AI-driven audio cloning startup gives voice to Einstein chatbot

You’ll need to prick up your ears up for this slice of deepfakery emerging from the wacky world of synthesized media: A digital version of Albert Einstein — with a synthesized voice that’s been (re)created using AI voice cloning technology drawing on audio recordings of the famous scientist’s actual voice.

 

The startup behind the ‘uncanny valley’ audio deepfake of Einstein is Aflorithmic (whose seed round we covered back in February).

While the video engine powering the 3D character rending components of this ‘digital human’ version of Einstein is the work of another synthesized media company — UneeQ — which is hosting the interactive chatbot version on its website.

Alforithmic says the ‘digital Einstein’ is intended as a showcase for what will soon be possible with conversational social commerce. Which is a fancy way of saying deepfakes that make like historical figures will probably be trying to sell you pizza soon enough, as industry watchers have presciently warned.

The startup also says it sees educational potential in bringing famous, long deceased figures to interactive ‘life’.

Or, well, an artificial approximation of it — the ‘life’ being purely virtual and Digital Einstein’s voice not being a pure tech-powered clone either; Alforithmic says it also worked with an actor to do voice modelling for the chatbot (because how else was it going to get Digital Einstein to be able to say words the real-deal would never even have dreamt of saying — like, er, ‘blockchain’?). So there’s a bit more than AI artifice going on here too.

“This is the next milestone in showcasing the technology to make conversational social commerce possible,” Alforithmic’s COO Matt Lehmann told us. “There are still more than one flaws to iron out as well as tech challenges to overcome but overall we think this is a good way to show where this is moving to.”

In a blog post discussing how it recreated Einstein’s voice the startup writes about progress it made on one challenging element associated with the chatbot version — saying it was able to shrink the response time between turning around input text from the computational knowledge engine to its API being able to render a voiced response, down from an initial 12 seconds to less than three (which it dubs “near-real-time”). But it’s still enough of a lag to ensure the bot can’t escape from being a bit tedious.

Laws that protect people’s data and/or image, meanwhile, present a legal and/or ethical challenge to creating such ‘digital clones’ of living humans — at least not without asking (and most likely paying) first.

Of course historical figures aren’t around to ask awkward questions about the ethics of their likeness being appropriated for selling stuff (if only the cloning technology itself, at this nascent stage). Though licensing rights may still apply — and do in fact in the case of Einstein.

“His rights lie with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is a partner in this project,” says Lehmann, before ‘fessing up to the artist licence element of the Einstein ‘voice cloning’ performance. “In fact, we actually didn’t clone Einstein’s voice as such but found inspiration in original recordings as well as in movies. The voice actor who helped us modelling his voice is a huge admirer himself and his performance captivated the character Einstein very well, we thought.”

Turns out the truth about high-tech ‘lies’ is itself a bit of a layer cake. But with deepfakes it’s not the sophistication of the technology that matters so much as the impact the content has — and that’s always going to depend upon context. And however well (or badly) the faking is done, how people respond to what they see and hear can shift the whole narrative — from a positive story (creative/educational synthesized media) to something deeply negative (alarming, misleading deepfakes).

Concern about the potential for deepfakes to become a tool for disinformation is rising, too, as the tech gets more sophisticated — helping to drive moves toward regulating AI in Europe, where the two main entities responsible for ‘Digital Einstein’ are based.

Earlier this week a leaked draft of an incoming legislative proposal on pan-EU rules for ‘high risk’ applications of artificial intelligence included some sections specifically targeted at deepfakes.

Under the plan, lawmakers look set to propose “harmonised transparency rules” for AI systems that are designed to interact with humans and those used to generate or manipulate image, audio or video content. So a future Digital Einstein chatbot (or sales pitch) is likely to need to unequivocally declare itself artificial before it starts faking it — to avoid the need for Internet users to have to apply a virtual Voight-Kampff test.

For now, though, the erudite-sounding interactive Digital Einstein chatbot still has enough of a lag to give the game away. Its makers are also clearly labelling their creation in the hopes of selling their vision of AI-driven social commerce to other businesses.

#alforithmic, #artificial-intelligence, #chatbot, #cloning, #computer-graphics, #ecommerce, #europe, #social-commerce, #special-effects, #synthesized-media, #uneeq

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“Link-in-bio” company Linktree raises $45M Series B for its social commerce features

If you browse Instagram, you are probably familiar with the term “link in bio.” Links aren’t allowed in post captions, and users are only allowed one URL in their bios, so many create a simple website with multiple links for their followers. Linktree, one of the most popular “link in bio” services with more than 12 million users, announced today it has raised $45 million in Series B funding. The round was co-led by Index Ventures and Coatue, with participation from returning investors AirTree Ventures and Insight Partners.

Coatue chairman Dan Rose will join Linktree’s board of directors. The Sydney, Australia-based startup’s last round was a $10.7 million Series A announced in October 2020. Linktree’s latest funding will be used on tools that make social commerce easier.

Linktree says about a third, or 4 million, of its users signed up within the last three months. This is in partly because people have been spending more time on social media and e-commerce shopping during the pandemic.

Founded in 2016, Linktree now competes with a roster of “link in bio” services, including Shorby, Linkin.bio and the recently launched Beacons.

“When we launched Linktree, we created an entirely new category. We were first to market and, with over 12 million users globally, still hold 88% of market share,” founder and chief executive officer Alex Zaccaria told TechCrunch. “Inevitably we’ve seen plenty of competitors pop up as a result, but part of the uniqueness of Linktree is its deceptively simple design.”

Zaccaria added that one of Linktree’s differentiators is its adoption by users in a wide range of categories, including health and wellness, real estate, sports, music, politics, publishing and food. It’s used for bio links by Shopify, Facebook, TikTok, YSL, HBO and Major League Baseball, and celebrities like Jonathan Van Ness, Jamie Oliver and Pharrell.

“We might have started as a link-in-bio tool, but over time Linktree has evolved and the platform has become a social identity layer of the internet. Our vision for how the platform will sit at the intersection of digital self-expression and action means we’re thinking boldly when it comes to our roadmap.”

#australia, #fundings-exits, #instagram, #link-in-bio, #linktree, #social-commerce, #social-media, #startups, #tc

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Indonesian social commerce app KitaBeli gets $10M led by Go Ventures

Indonesian social commerce app KitaBeli's team, including

Indonesian social commerce app KitaBeli’s team, including founders Prateek Chaturvedi (seated, left front row and Ivana Medea Tjandra (center front row)

KitaBeli, an Indonesian social commerce app for group buying, announced today it has raised a $10 million Series A. The round was led by Gojek’s investment arm Go Ventures, with participation from returning investors AC Ventures and East Ventures. KitaBeli currently focuses on selling fresh produce and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) in areas outside of Indonesia’s major cities, including to people who have never shopped online before.

Launched in March 2020 in Jarkata, KitaBeli then entered the cities of Solo and Malang. Its new funding will be used to expand KitaBeli’s operations in Java, growing its logistics network and developing its mobile app. KitaBeli claims it has grown 80% month over month since launch, with a cost-per-install rate of just 10 cents USD per customers.

Unlike other social e-commerce apps, including ChiliBeli and Woobiz in Indonesia, that build networks of resellers or agents who market items through their social media profiles and take a cut of sales, KitaBeli’s buyers place orders directly through its app, participating in group deals for lower prices. For farmers and suppliers, KitaBeli’s value comes from the ability to reach new customers in more areas of Indonesia. It says users spend an average of USD $70 per month on the app and plans to add new categories like beauty, fashion and accessories.

Co-founder and chief executive officer Prateek Chaturvedi said KitaBeli focuses on direct relationships with end customers because “this enables greater customer loyalty and the ability to become the go-to e-commerce platform for new online shoppers. We don’t run the risk of losing our customers if an agent decides to stop working with us.”

While it doesn’t have a reseller network, KitaBeli works with delivery partners for last-mile deliveries, presenting the gig as an opportunity to earn extra money. It plans to continue building its delivery network across Indonesia to help KitaBeli solve the challenges of reaching smaller cities and more rural areas.

An obvious comparison to KitaBeli is Pinduoduo, the fast-growing Chinese e-commerce player that launched in 2015 as a group-buying service for fresh produce, and also focuses on growth in smaller cities.

On the other hand, “tier 2-4 cities in Indonesia still lack the digital and logistical infrastructure that similar cities in China have,” Chaturvedi said. “Indonesian customers are also new to the internet and need to be educated on how e-commerce works.” KitaBeli’s app is designed to be approachable for first-time e-commerce shoppers, and only takes 6MB to download, making it more accessible to people who have older smartphone models or slower internet connections.

KitaBeli will continue focusing on Indonesia instead of expanding into other Southeast Asia countries because “the Indonesian market is a massive and underpenetrated market,” he added.

In a press statement, Go Ventures’ senior vice president of investments Aditya Kumar said, “E-commerce penetration beyond the large metros has remained low, predominantly because of lack of trust, poor product availability, and high logistics costs. Kitabeli is well positioned to address these challenges through the social nature of its product, accelerating online shopping for a new generation of users and bringing the benefits of e-commerce to a wider population across Indonesia.”

#asia, #fundings-exits, #group-buying, #group-buying-farm-food, #indonesia, #kitabeli, #social-commerce, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

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Twitter tests new e-commerce features for tweets

Twitter confirmed it’s testing a new way to display tweets that link out to e-commerce product pages — like products on a Shopify store, for example. With a new Twitter card format, the company is experimenting with tweets that include a big “Shop” button and integrate product details directly into the tweet itself, including the product name, shop name, and product pricing.

The experiment was spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra who tweeted out screenshots of the new experience. The original poster, based in Qatar, had seen the experiment on an Android device, he tells TechCrunch.

While these tweets would work well as ads, Twitter confirmed to us the tweet is an example of a new treatment for “organic” tweets focused on e-commerce.

This format could potentially come into play as part of Twitter’s larger push to become a creator platform, with its recently announced plans for a “Super Follow” subscription. The new product will allow Twitter users to follow a particular account for subscriber-only perks like newsletters, exclusive content, a supporter badge, and other deals and discounts. A more “shoppable” tweet format could allow these creators to direct their fans to products and merchandise, perhaps.

Twitter also briefly touched on its plans for future investments in e-commerce during its Investor Day last week, but not in great detail.

“We’re…starting to explore ways to better support commerce on Twitter,” said Twitter Revenue Lead, Bruce Falck, during the event.

“We know people come to Twitter to interact with brands and discuss their favorite products. In fact, you may have even noticed some businesses already developing creative ways to enable sales on our platform,” he explained.

“This demand gives us confidence in the power of combining real-time conversation with an engaged and intentional audience. Imagine easily discovering, and quickly purchasing a new skincare product or trendy sneaker from a brand you follow with only a few clicks,” Falck added.

But he cautioned investors that while Twitter was “excited about the potential of commerce,” it was still something that’s in “very early exploration.”

The idea that Twitter could become more of discovery network for e-commerce products is an interesting one — especially given the growth in the social commerce sector in recent months. This includes increased investment from Facebook into shopping features across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, as well as the growing attention being paid to video-based shopping.

The latter has been particularly popular, in terms of both live streamed product demos and pre-recorded short-form videos, like those on TikTok.

Shopify, for instance, partnered with TikTok on social commerce last fall. And Walmart — a suitor for TikTok’s potential U.S. spin-out (which is now on hold)ran its own live-streamed shopping event on the video app over the holidays. A number of video shopping startups have been taking on funding in recent months, too.

Twitter, meanwhile, may have dialed down its video ambitions over the years with the closure of Vine and now, Periscope, but it’s not without tools to make shopping more interesting on its platform, if it chose to do so. It still has integrated tools for posting photos, videos and even live video content. Combined with a Twitter Card that includes pricing and a big “Shop” button, people’s tweets could drive sales.

Or, in other words, a Twitter Card that points you directly to a product page could be just the start of what’s to come.

In fact, Twitter itself says it has a number of plans for social commerce.

“This is the first of many experiments in the commerce space and we will enrich the experience as we learn more,” a spokesperson said.

#e-commerce, #ecommerce, #shopping, #social, #social-commerce, #social-media, #twitter

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Singapore-based Raena gets $9M Series A for its pivot to skincare and beauty-focused social commerce

A photo of social commerce startup Raena’s team. From left to right: chief operating officer Guo Xing Lim, chief executive officer Sreejita Deb and chief commercial officer Widelia Liu

Raena’s team, from left to right: chief operating officer Guo Xing Lim, chief executive officer Sreejita Deb and chief commercial officer Widelia Liu

Raena was founded in 2019 to create personal care brands with top social media influencers. After several launches, however, the Singapore-based startup quickly noticed an interesting trend: customers were ordering batches of products from Raena every week and reselling them on social media and e-commerce platforms like Shopee and Tokopedia. Last year, the company decided to focus on those sellers, and pivoted to social commerce.

Today Raena announced it has raised a Series A of $9 million, co-led by Alpha Wave Incubation and Alpha JWC Ventures, with participation from AC Ventures and returning investors Beenext, Beenos and Strive. Its last funding announcement was a $1.82 million seed round announced in July 2019.

After interviewing people who were setting up online stores with products from Raena, the company’s team realized that sellers’ earnings potential was capped because they were paying retail prices for their inventory.

They also saw that the even though new C2C retail models, like social commerce, are gaining popularity, the beauty industry’s supply chain hasn’t kept up. Sellers usually need to order minimum quantities, which makes it harder for people to start their own businesses, Raena co-founder Sreejita Deb told TechCrunch,

“Basically, you have to block your capital upfront. It’s difficult for individual sellers or micro-enterpreneurs to work with the old supply chain and categories like beauty,” she said.

Raena decided to pivot to serve those entrepreneurs. The company provides a catalog that includes mostly Japanese and Korean skincare and beauty brands. For those brands, Raena represents a way to enter new markets like Indonesia, which the startup estimates has $20 billion market opportunity.

Raena resellers, who are mostly women between 18 to 34-years-old in Indonesia and Malaysia, pick what items they want to feature on their social media accounts. Most use TikTok or Instagram for promotion, and set up online stores on Shopee or Tokopedia. But they don’t have to carry inventory. When somebody buys a product from a Raena reseller, the reseller orders it from Raena, which ships it directly to the customer.

This drop-shipping model means resellers make higher margins. Since they don’t have to carry inventory, it also dramatically lowers the barrier to launching a small business. Even though Raena’s pivot to social commerce coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, Deb said it grew its revenue 50 times between January and December 2020. The platform now has more than 1,500 resellers, and claims a 60% seller retention rate after six months on the platform.

She attributes Raena’s growth to several factors, including the increase in online shopping during lockdowns and people looking for ways to earn additional income during the pandemic. While forced to stay at home, many people also began spending more time online, especially on the social media platforms that Raena resellers use.

Raena also benefited from its focus on skincare. Even though many retail categories, including color cosmetics, took a hit, skincare products proved resilient.

“We saw skincare had higher margins, and there are certain markets that are experts at formulating and producing skincare products, and demand for those products in other parts of the world,” she said, adding, “we’ve continued being a skincare company and because that is a category we had insight into, it was our first entry point into this social selling model as well. 90% of our sales are skincare. Our top-selling products are serums, toners, essences, which makes a lot of sense because people are in their homes and have more time to dedicate to their skincare routines.”

Social commerce, which allows people to earn a side income (or even a full-time income), by promoting products through social media, has taken off in several Asian markets. In China, for example, Pinduoduo has become a formidable rival to Alibaba through its group-selling model and focus on fresh produce. In India, Meesho resellers promote products through social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram.

Social commerce is also gaining traction in Southeast Asia, with gross merchandise value growing threefold during the first half of 2020, according to iKala.

Deb said one of the ways Raena is different from other social commerce companies is that most of its resellers are selling to customers they don’t know, instead of focusing on family and friends. Many already had TikTok or Instagram profiles focused on beauty and skincare, and had developed reputations for being knowledgeable about products.

As Raena develops, it plans to hire a tech team to build tools that will simplify the process of managing orders and also strike deals directly with manufacturers to increase profit margins for resellers. The funding will be used to increase its team from 15 to over 100 over the next three months, and it plans to enter more Southeast Asian markets.

#asia, #e-commerce, #indonesia, #malaysia, #personal-care, #raena, #singapore, #skincare, #social-commerce, #southeast-asia, #tc

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Resellee wants to become the Pinduoduo of Southeast Asia

Launched in the Philippines, social commerce startup Resellee wants to recreate the success of Pinduoduo, one of China’s fastest-growing e-commerce companies, in Southeast Asia. A major part of Resellee’s business is grocery deliveries, including fresh produce, and it has struck partnerships with the government and farmers’ groups to meet demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The startup announced this week it has raised $1 million in seed funding from Mintech Enterprises and Hofan Capital to build its technology and expand into new countries. Resellee was co-founded last year by chief executive officer Marc Concio, former head of e-commerce at Voyager Innovations, parent company of PayMaya, one of the Philippines’ largest online payment services.

Concio told TechCrunch that there are currently about 40,000 resellers on Resellee’s platform, and each has an average of about 20 buyers. Resellee sellers typically make about P5,000, or US $100, a month.

Like Pinduoduo, India’s Meesho and other social commerce platforms, Reselllee does not require sellers to carry their own inventory. Instead, it maintains a network of suppliers, including manufacturers and farmers, and lists available products on a marketplace. Then sellers chose what they want to add to their stores, which they market to potential buyers through their social media networks.

Resellee offers a wide range of products, including electronics and fashion items, but it currently focuses on grocery deliveries and prepaid credit for mobile phones and online games, which are all in high demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concio’s interest in social commerce was piqued after observing Pinduoduo’s astronomical growth in China, where it became the second-largest e-commerce company in the country less than five years after launching in 2015. Pinduoduo’s group buying model leverages users’ existing social networks, especially on WeChat, to pull together buyers for products at discounted prices, and has done well in smaller cities and rural areas.

“Resellee hopes to learn from this and be the Pinduoduo of Southeast Asia by pioneering social e-commerce and group buying in the Philippines, then expanding to Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, where social commerce has not started yet or is still in its early stage,” Concio said.

Social commerce is well-positioned to take off in the Philippines for several reasons, he added. One is the enormous amount of time spent of social media platforms there: four hours per day, versus two and a half hours in India, and two hours in China. The Philippines has one of the youngest median ages in Asia, around 23.5 years old, and that is the demographic most likely to use social commerce, Concio said.

Another reason is that many people want to start their own businesses, or need to make side income, especially during the pandemic, but have little access to working capital. Since Resellee’s sellers don’t need to carry their own inventory and can rely on the platform’s supply chain and logistics network, that means they can launch a store without spending any money. Most of the work they need to do is convincing people on their social media networks, like Facebook or Viber, to buy from their Resellee stores.

“We believe the same hypergrowth for social commerce will happen in the Philippines given all of the above, with Resellee pioneering both social e-commerce and group buying here,” Concio said.

Resellee’s competitors include some of the biggest e-commerce platforms in the region, like Lazada, Shopee and EZBuy, which have added social commerce features. Concio said one of Resellee’s advantages is its focus on helping sellers make money, and partnerships with farmers groups and the Philippine government. This includes a project to build an online platform that will aggregate supply information from farmer’s cooperatives across the country, and match them to Resellee’s sellers and buyers, eliminating middle men in the supply chain.

Resellee initially outsourced its logistics, but Concio said its deliveries were not prioritized by carriers, which led to customer complaints, especially for fresh produce. As a result, Resellee set up its own logistics arm, called Resellee Riders, in Metro Manila, where most of its grocery customers are. This enabled Resellee to launch next-day deliveries in the area this week (orders in other places are still carried out by third-party logistics providers).

While Resellee accepts online payments, including online wallets and bank cards, most buyers prefer to use its cash on delivery option. Sellers make money through commissions, which they can transfer to their online wallets or bank accounts. Resellee’s platform also gives them the option of using the funds to buy discounted mobile or gaming prepaid loads, or top-ups, which they can also offer in their stores. Along with fresh produce, prepaid loads are one of the key parts of Resellee’s business strategy. The platform guarantees the highest commissions and discounts for mobile prepaid loads from some of the Philippines’ top providers, including Smart, Sun and TalknText.

“The mobile prepaid market is a US $4 billion annual market versus total e-commerce in the Philippines of only US $2.3 billion,” Concio said. “This is one of our key strategies to own the mobile prepaid market, other than fruits and vegetables like Pinduoduo.”

#asia, #e-commerce, #fundings-exits, #online-groceries, #philippines, #resellee, #social-commerce, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

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Indian e-commerce deals site CashKaro gets $10 million Series B led by Korea Investment Partners

CashKaro co-founders Rohan and Swati Bhargava

CashKaro co-founders Rohan and Swati Bhargava

CashKaro, one of the leading cashback and coupon sites in India, will expand its range of services for e-commerce after raising $10 million in Series B funding, the New Delhi-based startup announced today. The round was led by Korea Investment Partners, with participation from returning investor Kalaari Capital.

TechCrunch last covered CashKaro five years ago when it raised a $3.8 million Series A. The latest round brings the company’s total funding so far to $15 million.

Over the past five years, the company has introduced new products, including a price comparison service, and EarnKaro, a social commerce cashback app that launched about 18 months ago. Part of the Series B will be used to expand EarnKaro, which has about one million registered users. It allows social commerce sellers, or people who use social media platform and messaging apps like WhatsApp to sell items, make extra cash by creating affiliate links to major e-commerce sites like Amazon and Flipkart. The launch of EarnKaro also allowed CashKaro to reach into smaller cities and rural areas, where shoppers often prefer to order from people whose recommendations they trust (i.e. “micro-influencers”) instead of e-commerce sites.

Founded in 2013 by husband-and-wife team Swati and Rohan Bhargava, CashKaro currently claims about five million users and has partnerships with more than 1,500 e-commerce sites, including some of the biggest players in India, like Amazon, Flipkart, Myntra and Ajio. The company monetizes by charging brands a commission for transactions made through CashKaro links. The commissions are also how CashKaro is able to give cash back to shoppers, which can be deposited into their bank accounts or redeemed as gift vouchers for Flipkart and Amazon. CashKaro’s founders says it currently processes more than one million monthly transactions.

CashKaro competes for the attention of online shoppers with a bevy of other coupon and cashback services in India. Some of its rivals include CouponDunia, GrabOn and GoPaisa.

“We are the only VC-funded cashback site in India. While capital itself is not the differentiator, it is what we have been able to do with that capital which sets us apart,” Bhargava told TechCrunch, adding that CashKaro’s cashback rates are among the highest in the market.

“Given that we now drive close to a half a billion dollars in GMV through CashKaro and EarnKaro to our partner sites, we are able to get higher commission rates from partner sites, which in turn helps us pass the most benefit to our members.”

While COVID-19 has affected e-commerce businesses around the world because of sudden changes in consumer habits, the situation in India was particularly complicated in April and May because there were containment zones throughout the country, and in some zones, deliveries of non-essential items was not allowed until May.

“COVID-19 caught us by surprise and Indian e-commerce was neither prepared to handle the surge in demand, nor did we expect so many supply side and delivery issues,” said Bhargava. “Given CashKaro works with all e-commerce sites, we saw these trends as well.”

Since June, however, sales have started to recover and is seeing growth as people continue to stay home and shop online.

“Our business is growing month on month and, in fact, the pandemic spurred our expansion into new digital categories, like education, gaming and online video streaming, which have seen exponential growth,” Bhargava added. Sales of electronics, home and kitchen items, personal care and beauty have also increased over the past few months.

At the same time, the economic impact of the pandemic has prompted more people to seek cashback offers and other money-saving deals.

“We are seeing that saving consciousness has gone up amongst online shoppers and people are finding services like CashKaro and EarnKaro more useful than ever before,” Bhargava said. “On the client side, our partners, such as Amazon, Myntra and Ajio, are also working with us more closely because they are seeing that our performance marketing model is the perfect way to scale while keeping profitability in mind amidst these tough times.”

The new round of capital will be used for CashKaro’s goal of doubling its registered member base over the next 12 months from the current 5 million. Bhargava told TechCrunch that it will expand cashback offers into categories like credit cards and education, and launch new marketing campaigns focused around events like upcoming festivals and the Indian Premier League season, which starts this weekend.

The company is also “chasing aggressive growth for EarnKaro and reaching out to more influencers, resellers, housewives and students who are our primary target market for this product,” she added. Finally, part of the Series B will be used for hiring, including leadership positions.

For Korea Investment Partners, one of the largest South Korean venture capital firms, CashKaro represents a chance to tap into India’s fast-growing e-commerce market. In a statement, managing partner Hudson Kyung-sik Ho said, “We believe this is a highly scalable opportunity and both Swati and Rohan have set it on a truly exciting growth trajectory. CashKaro and EarnKaro together have shown exceptional unit metrics and we are really excited to be a part of India’s affiliate story.”

#affiliate-marketing, #asia, #cashback, #cashkaro, #e-commerce, #earnkaro, #fundings-exits, #india, #social-commerce, #startups, #tc

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How COVID-19 transformed the way Americans spend online

COVID-19 has transformed the way Americans use their phones and the way they spend their time and money online. These shifts present both a number of challenges and a raft of opportunities for savvy growth marketers.

We’ve seen COVID-19 affect a number of verticals. A number of industries have taken a hit (like music streaming and sports), while some are expanding due to the pandemic (groceries, media, video gaming). Others have found distinctive ways to adjust the way they position and sell their product, allowing them to take advantage of changes in buyer behavior.

The key to being able to read and react to changes in this still-tumultuous time and tailoring your growth marketing accordingly is to understand how public sentiment is reflected in new purchasing behaviors. Here’s an overview of the most important trends we’re seeing that will allow you to adjust your growth marketing effectively.

By the numbers: A sheltering-in-place economy

Virtually all of the data we’ve seen shows a marked difference in buyer behavior following the WHO’s declaration of a pandemic on March 11, 2020. With consumers encouraged to stay home to deter the spread of COVID-19, it’s no surprise that the biggest change is the spike in online activity.

#column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #extra-crunch, #gaming, #growth-marketing, #market-analysis, #media, #mobile-web, #online-shopping, #payments, #retail, #shopping, #social, #social-commerce, #startups, #tc

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Alibaba taps international influencers to sell more globally

For years, Chinese e-commerce exporters have been learning the ins and outs of ad placement on Facebook, Instagram and other mainstream social media platforms to reach customers around the world. But they recently spotted a new way to grab people’s attention, one that has never felt more familiar.

Video influencers.

Shopping via videos is currently all the rage in China. There are efforts from short video apps like Douyin — TikTok’s Chinese sister — that match merchants with content creators for promotion. During the coronavirus lockdown, millions of consumers relied on live videos to check out products and posed questions to merchants remotely, a practice that has won endorsement from local governments as a way to drum up domestic consumption. In just Q1 this year, more than 4 million live shopping sessions took place in China.

In other parts of the world, brands and video creators — especially influencers with sizable followings — are also getting pally. A few American venture capitalists have recognized the early potential of the collaboration. Amazon, a few years behind its Chinese counterparts in live streaming, launched Amazon Live last year.

Now Alibaba, one of the pioneers of shoppable videos in China, has big plans to attract and train up international influencers — so it can sell more around the world through AliExpress . The platform is one of Alibaba’s marketplaces for international consumers, which altogether claim 180 million annual active consumers.

“Chinese manufacturers are always looking for ways to sell and influencers are the quickest way to drive traffic these days,” reckoned Miranda Tan, chief executive of Robin8, a data-driven influencer marketing platform.

Indeed, a few Shenzhen-based e-commerce exporters told TechCrunch that they are actively looking to work with international content creators, particularly TikTok influencers, to market their products. For now, they depend on their Chinese staff to make low-budget promo videos that often miss important cultural nuances.

Everyone is a seller

AliExpress plans to recruit as many as 100,000 “promoters,” who will help merchants and brands on AliExpress promote through YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and other popular internet platforms. Besides popular influencers, the platform is also after talented content creators behind the camera and seasoned marketers with access to customer acquisition channels.

Screenshot: a live broadcasted promotion on AliExpress

“Live shopping is still in its relative infancy in the overseas consumer market,” Martin Wang, who heads overseas seller operation and social commerce cooperation at AliExpress, told TechCrunch. “Our initiative will help propel the overseas ecosystem forward.”

To that end, the team created the “Connect” matchmaking system for influencers to find promotional tasks and is providing training and analytics tools to support their creative process. While live selling has been available to Alibaba sellers in China since 2016, AliExpress only added the feature last year and announced the recruitment program in April.

The call for talent came at a time when millions around the world have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak. It’s no surprise that AliExpress is billing the recruitment as one that could “help individuals rebuild after COVID-19.”

“A lot of people don’t have money now and are looking for ways to make money during the coronavirus outbreak,” contended Tan, who has observed many individuals are learning to be product promoters on social media to make extra bucks. “Everyone becomes their own independent company.”

Cultural differences

An obvious target for AliExpress is the emerging crop of bilingual foreign influencers living in China. “Many are foreign students in China with a positive image and a knack for expression. They have a flexible schedule in the evening, so agencies will approach them, train them as live streaming hosts and eventually sign with them,” said Wang.

The influencers fluent in Chinese and their native language may seem like ideal ambassadors in sellers’ target markets, but there is a potential drawback. “They might look to Li Jiaqi and Weiya as role models,” said Wang, referring to China’s top beauty influencers known for their record-smashing sales. “But what works in China may not work in their home countries.”

On the demand side, Wang worried that Chinese merchants are too accustomed to seeing meteoric sales numbers that influencers in China generate. “The overseas [live streaming] market has not reached the stage of maturity, so it’s our priority to manage expectations from both sides [of sellers and content creators.]”

Most of AliExpress’s sellers naturally come from China, the world’s factory, while Russia is its biggest market for revenue. The platform has been working to boost its inventory by opening up to sellers in Turkey, Russia, Spain and Italy last year. For instance, Russia is a big market for AliExpress’s Turkish merchants. The expansion means an even greater challenge for the Chinese company to cope with differences in business dynamics and consumer behavior across regions.

#alibaba, #alibaba-group, #aliexpress, #amazon, #amazon-live, #asia, #china, #ecommerce, #russia, #social-commerce, #tc, #tiktok

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Levi’s partnered with TikTok on social commerce and doubled its product views

Levi’s is leveraging its advertising partnership with TikTok to connect online shoppers with the denim brand amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced retailers to close their doors — including most of Levi’s own stores. The company announced today its success as one of the first retailers to use TikTok’s “Shop Now” buttons that allow consumers make purchases through links posted to TikTok. Though the implementation is still in the early stages, Levi’s says it has already seen high engagement and increased traffic to its website, as a result of initial tests.

To send traffic to its e-commerce site, Levi’s recently partnered with TikTok influencers Callen SchaubCosette RinabGabby Morrison and Everett Williams who used Levis’ laser-powered Future Finish 3-D denim customization technology to create their own customized denim. While the collaboration itself began before the shelter-in-place orders rolled out across the U.S., the resulting videos were only posted last week.

TikTok users viewing the influencers’ videos, which appeared on TikTok as in-feed ads, could then click to buy the same design on Levi.com up until the experiment wrapped on April 19.

Levi’s reports that watch time for these videos were twice as long as the TikTok platform average.

@callenschaubIn my Montreal studio putting my spin on the Levi’s® Future Finish jeans – Shop online from home! ##stayhome ##oddlysatisfying ##levishausmiami ##ad♬ original sound – callenschaub

In addition, Levi’s notes that product views to Levi.com’s “Future Finish” pages more than doubled for every product included in the experience.

Though these are not hard numbers, few retailers have yet to share the results of their TikTok-powered social commerce efforts. In fact, the “Shop Now” call-to-action button itself is fairly new, so only a handful of advertisers have used the option to date.

TikTok is not the first social network the Levi’s brand has worked with — it also has similar partnerships with top social platforms like Snap, Instagram, and Pinterest. However, the company said it was drawn to TikTok due the size of its audience, noting that in November 2018 TikTok was then seeing 680 million monthly active users worldwide, and is now estimated to have as high as 800 million. Levi’s also noted that nearly 60% of that user base is in between the ages fo 16 to 24.

TikTok, meanwhile, has been dabbling in social commerce for over a year through a variety of efforts.

For example, AdWeek in April 2019 reported on Hollister’s participation in a program that allowed retailers to run in-feed ads that directed customers to its e-commerce site by a “Shop Now” button. And Digiday last July noted Poshmark had done the same. In August 2019, Kroger became the first brand to try a new Hashtag Challenge Plus feature, which added a shoppable component to a TikTok hashtag.

Last November, TikTok also began to allow some TikTok users to add e-commerce links to their posts and their bios. Many of the beta participants testing this feature began linking from their video directly to Amazon, The WSJ had reported at the time.

In the case of the Levi’s influencer program, the videos from the creators ran as in-feed ads, linked to the retailer’s website. Some influencers also included a Levi’s website link in their bio, but this is separate from the advertiser-facing feature. (See photo on right).

“TikTok was the perfect platform for us to expand our efforts in social commerce. Over the last decade, we’ve been on a journey to not only grow our digital footprint, but also help our fans buy our products at the point of inspiration, when they see something they love,” said Brady Stewart, managing director, U.S. Direct to Consumer, in a statement about the TikTok partnership. “As consumer behavior shifts over the coming months and people explore different online channels for shopping and engaging with brands, we are here to connect with consumers, wherever they are,” he added.

The line between social media and commerce has been blurring for years, thanks to influencer-fueled advertising, in-feed ad units, shoppable media, and more. Instagram today event lets you shop from some retailers without leaving its app. Meanwhile, Facebook’s Marketplace has turned into an eBay and Craigslist-sized rival and its business Pages help customers and brands connect in a number of ways.

TikTok, however, has only dipped a toe in the water of social commerce as of yet. But given its app’s sizable reach, particularly among Gen Z, it’s an area to watch. And as the pandemic forces more retailers to remain closed to foot traffic in stores, being able to attract young shoppers to their online shops will be more valuable than ever.

 

#ad-tech, #adtech, #advertising, #advertising-tech, #e-commerce, #online-shopping, #social, #social-commerce, #social-media, #tc, #tiktok

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