Do you know what this is?
6’1” without heels. (Frequently) love dogs more than people. Think you know the best marg in the city? Skeptical.
It’s the formula to taking your online dating message game to a previously unimagined level. Want to learn it, and how to have better messaging all around? Read on.
The Real Problem
You’re on the apps, you’re grinding, and every so often you get a match. Exciting! Except your opening line seldom gets a reply. Or the conversation peters out after a few exchanges.
Let’s face it – we’re all swiping. And unless you’re an Adonis who runs a puppy rescue shelter, we’re all frustrated.
Online dating is the worst. It’s shallow, an incredible time suck, and it’s not delivering on its promise: algorithm-assisted matches that make dating more efficient.
This is especially true for guys who have moved beyond hookup culture and are looking for dating with some substance.
The system is broken. But you’re probably still going to use it. For now.
This is About One Thing
This article is about the most important skill you can master in online dating that no one’s talking about: the message.
I want to be up front: this isn’t about crafting the perfect profile. This is about what happens after you match, when a tiny window of possibility opens that you can either enlarge or allow to close forever.
This article is about the inescapable truth of the apps: unless you’re having conversations that lead to actual face time, online dating is a waste of time.
Messaging: The Neglected Secret Weapon
A quick google search reveals a bias in the online-dating advice industry: it’s all about pictures, bios, and listicles of “the 10 unwritten rules of online dating.”
This stuff is important. Online dating is self-marketing. You need a fire profile and to understand the etiquette.
But here’s the thing: this advice is easy to give because it’s easy to implement. You can pay a professional profile pic photographer for better images. You can get your female friends to help you with your bio.
What money can’t buy: the tool kit to write solid messages, get quality conversations going, and get dates. We’re here to help.
Messages are your audition for face time. If you’re devoting more than 50% of your bandwidth to picture selection and bio tweaking, you’re mis-allocating your resources.
Think of your profile like a resume. Messaging is the job interview and a screening combined. So you’re going to want to ace it.
Your Goals in Messaging
1. Capture and Hold Interest
Quality opening messages are important because you need to a) get them to respond, and b) dive deep enough into the conversation right away so you can emotionally connect before one of you drops the conversation.
This is the most challenging aspect of the entire messaging game. Online dating encourages digital A.D.D.: There’s always more swipes to swipe, more matches to match, more options to gather.
You simply don’t have the time to start the conversation at “hello.” You need to dive right into the second act so you can decide whether to ask them out before they disappear.
2. Find Out if There’s a Connection
The second act is getting to the kind of fun, playful exchange that allows you to share some kind of emotional connection with the other person. It could be as simple as a shared passion, but that spark is what’s going to get you face-to-face with someone.
Notice we didn’t say, “establish a connection,” because these things can’t be engineered (despite the advice of an industry of dating advice and pickup artists). It happens naturally, or not.
You can, however, give yourself the best possible chance of a genuine connection by being generous with your personality and interests (more on that below), being playful right out of the gate, and being vulnerable when it’s appropriate.
And remember: you’re not just trying to make a connection with your match. You’re also trying to determine if it’s worth your time to meet up. Are they putting forth equal effort? Are they genuinely into you, or just responding to the attention?
Getting past the pleasantries and straight into a real exchange is the best way to figure out if they’re interested and you should be interested.
3. Present an Authentic Self-Image
Authenticity is appealing. Authenticity is charismatic. It’s also important not to misrepresent yourself for if (and when) you meet up with someone.
As Jack Donaghy once told Liz Lemon: Be open, confident, and positive. Apply that to who you (really) are and trust that the right people will connect with it.
4. Make Them Feel Safe
This advice is given from the perspective of men seeking women (since that's largely our experience), but it applies to everyone.
Step into her shoes for a moment: at some point you want her to meet up with you, an unknown male, in a dark bar or coffee shop she’s never been before, probably at night.
In just about any other kind of social transaction, that would be insane.
Women have a different set of social and personal safety challenges than guys. You need to understand that and use your messages to transmit signals that you are a respectful, responsible person who has healthy boundaries.
So how do you make her feel safe in the messaging phase?
Anything that even hints of sexual expectation, misogyny, or pressure of any kind is a red flag. If you’re the kind of guy who does this, stop reading this article, get off the apps, and seek help.
For most guys, however, it means just a few commonsense best practices. First, avoid sexual innuendo. Flirt, but keep it G or PG until you’re face to face.
Second, it pays to be confident and specific in setting up a meeting but you should still send signals she can have as much control over how and when as she wants.
For example, after you’ve gotten the green light to meet up, be specific but flexible with a message like, “I'm free Friday, or if early next week is more convenient Tuesday works too.”
You want a firm commitment to a specific time (for dealing with flakes) but to let her know she’s the ultimate decider.
For a location it’s gallant to ask what part of town they're in and then choose a cool spot that is more convenient for them if you’re in a different part – again, a familiar spot or familiar part of town helps put your date at ease.
4. Move it to a Meeting
Don’t get caught in messaging quicksand. As it turns out, one in three people who’ve matched and messaged with someone on a site never actually meet them face to face.
Contrary to most of the advice out there, there is no set rule about when to suggest a meeting. When you have a critical mass of message exchanges, the classic “I’m really enjoying this. How about we meet up?” is always a winner.
Just don’t burn time messaging someone who isn’t interested in meeting. If you’re feeling it, put it out there.
The good news is, many women explicitly say on their profiles they’re not looking for a pen pal.
What NOT To Do
I don’t want to insult our readership with this, but for the troglodytes who somehow found their way to Primer:
- Don’t be a creep
- Don’t be sexual in any way
- Don’t be cocky
- No one word or grunt-derived openers (‘Sup.’ ‘Hey.’)
Swear Off Canned Lines
In Master of None Aziz Ansari uses the perfect app pickup line: “Going to Whole Foods. Want me to pick you up something?”
It’s unexpected, overtly nurturing, and signals an upper middle class socioeconomic status. Perfect. Game Over. You can stop reading, right?
Nope. Ditch the canned lines. Even if she hasn’t heard it before, she’ll know and respect you less.
Would you apply to a job with the exact same cover letter and resume? Of course not. You develop a framework and modify to fit your particular goal.
So let’s build the framework now.
Write the Best Message, Every Time
Here are some general guidelines for upping your message game. If you’re in a rush, scroll down for our robust 3-step formula.
1. Be personal
We get it – messaging is time consuming. So it’s OK to develop a template and work from that (more on that in the formula below).
But spamming out the same generic message is a mistake. By targeting everyone generally you’re targeting no one.
Internal testing at Primer indicates the personal touch works. One contributor was able to double his response rate (from 5% to 10%) by writing bespoke messages.
Potentially double your response rate by being personal.
2. Be Specific (About Them)
Examine their bio and images for something specific that you have in common. It can be anything, but it needs to be something you share – even just an interest in travel. Why?
First, it starts building rapport. Second, it invites your match to share something about themselves. Third, it gives you a topic to begin and expand into a real conversation.
Now, a lot of people are lazy with their profiles. If their pictures or bio don’t give you anything to work with, move on. It means they’re not serious about the process.
3. Be Generous (About You)
After you’ve suggested a shared interest, be generous with your personality, opinions, and passions.
Using our travel example, mention the last place you went and why it was unexpected or amazing.
If your response is, “I’m kinda boring,” consider this: Everyone – everyone – is interesting. Dig in to your experience, what you’re interested in and passionate about, and be generous with that.
4. Be Humorous
Humorous is different than funny. Funny is for comedians. We can’t all rise to that level.
The good new is, humorous is enough.
Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman has written about this in his excellent book Mating Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love. Humor signals both intelligence and the ability to win others over, both traits highly desirable in a potential heavy petting partner.
If you struggle with humor, shyness, or generally aren’t likeable here are some ideas:
- Self Deprecation: Find a way to put yourself down, but in a confident way that shows your humor, self-awareness, and that you don’t take yourself too seriously
- Irony: Combined with self-deprecation, this can be a powerful tool. For example, “I just tried shuffleboard for the first time. My team went 5 in 15 but I think I might turn pro.”
- Absurdism: It’s OK to be ridiculous if it will make your match smile. And really, what do you have to lose?
5. Keep Saying, “Yes, and…”
This tip comes from the world of improv rule and boils down to: be 100% positive, keep the conversation moving, don’t argue.
You might think it’s cute or show off your intelligence to get into a disagreement, but that comes with big risks. Your job is to establish rapport and common ground, not swing your big …brain.
The Patent-Pending Three Point Format
The guys here at Primer have, at different times, been in the New York, Los Angeles, and Denver dating scenes off and on for years. Out of discussions and a few Scotch-fueled informal messaging workshops has arisen a formula:
- Open with a common interest/observation/bold statement based on their profile
- Deploy humor
- Ask a question
What does the formula look like in practice? Here’s some examples, starting with the one at the top of the article:
Her bio gives her height without heels right away, mentions loving dogs and being a margarita expert
2. 6’3” without heels. 1. (Frequently) love dogs more than people. 3. Think you know the best marg in the city? Intrigued.
You notice tacos in several profile pics
1. I see you also lean tacosexual 2. Are you out to family & friends? 3. What’s your favorite spot in the city and why?
Her bio is a list of what she DOESN’T want, including vegans and those who attend Burning Man
1 & 2. I’d say you’re being vegan intolerant but I have the same allergy. 3. BBQ at [delicious local spot] Thursday?
Bio includes a flattering New York Times quote (not clear if it’s about them or not – likely a joke); they work at Doctors Without Borders
1 & 2. “You are a good son.” -My mom. 3. What’s your favorite travel spot NOT for work?
Bio contains a lot of information: entrepreneur, lived abroad in Africa & Australia, loves the outdoors, boxing, eating; dislikes carrots
1 & 2. Carrots are the devil’s vegetable. 2 & 3. I’ll risk you breaking my nose trying boxing if you’re down for [your favorite local adventure/cocktail spot/etc.]
If you’re thinking, “I don’t have time for that!” consider this: All four of those openers took approximately 45 – 90 seconds apiece, and if you get a response it’s far more likely to segway into a productive conversation.
Don’t take our word for it: try the three step formula (while mindful to be open, generous, and curious) and see if it doesn’t take your messaging game to the next level.