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Online matrimony: A big business in India
Meghana Biwalkar | October 05, 2006
The Krishnans have been looking for a bride for their son for over two years now. Local marriage bureaus, newspapers and even their family networks haven't helped them find the perfect girl.
They are now considering turning to the Internet - they've heard of these huge databases of prospective brides, available at the press of a button. Trouble is, the Krishnans aren't computer literate, nor do they have access to the Internet.
That's the cue for the entry of Janaki Sharma, a Mumbai-based housewife who has taken on the franchise for an offline centre of one of the leading web-based matrimonial services.
At Sharma's matrimonial bureau, trained tech savvy staff will help the Krishnans navigate the information highway, post their son's details and scan the available databases for suitable matches.
The organised matrimonial business in India is worth about Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion). Until a few years ago, it operated mainly as a loose network of friends, astrologers, family priests and so on.
Of course, a few bureaus did exist, but the industry really took off after the launch of online matrimonial services like Shaadi.com (part of the People Interactive Company) and BharatMatrimony in the late 1990s.
As "real" bureaus rushed to set up virtual counterparts, the online matrimonial matchmaking business grew - to about Rs 60 crore (Rs 600 million), at last estimate.
Meanwhile, a couple of years ago, the companies that started the cascade created brick-and-mortar versions of their Internet businesses, setting up offline centres that help them reach out to a wider audience profile. This was probably critical, given that marriages in India are usually "arranged" by the older generations, who may not be comfortable with technology.
Now, the business model has evolved further. Both companies are looking to housewives and retired people to help expand their business. The brick-and-mortar model will expand primarily through franchises sold to this group.
Accordingly, initial investment in the franchise operation has also been pegged at an affordable Rs 800,000-10 lakh, and office space requirements kept at 600-800 sq ft. In the next two years, Shaadi Point (the offline model of Shaadi.com) plans to expand its current 100 centres to 500, while BharatMatrimony is aiming for 300 centres in the same period.
"Although the Internet is growing faster, there are limitations in the number of users. A combination of both online and offline centres helps us go beyond the 35 million Internet users in India, making offline a profitable business opportunity," says Murugavel Janakiraman, CEO, BharatMatrimony Group.
Housewives and retirees as potential business partners is a carefully thought-out strategy. Offline centres are most likely to be visited by parents of prospective brides and grooms (studies show that less than 20 per cent of website traffic is from parents seeking matches for their children).
It was felt that this group would probably be more comfortable knowing an older person was in charge of the centre; women, in particular, would be better equipped to deal with sensitive issues like marriage, and offer personalised advice to parents.
Besides, adds Omprakash Hassanandani, business head, Shaadi Point, "Local entrepreneurs who better understand the requirements of parents help customers feel at ease and reassured of the services available at our offline centres."
The franchisee model for BharatMartimony's offline centre and Shaadi Point works on a 50:50 revenue sharing basis. Both companies advertise in newspapers in local languages and rely on word-of-mouth publicity to drive franchisee business. BharatMatrimony staff also scrutinise visitors to the centres to pinpoint potential business partners.
The companies claim to be more than satisfied with the response. Over 90 per cent of Shaadi Point franchisees are women, while half of BharatMatrimony's 33 franchisee centres are run by women entrepreneurs.
Like the business models, both Shaadi.com and BharatMatrimony say their online and offline audience profiles are significantly different. "If Shaadi.com talks to individuals, Shaadi Point talks to their parents. Both services have their own advantage," says Vibhas Mehta, business head, Shaadi.com.
The difference in services, he points out, starts with the information upload. Keeping in mind the target profile, Shaadi.com gives detailed information on individual tastes and preferences, such as hobbies, interests and so on.
Shaadi Point, on the other hand, helps parents do a reality check - information here is more on family background, income and so on.
"The aim is to help parents find a suitable match for their children through a wide database, which they would not have access to given the lack of networking in nuclear family systems," says Hassanandani.
While the biggest advantage of such organised matrimonial bureaus is undoubtedly their extensive databases - Shaadi Point and BharatMatrimony claim to have over 200,000 profiles each - the offline centres plan to offer much more to stand out from their local counterparts.
BharatMatrimony focuses on ambience, with tidy spaces and user-friendly infrastructure that includes contact details and so on in a bid to make visiting parents feel comfortable.
Shaadi Point, on the other hand, has a counsellor to guide them through the entire process of selecting profiles, uploading information and so on. "We want to evolve the matchmaking process as a one-stop solution by extending the services from just being a match-finder." says Janakiraman.
The offline services, including finding suitable profiles through counselling, or updating profiles, come at a price. Shaadi Point membership fees range from Rs 1,501 for three months to Rs 9,591 for a year, while BharatMatrimony offers membership at Rs 1,250 for three months and Rs 5,800 for nine months.
At these centres, unlike the offline services, parents are taken through the profiles personally and are given printouts of the selected profiles, complete with verified contact details. Parents also get personalised ID cards so that they can access centres across India and select profiles to suit their requirements.
Further, to maintain a personal relationship and gain consumers' confidence, the companies are looking at local marketing and media spends.
Shaadi Point, which has an annual marketing budget of Rs 12 crore (Rs 120 million), has tied up with local newspapers and provides editorial content for matrimonial columns. That's a strategy BharatMatrimony, too, follows, in addition to organising events, advertising through filers and outdoor hoardings and radio.
"The local promotions help us not just in increasing brand visibility, but also in building a strong brand identity," says Janakiraman. Incidentally, recent surveys showed Shaadi.com and BharatMatrimony.com are among the most recognised Indian websites.
But then, online matrimony remains big business. This year, it will grow to over Rs 90 crore (Rs 900 million), and Shaadi.com and BharatMatrimony have seen their user bases grow to over 7.8 million members each.
The focus on the online business continues - value adds like 24-call centres, online reference checks, online horoscope checks and so on are already on offer. Shaadi.com has now launched a sister website, Shaaditimes, which offers advice and information on wedding rituals, trousseau planning and even counselling.The idea now is to club the online and offline services by offering combined services and thereby increasing their visibility. For entrepreneurs like Sharma and parents like the Krishnans, that's just about a perfect match.