Forget sex: Badoo plans to win America with Spanish

You can’t mention Badoo, which claims to be the world’s fourth-largest social network, without mentioning sex. It became notorious this time last year for using controversial tactics to build a “social dating service” that many saw as a way for the wayward, sex-crazed hordes to find illicit liaisons.
But that’s not a characterization that anyone at the London-based company — including notoriously reclusive founder and CEO Andrey Andreev — is happy with. They see the service they’ve built as a sort of virtual nightclub, where people can go to make friends or simply talk to other interesting people. Sometimes it acts as a dating service, and sometimes that ends up with a bit of carnal indulgence — but isn’t that just what young people do?
Meeting Andreev, though, it quickly becomes apparent that ditching the sex-hungry image is less about some personal irritation at being called names. The restless Russian couldn’t give two hoots what anyone except users think of him, or Badoo.
Instead, it’s really a sensible business move.
The company already boasts more than 130 million users, but if it wants to carry on growing and edging into the mainstream, it needs to eradicate the scent of sleaze — particularly in America, where the nation’s fiercely puritanical streak would likely see the service demonized even more thoroughly than Britain’s prurient, curtain-twitching media has done.
To get there, the company is starting to surf a wave of growth that U.S. firms rarely tap into: the Hispanic market.
Badoo already has around 8 million registered users in the U.S. — up 77 percent in the last six months — and a disproportionate amount of its users are Spanish-speaking.
“We don’t ask users to self-identify by ethnicity, so cannot share internal data on the number of Hispanic American users we have,” the company told me. “However, given our roots in Spain and Southern Europe, and our growth pattern across Latin America, we are embraced by Spanish speakers in the U.S. and have a strong connection to that audience.”
Right now, 22 percent of registered users in America — who use the service on the web and mobile to find and talk to people near them — use Spanish as their primary language. Given that around 10 percent of Americans are native Spanish speakers, that’s a considerable skew.
And the idea that is borne out through geography too. The most popular cities for Badoo users include major urban areas like New York, or those with a Hispanic plurality like Los Angeles and Houston, and those with large and growing Hispanic communities such as Miami, Dallas and Philadelphia. Of course, many of those are also America’s biggest cities — so it’s not entirely clear if the two stats track — but there’s clearly an outsized Spanish-speaking user base.
Badoo is not the first to see this route into the American market emerge: just look at services like Sonico or Hi5, which have seen similar patterns emerge. But it is one reason that Badoo is not so closely tracked as other niche social networks. Can it capitalize on this expansion and stay under the radar?
Photograph of Andrey Andreev used under Creative Commons license courtesy of LeWeb3.