You might say Steve Dean is a professional dater. Since the day nine years ago when he turned to “the apps” to escape the tiny dating pool in his one-square mile Pennsylvania town, he has gone on a date at least once a week. A decade ago, one romantic partner scanned his phone, which had at least 50 dating apps on it, and mused that he could be a consultant for the dating industry.
It turns out, he could. Not long after, Dean founded his company, Dateworking, which advises dating companies such as OKCupid but also offers services to individual daters. Through one-on-one sessions and monthly retainers, he helps clients reach their romantic goals, dispensing what is often brutally honest advice.
Through my past reporting about the dynamics of online dating, I had seen social media chatter about people like Dean, elusive “profile doctors” who could build you a successful dating profile for a set price. Some advised their clients on wording and choices; others went as far as having text conversations with potential daters, pretending to actually be their clients, only handing off the baton when it came to an in-person meeting.
I imagined profile-doctoring to be a shadowy, secretive industry, with the consultants whispering advice like a version of Will Smith’s character in “Hitch.” But when I went looking for the profile doctors, I found dozens of them, all willing to talk openly about what they’ve learned about the quick-hit world of online dating and often describing themselves as part-therapist, part-matchmaker, part-strategist, and part-artist.
This is how an industry evolves. Online dating has exploded in the past decade, with thousands of platforms available, tailored to different subgroups or goals. The firm Market Research.com estimates that the industry will have a $3.2 billion valuation by 2020. It all demands a new set of skills and a new language of creative expression — which has created a new area of professional expertise. If online dating has entirely shed its stigma, the use of dating consultants might not be far behind.
No matter what kind of online dater you are, professionals are ready to help. Most of the profile consultants I spoke with said a big portion of their client base is divorcees and widowers over age 50, who have arrived back in a dating world that looks nothing like the one they left behind. They also serve millennials, though, and people looking for non-traditional relationships. More men seek their services than women, since, they said, women generally receive more online matches. Some of their clients are introverts. Some are highly successful business people who would rather pay someone to manage the dating process than to spend time on it themselves.
“She was finding exactly the kind of man she didn’t want to find because her profile was built to attract them.”
Profile doctors aren’t cheap, though; the ones I spoke to charge anywhere from $100 for a one-hour phone call to $5,000 for an all-inclusive package. They pitch their expertise as a way to make dating less painful, less time-consuming, and more successful.
“You have to recognize that a lot of dating apps are there to consume your attention and money, and to force you into dopamine loops,” says Dean, who describes himself as non-monogamous, suggesting his deep experience with many dating platforms. “I tell people, ‘Hey, be glad you’re talking to me first, because I’m going to save you a thousand hours of misery!”
A profile doctor’s first step, Dean says, is getting clients to figure out what they want: A long term relationship? A casual hook-up? A parent for their children? Next comes figuring out which platform best fits the goals, and explaining the strategies behind certain algorithms.
Then it’s on to evaluating a client’s existing profile — which often involves dispensing some brutal honesty. Dean was recently approached by a client who wanted a monogamous relationship but wasn’t having any success. When Dean looked at her dating profile, he realized what the problem was: her pictures.
“I was horrified,” he says. “It was just a bunch of intense modeling shots with a lot of cleavage, her staring in a sultry way into the camera. She had lots of little quippy one liners, like “How about we get drinks?” and “I’m always up for hopping on a flight!” She was a caricature of a person with no vulnerability. Everything was just coded to say, ‘I’m desperate for attention.’”
In other words, she had misunderstood the root goal of an online dating profile, which is to tell a story about yourself that attracts a specific kind of person in response.
“I had to work with her on using photos that tell stories, suggesting that she was a real person and not just an Instagram model. Modeling shots aren’t useful unless you want to provide masturbatory material for guys who are scrolling at 2 a.m.,” Dean says. “She was finding exactly the kind of man she didn’t want to find because her profile was built to attract them.”
That’s a common mistake, says Erika Ettin, the founder of A Little Nudge. Like Dean, she was an early adopter of online dating. A trained economist, she found herself making spreadsheets that helped her track her successes and failures against her methods. Eventually, she quit her job and started her own dating-consulting business.
Successful profiles, Ettin learned, feature high-quality photos that show how you actually look. She sees how things go wrong, as with one male client in his mid-50s, who was living in New York and called her to find out why he wasn’t having success.
“When he showed me his profile, it was clear why,” she says. “His photos weren’t doing him any justice. He had a lot of group photos where someone else looked more attractive than him. And his profile had grammar mistakes. You only get one first impression!”
Ettin and Dean also tell clients to use phrasing that invites conversation; Ettin calls it “message bait.” For example, she advises, don’t just say you like to ski; instead, cite a favorite mountain, so a would-be match might have a reason to respond.
“Try something like: ‘I’m obsessed with creative adventures. What’s your idea for something we could do on a Saturday?’” Dean recommends. “You’ll get great responses and you’re empowering people to come up with something creative and unique. Without that, they’ll just comment on your physical characteristics.”
As with any good story, there is power in the details, says Eric Resnick, the owner of ProfileHelper. “I don’t care what you do for a living, I want to know why you like it — or what you would rather be doing,” he tells clients. “I don’t want to create a recipe-list profile. I don’t care if you’re adventurous. I tell people: Talk to me about something adventurous that you actually did.”
Resnick also scans the profiles of his clients’ potential dates, reading between the lines for hidden clues and red flags. Someone who asks for a match with “basic human considerations” like loyalty and honesty — or says he’s looking for a “one-man woman” — has likely been cheated on, he says. Sometimes, he sees profiles that have what he calls the “used car pitch.” “They say, ‘Here’s why you should love me,” Resnick says. “And this is a person who is telling you they have zero self-worth. They might have bravado, but they’re really a scared little girl or boy inside.”
Resnick also tells clients to look at a profile and ask: Do I fit into this person’s life? Once, a client came to ProfileHelper asking how to connect with a woman he thought was perfect for him. Her profile said she loved travel — and the client told Resnick that he, too, loved travel, so they had a lot in common. But when Resnick really dug in, the client admitted that while he idealized travel, he had never really traveled himself, apart from two trips to Las Vegas. The woman in question traveled weekly.
“I said, ‘You’re looking for a match that isn’t there,’” Resnick explains. “This is a woman who travels habitually, whose bag is packed. And you don’t even own a bag! I had to help him realize, she isn’t looking for someone like you.”
Resnick and the other profile doctors I spoke with agreed on one seemingly-contradictory key to the matchmaking process: You should actually hope you get rejected, and often. Dean says most people make the mistake of trying to be likeable, which can mute their unique attributes and bring them thousands of matches that aren’t ideal fits.
“You want people to reject you in a great quantity, because you’re not going to be compatible with a lot of people,” he says. “You just want a few people who will be more closely matched, and this requires you to not be generically attractive and acceptable. You must be compelling and unique.”
Resnick focuses much of his time ghostwriting new profiles for people after a 60- to 90-minute phone conversation. He sees himself as a kind of translator of the human soul, someone who can listen to you talk for a while and then sum you up in a short blurb. And he says he’s been perfecting the process for years.
Not every dating consultant will go so far as to step into another’s shoes online, though. Dean prefers not to write clients’ profiles wholesale; he wants to give people advice they can deploy themselves. And he almost always refuses to send messages pretending to be someone else.
But Ettin says assuming another persona is a fascinating study of human behavior, one that makes her job exciting. “I’m an 80-year-old man one minute, and a 30-year-old woman the next,” she says of her consulting process, which often involves engaging in conversations on behalf of her clients all the way up until the in-person date. “I’m not emotionally connected to these daters so it puts me in a good place, and I get to shield my clients from what happens when people don’t respond to them.”
It’s hard not to hear all of this and wonder if the people your friends are talking to online are actually the people pictured in their profiles. But dating consultants say their advice helps daters with little experience present themselves in a whole different medium.
To them, the work is not deceit so much as intensive editing, or writerly expression. Maybe the online dating profile is a new art form. And if that’s the case, every writer could use an editor.