By Anne VanderMey, reporter
FORTUNE -- Anastasia doesn't seem particularly concerned that I'm not interested in marrying her. The 23-year-old Ukrainian is gamely answering questions in our private Internet chat room, which is costing me about a buck a minute. In fact, she seems to like me. She's sending me emoticons and even wants to know what I would title a book that was based on my life. (Not really sure, I tell her.)
I'm on AnastasiaDate.com, the leading provider of "premium international dating" services for singles looking for love abroad. (Her name being the same as the site's is a coincidence.) Premium international dating is a new name for what's traditionally referred to as the mail-order bride business. And thanks to people like me willing to pay to talk with beautiful young women like Anastasia -- who was paid to respond -- the trade is doing pretty well.
Revenue numbers for the mail-order bride industry are hard to come by. But AnastasiaDate shared its sales and growth statistics exclusively with Fortune. The company made $110 million in 2012. In 2013, it projects it will make $140 million. Its user growth is even more impressive: The site's traffic grew 220% in 2012. It now has four million users, who cumulatively spend some 360 million hours on the site per year. It racked up 2.6 million visits in March alone.
AnastasiaDate is not alone. The advent of globalization and the ubiquity of online dating has set the stage for new-age mail-order bride companies to gain unprecedented popularity. According to market research firm Experian Marketing Services, the top 10 premium international dating sites drew 12.2 million visits in March. That's a 29% uptick from March of last year -- a huge increase compared to the rest of the relatively stagnant online dating industry. In March, AnastasiaDate was the 29th most popular online dating service period, in a category of 1,400 sites. And the company believes there's room for expansion. "I think there's a lot of pent-up demand," says Chief Strategy Officer Mark Brooks. "People are realizing that there's a bigger world than Match.com."
To achieve the kind of growth Brooks is hoping for, though, the company will have to overcome the deep stigma surrounding the mail-order bride industry. The practice conjures images of women desperate to marry out of failing economies; and of unappealing American men looking for a traditional (read: submissive) mate to keep the house clean. Not surprisingly, the growing industry is attempting to shine up its reputation. Brooks sees international dating today as being on the cusp of respectability -- in much the same way online dating was in its early stages, before people accepted it as just another way to meet someone. Eventually, he foresees American women using the site and predicts that the economic disparities will fade away, but that may be a long way off. For now, AnastasiaDate is making a big push to go mainstream with its current model, as mainstream as courting younger foreign women from underperforming economies can really get, that is.
Early this year, the Moscow-based company hired Brooks, who is a prominent online dating industry consultant, to head up its growth strategy. It has also expanded its U.S. presence, hiring more Americans and opening a New York office. It brought on a Manhattan-based PR firm and says it will spend more than $45 million on marketing this year. Recently, it ran ads on CNBC, Discovery, Golf, the History Channel, and CNN. Says Brooks, "We are very, very sensitive to reputation now."
The company is also trying to clean up its act. For example, the online interaction I had with Anastasia, where she got a small kickback for minutes chatting with me, is against company policy. "It is outright forbidden," Brooks says. "Abuse still happens, and we're raising our game to stamp it out." The company is planning a crackdown on its local partner agencies who pay women to interact on the site.
Brooks chalks up problems so far to the growing pains of globalization. The site simply scaled too fast to meet strict standards of quality control. But he says those wrinkles will be smoothed out as dating overseas becomes more widely acceptable. "If you consider where we're going as a global society there's no question that this is the direction we're heading," Brooks says. "Socially, we're becoming more international. This is a good thing."
Today's premium international dating industry looks radically different from the mail-order bride trade did 10 years ago. For starters, it's much bigger. According to U.S. immigration statistics and analysis from the Tahirih Justice Center, there were roughly 200 international marriage broker agencies in 1999, which coordinated between 4,000 and 6,000 marriages. In 2010, there were 400 such agencies, and between 10,000 and 15,000 resultant weddings. But that's only part of the story. The business now exists largely online. In fact, the vast majority of AnastasiaDate users will never actually go abroad to meet the women they're chatting with.
Here's how it works: The site's most active users on average are American men making more than $100,000, between ages 35 and 60. To interact on the site, they can buy credits. Credits are priced on a sliding scale, starting at $15.99 for 20 credits, and going up to $399.99 for 1,000. Each minute of simple, instant messaging-style chatting costs one credit. Special, premium smilies -- like a vibrating, multi-color "LOL" -- cost extra. Cam share (audio not enabled) costs six credits a minute. Video chat with voice costs even more.
The site itself is easy to use. With a free trial cam-share chat on AsianBeauties.com -- Anastasia date also runs AmoLatina.com and AfricanBeauties.com -- I was able to quickly set up a feed with a young woman in a spaghetti string white tank top. Our conversation didn't get deep, the language barrier was formidable. But she did note that I was not a man (wave!), and we established that both our cameras were, in fact, working (thumbs up!). My gender didn't stop her from sending me dozens of rose emoticons after my trial ran out and typing messages like "hey ..dear reply please .." and "i like you so much .............."
During my brief time on the site, I could see how it might be easy to spend. In fact, despite the absence of a profile or photo linked to my account, I still racked up 176 messages in a little over a month with letters full of phrases like "I dream to find a man who is tender and caring," from 18-year-old Alisa or "I'd like to confess that your photo caught my eye," from 21-year-old Irina. Responding costs 10 credits each.
The sheer costliness of courting a bride on international dating sites makes some women's rights advocates wary. Jeanne Smoot, the director of public policy for the Tahirih Justice Center, says that having spent large amounts on the courtship can leave men with a sense of expectation. "There is a concern there, about someone who feels that they're entitled to the benefit of their bargain," Smoot says. The commodification of women is a concern, with sites that offer so many options and such variety. And there are also worries that women who travel to a new country through such services will be particularly vulnerable to abuse.
Though most conversations will end online, when international online dating leaves the realm of the virtual, there can be real safety risks. Last year a Texas man plotted to kidnap and kill a women he had met on a website. Examples of domestic violence cases in the industry abound. A pair of high-profile murders of foreign brides prompted the enactment of federal legislation in 2005 to protect women brought to the U.S. via international marriage brokers.
That statute, called the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, met with vehement opposition from the international dating companies when it was introduced. Now, Brooks says, it gets a warmer reception. "The industry has grown to appreciate it," he says. "It was designed to provide a very high level of comfort and safety to female members of international dating sites, which is, of course, of utmost importance to us." The law mandates that agencies perform background checks and provide immigrant women with information about their rights. However, proponents say the laws' enforcement is sometimes lacking.
Anastasia, who I chatted with for a while, says she keeps safety in mind when she meets men in person. She makes sure that AnastasiaDate translators are present. The company provides a variety of services to both acquaint the man with a foreign country and to make the women feel more comfortable. Anastasia has met two men this way. I asked if it was fun. "Quite the opposite," she wrote. "It was awful." One man didn't act interested. ("He seemed semi-alive.") The other assumed she was a prostitute. She said she thought the odds -- so many young women vying for so little male attention -- had gone to their heads. The site "tends to show men from not such a bright side," she wrote.
Still, Anastasia is undeterred. She's sticking with AnastasiaDate.com, she says, because she's searching for her one true love -- like a lot of the rest of us. When I asked her what she wanted from the site, her answer could have come from anyone, male or female, in any country: "I hope to find someone worthy to be with." Here's hoping that's what she finds.
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