As a math major at Harvard in the late '90s, Yagan forever altered the market for student cheat sheets, then dominated by the iconic black-and-yellow CliffsNotes booklets, with his SparkNotes, a free Web-based copycat.
Next, Yagan went after the music business, creating the file-sharing tool eDonkey. Before the company was litigated out of existence by a record-industry lawsuit, it boasted the world's most popular file-sharing software, bigger even than Napster.
Now Yagan had set out to bring free to online dating, a growing market dominated by a number of, as Yagan saw them, expensive and unsatisfactory competitors like IAC's NYSE: But something wasn't working.
The company needed a massive audience to make money. Instead, after two years of rapid growth, its Web traffic was flat-lining while competitors were growing rapidly. By early , Yagan realized his window of opportunity was closing. He needed to jump-start his company or face a slow death. To deliver to advertisers and turn a profit, Yagan figured he needed eight million users and two million regular daters, roughly eight times his current traffic.
If those numbers weren't daunting enough, new free dating sites were popping up and beating Yagan at his game. People were turning to social networking sites Facebook and MySpace as de facto dating services. Coyne and Yagan could try fighting back with an ambitious advertising campaign, but Yagan wasn't sure what it should look like. A second possibility was to embrace Facebook rather than compete against it. In May, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that outside software developers could build programs, called widgets, that would operate within his company's wildly popular social network.
The problem, as Yagan saw it, was that operating inside Facebook would seriously constrain OkCupid's ability to sell advertising. Furthermore, he worried that OkCupid risked being seen as just another widget maker in a crowded marketplace. As various promotional options were exhausted, Yagan found his thoughts turning back to a wacky idea he and Coyne had once tossed around: At best, the novelty of instantaneous, face-to-face blind dates might catch on among users inundated with e-mails, phone calls, and IMs; at worst, it might at least generate buzz for OkCupid.
The Decision Yagan and Coyne decided that the potential rewards of press coverage and increased Web traffic from a blind-dating site outweighed the benefits of buying advertisements or developing more features for OkCupid. They began work on CrazyBlindDate. The site made it easy for users to go on blind dates within hours of signing up.
It severely limited the amount of information users could see about prospective dates. A blurred photo and a sentence-long description about one's expectations for the evening were required, with the option to answer three additional questions, including, "How will I recognize you? This way they'll only need to bring half a canister of mace. That way daters could contact one another without exchanging phone numbers. Yagan decided to kick off CrazyBlindDate. On the evening of the launch, in October, Yagan, Coyne, and their engineers gathered in the company's Manhattan office.
They munched pizza and drank cheap champagne out of red plastic cups, waiting to watch CrazyBlindDate. There were more bugs than dates. Each night for the next few weeks, only a handful of love connections were made online.
The media had more or less ignored the launch. Even the radio ad was a disappointment. But the station balked, citing an editorial policy that prevented O'Keefe from doing the segment. What dates there were didn't always go well. Callie Snyder tried out the service, then blogged a review of one date gone comically bad with a young guy who professed a love for poker and pornography.
Despite the lukewarm trial run, Yagan and Coyne persevered. This time, the radio stations went along with the plan. In New York, "Goumba Johnny" Sialiano and "Hollywood" Sean Hamilton, hosts of the afternoon rush-hour show on dance station WKTU, repeatedly praised the site, claiming that even their "loser" producer had wrangled a week's worth of blind dates. The lovesick responded, logging on in greater numbers, and the site was organizing 50 dates per night by January.
Finally, the media took notice. Though OkCupid was not mentioned in the TV segments, many of the newspaper articles and blog entries noted the existence of CrazyBlindDate. That may be a stretch. But OkCupid now attracts two million users a month and , active daters -- roughly double the numbers of a year ago.
Thanks to links from blogs, including the popular TechCrunch, OkCupid's rank on Google's results page for the search online dating has jumped from fourth place to first place. Yagan says the attention should make it easier to raise money and hire more engineers. The buzz hasn't come cheaply. The tab for CrazyBlindDate.
Still, Yagan figures the PR payoff has been worth the cost. The jury's still out. But I think CrazyBlindDate is more interesting as a product than as a media strategy. When we do guerrilla-marketing campaigns, we absolutely want PR, but the campaign has to live on its own. I would have focused on doing something in front of a lot of people, either by organizing a public event where two people went on a blind date or using social media to document the dates.
That way the company wouldn't be dependent on a journalist's writing about it.