Online Dating Advice: Optimum Message Length

September 3rd, 2009 by Christian Rudder

Picture this online dating scenario:

  1. You see someone you like.
  2. You read their profile, and wow.
  3. You send them a long message.
  4. You hang tight and…
  5. …you never get a reply.

Sadly, this is a typical story. Even on a lively site like OkCupid, only about a third (32%) of first messages get any response.

Some people, however, get much better results.

In the next several posts here on OkTrends, we’ll be taking a closer look at messaging and finding some ways to improve your own message response rate. We will not be dispensing generic advice. No. We’ve done research, and we have actual numbers.

. . .

As we began to dig into OkCupid’s messaging data, the first thing we noticed was that most people’s contact attempts are way too lonnnng. Almost 16% of first messages are over 2000 characters (roughly 400 words), and the average is 743! At least in terms of using your time efficiently, your messages should be much shorter. Let’s start with this chart:

The y-axis is reply percentage; the x-axis is message length, in characters; and the two lines are as follows. Red is the ratio of messages that get any reply. Green is the ratio of messages that get a reply that in turn gets replied to by the original sender. The idea is that this is the ultimate goal of the first message: to start a conversation with someone.

Messages sent by guys are, overall, only about half as likely to get replies as similar messages from women. But when you consider we’re including dudes who send out messages such as:

Your hot

DAm I got inch for you

and

Your people need to get out of Israel

a baseline reply rate of 22% is looking pretty darn great. (All those were actual first messages, by the way.)

Now, our graph clearly shows that in raw terms, it helps guys to write longer messages. But when we factor in the actual time it takes to compose a given message, it becomes clear that in terms of time put in vs. likelihood of starting actually having a conversation, shorter is actually better. If we imagine that people type messages at about 200 characters per minute, we get the following table:

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that there’s a certain amount of overhead involved with contacting someone (scanning her profile for common interests, thinking of jokes to make, taking a deep breath, clicking around, and so on). If we include 5 minutes of forethought, we find that the actual ideal first message length is 200 characters, or 1 minute’s worth of typing for the average writer.

Yes, brevity is key. Something we learned building SparkNotes, in our pre-OkCupid days. If you’re the kind of person who spends a little more time reading a profile and thinking about your message, say, 10 minutes, then the optimal length goes up a few words (to 270 characters), but, still, short is better. Savor this advice, men, for there are not many things in your world that fit this paradigm.

. . .

For women, the most efficient message is even shorter.

The shortest messages get almost the best absolute response rate, and the reply rate actually goes down as messages approach extreme length. Apparently, after about 360 words (1800 characters), you start scaring people off. A message like that is the online equivalent of a face tattoo. Of your life story. Let’s generate our efficiency table for women:

Incredibly enough, the optimal first outreach from a woman to a man is just 50 characters long! I’m willing to speculate that this graph is telling us that a guy decides whether or not to reply to a woman’s message regardless of what the message actually says, and that the first message’s true function is simply to bring her profile to his attention.

My guess is that he looks at her picture and if she’s his type, he writes back. On the one hand, such a superficial reality is depressing. On the other, over 40% of female-to-male first messages do get replied to, so, as a woman, if you’re writing to a few people who fit your basic demographic the odds are very good you’ll get a response. Anyhow, all this implies that the average woman’s time is better spent looking for the right people to write to, rather than composing detailed messages.

To our bi and gay readers: we also ran the numbers on same-sex messaging, and though we don’t have nearly as much data for them, those charts are here, along with some discussion.

A quick note about privacy on OkCupid

Though this post talks in detail about the content of people’s messages on OkCupid, all messages have been thoroughly anonymized, with sender and recipient data stripped out. In addition, our sifting program looks at the content of messages only two or three words at a time, to track the success of certain phrases (like “what’s up” vs. “wats up”), then aggregates results by phrase. No human has read any actual user messages. The longer messages I give as examples in this post were actually forwarded to us by their annoyed/amused recipients.

This post’s line charts are smoothed with a bezier spline. Message length is rounded up to the nearest 50 (or we wouldn’t have significant data on some points.) So the first data point on the graph is messages of length 0–50, next is 51–100, and so on.

239 Responses to “Online Dating Advice: Optimum Message Length”

  1. mrmr001 says:

    I have an issue with the perspective presented in this article. It entirely overlooks the issue of sincerity. How many words are involved in your sincere response to the person you are writing to.

    The issue is not only getting a response. It is getting a response from someone where their is mutual affinity. You can get someone to respond to you and find out it was a poor match.

    I think the best way to get someone that actually likes you is to put you out there. Even if you are a overly verbose geek — someone may love you for it, but only if you give them a chance. the only way to give them a chance is to be yourself, sincerely, thoroughly and unashamedly

    The alternative is bullshit. You know what they say BIBO… bullshit in; bullshit out

  2. MrMan727 says:

    It saves us guys a lot of trouble if the lady just spells out what age range they want to hear from. I am not a mind reader sorry my piercings got in the way. I could not read the screen.

  3. elektrovox says:

    It’s sometimes hard to know what to write, without coming across as creepy, or a loser.

    Sometimes I will read a girl’s profile, and be smitten (I always read the profiles), but I will have no idea how to approach them.
    I always hate unsolicited communication like that.
    I never just go up to girls in real life, and hit on them.

    Not because I’m afraid, but because it feels insincere.
    I feel like a jerk talking to them about the weather, when, really, I’m thinking about something very different.

    It’s not hard to find something to talk about on a first message if I have things in common with them and are attracted to them anyway, but then I make the mistake of being way to verbose in my messages, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I get the impression that may scare them away.

    But it’s so easy to sound like a dolt writing a short initial message “Oh, gee, that’s a good picture of you in Florida, so you um, like Florida?”

    I don’t know…
    OkCupid is still, by far, the best dating site I have ever used.

  4. jadelumax says:

    Like many dating sites. I feel like i have to do sooo much work to get a guys attention. If they are not being perverted or what not. So Tired of the Games

  5. craig says:

    Is it just me or does the message length for women writing look almost inconsequential? No matter what your odds are slightly less than 1 in 3.

    “Zombie”??! I’ll have to think about how to work that one in.

    And there you go guys, it’s also been confirmed that 1337 speak does not get teh babez.

    FWIW, some analysis of gay/lesbian/bi contacts would be a nice follow up.

  6. mushaboomer says:

    The stats make sense if just getting lots of responses is your objective, never mind if the responder is a good match for you or not. Odds are the more messages you send out the better your chances of getting a response. And, obviously you can pump out more message when you use less characters per message.

    Personally, I’m a bit more selective. In the message and matches department, it’s quality not quantity that matters more to me.

  7. GeekInDallas says:

    I checked my in/out box and in the nearly six months I’ve been on this site I have received and sent introductory messages from/to twenty people. Out of those twenty only two have led to ongoing exchanges of more than five messages. One person was an ex-girlfriend who had a profile on here. The other person is someone I eventually met and dated for awhile. We are still good friends despite our not being romantically entangled with each other.

    Of the remaining 18 people I suspect that half of them contacted me simply to boost their profile completion percentage. EXAMPLE – Here’s an actual message I received:
    SUBJECT: you seem
    super cool…
    and showed up in my quiver.

    so maybe there’s something to it, i dunno…

    oh, i’m a librarian’s daughter.
    maybe that’s it.

    I looked over her profile and responded the following day. I was complimentary of her profile, made a joke about what my Dewey Decimal Code would be if I were a library book, and ended by saying I looked forward to hearing back from her. NOTHING! Zero response. And this has happened three or four times which leads me to believe people are writing because OkCupid is suggesting they write to someone from their Quiver to boost their profile completion by five percent. That’s the only possible explanation I can come up with for why someone would take the time to send me a message and then never respond.

    Oh well, maybe my messages ARE awkward literature without using those exact two words. /haha, sorry!

  8. Exoplanetary says:

    This was totally great but personally I would really like to see the stats for men messaging men. I don’t care as much about women messaging women but while you’re at it could you throw that info in as well? You know.. ..for the LGB people on OKC. I’d appreciate it. I can’t speak for the rest of the masses but there may or may not be one or two others that’d like this type of info. So for the proverbial 3 people wondering about these stats. THANK YOU!!! Then again, I see that Sanguinity already asked. So that’s a proverbial 4 people. WOO! We’d be ever so glad. Danke Schon. I’m pretty sure that means thank you in German but I have this habit of being wrong. Oh shit, I think I wrote too much which probably means you’re never going to read my message. Damn the system!!!

  9. undersaur says:

    Ha, VINDICATED! A girl who IMed me a couple nights ago remarked immediately that I use “awesome” a lot in my profile.

    Like some other commenters, I disagree that sheer number of conversations is the goal. I’m not Tony Stark sleeping with a different girl every night, and I’m not Henry Ford mass-producing messages! I’ll continue hand-crafting my messages with care.

    P.S. All of you who write crappy messages make me look good. I owe you!

  10. Mr.badguy says:

    Superficial is an overused word and over assumed stereotype. Just because you want someone in your life that looks good to you automatically makes you superficial. I say all of the people who make that assumption go ahead and date someone who is not physically attractive to them. See how long it lasts. Intellectual attraction only goes so far. But, just because men look at women’s pictures first DOES NOT mean they have to look like a super model. For example, I like women with a little extra meat on their bones. I go for the pictures first to see 3 things… do I find her attractive?, Does she have tattoos?, does she have piercings? I have tattoos, I have piercings.. There is two things I now have in common with her if I found her to be attractive. Then I proceed to her written profile, I gather any information of interest about her and make my decision on whether to respond or not. Now, that is were most people mess up by assuming a man superficial. They do not know what he looked at and the why.

    I assume I am going to be flamed but it matters not to me. First I am just tired of all men being called Superficial or shallow, and second, I do not plan on returning to this blog to read any further responses.

  11. any1_icanstand says:

    true.
    as a successful okc user
    i can say brevity is key.
    not to give my secrets away
    but a message (not an i.m!)
    like
    “nice profile”
    usually works for me

  12. Psychopompous says:

    The trouble with the strategy outlined in Christian’s analysis is the assumption that there’s an endless supply of people you’d want to message. Honestly, I’ve sent a message to every single person I’d consider dating on OKCupid. Every single one. I have to admit that I automatically eliminate people in certain age ranges or more than 100 miles away from where I live.

    At this point one or two new users show up that I’d consider talking to every couple of weeks. Given that, I think I’m best off going with the 3,000+ word initial message because I want the best chance of response from a single message (I’ll only be sending one every couple of weeks anyway).

    At the same time, the general consensus on what a guy should be saying is pretty much the formula I arrived at on my own – and it’s not working for me. Maybe my trouble is that I’m innately boring in some fashion that I can’t quite fathom.

  13. Insanepandawhat says:

    Something to point out is that the more time spent view/browsing a profile the longer the optimal message. For example with 10 minutes spent, from your data sending a message with 200 or 500 characters looks about the same. So if your fixed time costs are high (spend a good deal of time filtering through searches before even looking at profiles, reading through them, thinking etc like you mentioned) it seems to be adventurous to increase your marginal time on the typing. Also your assumptions are based on an infinite pool of prospects. If you add in 2 more variables into the equation such as prospect pool initial finite size and growth rate it may completely change the picture as conversations/hour is no longer the desired metric it is simply total conversations.

  14. Tomkite says:

    What these charts (and this article) really say is that, instead of spending a significant amount of time reading profiles and typing a long message to someone who really interests you, your odds (in the truly, truly Darwinian sense) are better if you use the same amount of time to shotgun-blast short messages to many, many people. Propagating one’s genetic material works much the same way…

    I think this contradicts Antonio’s premise that you shouldn’t message things like “hi I want to lick your ass”, because the charts show that it wouldn’t take very long to type that same message to hundreds and hundreds of people, and even if your reply odds were as low 1%, you would surely get a response from someone analingus-friendly. You could even streamline the process by changing your screen name to something like “Asslicker6969luvit” and sending winks to everyone of your preferred gender (or both genders, just to be sure).

    If only my own desires in a mate could be boiled down to something as simple and fast to type as ass-licking!

    That said, I do feel like I have COMPLETELY wasted my time when I read someone’s profile and type them a long message and get precisely nothing in response. Maybe I completely misread them and they just want their ass licked…

  15. Nathan says:

    This is a good analysis that is similar to what I would have conducted myself. I think there are other factors though that must be considered. I think one of the biggest factors is supply and demand. Lets face it. Guys are desperate to hook up with girls that at minimum are slightly attractive to the point where they can be super clingy. In other words, there is a very high demand among guys. However, the supply of said girls is very short. The converse is true for girls. There is plenty of supply of guys, even guys that meet the criteria most girls look for. However, the demand among girls to hook up with guys is very weak. Otherwise, girls would actually be going out and searching for guys to ask out. Instead, they have to weed through 10-20 guys per day like Zombie_Twatz here, which significantly reduces demand among women to go out and seek guys to hook up with.

  16. A___ says:

    Message strategies are nice, but they don’t fix ugly. I’m going to photoshop Al Franken’s head onto Jesse Ventura’s body and put my profile up as franken_jesse.

  17. adventureks8 says:

    2000 characters is a huge amount to write to someone you know only from a dating profile. I don’t imagine this happens very often. When it does, I expect one of two things is true:

    1) The profile is lengthy and the resonates very strongly with the sender, thus allowing such a lengthy message that actually make sense.
    2) The sender is bat shit insane and the whole message is incoherent ramble.

    One would hope that condition #2 is rather rare.

    The fall off after 2000 characters is probably because fewer and fewer people can write that much text to a stranger and still be coherent. The nutso’s begin to dominate.

    I would like to see an overlay of the % of first contact messages that fit into each range.

  18. namerequired says:

    fascinating.

    4real.

    me luvs it.

  19. Mikeyk says:

    “hey, sorry for being awkward, but I thought you were pretty, and wanted to tell you about my awesome zombie-literature tattoo. Can I see your piercings?”

  20. x says:

    I like the word ur…. it’s shorter :(

  21. Chris says:

    I don’t think that this tells the whole story. The type of people that write long, thought-out e-mails probably aim for the people that have a brain, and in those cases, it’s probably harder to get a response because they’re witty. However, if one were to send a quick message to those brainy ones, they probably wouldn’t respond at all.

    I would rather see statistics on individual’s lengthy vs short messages, and then this would tell a better story. I think that there are types of people who send shorter messages, and they aim for certain demographics with these shorter messages, so it could really skew the stats.

    Also, here’s an easy one to get. Better looking guys and girls probably send shorter messages because they’re used to responses (they don’t have to try as hard), and so they get a lot more responses than the uglier people. The uglier ones tend to write longer messages out of necessity because a short one wouldn’t give them a chance.

  22. Fenris says:

    Hi, I have been on here about 1 year now. Took over 900 questions to narrow my search, and have not been picky about any person that Messages me. I am really sad to say that I have yet to find someone that would even talk or start a conversation with. I don’t know about any of you, but looks aint what its all about! Its your undying spirit and the love you have for the other person. I sure hope that some of you young ones get my picture. A long conversation can be enjoyable without starting a relationship, and you make a long life friend. Just give others a chance, even if they dont seem ur type.

  23. Erisiantaoist says:

    @Psychopompous What you want isn’t just the message most likely to get responses. You want the message most likely to get responses from a profile like the one you’re looking at, when sent from a profile like yours. Sadly, only OKC has the source data and it’s probably too expensive for them to calculate this, but that’s why I’d suggested the HMM above.

    A cheaper way would be to classify both profiles using the feature space they’ve already calculated–the personality traits that come up when you hit the “compare” button–but I’d still like to see an HMM coming up with the best features of the most successful emails between each possible pair of profile classes, down to a reasonable granularity of course.

  24. interzomeagent says:

    Spelling and grammar are most important to me. I’m really sick of getting messages and/or reading through profiles on here that look like tossed off texts. Seriously, you’re my age and all you can come up with every third word is “ur” or “lol”? Look, “LOL” was overused by 1995. In 2009 it’s even more annoying. But I get it. There’s this whole percentage of people who weren’t on the Net back then and so were weaned on IMs and cell phone texting, but still, you should care enough to make it an impression beyond the short attention span paramters so prevalent these days.

  25. Ricardo says:

    Psychopompous, I cannot say for sure, but there is a good chance there is nothing wrong with you. Dating is inherently an against-all-odds game. Sites like OKC help to shorten the odds a little, but finding a partner is still a longshot. – 30+ years single

  26. Alex7926 says:

    craig, there is a difference between 1337 and lazy text message speak. i would much prefer some nice geeky 1337 than some lazy wanna be texter.

  27. ablondecouple says:

    any1_icanstand: short notes like that work for YOU because you’re an attractive woman messaging men. If I sent notes like that to women, I would never ever get a response that led anywhere. In fact, I shall test this!

    Psychopompous: excellent point. I wonder what the reply/conversation conversion rate is like when the comparison is done on messages between people who live less than 100 miles away from each other.
    In my experience as someone who has 4-5 gorgeous, funny, high match woman pen pals who live >2000 miles away, it is easier to get a response from someone who need not ever worry about meeting you than someone who might be just down the block.

  28. afroblanco says:

    I think it’s kinda awesome that chatspeak correlates with lower response rates. Evolution at work, people.

  29. xxoddus says:

    @ interzomeagent

    Funny how you say that spelling and grammar are most important to you, because you have misspelled the word parameters! lol awesome zombies :)

  30. Looking4ward says:

    It blows my mind that no one has commented about the, “Your people need to get out of Israel” line. Why would you ever say that to someone on a dating site? I also have to admit I geeked when I read it. How absurd

  31. Gover says:

    Wow you’re crazy because I use the “Your people need to get out of Israel” line pretty often and I find it works like a charm.

  32. joskin88 says:

    Yeah, I figured as much. I do have a tendency to ramble… :/

    Another vote for gay/lesbian/bi stats. Or at least m/m. (I’m such a selfish bastard!)

  33. v. says:

    all the stats in the world won’t matter now, as i’m seriously considering deleting my account. i just got an email from the world’s biggest asshole. his only sentence wasn’t even a complete sentence, just a demand for personal information like my cel number. when i told him i wouldn’t be providing such info to a stranger he then sent me a paragraph berating me. yeah, this guy’s a keeper, where’s he been all my life? if any guy is wondering why women aren’t giving him the time of day, factor in guys like this who are making all of u look bad.

  34. THE_OS75 says:

    This is why I love this site. Only a stats nerd like me would want a dating site to tell me how badly I am performing in the dating world because my messages are too long. The keyword thing is pretty interesting too.

    The only thing I would change about the analysis is adding a variable of men messaging women who are better than a 75 or 80% match with them. To me, a guy sending a long, heartfelt message to someone he’s a 40% match with is just as retarded as him sending the “I’d like to lick your ass” message to anyone.

  35. appleofdischord says:

    I’d really like to see the stats on words like tea, coffee, drinks, eat, dinner, movie, etc.

  36. mokikan says:

    I think the point of this study is not quantity over quality in messages. I think its just a reminder that the first level of screening is physical attraction. This is true for men and women. You can type a very long message or a very short one, but that wont change whether or not there is physical chemistry. A hot person can kill their chances by sticking their foot in their mouth, but it doesn’t really work the other way. Might as well just say hi while demonstrating a little social grace and save the long stories for the second and third messages.

  37. Statistician says:

    It’s great that you’ve collected this data, but now you’re suggesting that since some men spam, all the other men should adopt spamming as their optimal strategy? Come on OKCupid, you can do better than this!

    Do women prefer receiving tons of tiny messages every day to receiving a few good ones? I don’t think so.

    Do men prefer sending tons of tiny messages every day to sending a few good ones? I don’t think so.

    But as long as some men are allowed to spam, others are forced to do the same to keep up. So can there be a solution? Damn right there can! You have control of the mailing system, remember!

    All you have to do is keep track of how many new contacts women respond to on average per week – call this R. Then limit the number of new contacts which men are allowed to mail per week, such that women receive on average only cR contact attempts per week (where c is some small constant, e.g. 2).

    This way men will be encouraged to pick recipients carefully and put more thought into their contact attempts. Furthermore, they won’t lose out through this tactic, because all the other men will have to follow it too.

    And women will receive a few, well thought out contact attempts.

    Everyone wins.

    (What you are seeing at the moment is a manifestation of the tragedy of the commons known as open access equilibrium, where everybody is furiously trying to exploit a resource (in this case, the attention of females) and in the process is driving down their average gain. You can read about this in a book like “Elements of mathematical ecology” if you’re interested.)

  38. Byronik says:

    I wrote to somebody, “You look hot. But I bet you get told that all the time.” Got a shag!

  39. Farmstro says:

    Would definitely like to see the stats for same sex exchanges.

  40. Jaz says:

    Writing a longer message only increases the chance you’ll “shoot yourself in the foot”. A longer message with lots of detail about yourself only gives the person more opportunity to find something they don’t like about you. Best to keep yourself somewhat “mysterious”.

  41. KingCobra77 says:

    “Your people need to get out of Israel”

    good to know at least someone is reading my messages…

  42. Kyoto_Phoenix says:

    “Idiocracy”. This is our future. I concur with Chris at 4:35AM today. If you haven’t seen this movie, see it and you’ll get a glimpse of where we’re headed…”It’s got electolytes.”

  43. Kyoto_Phoenix says:

    * correction = “Electrolytes”

  44. dumas712 says:

    Hey Chris – you almost hit the major bullseye that I have been telling people for almost a year now especially on stats of men mailing women. But, you corrupted your data by using a faulty layout – your stats only work if you are a guy who has an infinite amount of women to message and your goal is to mass email and get the maximum number of replies per hour based on the size of the letter. The % of replies become irrelevant using this basis especially when most guys don’t want to use mass messaging. They just want on a 1 message basis – a high % of reply back. The lack of responses can put them in the position of mass emailing in an attempt to get that one response.

    Surprisingly to most women – Most guys don’t want to email on mass emailing terms – they just want the maximum % reply on a small amount of messages sent to women in their area. So, they would rather have high % of replies – a 70% reply rate on 1 message rather than 120 messages sent and getting 84 replies. It also is easier to keep track too Chris of 1 woman then 84 women.

  45. interzoneagent says:

    @xxodus:

    Yeah, go figure. I even misspelled my own username as well. Jesus. Well, it was 6 in the morning. roflomgbbq!!!!1111

    Ahem.

  46. Londonscribe says:

    I am an awesome zombie, (haha) with a pretty band of piercings around my waist covering the awkward tattoo I got in English Literature class.

    Come AND get me ladies!

  47. Tonya Adams says:

    Oh damn!!… I haven’t actually read the blog yet. I will… I got stuck on the name Christian Rudder… Is this the same Christian Rudder from years ago over at ‘The Spark’… the same guy who wore bag socks then peed on his own rotten feet?… LOL if it is the same weirdo… I was addicted to wasting my time over at ‘The Spark’ way back when, and now I am addicted to ‘OkCupid’… I am looking for my perfect lesbian lover… So far your site has introduced me to 2 stalkers, several men who do not understand the meaning of the word ‘lesbian’, one nice girl I dated til she went back to her ex, and a couple of really hot women who live out of state… I am ever hopeful though… I have often wondered what ever happened to you… Once upon a time, you gave me my daily doses of laughter… Glad that one of your crazy experiments has not gotten you killed yet…. Wow, Christian Rudder, what a blast from the past!!

  48. jenny_jumps says:

    What about the gays ?!?

    I echo Exoplanetary!

    Where are the dating secrets for women sending messages to other women ?!?

  49. D says:

    seems like there is a failure to realize that correlation does not equal causation. how many girls that responded to messages containing “zombie” had “zombie” in their profile? I guess that data is useful if you’re going to be sending the same message to every person, but that defeats the purpose of virtually every feature this site has to offer.

    response rates by match % would be interesting to see though.

  50. NA says:

    I think it’s actually pretty fucking rude when people don’t respond, just because I (or anybody) send a message doesn’t necessarily mean I want to date/fuck the person maybe I just think a friendship is possible.

    But that’s why those people are members since 2004 and still single because they either don’t know what they want OR they just have standards that so ridiculous such a person probably doesn’t even exist.