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. Mick says:

    @ablondecouple

    Games playing bs? Finding someone IS a game initially. Honesty up front? Ok, we’ll play by your rules…Say I saw a girl I liked and messaged her “I like your profile, you seem cool, and you’re making my dick hard just looking at this one picture of you…” How many responses do you think I’d get back, for being honest? Or for guys that are a little on the nerdy side, do you think they get very far for being honest about liking to play WoW for 18 hours a day, or their interest in watching Star Wars 4 times a day?…nope, they’d get trampled on and/or ignored. Because women want someone who is different, is fun, adventurous passionate, sexually attractive, witty and a wealth of other things; just having this or that in common with her is not enough to spark attraction with women. You have to be DYNAMIC.

    You have to be able to play the game, because women do play HARD, especially nowadays..They wanna know their suitor is strong and can take a little challenge and there is nothing wrong with it, I say bring it on! And honestly, the best relationships/friendships with women I have EVER had have stemmed from a little game playing and fun, and trust me the sex is better because of that. Its a little thing called ‘TENSION’. Tension is one thing that creates a strong attraction. You’re talking to someone who reads A LOT on this subject and puts it to action. It works for me, but then again I have a decent job that I love(I’m a writer and reviewer for a magazine showcasing local bands), am creative (musician for 10 years), I am definitely not ugly looking, and in person people usually say I’m outspoken and passionate about my dreams and can be really charming and I dress really well. So its my duty, as someone who used to never have much luck with girls to give them some information that helped me have the relationships I wanted which not are not based off sex (but are enhanced by it, so I don’t let anyone tell me sex doesn’t matter in a relationship because if you and your partner are incompatible shit falls apart quick..Ive seen it happen), but are relationships with people that are very compatible towards each others’ passions, lifestyles, sense of humor, personality, etc.. regardless if we have several differences. Love itself definitely sees through many differences.

    Its about the guy seeking a good initial impression on a girl because that’s hardest to do is setting yourself apart from her 50 emails per day of every dude saying “hi, yur cute”, “hi i wanna fuck you”, or some idiot rambling about some shit she doesn’t care about. There are so many good guys out there but have a shit time because he has no idea how to engage a girl first. That’s what I’m talking about.

  2. Mick says:

    @ryanmgl

    Hilarious, but too much info my friend :)

  3. russruggles says:

    HAHA! I knew it! So many guys spend waay too much time crafting a message (or, *entirely* too little). You have to keep it simple. Any data on whether the message contains a question or not? I think having a question to answer makes it easier to respond to a message, too.

  4. Sarah says:

    @Mick’s reply to “ablondecouple” on the 15th:

    Every guy should be listening to what your saying and thinking about it while they’re using this site and writing their messages. That is what will help them set themselves apart and find someone special for them. As a female, what you said and how you said it from a male perspective, totally made sense, and automatically you’ve set yourself apart from other guys who are writing the most pathetic messages ever and complaining about it later.

    Don’t be a “game playing” asshole, but check out what he wrote and see the qualities he’s talking about, take the pointers. What have you got to lose?

  5. Peter Lyons says:

    I really wish that there was a “flag as jerk” button recipients could hit and we could just weed these morons out and get on with it.

  6. Pingback: flowchart to my heart (and other parts): OKCupid’s trend blog | Eros Daily Musings and Digressions

  7. Pingback: Language in the Era of Tweeting and Texting « Ubi Ubi Blog

  8. Chapel says:

    Mick is dead on. You need to be a challenge worth exploring, not just some random toadie. The thing is, people want to play the game, because it means making the other person work for it a little, and the other person wants to know you’re worth working for before they commit time into communicating with you.

  9. whorestar says:

    girls SAY they want someone who will be honest and upfront with them, but the reality is that girls want to dig around a guy’s soul for their information. the data reflects this.

  10. alezan says:

    how do you account for the “politeness” factor?
    some people would reply to a message with a simple “Thanks but I am not interested”.

  11. -DameSansMerci says:

    I like it when I can tell a man actually read my profile and has something worth saying to grab my attention. I go so far as to specifically state in my profile that I won’t respond to messages that aren’t interesting. I like long ones when what they have to say continues to be interesting. But I’m amazed when men send me messages with things like “Hey how are you you should check out my profile” and expect me to respond. I get far too many messages on here to jump at the opportunity to reply to every single one.

    I think the most likely thing in my mind to ever get a message read is knowing they read my profile and have relevant information or an interest in my ideas. I usually give men the courtesy of a reply in those instances weather I’m interested in dating them or not.

  12. BobOm says:

    Do the response rates for messages account for prior contact, either via IM or in person?

  13. Ash says:

    Message length should be kept short.

  14. HandsomGeek79 says:

    Response rate is fascinating and I’m sure there are a lot of factors at play. Very attractive women tend to have a full in box, so while they may enjoy reading it. The intimidation factor of giving a response to everything you say and coming up with new material of her own could keep you from a response. I usually model the length of my letter around her profile. If it’s long and well thought out, then I’ll write her a longer more intelligent message. I don’t even write women who feel they can go off of looks alone with a terse and shoddy profile.

    Not responding to long emails is something I’m even guilty of. Even if I’m interested in the person and it’s a great letter, I’m often drained after work and just don’t want to put in the effort of giving back about equally. I’ll often grab a shorter letter with a couple of questions, knock it out and maybe chat online. It’s possible that women have more trouble writing a response because they don’t write as many personal dating letters as we do. Heck, there average is only 50 words on initial contact. I’d say that could be evidence that they just don’t like writing them.

    The final point may seem chauvinistic but she is a stranger that you have some interest in. You don’t know how old her picture is whether there are lies in her profile. Or if there’s just some personality trait that drives you crazy. I think a long letter makes you come off as needy with little to do other than chasing girls. You want to show interest but she hasn’t earned the right to you spending an hour or more on a masterfully written lengthy letter. There are many incredible women here and there’s no reason for you to make the one you’re writing so special yet. I’d rather send a shorter one to her and a few other women that I think are good people. Then spend more time and write either my sis, mom or a female friend that I know deserves and can appreciate what I’m putting into it.

    Be respectful and honest but also keep your priorities in line.

  15. Alex says:

    I hate what you are implying. That you should be messaging hundreds of girls, and seeking out a strategy of maximum efficiency. Blah. Seriously? How sad. It’s guys who have such attitudes who are the reason that women are a bitter and quiet people. And why this site is flawed vs eHarmony’s paradigm.

  16. dllahr says:

    I followed this advice for 2 weeks – kept my initial message length around 100. Send out 20 messages. Got 0 responses. So I switched back to my old method of writing a paragraph or two (~400 chars). That brought me back to regular 1/4 – 1/5 response rate.

    Anyway, I know 20 isn’t a lot, and there could have been a lot of other factors, but to go from 4/20 to 0/20 does seem significant. I’m guessing that I’m in a weird enough category (looks, job, background) that I don’t fit into the regular mold.

  17. Bob The SR22 Insurance Guy says:

    Thanks for the interesting website. This is what most people are not aware of. I love your perspective. Well reasearched and quite an eye opener! …

  18. Colin says:

    I’d love to see a similar analysis on profile content and length.

  19. Long writer says:

    Although length is something to consider, content is most definitely more important.

    Consider the following message:

    I noticed you visited my profile and left no message or response to it which is fine. I am just writing in hopes to find out if there is a reason why no response. It seems to happen alot when people visit my profile and I want to find out if there is something that causes the person to lose interest. I know this is going to come off insecure but take it as me trying to improve my profile instead. I know looks matter some what and i know i am not the studliest guy but i am definitely not the ugliest either..haha. I would really appreciate your feed back, by the way hold nothing back, I am not fragile..haha.

    I mean, it’s pretty long at 493 characters, but the content just screams, “Nobody likes me; everybody hates me. What am I doing wrong? Should I be eating worms?” How should a woman even reply to this message? There are plenty of reasons for profile views including the uncontrolled flip through Quickmatch.

    Then there are longer messages from guys who have something interesting to say. Now, if it’s been a long day at work and my eyes are tired, I’ll glance over it and leave it. Eventually, I’ll get around to replying, though. If it’s worth a reply.

  20. Larry says:

    I think you’ve drawn some incorrect conclusions based on message length. To me, the data clearly shows no effect from message length. The response and conversation results are virtually identical for all, but the very shortest message lengths. Write long or write short makes no difference. The difference must then be in the content. You cite a 32% response rate. I only wish my resposne rate was anywhere near that high. Currently it’s right around zero.

  21. Burge says:

    The problem with your analysis is you assume that all members are 100% substitutable… like the difference from buying your milk at jewel or safe-way. You also assume users do the maximum amount of messages per hour based on fixed criteria.

    People’s criteria changes day to day, hour to hour, also people value some members over others. Therefore, they should seek to MAXIMIZE every attempt possible. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you are trying to maximize every attempt, it would be more. I wish I could graph this on a marginal rate curve, however, I imagine most people agree 1500 ch is solid.

  22. Sylver says:

    Interesting, but there are a couple points that should be noted:

    1. Message writing speed.
    Seriously under-estimated. According to typingtest.com, the average typing speed is 36 words a minute (180 characters a minute). This is pure typing, no thinking involved, based on data from a website where people go to to test their typing speed (meaning the actual average might be even lower).

    Writing an introduction message is not a pure typing exercise either, so assuming 200 char/minute is not very realistic.

    You can measure the time people actually spend on writing messages.

    2. The strategy assumes that the goal is to get as many replies as possible, that all replies have identical value and that there are unlimited numbers of potential partners.
    These assumptions are not justified. First, in many areas, the number of potential partners is not sufficient to warrant a volume approach. In my town OKC offers a couple pages of results, and just a couple members might be of interest. Based on your graph, I would say that a longer message might be worth it, even if it only gives a couple PP extra chances of replies.
    Next, getting a reply from a person I feel interested in is a lot more valuable than 5 replies from people I am not really attracted to.
    Finally getting on conversation going and leading to a relationship is more interesting to me than getting 5 of those. Sure, at the initial stage, expressing interest in several women is fine, but by the time you are dating, pursuing other women online is rather dubious.

    Taking these points into account, writing a few very long messages might actually be the way to go.

  23. Alex says:

    I disagree with this study’s conclusions i=on so many levels. It is a poor interpretation of raw data, and worse, one based on insuffucuent paramters of data collected. Having software that can “give you the numbers” is not the same as having facts and answers for what is actually going on.
    Before you can asses quantitive data in this field you MUST have assessed qualatitive content and be running on some sort of even keel across your samples.

    Qualatative measurement in this area is an amazingly soft or subjective concept. There are widely skewed variances in what matters, what is attractive, and what is desired. Not to mention stylistic differences, cultural glitches and simple spelling errors (The internet-dating-site equivalent of getting caught picking your nose when you did not think your date was watching).

    My qualaty standards are that the message should show INDIVIDUALITY, both of the sender (what differentiates them) and as an acknowledgement of the recipient (so as to show that their profile has been read and that some snippet or other has been specifically addressed). In short the first point of descrimination is against the generic cut-and-paste messages, the dumb-show posts that essentially do not call for or invite a response.

    Beyond that, I find that being somewhat funny, observant and honest, and being very ready to laugh at myself, has worked amazingly well. All of my stats *should* place me in the most forelorn and hopeless of OKC’s denizens (age, looks, martial status etc ), Yet I have a great many ongoing conversations here, have expanded my circle of people in real life to go out with and have only ever failed to recieve a reply five or six times when I sent an initial letter. That means I am way over 60% for replies, nearly all of which turn into ongoing conversations and and so on.

    Being polite and respectful helps too. I never type what I would not say to someone on first meeting face to face, and I am reasonably picky about who I think it would be fun and worthwhile chatting with.

    Oh, I have now also determined that there is at least one alternative to all of the above, that makes a mockery of my argument, but that is for another diiscussion, and is perhaps an aberation.

    Alex.

  24. CantusFirmus says:

    This study should be factored by age. I would posit that 20-year-olds are the most likely to write and respond to really short messages, and in bigger quantity, while more mature users will tend to write and expect longer. The kinds of women I write to rarely bother even looking at the profile of anyone who writes less than a paragraph, or with sloppy grammar/spelling. And the young women who like short messages composed of skater talk won’t usually talk to anyone over 30.

  25. JesseQuietStorm says:

    Holy sh*t! Who knew?!

  26. Alex says:

    Cantus Firmus (superb choice of screen name, by the way).

    I think that your point regarding age is pretty spot on, at least in a vast majority of cases.

    …I also happen to think that is a good thing. I believe that every message sent is at least a small expression of bravery on someone’s part (Someitmes a lot of bravery). I always make a point of replying in a polite and friendly manner, even just to thank them for the post and what is usually an included compliment on some aspect of my profile. If I were ever to recieve a “leet speak”, grammaticly challenged four word whatever…I think it would be more likely to be ignored than anything else that could possibly arrive.

    Alex.

  27. Wladja says:

    What I’ve never responded well to is a note of any length that is obviously a form letter, cut and pasted… to everyone and anyone. There is nothing in it that references my information and it is too familiar in addressing me, making copious use of terms like sweetie, honey, lover, darling, angel, etc.
    I see these men as dishonest manipulators, at worst and lazy, at best.
    Wladja

  28. T Rowe says:

    Okay im going to call mick out on this, first off
    the trick to getting these ladys to message you back is simple,
    tell them you read their profile (I only read the self summary and you should message me part)
    Ask them 3 things about what they had on their profile, or something in general like, “how is your summer going? do anything adventurous?

    The trick to it all is to write a simple short message with interest but stay aloof no lady wants it easy they all want a challenge so stay aloof also dont message them back right away, take your time its better that way

  29. Ben says:

    I agree with other people commenting on the fact that there may not be many other users in the area and that not all people are equally interesting. This post has actually encouraged me to increase my message length.

  30. Alex says:

    This logic only makes sense if people are constantly writing messages. Personally I at most send a couple messages a day. The longest message length still allows for 4 messages AN HOUR. Do people actually write that many messages? So either people write a lot more than I do or this analysis makes no sense and you should write longer messages.

  31. Shawn says:

    Yeah but at what point does the short message data end up representing simply a brute force reply strategy? The more people you write to in the shortest amount of time yields more replies. Or are you encouraging people to just message more?

  32. toberichus says:

    Reading through these responses, it seems like everyone is blaming the men for their failure to get responses through this website. Guys – there is clearly something wrong with the website itself!If you transport your intro and photos over to Match.com, you will be overwhelmed by the number of female responses! I was over there and got 5, 10 responses of some sort each day. Here I get nothing. The $40/month is actually FOR something!

  33. jsa says:

    In response to the conclusions of this blog post… how ’bout adding a character counter to the messaging interface? Turn the characters of the counter green as you get close to 200 characters, and red as you get farther away.

    Maybe the “staff robot” pops up and says “Dude… you’re gonna fuck this up if you keep typing.”

  34. Baddoggie says:

    According to OKC’s tech analysts, the optimal keywords (awesome, sorry, haha, pretty, band, zombie, tattoo, awkward, literature and piercings) so I thought I might try my hand at working those into a paragraph to optimize my results.

    Very sorry to interrupt you but I noticed how pretty you are and I might add pretty awesome…haha. Although you didn’t mention it in your profile, I imagine you playing lead guitar in a zombie band…well that certainly came out in an awkward way. Sorry, maybe I just said that as I have been browsing the literature about zombies, tattoos and piercings. Do you know that they all originated in Transylvania with Vlad III the Impaler? You no doubt know of the tortures he inflicted. If his victims survived they were turned into well pierced zombies. Tattoos were a means of marking his subjects as punishments, marks of rank, and as a means of sending orders to his cohorts. Isn’t that awesome…haha?

  35. StarrDizzle says:

    I used to put a code word into my profile to see if people actually read it, I had only four people actually use the word in response. Saying anything that shows they read any of it is a bonus imo, I understand skimming and not reading it all, I know it’s a numbers game too, so for efficiency’s sake I get why people might not read the whole thing, I know I don’t always. Something short, expressing something of content sharing why they messaged and respect. I say on my profile I’m just looking for women and the guys that message have been nice and acknowledge that I’ve said that (in the first line of my profile, and 4 other times) but have had a few douches too. Women’s messages are short and sweet and often quote something I’ve said, I think they have the right idea :)

  36. Amirali says:

    I’m more at the 5-7% response rate, than 32%. Since I don’t believe in huge statistical coincidences or conspiracy theories, it looks like I have to work on my messaging formula. I usually follow a simple template – read a profile with at least a 75% match, find a common/shared interest (usually a specific book, or maths). A paragraph discussion, what I found interesting in the profile a tasteful compliment (not on looks, and not overblown) and a “it would be nice to hear from you”.

    I’m thinking I need to shake it up – probably I’m too verbose. Or perhaps just a Quasimodo :P. That said, it’s fun trying to repackage and plot different strategies. Yes, I know I’m overthinking this….

  37. Matt says:

    I’m finding it hard to believe that messaging efficiency is even being considered here. Like I’m finding hundreds of interesting-looking girls, and the limiting factor is how many of them I can send messages to per hour or something.

    The reality is that I spend 99% of my time on this site sifting through my matches, trying to find someone whose profile looks interesting enough to make me want to message them. The difference between sending a short message and sending one that’s long enough to show that I actually read their profile (and have some interesting questions or conversation-starters) is negligible compared to the overall search time. Clearly the matching system still has plenty of room for improvement…

  38. Blackjack says:

    I’m impressed, I need to say. Really hardly ever do I encounter a weblog that’s each educative and entertaining, and let me let you know, you will have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is excellent; the problem is something that not sufficient individuals are talking intelligently about. I’m very happy that I stumbled throughout this in my search for one thing referring to this.

  39. cybrgrl says:

    I usually really like OKTrends, but this one is weak – perhaps you were still getting your legs under you when you wrote it back in 2009, Chris.

    You neglected many relevant datum:
    How does match percentage affect the response rate?. My personal experience is that messages from high matches are usually more interesting to me, irrespective of length.
    How does using words that match words in the message recipient’s profile affect response rates? I am much more likely to respond to people who talk about things that interest me, again, irrespective of message length.

    Guys- I don’t want a ton of short messages. I would rather see a well thought out message that starts a conversation.

    cybrgrl (2 cents poorer)