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Week in Review: Venture-backed loneliness

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Hello everyone and welcome back to Week in Review! Natasha here, subbing in for Lucas while he’s out. This week, we’ll talk about loneliness raising money and how Zoom fatigue is fueling innovation.

For everyone celebrating, happy holidays! Keep on the lookout next week for more festive content, including the launch of our annual TechCrunch Gift Guides.

If you’re reading this on TechCrunch, you can sign up to get this in your inbox.

The big story

Over the last month, I spent time working out of virtual HQs. Dozens of founders are using spatial technology and gamification to create online worlds. Consumers are invited to congregate and create some of the spontaneity of in-person events, such as the work day or weddings. Founders are testing if the metaverse can be brought into the mainstream. After tossing a few succulents around myself, I was impressed (especially as a non-gamer) over how intuitive the platform felt. It feels special to bump into someone in 2020.

You can read more of my story here, which includes a demo video and pictures to give you a feel for the space. For today, though, I want to talk about what I think the rise of virtual HQs is not-so-subtly telling us.

Founders are trying to disrupt loneliness in this chapter of the coronavirus pandemic. There’s a shift in what the technology at its core is trying to fix, and it’s a little dynamic called Zoom fatigue.

For example, in March, we saw startups race to try to bring remote work to the masses. Now, in November, we’re seeing startups race to fix the broken, fatigued world of remote work.

The issue here, I think, is that founders are trying to innovate a solution to a lack of spontaneity and togetherness in our lives. Spontaneity, by definition, cannot be forced. And the community will always feel different in person. These inherent clashes make us, or at least me, question what technology’s constraints are. That said, virtual event platform Hopin and its $2 billion valuation shuts me right up.

Still, as we see startups chase to fix the next big pain point that everyone can agree on, it will be important to track what’s a venture-backable problem, and what’s a more existential one.

The round up

A White House in transition 

It’s been a busy week for a shifting White House and big tech. President Trump fired U.S. cybersecurity official Chris Krebs for debunking false election claims. Meanwhile, two platforms that have fed fires of misinformation, Facebook and Twitter, had yet another testimony in front of Congress. Big tech will likely continue to face backlash when the Biden Administration takes lead, especially when it comes to antitrust regulation. However, it’s not all bad news for tech: President-elect Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan and tech-friendly transition team could help out startups. More here.

The race for a COVID-19 vaccine

This week, Pfizer and BioNTech sought emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its COVID-19 vaccine, which is 95% effective. The news follows Moderna’s report that its vaccine is 94.5% effective. While proposed approval could get vaccines in the hands of high-risk populations, wide-spread vaccines likely won’t be available until 2021. Keep reading here.

Apple’s latest Intel

As my colleague Brian Heater puts it, “every refresh can’t be a revolution” in hardware product updates. That said, Apple’s latest trio of Macs has impressed. We have reviews on the Mac mini, Macbook Air, and MacBook Pro. Notably, the line is powered by Mac’s in-house microchips, pushing an effort that has been in the works since 2008. It’s a win for Apple, and loss for Intel, which had until now been powering Macs. Still, Intel seems to be taking its break-up with Apple alright, since announcing its own white-label laptop.

TC: Sessions Space is approaching fast

NASA and SpaceX successfully launched four astronauts — and a special guest — into space for their first operational Dragon Crew Mission. History has been made – which makes our upcoming event even more exciting and timely. This year, TechCrunch is hosting its first-ever dedicated space event on December 16 and 17. The TC: Sessions Space agenda is packed, and includes fireside chats with the head of the US Space Force, NASA executives and more. Get your tickets now.

Other stories

Thanks for reading,

Natasha

 

 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Facebook’s latest ad tool fail puts another dent in its reputation

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Reset yer counters: Facebook has had to ‘fess up to yet another major ad reporting fail.

This one looks like it could be costly for the tech giant to put right — not least because it’s another dent in its reputation for self reporting. (For past Facebook ad metric errors check out our reports from 2016 here, here, here and here.)

AdExchanger reported on the code error last week with Facebook’s free ‘conversion lift’ tool which it said affected several thousand advertisers.

The discovery of the flaw has since led the tech giant to offer some advertisers millions of dollars in credits, per reports this week, to compensate for miscalculating the number of sales derived from ad impressions (which is, in turn, likely to have influenced how much advertisers spent on its digital snake oil).

According to an AdAge report yesterday, which quotes industry sources, the level of compensation Facebook is offering varies depending on the advertiser’s spend — but in some instances the mistake means advertisers are being given coupons worth tens of millions of dollars.

The issue with the tool went unfixed for as long as 12 months, with the problem persisting between August 2019 and August 2020, according to reports.

The Wall Street Journal says Facebook quietly told advertisers this month about the technical problem with its calculation of the efficacy of their ad campaigns, skewing data advertisers use to determine how much to spend on its platform.

One digital agency source told the WSJ the issue particularly affects certain categories such as retail where marketers have this year increased spending on Facebook and similar channels by up to 5% or 10% to try to recover business lost during the early stages of the pandemic.

Another of its industry sources pointed out the issue affects not just media advertisers but the tech giant’s competitors — since the tool could influence where marketers chose to spend budget, so whether they spend on Facebook’s platform or elsewhere.

Last week the tech giant told AdExchanger that the bug was fixed on September 1, saying then that it was “working with impacted advertisers”.

In a subsequent statement a company spokesperson told us: “While making improvements to our measurement products, we found a technical issue that impacted some conversion lift tests. We’ve fixed this and are working with advertisers that have impacted studies.”

Facebook did not respond to a request to confirm whether some impacted advertisers are being offered millions of dollars worth of ad vouchers to rectify its code error.

It did confirm it’s offering one-time credits to advertisers who have been ‘meaningfully’ impacted by the issue with the (non-billable) metric, adding that the impact is on a case by case basis, depending on how the tool was used.

Nor did it confirm how many advertisers had impacted studies as a result of the year long technical glitch — claiming it’s a small number.

While the tech giant can continue to run its own reporting systems for b2b customers free from external oversight for now, regulating the fairness and transparency of powerful Internet platforms which other businesses depend upon for market access and reach is a key aim of a major forthcoming digital services legislative overhaul in the European Union.

Under the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act plan, the European Commission has said tech giants will be required to open up their algorithms to public oversight bodies — and will also be subject to binding transparency rules. So the clock may be ticking for Facebook’s self-serving self-reporting.

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Thanksgiving on track for a record $6B in US online sales, says Adobe

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As people prepare and eat their Thanksgiving meals, or just “work” on relaxing for the day, some consumers are going online to get a jump on holiday shopping deals. Adobe, which is following online sales in real time at 80 of the top 100 retailers in the US, covering some 100 million SKUs, says that initial figures indicate that we are on track to break $6 billion in e-commerce sales for Thanksgiving Day. Overall, it believes consumers will spend $189.1 billion shopping online this year.

To put that figure into some context, the overall holiday sales season represents a 33.1% jump on 2019. And last year Adobe said shoppers spent $4.2 billion online on Thanksgiving: this years’s numbers represent a jump of 42.3%. And leading up to today, each day this week had sales of more than $3 billion.

What’s going on? The figures are a hopefully encouraging sign that despite some of the economic declines of 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, retailers will at least be able to make up for some of their losses in the next couple of months, traditionally the most important period for sales.

As we have been reporting over the last several months, overall, 2020 has been a high watermark year for e-commerce, with the bigger trend of more browsing and shopping online — which has been growing for years — getting a notable boost from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The push for more social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus has driven many to stay away from crowded places like stores, and it has forced us to stay at home, where we have turned to the internet to get things done.

These trends are not only seeing those already familiar with online shopping spending more. It’s also introducing a new category of shoppers to that platform. Adobe said that so far this week, 9% of all sales have been “generated by net new customers as traditional brick-and-mortar shoppers turn online to complete transactions in light of shop closures and efforts to avoid virus transmission through in-person contact.”

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has traditionally been marked as the start of holiday shopping, but the growth of e-commerce has given more prominence to Thanksgiving Day, when physical stores are closed and many of us are milling about the house possibly with not much to do. This year seems to be following through on that trend.

“Families have many traditions during the holidays. Travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and fear of spreading the virus are, however, preventing Americans from enjoying so many of them. Shopping online is one festive habit that can be maintained online and sales figures are showcasing that gifting remains a much beloved tradition this year,” said Taylor Schreiner, Director, Adobe Digital Insights, in a statement.

(That’s not to say that Black Friday won’t be big: Adobe predicts that it will break $10.3 billion in sales online this year.)

Some drilling down into what is selling:

Adobe said that board games and other categories that “bring the focus on family” are seeing a strong surge, with sales up five times over last year.

Similarly — in keeping with how much we are all shopping for groceries online now — grocery sales in the last week were up a whopping 596% compared to October, as people stocked up for the long weekend (whether or not, it seems, it was being spent with family).

Other top items include Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Just Dance 2021, as well as vTech toys and Rainbow High Dolls.

Amazon’s announcement this week that it would be offering more options for delivery this season speaks to how e-commerce is growing beyond simple home delivery, and how this has become a key part of how retailers are differentiating their businesses from each other. Curbside pickup has grown by 116% over last year this week, and expedited shipping is up 49%. 

Smartphones are going to figure strong once more too. Adobe said $25.5 billion has been spent via smartphones in November to date (up 48% over 2019), accounting for 38.6% of all e-commerce sales.

In the US big retailers continue to dominate how people shop, with the likes of Walmart, Target Amazon and others pulling in more than $1 billion in revenue annually collectively seeing their sales go up 147% since October. Part of the reason: more sophisticated websites, with conversion rates 100% higher than those of smaller businesses. (That leaves a big opening for companies that can build tools to help smaller businesses compete better on this front.)

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AstraZeneca says it will likely do another study of COVID-19 vaccine after accidental lower dose shows higher efficacy

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AstraZeneca’s CEO told Bloomberg that the pharmaceutical company will likely conduct another global trial of the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine trial, following the disclosure that the more effective dosage in the existing Phase 3 clinical trial was actually administered by accident. AstraZeneca and its partner the University of Oxford reported interim results that showed 62% efficacy for a full two-dose regimen, and a 90% efficacy rate for a half-dose followed by a full dose – which the scientists developing the drug later acknowledged was actually just an accidental administration of what was supposed to be two full doses.

To be clear, this shouldn’t dampen anyone’s optimism about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The results are still very promising, and an additional trial is being done only to ensure that what was seen as a result of the accidental half-dosage is actually borne out when the vaccine is administered that way intentionally. That said, this could extend the amount of time that it takes for the Oxford vaccine to be approved in the U.S., since this will proceed ahead of a planned U.S. trial that would be required for the FDA to approve it for use domestically.

The Oxford vaccine’s rollout to the rest of the world likely won’t be affected, according to AstraZeneca’s CEO, since the studies that have been conducted, including safety data, are already in place from participants around the world outside of the U.S.

While vaccine candidates from Moderna and Pfizer have also shown very strong efficacy in early Phase 3 data, hopes are riding high on the AstraZeneca version because it relies on a different technology, can be stored and transported at standard refrigerator temperatures rather than frozen, and costs just a fraction per dose compared to the other two leading vaccines in development.

That makes it an incredibly valuable resource for global inoculation programs, including distribution where cost and transportation infrastructures are major concerns.

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