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Online targeting needs tighter controls, UK data ethics body suggests – TechCrunch



A UK government advisory body on AI and data ethics has recommended tighter controls on how platform giants can use ad targeting and content personalization.

Concerns about the largely unregulated eyeball-grabbing targeting tactics of online platforms — be it via serving “personalized content” or “microtargeted ads” to individuals or groups of users — include the risk of generating addictive behaviors; the exploitation and/or discrimination of vulnerable groups; the amplification of misinformation; and election interference, to name a few.

In a report published today, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) sets out a number of recommendations for platforms that use targeting tools to determine what content or ads are shown to users. It argues these recommendations will help build public trust in digital services, including those delivered by the public sector.

“Most people do not want targeting stopped. But they do want to know that it is being done safely and ethically. And they want more control,” writes chair Roger Taylor in an executive summary.

“Our analysis of the regulatory environment demonstrates significant gaps in their regulatory oversight,” the report goes on. “Our analysis of public attitudes shows greatest concern and interest about the use of online targeting on large platforms.

“Our research demonstrates that online targeting systems used by social media platforms (like Facebook and Twitter), video sharing platforms (like YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok), and search engines (like Google and Bing) raise the greatest concerns in these areas.”

The advisory body, which was announced by the Conservative-led government in 2017 to help devise policy for regulating the use of AI and data-driven technologies, is calling for online targeting giants to be held to higher standards of accountability over their use of targeting tools.

Current regulations are inadequate to cover online targeting, per its analysis, while it dubs self-regulation and the status quo “unsustainable”.

Respondents to a survey the CDEI conducted were overwhelmingly in favour (61 percent) of giving an independent regulator oversight of the use of online targeting systems vs just 17 percent preferring self-regulation to continue.

The UK government set out a plan to regulate a number of online harms in a White Paper published last year — which proposes a duty of care be placed on platforms to protect users from a range of harms, such as age inappropriate content or material that encourages damaging behaviors such as self-harm or eating disorders.

The CDEI suggests this proposed framework could help plug some of the regulatory gaps its report is flagging “if online targeting is recognised within the independent regulator’s remit” (while warning that would still leave a number of gaps in the regulation of political advertising).

The report also calls for greater transparency in how online targeting systems operate “so that society can better understand the impacts of these systems and policy responses can be built on robust evidence”.

Another key recommendation is for Internet users to be given greater control over the way they are targeted so that personalization can better fit their preferences.

“Online targeting has helped to put a handful of global online platform businesses in positions of enormous power to predict and influence behaviour. However, current mechanisms to hold them to account are inadequate,” the CDEI writes. “We have reviewed the powers of the existing regulators and conclude that enforcement of existing legislation and self-regulation cannot be relied on to meet public expectations of greater accountability.”

“There is recognition from industry as well as the public that there are limits to self-regulation and the status quo is unsustainable. Now is the time for regulatory action that takes proportionate steps to increase accountability, transparency and user empowerment,” it adds.

The CDEI is not proposing any specific restrictions itself — but rather advocating for a regulatory regime that “promote[s] responsibility and transparency and safeguard[s] human rights by design”.

It also recommends that a code of practice be applied to platforms and services that use online targeting systems, requiring that they adopt “standards of risk management, transparency and protection of people who may be vulnerable, so that they can be held to account for the impact of online targeting systems on users”.

The future online harms regulator should have a statutory duty to protect and respect freedom of expression and privacy, it also suggests, writing that: “Regulation of online targeting should be developed to safeguard freedom of expression and privacy online, and to promote human rights-based international norms.”

The regulator will also need information gathering powers in order to assess compliance with the code, per the recommendations — including the power to require that independent experts are given secure access to platforms’ data to enable further compliance testing of their code.

“Online targeting systems may have a negative effect on mental health, for example as a possible factor in ‘internet addiction’. They could contribute to societal issues including radicalisation and the polarisation of political views. These are issues of significant public concern, where the risks of harm are poorly understood, but the potential impact too great to ignore,” the report warns.

“We recommend that the regulator facilitates independent academic research into issues of significant public interest, and that it has the power to require online platforms to give independent researchers secure access to their data. Without this, the regulator and other policymakers will not be able to develop evidence-based policy and identify best practice.”

Another recommendation is that platforms be required to maintain online advertising archives “to provide transparency for types of personalised advertising that pose particular societal risks” such as politics ads; employment and other similar opportunities where there may be a risk of unlawful discrimination; and for age-restricted products.

An ad archive is one of the self-regulatory measures which ad platforms, including Facebook, have developed and implemented in recent years as scrutiny of their systems has dialed up in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica political ad targeting scandal which was carried out using Facebook’s ad tools and user data.

Although such archives still tend to offer only limited visibility to users, and Facebook has been heavily criticized by researchers for failing to provide adequate tools to support academic study of its platform.

On “more meaningful control” for users over how they’re targeted, the Centre suggests support for a new market in third party ‘data intermediaries’ to enable users’ interests to be represented across multiple services and new third party safety apps.

It is also calling for formal coordination mechanisms between the future online harms regulator and the UK’s data watchdog (the ICO) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The report flagged other related work being carried out by the ICO and CMA, including the ICO’s Age Appropriate Design Code; and the CMA’s market study of online platforms and digital advertising.

The latter raised concerns late last year about the market power of tech giants, floating a range of potential interventions in its interim report, including asking for views on breaking up platform giants.  

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5 tips for brands that want to succeed in the new era of influencer marketing – TechCrunch



If I told you a decade ago that a spin bike would be a social community, you’d have had a good laugh. But that’s precisely what Peloton is: A spin bike with a social community where the instructors are the influencers.

Peloton is just one example of how social is being integrated into every aspect of the customer experience in an increasingly digital world. Whether it’s considering a new restaurant to check out, a movie to see or a product to buy, most people look at reviews before making a final decision. They want social proof as an indicator of quality and relevance.

Influencers are a natural byproduct of this desire for social validation, and as social permeates the customer journey, creators have become an essential source of validation and trust.

Influencers are a natural byproduct of this desire for social validation, and as social permeates the customer journey, creators have become an essential source of validation and trust. Indeed, social validation is what social platforms are built on, so it’s a significant component of how we derive relevance online — and the deeper integration of social is changing the dynamic between brands and digital creators.

The shifting economy of creator monetization

Brand sponsorships are the holy grail for creators hoping to monetize their online influence. According to an eMarketer report, brand partnerships are still the No. 1 source of revenue for most digital creators.

However, digital creators have a lot more monetization options to choose from, thanks to Patreon, affiliate platforms, paid content platforms and platform revenue sharing, making it easier to earn a living without relying so heavily on brand sponsorships.

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As a result, creators are diversifying their revenue streams, which, for some creators, allows them to be more selective about the brands they work with. What’s more, creators aren’t reliant on just one channel or one form of revenue.

YouTube creators probably have the most diversified revenue, often combining brand sponsorships, subscription models, affiliate deals, tipping/donations, their line of branded products and revenue share. However, it’s important to note that not all monetization options apply to every creator. But with so many options to choose from, making a living as a digital creator is more accessible than ever.

Here are a few of the ways online creators can monetize their content:

Ad revenue sharing: Advertising is the most traditional form of revenue for online creators. With this model, ads are injected into and around the creator’s content, and they make a certain percentage of revenue based on impressions. However, the revenue split can vary based on the platform, and some platforms have a specific threshold creators must hit before they can participate in ad revenue sharing.

Affiliate marketing: Similar to advertising or a brand sponsorship, affiliate marketing is an agreement for a share of revenue based on products sold. This kind of arrangement generally works best when the creator has a blog, website or YouTube account. Affiliate links allow the influencer to proactively choose the products they want to talk about and earn from, rather than having to wait for a brand deal to come their way.

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Instagram’s TikTok rival, Reels, rolls out ads worldwide – TechCrunch



Instagram Reels are getting ads. The company announced today it’s launching ads in its short-form video platform and TikTok rival, Reels, to businesses and advertisers worldwide. The ads will be up to 30 seconds in length, like Reels themselves, and vertical in format, similar to ads found in Instagram Stories. Also like Reels, the new ads will loop, and people will be able to like, comment, and save them, the same as other Reels videos.

The company had previously tested Reels ads in select markets earlier this year, including India, Brazil, Germany, and Australia, then expanded those tests to Canada, France, the U.K. and the U.S. more recently. Early adopters of the new format have included brands like BMW, Nestlé (Nespresso), Louis Vuitton, Netflix, Uber, and others.

Instagram tells us the ads will appear in most places users view Reels content, including on the Reels tab, Reels in Stories, Reels in Explore, and Reels in your Instagram Feed, and will appear in between individual Reels posted by users. However, in order to be served a Reels ad, the user first needs to be in the immersive, full-screen Reels viewer.

Image Credits: Instagram

The company couldn’t say how often a user might see a Reels ad, noting that the number of ads a viewer may encounter will vary based on how they use Instagram. But the company is monitoring user sentiment around ads themselves, and the overall commercially of Reels, it says.

Like Instagram’s other advertising products, Reels ads will launch with an auction-based model. But so far, Instagram is declining to share any sort of performance metrics around how those ads are doing, based on tests. Nor is it yet offering advertisers any creator tools or templates that could help them get started with Reels ads. Instead, Instagram likey assumes advertisers already have creative assets on hand or know how to make them, because of Reels ads’ similarities to other vertical video ads found elsewhere, including on Instagram’s competitors.

While vertical video has already shown the potential for driving consumers to e-commerce shopping sites, Instagram hasn’t yet taken advantage of Reels ads to drive users to its built-in Instagram Shops, though that seems like a natural next step as it attempts to tie the different parts of its app together.

But perhaps ahead of that step, Instagram needs to make Reels a more compelling destination — something other TikTok rivals, which now include both Snap and YouTube — have done by funding creator content directly. Instagram, meanwhile, had made offers to select TikTok stars directly.

The launch of Instagram Reels ads follows news of TikTok’s climbing ad prices. Bloomberg reported this month that TikTok is now asking for more than $1.4 million for a home page takeover ad in the U.S., as of the third quarter, which will jump to $1.8 million by Q4 and more than $2 million on a holiday. Though the company is still building its ads team and advertisers haven’t yet allocated large portions of their video budget to the app, that tends to follow user growth — and TikTok now has over 100 million monthly active users in the U.S.

Both apps, Instagram and TikTok, now have over a billion monthly active users on a global basis, though Reels is only a part of the larger Instagram platform. For comparison, Instagram Stories is used by some 500 million users, which demonstrates Instagram’s ability to drive traffic to different areas of its app. Instagram declined to share how many users Reels has as of today.

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Twine raises $3.3M to add networking features to virtual events – TechCrunch



Twine, a video chat startup that launched amid the pandemic as a sort of “Zoom for meeting new people,” shifted its focus to online events and, as a result, has now closed on $3.3 million in seed funding. To date, twine’s events customers have included names like Microsoft, Amazon, Forrester, and others, and the service is on track to do $1 million in bookings in 2021, the company says.

The new round was led by Moment Ventures, and included participation from Coelius Capital, AltaIR Capital, Mentors Fund, Rosecliff Ventures, AltaClub, and Bloom Venture Partners. Clint Chao, founding Partner at Moment, will join twine’s board of directors with the round’s close.

The shift into the online events space makes sense, given twine’s co-founders —  Lawrence Coburn, Diana Rau, and Taylor McLoughlin — hail from DoubleDutch, the mobile events technology provider acquired by Cvent in 2019.

Coburn, previously CEO of DoubleDutch, had been under a non-compete with its acquirer until December 2020, which is one reason why he didn’t first attempt a return to the events space.

The team’s original idea was to help people who were missing out on social connections under Covid lockdowns find a way to meet others and chat online. This early version of twine saw some small amount of traction, as 10% of its users were even willing to pay. But many more were nervous about being connected to random online strangers, twine found.

So the company shifted its focus to the familiar events space, with a specific focus on online events which grew in popularity due to the pandemic. While setting up live streams, text chats and Q&A has been possible, what’s been missing from many online events was the casual and unexpected networking that used to happen in-person.

“The hardest thing to bring to virtual events was the networking and the serendipity — like the conversations that used to happen in an elevator, in the bar, the lobby — these kinds of things,” explains Coburn. “So we began testing a group space version of twine — bringing twine to existing communities as opposed to trying to build our own, new community. And that showed a lot more legs,” he says.

By January 2021, the new events-focused version of twine was up-and-running, offering a set of professional networking tools for event owners. Unlike one-to-many or few-to-many video broadcasts, twine connects a small number of people for more intimate conversations.

“We did a lot of research with our customers and users, and beyond five [people in a chat], it turns into a webinar,” notes Coburn, of the limitations on twine’s video chat. In twine, a small handful of people are dropped into a video chat experience– and now, they’re not random online strangers. They’re fellow event attendees. That generally keeps user behavior professional and the conversations productive.

Event owners can use the product for free on twine’s website for small events with up to 30 users, but to scale up any further requires a license. Twine charges on a per attendee basis, where customers buy packs of attendees on a software-as-a-service model.

The company’s customers can then embed twine directly in their own website or add a link that pops open the twine website in a separate browser tab.

Coburn says twine has found a sweet spot with big corporate event programs. The company has around 25 customers, but some of those have already used twine for 10 or 15 events after first testing out the product for something smaller.

“We’re working with five or six of the biggest companies in the world right now,” noted Coburn.

Image Credits: twine

Because the matches are digital, twine can offer other tools like digital “business card” exchanges and analytics and reports for the event hosts and attendees alike.

Despite the cautious return to normal in the U.S., which may see in-person events return in the year ahead, twine believes there’s still a future in online events. Due to the pandemic’s lasting impacts, organizations are likely to adopt a hybrid approach to their events going forward.

“I don’t think there’s ever been an industry that has gone through a 15 months like the events industry just went through,” Coburn says. “These companies went to zero, their revenue went to zero and some of them were coming from hundreds of millions of dollars. So what happened was a digital transformation like the world has never seen,” he adds.

Now, there are tens of thousands of event planners who have gotten really good at tech and online events. And they saw the potential in online, which would sometimes deliver 4x or 5x the attendance of virtual, Coburn points out.

“This is why you see LinkedIn drop $50 million on Hopin,” he says, referring to the recent fundraise for the virtual conference technology business. (The deal was reportedly for less than $50 million). “This is why you see the rounds of funding that are going into Hoppin and Bizzabo and Hubilo and all the others. This is the taxi market, pre-Uber.”

Of course, virtual events may end up less concerned with social features when they can offer an in-person experience. And those who want to host online events may be looking for a broader solution than Zoom + twine, for example.

But twine has ideas about what it wants to do next, including asynchronous matchmaking, which could end up being more valuable as it could lead to better matches since it wouldn’t be limited to only who’s online now.

With the funding, twine is hiring in sales and customer success, working on accessibility improvements, and expanding its platform. To date, twine has raised $4.7 million.

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