Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin auctions off seat on first human spaceflight for $28M

Blue Origin has its winning bidder for its first ever human spaceflight, and the winner will pay $28 million for the privilege of flying aboard the company’s debut private astronaut mission. The winning bid came in today during a live auction, which saw 7,600 registered bidders, from 159 countries compete for the spot.

This was the culmination of Blue Origin’s three part bidding process for the ticket, which included a blind auction first, followed by an open, asynchronous auction with the highest bid posted to the company’s website whenever it changed. This last live auction greatly ramped up the value of the winning bid, which was at just under $5 million prior to the event.

This first seat up for sale went for a lot more than what an actual, commercial spot is likely to cost on Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule, which flies to suborbital space and only spends a few minutes there before returning to Earth. Estimates put the cost of a typical launch at someone under $1 million, likely closer to $500,000 or so. But this is the first, which is obviously a special distinction, and it’s also a trip that will allow the winning bidder to pretty much literally rub elbows with Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who is going to be on the flight as well, along with his brother Mark, and a fourth passenger that Blue Origin says it will be announcing sometime in the coming “weeks,” ahead of the July 20 target flight date.

As for who won the auction, we’ll also have to wait to find that out, since the winner’s identity is also going to be “released in the weeks following” the end of today’s live bidding. And in case you thought that $28 million might represent a big revenue windfall for Blue Origin, which has spent years developing its human spaceflight capability, think again: The company is donating it to its Club for the Future non-profit foundation, which is focused on encouraging kids to pursue careers in STEM in a long-term bid to help Bezos’ larger goals of making humanity a spacefaring civilization.

You can re-watch the entire live bidding portion of the auction via the stream below.

5 questions startups should consider before making their first marketing hire

“Who should my first marketing hire be?”

This is (by far) the most common question I’ve received since starting as Fuel’s CMO, and for good reason. Your first marketer will have an outsized impact on team dynamics as well as the overall strategic direction of the brand, product and company.

The reality is that anyone who excels across all marketing functions is a unicorn and nearly impossible to find.

The nature of the marketing function has expanded significantly over the past two decades. So much so that when founders ask this question, it immediately prompts multiple new ones: Should I hire a brand or growth marketer? An offline or an online marketer? A scientific or a creative marketer?

Once upon a time, the number of marketing channels was fairly limited, which meant the function itself fit into a neater, tighter box. The number of ways to reach customers has since grown exponentially, as has the scope of the marketing role. Today’s startups require at least four broad functions under the umbrella of “marketing,” each with its own array of subfunctions.

Here’s a sample of the marketing functions at a typical early-stage startup:

Brand marketing: Brand strategy, positioning, naming, messaging, visual identity, experiential, events, community.

Product marketing: UX copy, website, email marketing, customer research and segmentation, pricing.

Communications: PR and media relations, content marketing, social media, thought leadership, influencer.

Growth marketing: Direct response paid acquisition, funnel optimization, retention, lifecycle, engagement, reporting and attribution, word of mouth, referral, SEO, partnerships.


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As you can imagine, that’s a lot for one person to manage, let alone be an expert in. What’s more, the skill set and experience required to excel in growth marketing is quite different from the skill set required to succeed in brand marketing. The reality is that anyone who excels across all marketing functions is a unicorn and nearly impossible to find.

So who do you hire first?

Unless you’re lucky enough to nab that unicorn, your first hire should be a generalist who can tend to the full stack of the marketing function, learn what they don’t know, and roll up their sleeves to get things done. Someone smart, savvy and super scrappy who understands how to experiment across marketing channels until they find the right mix.

Google won’t end support for tracking cookies unless UK’s competition watchdog agrees

Well this is big. The UK’s competition regulator looks set to get an emergency brake that will allow it to stop Google ending support for third party cookies, a technology that’s currently used for targeting online ads, if it believes competition would be harmed by the depreciation going ahead.

The development follows an investigation opened by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) into Google’s self-styled ‘Privacy Sandbox’ earlier this year.

The regulator will have the power to order a standstill of at least 60 days on any move by Google to remove support for cookies from Chrome if it accepts a set of legally binding commitments the latter has offered — and which the regulator has today issued a notification of intention to accept.

The CMA could also reopen a fuller investigation if it’s not happy with how things are looking at the point it orders any standstill to stop Google crushing tracking cookies.

It follows that the watchdog could also block Google’s wider ‘Privacy Sandbox’ technology transition entirely — if it decides the shift cannot be done in a way that doesn’t harm competition. However the CMA said today it takes the “provisional” view that the set of commitments Google has offered will address competition concerns related to its proposals.

It’s now opened a consultation to see if the industry agrees — with the feedback line open until July 8.

Commenting in a statement, Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s chief executive, said:

“The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach.

“That’s why the CMA is taking a leading role in setting out how we can work with the most powerful tech firms to shape their behaviour and protect competition to the benefit of consumers.

“If accepted, the commitments we have obtained from Google become legally binding, promoting competition in digital markets, helping to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguarding users’ privacy.”

In a blog post sketching what it’s pledged — under three broad headlines of ‘Consultation and collaboration’; ‘No data advertising advantage for Google products’; and ‘No self-preferencing’ — Google writes that if the CMA accepts its commitments it will “apply them globally”, making the UK’s intervention potentially hugely significant.

It’s perhaps one slightly unexpected twist of Brexit that it’s put the UK in a position to be taking key decisions about the rules for global digital advertising. (The European Union is also working on new rules for how platform giants can operate but the CMA’s intervention on Privacy Sandbox does not yet have a direct equivalent in Brussels.)

That Google is choosing to offer to turn a UK competition intervention into a global commitment is itself very interesting. It may be there in part as an added sweetener — nudging the CMA to accept the offer so it can feel like a global standard setter.

At the same time, businesses do love operational certainty. So if Google can hash out a set of rules that are accepted by one (fairly) major market, because they’ve been co-designed with national oversight bodies, and then scale those rules everywhere it may create a shortcut path to avoiding any more regulator-enforced bumps in the future.

So Google may see this as a smoother path toward the sought for transition for its adtech business to a post-cookie future. Of course it also wants to avoid being ordered to stop entirely.

More broadly, engaging with the fast-paced UK regulator could be a strategy for Google to try to surf over the political deadlocks and risks which can characterize discussions on digital regulation in other markets (especially its home turf of the U.S. — where there has been a growing drumbeat of calls to break up tech giants; and where Google specifically now faces a number of antitrust investigations).

The outcome it may be hoping for is being able to point to regulator-stamped ‘compliance’ — in order that it can claim it as evidence there’s no need for its ad empire to be broken up.

Google’s offering of commitments also signifies that regulators who move fastest to tackle the power of tech giants will be the ones helping to define and set the standards and conditions that apply for web users everywhere. At least unless or until any more radical interventions rain down on big tech.

What is Privacy Sandbox?

Privacy Sandbox is a complex stack of interlocking technology proposals for replacing current ad tracking methods (which are widely seen as horrible for user privacy) with alternative infrastructure that Google claims will be better for individual privacy and also still allow the adtech and publishing industries to generate (it claims much the same) revenue by targeting ads at cohorts of web users — who will be put into ‘interest buckets’ based on what they look at online.

The full details of the proposals (which include components like FLoCs, aka Google’s proposed new ad ID based on federated learning of cohorts; and Fledge/Turtledove, Google’s suggested new ad delivery technology) have not yet been set in stone.

Nonetheless, Google announced in January 2020 that it intended to end support for third party cookies within two years — so that rather nippy timeframe has likely concentrated opposition, with pushback coming from the adtech industry and (some) publishers who are concerned it will have a major impact on their ad revenues when individual-level ad targeting goes away.

The CMA began to look into Google’s planned depreciating of tracking cookies after complaints that the transition to a new infrastructure of Google’s devising will merely increase Google’s market power — by locking down third parties’ ability to track Internet users for ad targeting while leaving Google with a high dimension view of what people get up to online as a result of its expansive access to first party data (gleaned through its dominance for consumer web services).

The executive summary of today’s CMA notice lists its concerns that, without proper regulatory oversight, Privacy Sandbox might:

  • distort competition in the market for the supply of ad inventory and in the market for the supply of ad tech services, by restricting the functionality associated with user tracking for third parties while retaining this functionality for Google;
  • distort competition by the self-preferencing of Google’s own advertising products and services and owned and operated ad inventory; and
  • allow Google to exploit its apparent dominant position by denying Chrome web users substantial choice in terms of whether and how their personal data is used for the purpose of targeting and delivering advertising to them.

At the same time, privacy concerns around the ad tracking and targeting of Internet users are undoubtedly putting pressure on Google to retool Chrome (which ofc dominates web browser marketshare) — given that other web browsers have been stepping up efforts to protect their users from online surveillance by doing stuff like blocking trackers for years.

Web users hate creepy ads — which is why they’ve been turning to ad blockers in droves. Numerous major data scandals have also increased awareness of privacy and security. And — in Europe and elsewhere — digital privacy regulations have been toughened up or introduced in recent years. So the line of ‘what’s acceptable’ for ad businesses to do online has been shifting.

But the key issue here is how privacy and competition regulation interacts — and potentially conflicts — with the very salient risk that ill-thought through and overly blunt competition interventions could essentially lock in privacy abuses of web users (as a result of a legacy of weak enforcement around online privacy, which allowed for rampant, consent-less ad tracking and targeting of Internet users to develop and thrive in the first place).

Poor privacy enforcement coupled with banhammer-wielding competition regulators does not look like a good recipe for protecting web users’ rights.

However there is cautious reason for optimism here.

Last month the CMA and the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued a joint statement in which they discussed the importance of having competition and data protection in digital markets — citing the CMA’s Google Privacy Sandbox probe as a good example of a case that requires nuanced joint working.

Or, as they put it then: “The CMA and the ICO are working collaboratively in their engagement with Google and other market participants to build a common understanding of Google’s proposals, and to ensure that both privacy and competition concerns can be addressed as the proposals are developed in more detail.”

Although the ICO’s record on enforcement against rights-trampling adtech is, well, non-existent. So its preference for regulatory inaction in the face of adtech industry lobbying should off-set any quantum of optimism derived from the bald fact of the UK’s privacy and competition regulators’ ‘joint working’.

(The CMA, by contrast, has been very active in the digital space since gaining, post-Brexit, wider powers to pursue investigations. And in recent years took a deep dive look at competition in the digital ad market, so it’s armed with plenty of knowledge. It is also in the process of configuring a new unit that will oversee a pro-competition regime which the UK explicitly wants to clip the wings of big tech.)

What has Google committed to?

The CMA writes that Google has made “substantial and wide-ranging” commitments vis-a-vis Privacy Sandbox — which it says include:

  • A commitment to develop and implement the proposals in a way that avoids distortions to competition and the imposition of unfair terms on Chrome users. This includes a commitment to involve the CMA and the ICO in the development of the Proposals to ensure this objective is met.
  • Increased transparency from Google on how and when the proposals will be taken forward and on what basis they will be assessed. This includes a commitment to publicly disclose the results of tests of the effectiveness of alternative technologies.
  • Substantial limits on how Google will use and combine individual user data for the purposes of digital advertising after the removal of third-party cookies.
  • A commitment that Google will not discriminate against its rivals in favour of its own advertising and ad-tech businesses when designing or operating the alternatives to third-party cookies.
  • A standstill period of at least 60 days before Google proceeds with the removal of third party cookies giving the CMA the opportunity, if any outstanding concerns cannot be resolved with Google, to reopen its investigation and, if necessary, impose any interim measures necessary to avoid harm to competition.

Google also writes that: “Throughout this process, we will engage the CMA and the industry in an open, constructive and continuous dialogue. This includes proactively informing both the CMA and the wider ecosystem of timelines, changes and tests during the development of the Privacy Sandbox proposals, building on our transparent approach to date.”

“We will work with the CMA to resolve concerns and develop agreed parameters for the testing of new proposals, while the CMA will be getting direct input from the ICO,” it adds.

Google’s commitments cover a number of areas directly related to competition — such as self-preferencing, non-discrimination, and stipulations that it will not combine user data from specific sources that might give it an advantage vs third parties.

However privacy is also being explicitly baked into the competition consideration, here, per the CMA — which writes that the commitments will [emphasis ours]:

Establish the criteria that must be taken into account in designing, implementing and evaluating Google’s Proposals. These include the impact of the Privacy Sandbox Proposals on: privacy outcomes and compliance with data protection principles; competition in digital advertising and in particular the risk of distortion to competition between Google and other market participants; the ability of publishers to generate revenue from ad inventory; and user experience and control over the use of their data.

An ICO spokeswoman was also keen to point out that one of the first commitments obtained from Google under the CMA’s intervention “focuses on privacy and data protection”.

In a statement, the data watchdog added:

“The commitments obtained mark a significant moment in the assessment of the Privacy Sandbox proposals. They demonstrate that consumer rights in digital markets are best protected when competition and privacy are considered together.

“As we outlined in our recent joint statement with the CMA, we believe consumers benefit when their data is used lawfully and responsibly, and digital innovation and competition are supported. We are continuing to build upon our positive and close relationship with the CMA, to ensure that consumer interests are protected as we assess the proposals.”

This development in the CMA’s investigation raises plenty of questions, large and small — most pressingly over the future of key web infrastructure and what the changes being hashed out here between Google and UK regulators might mean for Internet users everywhere.

The really big issue is whether ‘co-design’ with oversight bodies is the best way to fix the market power imbalance flowing from a single tech giant being able to combine massive dominance in consumer digital services with duopoly dominance in adtech.

Others would say that breaking up Google’s consumer tech and Google’s adtech is the only way to fix the abuse — and eveything else is just fiddling while Rome burns.

Google, for instance, is still in charge of proposing the changes itself — regardless of how much pre-implementation consultation and tweaking goes on. It’s still steering the ship and there are plenty of people who believe that’s not an acceptable governance model for the open web.

But, for now at least, the CMA wants to try to fiddle.

It should be noted that, in parallel, the UK government and CMA are speccing out a wider pro-competition regime that could result in deeper interventions into how Google and other platform giants operate in the future. So more interventions are all but guaranteed.

For now, though, Google is probably feeling pretty happy for the opportunity to work with UK regulators. If it can pull oversight bodies deep down in the detail of the changes it wants to make that’s likely a far more comfortable spot for Mountain View vs being served with an order to break its business up — something the CMA has previously taken feedback on.

Google has been contacted with questions on its Privacy Sandbox commitments.

Growth marketing amid the pandemic: An interview with Right Side Up’s Tyler Elliston

Growth marketers are busy today helping all sorts of startups take advantage of the market boom, but it has been a hard journey through the pandemic.

We caught up with Tyler Elliston, founder of growth marketing firm Right Side Up and occasional contributor at TechCrunch, about his experiences and what he’s seeing now.

It’s part of our new initiative to find the best growth marketers for startups based on founder recommendations. (Have a recommendation to share? Please fill out the survey here.)

Keep reading for more from Tyler about maintaining focus and resources on the right kind of growth, even when the markets are rollicking.

It’s been a while since we last spoke with you. How have the trends in growth marketing shifted between the beginning of the pandemic and now, as we begin to exit lockdowns?

Tyler Elliston: It’s been a rollercoaster! Early in the pandemic, we saw plummeting CPMs and slashed budgets. The rebound started relatively quickly over the summer of 2020 and accelerated into the fall and now 2021.

First, it was e-com companies, both those with strong pre-COVID sales online and historically brick-and-mortar brands scrambling to shift online to find much-needed sales. Then many other businesses — both new and existing — emerged with new products, value propositions and positioning to survive or even thrive in the pandemic.

Now, we continue to see very high consumer demand broadly and a corresponding eagerness amongst brands to accelerate customer acquisition, including through paid advertising. Very active investors have been a strong tailwind with respect to budgets.


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We’ve talked before about how you like your team to be treated as a partner rather than a vendor. How have they been able to accomplish this during the pandemic?

The biggest thing is that we were able to lean on our reputation for being a good strategic partner that serves our clients’ best interests. Because they know we’ll tell them when we don’t think they should keep paying us for something, they also trust us when we say something like “I know this sounds crazy right now, but you should increase your budget due to a shift in your demand curve and channel economics.”

We were proactively honest with clients about what we believed the pandemic meant for their businesses, points of view we reached through a framework we outlined on our blog. For some, that meant supporting immediate termination of our partnership for them to conserve funds. In other cases, it meant pushing them to consider leaning into their performance marketing to capitalize on the changing environment and channel economics.

During the recovery, many companies have looked to external agencies and consultants to fill a temporary staffing gap in a lower-risk way. Shifting attitudes toward external resourcing and the evolution of company processes and culture to support remote workers have helped us more quickly and fully integrate with our clients’ internal teams.

In a previous conversation, you mentioned, “We regularly tell companies, ‘You don’t need any growth marketing right now. Focus on product-market fit.'” How can startups tell that it’s the right time to come work with you?

Growth marketing is an amplification tool. It shines a bright spotlight on a product or solution, believing that if only people knew about it, they would want it and love it. The “want it” and “love it” represent product-market fit. To measure these, we look at customer reviews, referral activity leading to organic growth, retention, product engagement, and ultimately realized and expected lifetime value.

Seeing good conversion rates and attractive customer acquisition costs in small-scale channel testing suggest that not only is there a group of people that love it, but that they can be reached. These are prerequisites for sustainable growth, in my view.

If an early-stage company has limited resources, how should they prioritize their funds in regards to marketing?

First, invest in the product to make it excellent, as judged by real, paying customers. Marketing plays a role in this iterative process of traffic acquisition, funnel measurement and feedback collection; it’s just not “growth marketing.” It’s better considered to be “go-to-market marketing,” typically staffed by a product marketer or similar.

Once the product is in a good place, I typically recommend at least some investment in nonpaid marketing efforts and some testing of paid advertising, most often Facebook and/or Google. It’s rare for a company to find a great scalable channel if neither of these work. They serve as bellwethers for online marketing performance, generally speaking.

The best nonpaid marketing investments are highly contextual on the target customer and a company’s differentiation from the competitive landscape.

What do startups continue to get wrong?

Focusing on growth before finding product/market fit is the biggest [thing that startups continue to get wrong]. Early-stage founders are under intense pressure to grow successfully. For all but the lucky few who find incredible early customer success, finding product-market fit requires an unbelievable dose of patience. I think this is one of the reasons we see a pattern of success among founders who are solving a problem they deeply care about personally. For them, it’s first and foremost about solving the problem for themselves, not others. It’s not about money or some notion of macro success. It’s about micro success. From there, it’s an easy jump to passionately share this solution you so desperately needed.

From an advertising standpoint, many companies try to run too many channels at once and expect success too quickly, leading to false negatives. Most channels are quite nuanced at this point and require both expertise and patience to crack, for most businesses.

How do your growth marketing strategies change when working with early-stage startups as opposed to mature companies?

With very early-stage companies, our work is typically not related to growth, per se. It’s more about getting a foundation in place (ex: pixels, tech stack, initial value props, early staffing), driving traffic through new funnels to gather early data, or setting up email campaigns. Once the product is in a good place, we are often working with a founder or first marketing hire to stand up their initial paid channels and try to get them from 0 to 1. Can we spend $5,000, $10,000, $20,000/month with a good return?

On the nonpaid side, it could be executing a content strategy, launching a referral program or cultivating partnerships. Once a company is spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars per month profitably, we are typically helping them improve channel performance, better measure the incremental impact of their spend, break through to a new level of scale, or diversify channels (paid or nonpaid).

InfoSum outs an identity linking tool that’s exciting marketing firms like Experian

InfoSum, a startup which takes a federated approach to third party data enrichment, has launched a new product (called InfoSum Bridge) that it says significantly expands the customer identity linking capabilities of its platform.

“InfoSum Bridge incorporates multiple identity providers across every identity type — both online and offline, in any technical framework — including deterministic, probabilistic, and cohort-level matches,” it writes in a press release.

It’s also disclosing some early adopters of the product — naming data-for-ads and data-aggregator giants Merkle, MMA and Experian as dipping in.

Idea being they can continue to enrich (first party) data by being able to make linkages, via InfoSum’s layer, with other ‘trusted partners’ who may have gleaned more tidbits of info on those self-same users.

InfoSum says it has 50 enterprise customers using InfoSum Bridge at this point. The three companies it’s named in the release all play in the digital marketing space.

The 2016-founded startup (then called CognitiveLogic) sells customers a promise of ‘privacy-safe’ data enrichment run via a technical architecture that allows queries to be run — and insights gleaned — across multiple databases yet maintains each pot as a separate silo. This means the raw data isn’t being passed around between interested entities. 

Why is that important? Third party data collection is drying up, after one (thousand) too many privacy scandals in recent years — combing with the legal risk attached to background trading of people’s data as a result of data protection regimes like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.

That puts the spotlight squarely on first party data. However businesses whose models have been dependent on access to big data about people — i.e. being able to make scores of connections by joining up information on people from different databases/sources (aka profiling) — are unlikely to be content with relying purely on what they’ve been able to learn by themselves.

This is where InfoSum comes in, billing itself as a “neutral data collaboration platform”.

Companies that may have been accustomed to getting their hands on lashings of personal data in years past, as a result of rampant, industry-wide third party data collection (via technologies like tracking cookies) combined with (ehem) lax data governance — are having to cast around for alternatives. And that appears to be stoking InfoSum’s growth.

And on the marketing front, remember, third party cookies are in the process of going away as Google tightens that screw

“We are growing faster than Slack (at equivalent stage e.g. Series A->B) because we are the one solution that is replacing the old way of doing things,” founder Nick Halstead tells TechCrunch. “Experian, Liveramp, Axciom, TransUnion, they all offer solutions to take your data. InfoSum is offering the equivalent of the ‘Cisco router for customer data’ — we don’t own the data we are just selling boxes to make it all connect.”

“The announcement today — ‘InfoSum Bridge’ — is the next generation of building the ultimate network to ‘Bridge the industry chasm’ it has right now of 100’s of competing ID’s, technical solutions and identity types, bringing a infrastructure approach,” he adds.

We took a deep dive into InfoSum’s first product back in 2018 — when it was just offering early adopters a glimpse of the “art of the possible”, as it put it then.

Three+ years on it’s touting a significantly expansion of its pipeline, having baked in support for multiple ID vendors/types, as well as adding probabilistic capabilities (to do matching on users where there is no ID).

Per a spokesman: “InfoSum Bridge is an extension of our existing and previous infrastructure. It enables a significant expansion of both our customer identity linking, and the limits of what is possible for data collaboration in a secure and privacy-focused manner. This is a combination of new product enhancements and announcement of partnerships. We’ve built capabilities to support across all ID vendors and types but also probabilistic and support for those publishers with unauthenticated audiences.”

InfoSum bills its platform as “the future of identity connectivity”. Although, as Halstead notes, there is now growing competition for that concept, as the adtech industry scrambles to build out alternative tracking systems and ID services ahead of Google crushing their cookies for good.

But it’s essentially making a play to be the trusted, independent layer that can link them all.

Exactly what this technical wizardry means for Internet users’ privacy is difficult to say. If, for example, it continues to enable manipulative microtargeting that’s hardly going to sum to progress.

InfoSum has previously told us its approach is designed to avoid individuals being linked and identified via the matching — with, for exmaple, limits placed on the bin sizes. Although its platform is also configurable (which puts privacy levers in its customers hands). Plus there could be edge cases where overlapped datasets result in a 100% match for an individual. So a lot is unclear.

The security story looks cleaner, though.

If the data is properly managed by InfoSum (and it touts “comprehensive independent audits”, as well as pointing to the decentralized architecture as an advantage) that’s a big improvement on — at least — one alternative scenario of whole databases being passed around between businesses which may be (to put it politely) disinterested in securing people’s data themselves.

InfoSum’s PR includes the three canned quotes (below) from the trio of marketing industry users it’s disclosing today.

All of whom sound very happy indeed that they’ve found a way to keep their “data-driven” marketing alive while simultaneously getting to claim it’s “privacy-safe”…

John Lee, Global Chief Strategy Officer, Merkle: “The conversation around identity is continuing to be top of mind for marketers across the industry, and as the landscape rapidly changes, it’s essential that brands have avenues to work together using first-party identity and data in a privacy-safe way. The InfoSum Bridge solution provides our clients and partners a way to collaborate using their first-party data, resolved to Merkury IDs and data, with even greater freedom and confidence than with traditional clean room or safe haven approaches.”

Lou Paskalis, Chairman, MMA Global Media and Data Board: “As marketers struggle to better leverage their first-party data in the transition from the cookie era to the consent era, I would have expected more innovative solutions to emerge.  One bright spot is InfoSum, which offers a proprietary technology to connect data, yet never share that data. This is the most customer-friendly and compliant technology that I’ve seen that enables marketers to fully realize the true potential of their first party data. What InfoSum has devised is an elegant way to respect consumers’ privacy choices while enabling marketers to realize the full benefit of their first party data.”

Colin Grieves, Managing Director Experian: “At Experian we are committed to a culture of customer-centric data innovation, helping develop more meaningful and seamless connections between brands and their audiences. InfoSum Bridge gives us a scalable environment for secure, data connectivity and collaboration. Bridge is at the core of the Experian Match offering, which allows brands and publishers alike the ability to understand and engage the right consumers in the digital arena at scale, whilst safeguarding consumer data and privacy.”

Thing is, clever technical architecture that enables big data fuelled modelling and profiling of people to continue, via pattern matching to identify ‘lookalike’ customers who can (for example) be bucketed and targeted with ads, doesn’t actually sum to privacy as most people would understand it… But, for sure, impressive tech architecture guys.

The same issue attaches to FloCs, Google’s proposed replacement for tracking cookies — which also relies on federation (and which the EFF has branded a “terrible idea”, warning that such an approach actually risks amplifying predatory targeting).

The tenacity with which the marketing industry seeks to cling to microtargeting does at least underline why rights-focused regulatory oversight of adtech is going to be essential if we’re to stamp out systematic societal horrors like ads that scale bias by discriminating against protected groups, or the anti-democratic manipulation of voters that’s enabled by opaque targeting and hyper-targeted messaging, circumventing the necessary public scrutiny.

Tl;dr: Privacy is not just important for the individual. It’s a collective good. And keeping that collective commons safe from those who would seek to exploit it — for a quick buck or worse — is going to require a whole other type of oversight architecture.

UK PM Boris Johnson’s Tories guilty of spamming voters

The governing party of the UK has been fined £10k by the national data protection watchdog for sending spam.

The Information Commissioner’s (ICO) Office has sanctioned the Conservative Party following an investigation triggered by complaints from 51 recipients of unwanted marketing emails sent in the name of prime minister, Boris Johnson.

The emails in question were sent during eight days in July 2019 after Johnson had been elected as Party leader (and also therefore became UK PM) — urging the recipients to click on a link that directed them to a website for joining the Conservative Party.

Direct marketing is regulated in the UK by PECR (the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations) — which requires senders to obtain individual consent to distribute digital marketing missives.

But the ICO’s investigation found that the Conservative Party lacked written policies addressing PECR and appeared to be operating under the misguided assumption that their “legitimate interests” overrode the legal requirements related to sending this type of direct marketing.

The Party had also switched bulk email provider — during which unsubscribe records were apparently lost. But ofc that’s not an excuse for breaking the law. (Indeed, record-keeping is a core requirement of UK data protection law, especially since the EU General Data Protection Regulation was transposed into national law back in 2018.) And the ICO found the Tories were unable to adequately explain what had gone wrong.

In another damningly twist, the Conservative Party had been subject to what the ICO calls “detailed engagement” at the time it was spamming people.

This was a result of wider action by the regulator, looking into the ecosystem and ethics around online political ads in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal — and the Party had already been warned of inadequate standards in its compliance with data protection and privacy law. But it went ahead and spammed people anyway. 

So while ‘only’ 51 complaints were received by the ICO from individual recipients of Boris Johnson’s spam, the ICO found the Tories could not fully demonstrate they had the proper consents for over a million (1,190,280) direct marketing emails sent between July 24 and 31 2019. (The ICO takes that view that at least 549,030 of those, which were send to non-Party members, were “inherently likely” to have the same compliance issues as were identified with the emails sent to the 51 complainants.)

Moreover, the Party continued to have scant regard for the law as it spun up its spam engines ahead of the 2019 General Election — which saw Johnson gain a landslide majority of 80 seats in a winter ballot.

“During the course of the Commissioner’s investigation, the Party proceeded to engage in an industrial-scale direct marketing email exercise during the 2019 General Election campaign, sending nearly 23M emails,” the ICO notes. “This generated a further 95 complaints to the Commissioner, which are likely to have resulted from the Party’s failure to address the compliance issues identified in the Commissioner’s investigation into the July 2019 email campaign and the wider audit of the Party’s processing of personal data.”

Its report also chronicles “extensive delays” by the Conservative Party in responding to its requests for information and clarification — so while it was not found to have obstructed the investigation the regulator does write that its conduct “cannot be characterised as a mitigating factor”.

While the ICO penalty is an embarrassing slap for Boris Johnson’s Tories, a data audit of all the main UK political parties it put out last year spared no blushes — with all parties found wanting in how they handle and safeguard voter information.

However it’s only the Conservatives’ fast and loose attitude toward people’s data and privacy online that could have contributed to them being able to consolidate power at the last election.

4 proven approaches to CX strategy that make customers feel loved

Customers have been “experiencing” business since the ancient Romans browsed the Forum for produce, pottery and leather goods. But digitization has radically recalibrated the buyer-seller dynamic, fueling the rise of one of the most talked-about industry acronyms: CX (customer experience).

Part paradigm, part category and part multibillion-dollar market, CX is a broad term used across a myriad of contexts. But great CX boils down to delighting every customer on an emotional level, anytime and anywhere a business interaction takes place.

Great CX boils down to delighting every customer on an emotional level, anytime and anywhere a business interaction takes place.

Optimizing CX requires a sophisticated tool stack. Customer behavior should be tracked, their needs must be understood, and opportunities to engage proactively must be identified. Wall Street, for one, is taking note: Qualtrics, the creator of “XM” (experience management) as a category, was spun-out from SAP and IPO’d in January, and Sprinklr, a social media listening solution that has expanded into a “Digital CXM” platform, recently filed to go public.

Thinking critically about customer experience is hardly a new concept, but a few factors are spurring an inflection point in investment by enterprises and VCs.

Firstly, brands are now expected to create a consistent, cohesive experience across multiple channels, both online and offline, with an ever-increasing focus on the former. Customer experience and the digital customer experience are rapidly becoming synonymous.

The sheer volume of customer data has also reached new heights. As a McKinsey report put it, “Today, companies can regularly, lawfully, and seamlessly collect smartphone and interaction data from across their customer, financial, and operations systems, yielding deep insights about their customers … These companies can better understand their interactions with customers and even preempt problems in customer journeys. Their customers are reaping benefits: Think quick compensation for a flight delay, or outreach from an insurance company when a patient is having trouble resolving a problem.”

Moreover, the app economy continues to raise the bar on user experience, and end users have less patience than ever before. Each time Netflix displays just the right movie, Instagram recommends just the right shoes, or TikTok plays just the right dog video, people are being trained to demand just a bit more magic.

Augmented reality NFT platform Anima gets backing from Coinbase

Augmented reality and non-fungible tokens, need I say more? Yes? Oh, well NFTs have certainly had their moment in 2021 but the question of what they do or what can be done with them has certainly been getting voiced more frequently as the speculative gold rush begins to cool off and people start to think more about how digital goods can evolve in the future.

Anima, a small creative crypto startup built by the founders of photo/video app Ultravisual, which Flipboard acquired back in 2014, is looking to use AR to shift how NFT art and collectibles can be viewed and shared. Their latest venture is an effort to help artists bring their digital creations to a bigger digital stage and help find what the future of NFTs looks like in augmented reality.

The startup has put together a small $500k pre-seed round from Coinbase Ventures, Divergence Ventures, Flamingo DAO, Lyle Owerko and Andrew Unger.

“As NFTs move away from being a more speculative market where it’s all about returns on your purchases, I think that’s healthy and it’s good for us specifically because we want to make things that are more approachable,” co-founder Alex Herrity says.

Their broader vision is finding ways for digital objects to interact with the real world, something that’s been a pretty top-of-mind concern for the AR world over the last few years, though augmented reality development has cooled more recently as creators have sunk into a wait-and-see attitude towards new releases from Apple and Facebook. Both the AR and NFT spaces are incredibly early, something Anima’s co-founders were quick to admit, but they think both spaces have matured enough that the gimmicks are out in the open.

“There’s a context shift that happens when you see AR as a vehicle to have a tactile relationship with something that you collected or that you see is a lifestyle accessory versus the common thing now where it’s a little bit more of an experiential gimmick,” co-founder Neil Voss tells TechCrunch.

The team has worked with a couple artists already as they’ve made early experiments in bringing digital art objects into AR  and they’re launching a marketplace late next month based on ConsenSys’s Palm platform where they hope to showcase more of their future partnerships.

 

Breinify announces $11M seed to bring data science to the marketing team

Breinify is a startup working to apply data science to personalization, and do it in a way that makes it accessible to non-technical marketing employees to build more meaningful customer experiences. Today the company announced a funding round totalling $11 million.

The investment was led by Gutbrain Ventures and PBJ Capital with participation from Streamlined Ventures, CXO Fund, Amino Capital, Startup Capital Ventures and Sterling Road.

Breinify co-founder and CEO Diane Keng says that she and co-founder and CTO Philipp Meisen started the company to bring predictive personalization based on data science to marketers with the goal of helping them improve a customer’s experience by personalizing messages tailored to individual tastes.

“We’re big believers that the world, especially consumer brands, really need strong predictive personalization. But when you think about consumer big brands or the retailers that you buy from, most of them aren’t data scientists, nor do they really know how to activate [machine learning] at scale,” Keng told TechCrunch.

She says that she wanted to make this type of technology more accessible by hiding the complexity behind the algorithms powering the platform. “Instead of telling you how powerful the algorithms are, we show you [what that means for the] consumer experience, and in the end what that means for both the consumer and you as a marketer individually,” she said.

That involves the kind of customizations you might expect around website messaging, emails, texts or whatever channel a marketer might be using to communicate with the buyer. “So the AI decides you should be shown these products, this offer, this specific promotion at this time, [whether it’s] the web, email or SMS. So you’re not getting the same content across different channels, and we do all that automatically for you, and that’s [driven by the algorithms],” she said.

Breinify launched in 2016 and participated in the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield competition in San Francisco that year. She said it was early days for the company, but it helped them focus their approach. “I think it gave us a huge stage presence. It gave us a chance to test out the idea just to see where the market was in regards to needing a solution like this. We definitely learned a lot. I think it showed us that people were interested in personalization,” she said. And although the company didn’t win the competition, it ended up walking away with a funding deal.

Today the startup is growing fast and has 24 employees, up from 10 last year. Keng, who is an Asian woman, places a high premium on diversity.

“We partner with about four different kinds of diversity groups right now to source candidates, but at the end of the day, I think if you are someone that’s eager to learn, and you might not have all the skills yet, and you’re [part of an under-represented] group we encourage everyone to apply as much as possible. We put a lot of work into trying to create a really well rounded group,” she said.

Qualified raises $51M to help Salesforce users improve their sales and marketing conversations

Salesforce dominates the world of CRM today, but while it’s a popular and well-used tool for organizing contacts and information, it doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to helping salespeople and marketers sell better, especially when meetings are not in person. Today, one of the startups that has emerged to help fill the gap is announcing a round of growth funding on the back of a huge year for its business.

Qualified — which builds better interactions for B2B sales and marketing teams that already use Salesforce by tapping into extra data sources to develop a better profile of those visiting your website, in aid of improving and personalizing the outreach (hence the name: you’re building “qualified” leads) — has picked up $51 million in funding. The startup will be using the Series B to continue building out its business with more functionality in the platform, and hiring across the board to expand business development and more.

Led by Salesforce Ventures, the funding round also included Norwest Venture Partners and Redpoint Ventures, both previous backers, among others. As with so many rounds at the moment — the venture world is flush with funding at the moment — this one is coming less than a year after Qualified’s last raise. It closed a $12 million Series A in August of last year.

Qualified was co-founded by two Salesforce veterans — ex-Salesforce CMO Kraig Swensrud and ex-SVP of Salesforce.com Sean Whiteley — serial entrepreneurs who you could say have long been hammering away at the challenges of building digital tools for sales and marketing people to do their jobs better online. The pair have founded and sold two other startups filling holes to that end: GetFeedback, acquired by SurveyMonkey; and Kieden, acquired by Salesforce.

The gap that they’re aiming to fill with this latest venture is the fact that when sales and marketing teams want to connect with prospects directly through, say, a phone call, they might have all of that contact’s information at their disposal. But if those teams want to make a more engaged contact when someone is visiting their site — a sign that a person is actually interested and thinking already about engaging with a company — usually the sales and marketing teams are in the dark about who those visitors are.

“We founded Qualified on the premise that a website should be more than a marketing brochure, but not just a sales site,” Swensrud, who is the CEO, said in an interview.

Qualified has built a tool that essentially takes several signals from Salesforce as well as other places to build up some information about the site visitor. It then uses it to give the sales and marketing teams more of a steer so that when they reach out via a screen chat to say “how can I help?” they actually have more information and can target their questions in a better way. A sales or marketing rep might know which pages a person is also visiting, and can then use the conversation that starts with an online chat to progress to a voice or video call, or a meeting.

If a person is already in your Salesforce rolodex, you get more information; but even without that there is some detail provided to be slightly less impersonal. (Example: when I logged into Qualified to look around the site, a chat popped up with a person greeting me “across the pond”… I’m in London.)

Qualified also integrates with a number of other tools that are used to help source data and build its customer profiles, including Slack, Microsoft Teams, 6sense, Demandbase, Marketo, HubSpot, Oracle Eloqua, Clearbit, ZoomInfo and Outreach.

Additional data is part and parcel of the kinds of information that sales and marketing people always need when reaching out to prospective customers, whether it’s via a “virtual” digital channel or in person. However, in the last year — where in-person meetings, team meetings, and working side-by-side with those who can give advice have all disappeared — having extra tools like these arguably have proven indispensable.

“Sales reps would heavily rely on their ‘road warrior’ image,” Swensrud said. “But all that stuff is gone, so as a result every seller is sitting at an office, at home, expecting digital interactions to happen that never existed before.”

And it seems some believe that even outside of Covid-19 enforcing a different way of doing things, the trend for “virtual selling”, as it’s often called, is here to stay: Gartner forecasts that by 2025, some 80% of B2B sales interactions will take place in digital channels. (So long to the expense account lunch, I guess.)

It’s because of the events of 2020, plus those bigger trends, that Qualified has seen revenues in the last year grow some 800% and its net customer revenue retention rate hover at 175%, with funding rounds come in relatively close succession in the wake of that.

There is something interesting to Qualified that reminds me a bit of more targeted ad retargeting, as it were, and in that, you can imagine a lot of other opportunities for how Qualified might expand in scenarios where it would be more useful to know why someone is visiting your site, without outright asking them and bothering them with the question. That could include customer service, or even a version that might sell better to consumers coming to, say, a clothes site after reading something about orange being the new black.

For now, though, it’s focused on the B2B opportunity.

There are a number of tools on the market that are competing with Salesforce as the go-to platform for people to organise and run CRM operations, but Swensrud is bullish for now on the idea of building specifically for the Salesforce ecosystem.

“Our product is being driven by and runs on Salesforce,” he noted, pointing out that it’s through Salesforce that you’re able to go from chatting to a phone call by routing the information to the data you have on file there. “Our roots go very deep.”

The funding round today is a sign that Salesforce is also happy with that close arrangement, which gives it a customization that its competitors lack.

“Qualified represents an entirely new way for B2B companies to engage buyers,” said Bill Patterson, EVP of CRM Applications at Salesforce, in a statement. “When marketing and inbound sales teams use this solution with Sales Cloud… they see a notable impact on pipeline. We are thrilled about our growing partnership with Qualified and their success within the Salesforce ecosystem.”