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The future of social networks might be audio

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Every morning, as Nandita Mohan sifts through her emails, her college pals are in her ear — recounting their day, reminiscing, reflecting on what it’s like to have graduated in the throes of a pandemic.

Mohan isn’t on the phone, nor is she listening to an especially personal podcast; she’s using Cappuccino, an app that takes voice recordings from a closed group of friends or family and delivers them as downloadable audio.

“Just hearing all of us makes me value our friendship, and hearing their voices is a gamechanger,” the 23-year-old Bay Area software programmer says. 

Audio messaging has been available for years; voice memos on WhatsApp are especially big in India and WeChat audio messages are popular in China. And the pandemic’s social distancing has made voice memos a easy way for people to stay in touch while bypassing Zoom fatigue. But now a new wave of hip apps are baking the immediacy and rawness of audio into the core experience, making voice the way in which people connect again. From phone calls, to messaging, and back to audio—the way we use our phones may be coming full circle.

The newcomers

The best -known audio-focused network is Clubhouse, the buzzy, invite-only app that debuted to glowing reviews for its talkshow-like twist on the chatrooms of the early internet, making it akin to dropping in on an (online) party conversation.

But Clubhouse’s promise was shattered by its lack of moderation and the unfettered chatter of misogynistic venture capitalists. New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz, once a fan of the app, was subject to harassment in Clubhouse sessions for calling out one VC’s behavior.

“I don’t plan on opening the app again,” Lorenz told Wired. “I don’t want to support any network that doesn’t take user safety seriously.” Her  experience wasn’t a one-off and since then darker, racist elements have appeared, suggesting the behavior that mars every other social platform also exists beneath Clubhouse’s exclusive, cool veneer.  

Gaming chat app Discord, meanwhile, has exploded during the pandemic. The service utilizes voice over IP software to translate spoken chat into text (an idea that came from video gamers who found typing while also playing impossible).  In June, to tap into people’s need for connection during the pandemic, Discord announced a new slogan—“Your place to talk” — and efforts to make the service appear less gamer-centric. The marketing push seems to have worked: By October, Discord estimated 6.7 million users — up from 1.4 million In February, just before the pandemic hit.

But while Discord’s communities, or “servers,” can be as small and innocent as kids organizing remote-but-simultaneous sleepovers they have also included far-right extremists who have used the service to organize the Charlottesville white supremacist rallies and the recent insurrection at the US Capitol.

In both Discord and Clubhouse, the in-group culture — nerdy gamers in Discord’s case, over-confident venture capitalists for Clubhouse — have led to instances of groupthink that can be, at best, off-putting, and at worst, bigoted. Yet there’s still an appeal to both: Isn’t it cool to talk and literally be heard? After all, that’s the foundational promise of social media: democratization of voice.

Speak and you shall be heard

The intimacy of voice makes audio social media that much more appealing in the age of pandemic social distancing and isolation. Jimi Tele, the CEO of Chekmate, a “text-free” dating app that connects users through only voice and video, says that the intimacy of voice inspired him to launch the app that would be “catfish-proof,” referring to people deceiving others online with fake profiles.

“We wanted to break away from the anonymity and gamification that texting allows and instead create a community rooted in authenticity where users are encouraged to be themselves without judgment,” Tele says. The app’s users start voice memos that average at five seconds, then get progressively longer. And while Chekmate has a video option, Tele says that the app’s several thousand users overwhelmingly favor using their voices. “They are perceived as less intimidating [than video messages],” he says.

This immediacy and authenticity is the reason why Gilles Poupardin created Cappuccino. He wondered why there wasn’t already a product that gathered voice memos together into a single downloadable file. “Everyone has a group chat with friends,” he says. “But what if you could hear your friends? That’s really powerful.”

Mohan agrees. She says that her group of friends switched to Cappuccino from a Facebook messenger chat group, then tried Zoom calls early on in the pandemic. But the discussions would inevitably circle into a highlights reel of big events. “There was no time for details,” she laments. The daily Cappuccino “beans,” as the stitched-together recordings are called, let Mohan’s friend circle keep up to date in a very intimate way — “My one friend is moving to a new apartment in a new city, and she was just talking about how she goes to get coffee in her kitchen,” Mohan says. “That’s something I would never know in a Zoom call, because it’s so small.”

Even legacy social media firms are getting in on the act. In the summer of 2020 Twitter launched voice tweets, 140 seconds of audio, that it dubbed Spaces.

“We were interested in whether audio could add an additional layer of connection to the public conversation,” says Rémy Bourgoin, senior software engineer on Twitter’s voice tweets and Spaces team.

Bourgoin says that the vision is for Spaces to be “as intimate and comfortable as attending a well-hosted dinner party. You don’t need to know everyone there to have a good time, but you should feel comfortable sitting at the table.”

You may have snorted in disbelief reading that Twitter wants to create a space that is “comfortable” and “intimate.” After all, Twitter doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record in creating an online environment that is welcoming and protects vulnerable users from abuse. 

Bourgoin says the group is moving slowly on purpose before releasing Spaces beyond beta and a small group of users, even going so far as to include captioning — a rare accessibility feature on audio networks. “Right now, Spaces can be reported by anyone who is in the Space,” Bourgoin says. “Reports will be reviewed by our team, who will evaluate for violations of the Twitter Rules.”

The ugliness

Ah, moderation. Content moderation on audio is far more difficult than text. Searchable text and automoderators have been used to some success, but human moderators seems to be the most thorough way to block people who don’t abide by community rules — which puts human beings at risk. For platforms where people can jump in at any time and chat, the very democratized medium that makes audio attractive creates a nightmare in moderation. “That’s definitely a huge challenge with any user-generated platform,” says Austin Petersmith, who launched Capiche.fm in beta last year, a site that launched out of a software community that is a bit like a call-in radio show: hosts call each other to start the show, then invite listeners to chime in while they’re “on-air.” 

As users of Clubhouse have learned, voice-only spaces can quickly get ugly just like anywhere else on the internet. People who already suffer from online abuse in text form — marginalized, female or non-binary, non-white, and/or younger — are unlikely to want to make the leap to a place where they can now be abused in a different, harder to police, format. 

There’s also reason to believe these less regulated, newer platforms will be attractive to the hundreds of disaffected, far-right conspiracy-minded extremists and QAnon believers, who are now creating their own podcast networks.

But still, these audio social networks seem to offer something that traditional social media cannot. One of the format’s main benefits is it gives users the immediate connection of a voice or video call but on their own terms. Phone calls — and Zoom calls, for that matter — require some planning. But audio social media is something that can be created and digested at your own convenience in a way that news alerts, notifications, and doomscrolling don’t allow. As Mohan, who listens to her friends every morning says of Cappuccino: “It engages me and forces me to listen more carefully as each person is talking. I even take notes of things I want to respond to and say.”

For Mohan, the recordings from her circle of five friends have become a beloved ritual, allowing her to catch up with her friends at her own pace. “Every day, in the middle of my work day, I’ll record my Cappuccino,” she says, referring to the recording she makes on the app. “It feels really personal. I’m hearing all their voices and I feel on top of what they [her friends] are doing in their day to day.”

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

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Freemium isn’t a trend — it’s the future of SaaS

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As the COVID-19 lockdowns cascaded around the world last spring, companies large and small saw demand slow to a halt seemingly overnight. Enterprises weren’t comfortable making big, long-term commitments when they had no clue what the future would hold.

Innovative SaaS companies responded quickly by making their products available for free or at a steep discount to boost demand.

While Zoom gets all the attention, there were hundreds of free SaaS tools to help folks through the pandemic. Pluralsight ran a #FreeApril campaign, offering free access to its platform for all of April. Cloudflare made its Teams product free from March until September 1, 2020. GitHub went free for teams in April and slashed the price of its paid Team plan.

A selection of new free, free trial and low-priced offerings from leading SaaS companies. Image Credits: Kyle Poyar/OpenView.

The free products were aimed squarely at end users — whether it be a developer, individual marketer, sales rep or someone else at the edge of an organization. These end users were stuck at home during the pandemic, yet they desperately needed software to power their working lives.

End users prefer to do the vast majority of their research online before ever talking to a sales rep, making free products the ideal way to reach them.

End users prefer to do the vast majority of their research online before ever talking to a sales rep, making free products the ideal way to reach them. Many end users want to jump straight into a product, no hassle or credit card or budget approval required.

After they’ve set up an account and customized it for their workflow, end users have essentially already made a purchase decision with their time — all without ever feeling like they were in an active buying cycle.

An end user-focused free offering became an essential SaaS survival strategy in 2020.

But these free offerings didn’t go away as lockdowns loosened up. SaaS companies instead doubled down on freemium because they realized that doing so had a real and positive impact on their business. In doing so, they busted the outdated myths that have held 82% of SaaS companies back from offering their own free plan.

Myth: A free offering will cannibalize paying customers

GoDaddy is a digital behemoth, known for being a ’90s-era pioneer in web domains as well as for their controversial Super Bowl ads. The company has steadily diversified into business software, now generating roughly $700 million in ARR from its business applications segment and reaching millions of paying customers. There are very few businesses that would see greater potential revenue cannibalization from launching a free product than GoDaddy.

But GoDaddy didn’t let fear stop them from testing freemium when lockdowns set in. Freemium started out as a small-scale experiment in spring 2020 for the websites and marketing product. GoDaddy has since increased the experiment to 50% of U.S. website traffic, with plans to scale to 100% of U.S. traffic and open availability to other markets in 2021.

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Metafy adds $5.5M to its seed round as the market for games coaching grows

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This morning Metafy, a distributed startup building a marketplace to match gamers with instructors, announced that it has closed an additional $5.5 million to its $3.15 million seed round. Call it a seed-2, seed-extension or merely a baby Series A; Forerunner Ventures, DCM and Seven Seven Six led the round as a trio.

Metafy’s model is catching on with its market. According to its CEO Josh Fabian, the company has grown from incorporation to gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $76,000 in around nine months. That’s quick.

The startup is building in public, so we have its raw data to share. Via Fabian, here’s how Metafy has grown since its birth:

From the company. As a small tip, if you want the media to care about your startup’s growth rate, share like this!

When TechCrunch first caught wind of Metafy via prior seed investor M25, we presumed that it was a marketplace that was built to allow esports pros and other highly capable gamers teach esports-hopefuls get better at their chosen title. That’s not the case.

Don’t think of Metafy as a marketplace where you can hire a former professional League of Legends player to help improve your laning-phase AD carry mechanics. Though that might come in time. Today a full 0% of the company’s current GMV comes from esports titles. Instead, the company is pursuing games with strong niche followings, what Fabian described as “vibrant, loyal communities.” Like Super Smash Brothers, its leading game today in terms of GMV generated.

Why pursue those titles instead of the most competitive games? Metafy’s CEO explained that his startup has a particular take on its market — that it focuses on coaches as its core customer, over trainees. This allows the startup to focus on its mission of making coaching a full-time gig, or at least one that pays well enough to matter. By doing so, Metafy has cut its need for marketing spend, because the coaches that it onboards bring their own audience. This is where the company is targeting games with super-dedicated user bases, like Smash. They fit well into its build for coaches, onboard coaches, coaches bring their fans, GMV is generated model.

Metafy has big plans, which brings us back to its recent raise. Fabian told TechCrunch any game with a skill curve could wind up on Metafy. Think chess, poker or other games that can be played digitally. To build toward that future, Metafy decided to take on more capital so that it could grow its team.

So what does its $5.5 million unlock for the startup? Per its CEO, Metafy is currently a team of 18 with a monthly burn rate of around $80,000. He wants it to grow to 30 folks, with nearly all of its new hires going into its product org, broadly.

TechCrunch’s perspective is that gaming is not becoming mainstream, but that it has already done so. Building for the gaming world, then, makes good sense, as tools like Metafy won’t suffer from the same boom/bust cycles that can plague game developers. Especially as the startup becomes more diversified in its title base.

Normally we’d close by noting that we’ll get back in touch with the company in a few quarters to see how it’s getting on in growth terms. But because it’s sharing that data publicly, we’ll simply keep reading. More when we have a few months’ more data to chew on.

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Snap to launch a new Creator Marketplace this month, initially focused on Lens Creators

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Snap on Wednesday announced its plan to soon launch a Creator Marketplace, which will make it easier for businesses to find and partner with Snapchat creators, including Lens creators, AR creators and later, prominent Snapchat creators known as Snap Stars. At launch, the marketplace will focus on connecting brands and AR creators for AR ads. It will then expand to support all Snap Creators by 2022.

The company had previously helped connect its creator community with advertisers through its Snapchat Storytellers program, which first launched into pilot testing in 2018 — already a late arrival to the space. However, that program’s focus was similar to Facebook’s Brand Collabs Manager, as it focused on helping businesses find Snap creators who could produce video content.

Snap’s new marketplace, meanwhile, has a broader focus in terms of connecting all sorts of creators with the Snap advertising ecosystem. This includes Lens Creators, Developers and Partners, and then later, Snap’s popular creators with public profiles.

Snap says the Creator Marketplace will open to businesses later this month to help them partner with a select group of AR Creators in Snap’s Lens Network. These creators can help businesses build AR experiences without the need for extensive creative resources, which makes access to Snap’s AR ads more accessible to businesses, including smaller businesses without in-house developer talent.

Lens creators have already found opportunity working for businesses that want to grow their Snapchat presence — even allowing some creators to quit their day jobs and just build Lenses for a living. Snap has been further investing in this area of its business, having announced in December a $3.5 million fund directed toward AR Lens creation. The company said at the time there were tens of thousands of Lens creators who had collectively made over 1.5 million Lenses to date.

Using Lenses has grown more popular, too, the company had noted, saying that more than 180 million people interact with a Snapchat Lens every day — up from 70 million daily active users of Lenses when the Lens Explorer section first launched in the app in 2018.

Now, Snap says that over 200 million Snapchat users interact with augmented reality on a daily basis, on average, out of its 280 million daily users. The majority (over 90%) of these users are 13 to 25-year-olds. In total, users are posting over 5 billion Snaps per day.

Snap says the Creator Marketplace will remain focused on connecting businesses with AR Lens Creators throughout 2021.

The following year, it will expand to include the community of professional creators and storytellers who understand the current trends and interests of the Snap user base and can help businesses with their ad campaigns. The company will not take a cut of the deals facilitated through the Marketplace, it says.

This would include the creators making content for Snap’s new TikTok rival, Spotlight, which launched in November 2020. Snap encouraged adoption of the feature by shelling out $1 million per day to creators of top videos. In March 2021, over 125 million Snapchat users watched Spotlight, it says.

Image Credits: Snapchat

Spotlight isn’t the only way Snap is challenging TikTok.

The company also on Wednesday announced it’s snagging two of TikTok’s biggest stars for its upcoming Snap Originals lineup: Charli and Dixie D’Amelio. The siblings, who have gained over 20 million follows on Snapchat this past year, will star in the series “Charli vs. Dixie.” Other new Originals will feature names like artist Megan Thee Stallion, actor Ryan Reynolds, twins and influencers Niki and Gabi DeMartino, and YouTube beauty vlogger Manny Mua, among others.

Snap’s shows were watched by over 400 million people in 2020, including 93% of the Gen Z population in the U.S., it noted.

 

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