo of himself. He had plenty of close-ups of his abs, though! That imposter turned out to have lifted his images from a Bloomingdale’s catalog.

And don’t even get her started on the innumerable married men who tried to court her online. 

After years of meeting liars and duds, Michelle knew her love life needed a shot in the arm. She’s 39, after all, and despite being a successful attorney, she’s the only one of her friends who’s still single. Her issues sound like they were lifted from a type-A-career-lady-seeks-love rom-com. But when it came time to double down on her husband-hunting efforts, the solution she picked was not exactly ripped from the plot of a great love story—at least, not one that has been written yet: Michelle decided to outsource her love life to a consultant, paying an online dating ghostwriter to sprinkle some fairy dust on her profile in hopes that she might finally find her soul mate.

It makes sense that a cottage industry of virtual dating coaches has sprung up, as online dating has become increasingly socially acceptable—the number of Americans who’ve tried it out has more than tripled over the last five years, according to Pew Research Center. And nearly a quarter of online daters cop to having asked a friend to create or review their profile, so it was only a matter of time before those friends started monetizing their services.

Online dating coach extraordinaire Laurie Davis. (Photo: Michelle Kinney/eflirtexpert.com)

Online dating coach extraordinaire Laurie Davis. (Photo: Michelle Kinney/eflirtexpert.com)

This was the case for Michelle’s coach, Laurie Davis. Ms. Davis is the founder and CEO of the eFlirt Expert online dating consultancy and the author of the book Love at First Click. The 31-year-old got her start during the recession, when her marketing business took a nosedive. Sitting in her apartment, watching her business contacts “fly out the window,” she learned that a friend was moving in with someone he’d met online after she’d tweaked his profile.

Realizing she had helped many other friends find love by using her experience as an early adapter to online dating, it hit her: What’s a Match.com profile but a form of personal marketing? So in 2009, with $50 and a Twitter account, she started her business. To date, she has worked on 1,000 online dating profiles and now has a staff of five.

While coaches like Ms. Davis mostly operate on intuition and innate social acumen, biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher says there’s a fair amount of science behind the process of attracting a mate, although she’s not surprised the online dating coach industry has popped up. Employed by Match.com as the site’s resident scientist, she noted that society is “seeing enormous changes in courtship and dating.”

The shifts stem from greater equality between the sexes, as well as a population that’s not only living longer but also enjoying a surprise second act in their love lives thanks to divorce, she said. So while love matches used to be made according to socioeconomic and religious similarities, people are now looking inward, seeking mates who confide in them, make them laugh and find them physically attractive. Those qualities can be hard to find, especially when your only chemistry clues come in the form of somebody’s digital profile and a few cropped photos.

“You get to the point where you realize whatever you’re doing isn’t really working,” Dr. Fisher said. “Some people will try to lose 25 pounds, some will buy a new dress, some will change their hair. More and more people will go to a coach.”

Michelle found Ms. Davis through the coach’s partnership with Sparkology, an invite-only dating site for post-grad types. Ms. Davis receives about 10 percent of her clientele through Sparkology, and clients pay her $300 on top of the site’s regular monthly dues.

To Ms. Davis, Michelle’s issues were obvious. Her profile was way too long, and it focused too much on her law career—not exactly an aphrodisiac. Like many online daters, she fell into the trap of using meaningless, people-pleasing platitudes: “I love music.” “I’m fun but I’m also laid-back.” Ms. Davis punched up Michelle’s bio, mentioning her love for her family’s summer home and playing up personality traits Michelle had taken for granted.

Matchmaking, image crafting, online dating consulting... Amy Van Doran does it all. (Photo: AmyVanDoran.com)

Matchmaking, image crafting, online dating consulting… Amy Van Doran does it all. (Photo: AmyVanDoran.com)

Amy Van Doran, another independent consultant, told us specificity is crucial. “Guys have pages and pages of pretty brunette ladies who can spell correctly,” Ms. Van Doran said. “What you have to do is stand out and find out what’s specific to you and what’s different to you.”

Not a marketer by trade like Ms. Davis, the candy-haired Ms. Van Doran got her start through traditional matchmaking for an upscale creative clientele—think actresses, artists, photographers, graphic designers and musicians who are trying to find the John to their Yoko.

After throwing a few speed-dating-esque parties that led to romances among members of her cool cohort, Ms. Van Doran became an image consultant for love-starved guys. She then started finding dates for those clients, and eventually, she found herself retooling online profiles. She now offers all of the aforementioned services for both men and women.

“I love people,” Ms. Van Doran said of her reason for becoming a matchmaker. “I’m really good at figuring out what a person’s about. If you’re you, you can’t figure out what your marketing is. But if I talk to you for an hour, I can figure out three or four things we can lead with. It’s so fun, and it’s such an easy way to vastly improve someone’s life.”

Both consultants say their clients run the gamut as far as age, taste and New York City neighborhood. Ms. Davis sees everything from “hip Brooklyn chicks to single dads in Hoboken to penthouse-in-the-sky-on-Madison-Avenue executives.”

The coaches don’t just retool their clients’ profiles and retake their pictures, though. They also sort through their inboxes and delete the losers and imposters—Michelle may never have to lay eyes on another fake male model or would-be wife beater again. This filter process keeps clients’ morale up, Ms. Van Doran said.

Another client of Ms. Davis is Chanel Omari, a co-star of the Bravo reality show Princesses of Long Island. Ms. Omari plays a pretty self-aware character for reality TV. She’s a modern feminist but also a hopeless romantic, and her career was soaring while her love life flailed.

She met Ms. Davis after booking the coach for a dating segment while working behind the scenes on Anderson Cooper’s talk show. They hit it off, and it was perfect timing: Ms. Omari soon ended a long-term romance with a guy who thought himself too young to settle down.

“I am now an age-ist when it comes to men—I have to be,” the 28-year-old declared when we met at Café Grumpy to commiserate about past dating escapades. It turns out Ms. Omari gives love advice just as well as she takes it, and she’s on the cusp of releasing a Web series in which she’ll consult with experts on love and dating while chronicling her quest to find a soul mate.

Ms. Omari’s online dating hub is JDate, since she grew up in a modern Orthodox family. Even so, one of Ms. Davis’s first directives was to remove the religious specifics, as the relatively liberal Ms. Omari was attracting men who were more observant than she wanted. Ms. Davis also counseled her to drop mentions of her involvement in the entertainment industry. It could attract men who’d try to use her for her connections—or intimidate more gutless guys.

“It’s not about a cheating curve or making you look better,” Ms. Omari said of working with a dating coach. “In real life, everyone’s amazing. It’s about translating it to the best of your ability online and attracting the best person for you.”

Then again, Dr. Fisher doesn’t believe a cheating curve would be a bad thing. “Courtship is not about honesty from a Darwinian perspective,” she said. “Courtship is about winning. No peacock makes his feathers look smaller.”

Ms. Davis and Van Doran are certainly pioneers in their industry, but the online dating-coach pond looks poised to swell into a veritable ocean. Online dating behemoth eHarmony announced recently it will soon offer consultant services, linking members with psychologists and marriage therapists via webcam for $5,000 per year. This adds a human touch to a site known for connecting singles based on an elaborate algorithm and a 150-question survey.

Match.com, on the other hand, was opaque when asked if they’d follow suit. Vice president of events and premium services Luke Zaientz would only allow that the firm is “always looking for new ways to introduce a modern, high-quality, highly transparent version of matchmaking,” but if we were betting types, we’d say it’s only a matter of time before Match and sister site OkCupid jump on the bandwagon.

It’s too soon to tell whether Michelle and Ms. Omari’s newly revamped profiles will finally land them the husbands of their dreams. But as Dr. Fisher confirms, the resultant morale boost may be just what they need to reel in potential mates, because there’s nothing more attractive than confidence.

“I think anything that gets you moving forward is a great idea,” she said. “A good coach who can rewrite something for you has real value.”

And if all else fails, there’s always that old standby, the local watering hole. “I know that once you stop looking is when you find someone,” Michelle said. “Hey, maybe now that I’ve given up on bars, I’ll meet someone in a bar.”

—Additional reporting by Jessica Roy

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Correction: A previous version of this story said that Laurie Davis receives 90 percent of her clientele through Sparkology. In actuality, she receives only 10 percent of her customers from the site. The number of Match.com questions was also corrected.

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