Author: Ingrid Lunden

LinkedIn debuts LinkedIn Live, a new live video broadcast service

LinkedIn — the social network for the working world with close to 600 million users globally — says that video is the fastest-growing format on its platform alongside original written work, shared news and other content. Now it’s taking its next step in the medium in earnest.

Today, the company is launching live video, giving people and organizations the ability to broadcast real-time video to select groups, or to the LinkedIn world at large.

Launching in beta first in the US, LinkedIn Live (as the product is called) will be invite-only. In coming weeks, LinkedIn will also post a contact form for others who want to get in on the action. It’s not clear when and if LinkedIn will make it possible for everyone to create LinkedIn Live videos, but if you consider how it developed its publishing features for written work, that will come later. too.

Initial live content that LinkedIn hopes to broadcast lines up with the kind of subject matter you might already see in LinkedIn’s news feed: the plan is to cover conferences, product announcements, Q&As and other events led by influencers and mentors, office hours from a big tech company, earnings calls, graduation and awards ceremonies, and more.

And to underscore how LinkedIn is keen to develop this — especially in its first phase — not as rough-and-ready user-generated content, but as streams of the kinds of videos that fit with its wider ethos, it has selected several third-party developers of live broadcasting streaming services that creators will work with to create and post more polished live video on LinkedIn.

These include Wirecast, Switcher Studio, Wowza Media Systems, Socialive, and Brandlive, “with more to come in the following weeks,” LinkedIn said.

There is another technical partner for LinkedIn’s live video effort, too: Microsoft, whose Azure Media Services, part of its cloud division, is providing encoding. Although Microsoft acquired LinkedIn in 2016, it’s mostly kept a distance in terms of knitting together product development between the two, so this is a notable exception. Skype, incidentally, is not part of this video effort.

Better late than never?

Compared to its competitors in the social networking sphere, LinkedIn has been a late bloomer when it comes to video.

Amid developments from competitors like Twitter and Facebook going back years to bring more engagement to its platforms with the use of moving pictures, the Microsoft-owned LinkedIn introduced its first native video features only in the summer of 2017.

But in the 17 months since launching video features, LinkedIn has seen a big boost in traffic and revenues from (non-live) video on its platform.

“Video is the fastest growing format on our platform right now, and the one most likely to get people talking,” said Pete Davies, the head of consumer products at LinkedIn. He and LinkedIn declined to give specific figures in terms of how many video creators or viewers there are, except to note that “millions” of LinkedIn members have used the feature.

Davies said that live video has been a big request — not least, I’d wager, because it is such a prominent part of how video is being used on other social platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, putting the functionality front of mind.

“Live has been the most requested feature,” he said. These other social platforms are serving as a template of sorts: as with these other platforms, users can “like” videos as they are being broadcast, with the likes floating along the screen. Viewers can ask questions or make suggestions in the comments in real-time. Hosts can moderate those comments in real-time, too, to remove harassing or other messages, Davies added.

There may be another reason beyond user requests for why LinkedIn is expanding video: it’s proving to be a strong engine for engagement and revenue growth at the company.

So far, the only monetization that LinkedIn has introduced around video is for video advertising. While Microsoft does not break out how much LinkedIn brings in in advertising revenues, much less video advertising, Microsoft reported in its last quarterly earnings that revenues at LinkedIn were up 29 percent with a reference to growing its ads business specifically: “with record levels of engagement highlighted by LinkedIn sessions growth of 30 percent.”

That it seems, is directly coming from its video products: LinkedIn tells me that video ads earn 30 percent more comments per impression than non-video ads and that LinkedIn members spend almost 3 times more time watching video ads compared to time spent with static Sponsored Content.

With LinkedIn looking at tapping into unique content with LinkedIn Live, there is a clear opportunity for the company to explore other ways of monetizing the content beyond ads. For example, it could charge viewers for unique experiences like conferences, or make certain Live events part of the company’s paid tier to lure in more premium subscribers. On the part of the broadcasters, it could potentially provide fee-based services to provide a platform to broadcast certain content like video-based earnings reports.

LinkedIn wouldn’t comment on future monetization plans and for now isn’t even putting in video ads into LinkedIn Live videos. “That will come down the road but for right now we are focused on awesome use cases,” said Peter Roybal, head of video product management, in an interview. “This could even be a way to try out some new ideas.”

Twitter Q4 beats on sales of $909M and EPS of $0.33, but MAUs slump to just 321M

After strong results from Facebook and Snap this quarter, all eyes were on Twitter to see if the other big, publicly listed social network could deliver a hat trick of growth. If we judged the company on financials alone, Twitter did not disappoint.

The company reported Q4 revenues of $909 million (up 24 percent on a year ago) and diluted earnings per share of $0.33 with a net income of $244 million. On average, analysts had been expecting revenues of $859.5 million on an EPS of $0.25.

However, Twitter’s achilles heel remains user growth. It has now slumped to 321 million monthly active users, falling short even of estimates that were expecting a decline. Shares are equally slumping in pre-market trading, down more than seven percent so far.

The overall picture may have also not been helped by weak guidance. The company said it expects Q1 revenues to be between just $715 million and $775 million, with operating income between $5 million and $35 million. Even with Q1 seasonal declines, this is a big drop from Q4, also a jump up on financials from a year ago. Twitter estimated that capex for 2019 would be between $550 million and $600 million, which makes one wonder if it has some acquisitions in mind, too.

Twitter’s Q4 MAUs are a decrease of 9 million year-over-year and a down 5 million on last quarter with declines both in the US as well as international markets.

Twitter said the decline was partly due to three areas: “product changes that reduced the number of email notifications sent, as well as decisions we have made to prioritize the health of the service and not move to paid SMS carrier relationships in certain markets, and, to a lesser extent, changes we made to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe.”

The company will stop giving MAU numbers after the next quarter, which is one way of shifting the ongoing decline out of the forefront of the conversation.

Advertising revenues were $791 million, accounting for 87 percent of the company’s revenues (more on these below). “Monetizeable daily active users” are now at 126 million up from 124 million in the previous quarter.

To put user growth into some context, Twitter has long-standing issues with user growth that even predate the company going public. In many quarters — such as last quarter, when it also beat estimates on revenues of $758 million and earnings per share of 21 cents; and a year ago, when it also crushed financials but fell on subscriber growth — user numbers, specifically monthly active users, have remained flat or even shrunk.

(Even analysts factor in declines in their own estimates. They had been expecting 324 million monthly active users in Q4, according to a poll from Bloomberg, down from 326 million in Q3.)

Some of Twitter’s challenges on the user-number front have included the fact that despite its almost addictive popularity with some people, a strong showing from very high profile figures “speaking to the people” on Twitter, and the fact that it’s become a go-to for the media both to source news as well as broadcast — the real-time aspect of the feed lends itself well to all of these — it has been hard for it to find that groove with everyone.

Especially for many later adopting, newer users Twitter has proven to be confusing or too much work to use. That’s led to the company regularly tweaking the service to try to make it more user-friendly, with the latest move being that the company is planning a “beta” app to run multiple experiments simultaneously on a live audience receptive to seeing those and giving feedback.

As with Snap’s Snapchat, Twitter has worked to mitigate those numbers another way, too: by focusing and asking others to focus on daily active over monthly active users. That will become an official policy soon: after Q1 it will stop giving out MAU numbers at all.

So why do user numbers ultimately matter? The general thinking goes that, in a business based around advertising and user data, as Twitter is, the larger audience you have the more revenue you can make off them as a product — a turn that Google and Facebook have made to great effect.

So it’s interesting that despite Twitter’s issues with user growth, the company has been coming up trumps (sorry) with its business model, specifically initiatives around advertising and marketing and figuring out more clever ways of targeting those who are on there.

Its ad revenues were up 23 percent, and Twitter said that new formats around video media are in particular showing strong results. Video accounted for more than half of Twitter’s ad revenues in the quarter and for all of 2018.

For any ad-based business — and any investor or analyst of those ad-based businesses — a focus not on volume but on the quality of the audience is an interesting trend and it will be interesting to continue watching how that develops longer term, even if it’s not a trend that’s particularly benefitting Twitter’s own share price at the moment.

Less strong this quarter were the company’s various enterprise efforts. The company said that data licensing and other revenue totalled $117 million, an increase of 35 percent but still a small proportion of overall revenues. 

Facebook’s strong results this quarter came at the same time that the company has been weathering a ton of bad publicity around how its platform has been exploited (seemingly with little resistance from Facebook) to manipulate democratic processes, and how Facebook itself has been exploiting users to extract more data to help it build products.

The fact that one (financials) do not seem to be impacted by the other (bad PR) raises a lot of questions: does the public really not care about all these things, or will the commercial ramifications come down the line as a delayed reaction?

It’s not clear how it will play out, but regardless, Facebook has been taking measures to try to set things aright, both in terms of hiring more people to “fix” some of these issues, and also to reorient its whole staff to prioritise cleaning up the platform both when planning for future products, and in their daily work.

I mention all this because Twitter dedicated some time in its earnings to highlighting how it has been battling abuse. This has been one of the company’s biggest points of criticism from users, both as observers and as first-hand recipients of harassment.

Twitter noted that there has been a 16 percent year-over-year decrease in abuse reports. And it highlighted how it has improved security, updated rules for hateful conduct, and ramped up monitoring “behavior-based signals” to better manage what Tweets are viewed. 

As with Facebook, it’s really not clear yet how this effort, or the frustrating and dangerous presence of trolls, will longer-term have an impact on the company’s bottom line, but we at least have one proof point of the negative impact: it has apparently affected how Twitter was viewed once as an acquisition target. More generally, unless you are a ruthless monster, there is an argument to be made to fix it regardless, because that is just the right thing to do. And that is what Twitter is trying to do.

It said that it will also focus on this in 2019, with a “more proactive approach to reducing abuse and its effects on Twitter, with the goal of reducing the burden on victims of abuse and, where possible, taking action before abuse is reported.” Specifically, it said it would focus on abuse that could cause severe or immediate harm; and a better sign-up process to screen for bad actors.”

Twitter noted that revenue for 2018 exceeded $3 billion, up 25 percent (24 percent on a constant currency basis). It noted that TellApart contributed $45 million of revenue in the first three quarters of 2017 but was “fully deprecated” in Q4’17, total revenue grew 27%. It also noted that 2018 was the company’s first year of GAAP profitability, with net income of $1.2 billion, representing a net margin of 40 percent.

As Clegg appears in Brussels, Facebook tightens controls on political ads, opens Dublin control center ahead of European elections

Facebook continues to feel the heat over its role in how people communicate — and more importantly, miscommunicate — globally, so today in Europe it redoubled its efforts to counter critics by rolling out new controls specifically around election misinformation ahead of European Parliament elections this spring.

It unveiled its latest efforts to fight “fake news”, with a new system of controls around the placement of political ads, as well as a new set of human-staffed operations centers in Dublin and Singapore to monitor how localised political news is distributed on the social network — both coming in March. Then, to coincide with the new efforts, it presented its new head of global communications — Nick Clegg, a former politician — in his first public speech since taking office.

The bigger hope for Facebook is that today’s two developments will be viewed as evidence that it is making active efforts to set things aright after a series of moves that have soured people’s opinions of the social network. Facebook continues to see a lot of scrutiny in the region over how it has handled its WhatsApp acquisition, its role in the Brexit referendum, larger privacy violations and more, and as it continues to grow, the concern for Facebook is that it could start to see regulatory actions that could curtail growth longer term.

The political ad checks that Facebook announced today will see the company launch tools to improve transparency around political ads. Those buying ads will see more scrutiny about their backgrounds, to make sure they are authorized to purchase ads.

Then for every ad that does get placed, users can click on them to find out more about the company or organization making the posting, including about the budget and demographics about the reach of the ad. All of this will be kept in a library that will also be searchable by the public for up to seven years after an ad runs.

These tools will also be rolled out in other markets like Ukraine, Israel and India ahead of their national elections, and it comes alongside other policies that Facebook has put in place over recent weeks: for example, in Nigeria it’s forbidding election advertising to be purchased by foreign entities.

While these are important moves, they are also coming at the same time that Facebook is become more oblique to other kinds of scrutiny. The company has been reportedly cutting off some of the tools that have been built to monitor how advertising works on the platform. These tools have seen their functionality reduced as part of Facebook’s bigger effort to cut off data access to third-parties — a consequence of Facebook’s reaction to Cambridge Analytica and how it and others exploited third-party access to suck up user information — but groups that have been affected claim that their advertising analytics provided more information than Facebook’s new political ad monitoring tools provide.

In addition to this, Facebook is expanding its approach to localising its response in the form of election security operations centers, or war rooms as they’re being called by some (including us). The first of these was established around the time of elections in Brazil last year, based out of Facebook’s HQ in Menlo Park, and it carried on work in the US Midterm elections.

Now Facebook is localising the concept and establishing two new centers in Dublin and Singapore, to “allow our global teams to better work across regions in the run-up to elections.” The aim of these is to track fake news, hate speech and voter suppression, and the idea will be to assemble teams that will work with other groups at the company in areas like threat intelligence, data science, engineering, research, community operations and legal.

Potentially meant to bolster the release of the news about the new election measures, Clegg’s appearance in Brussels — at a Facebook-sponsored event — unfortunately wasn’t very strong, underpinned as it was by fairly predictable pronouncements.

Clegg defended Facebook against criticism that it should be subject to the same scrutiny and responsibility as the media: “It’s raucous and unpredictable,” he said of Facebook. He did acknowledge Facebook’s shortcomings and said it’s now in a period of change. (Clegg’s known far and wide for his earnest apologies.)

He also defended the company against any negative readings of its intention to unify the back ends of its various messaging apps — while essentially confirming the the company’s desire to do so in the process.

“It’s much more simple than the heated language suggests,” he said. “What Zuckerberg says that is people are increasingly using different apps and it’s a simple view that over time, people will want to send messages from one to the other. That’s it!” See, nothing to worry about, right?

There may be some positive benefits, such as all apps taking on the encryption that is currently only a part of WhatsApp. However, it remains to be seen how linking up apps that have been built differently would work, and what other tradeoffs we will see in exchange for being able to send an Instagram snap to our WhatsApp contact a little quicker.

Asked if he was worried about being a “Brexit enabler”, Clegg curtly answered no and moved along.

Asked which technology was most worrisome for him in the future, and he named deep fakes. “We’re doing work to figure out what our defenses are against this, but that is a very worrying fact where reality and fiction bleed into each other,” he said. That could also be said about Facebook and its approach overall.

Workplace, Facebook’s enterprise platform, adds another major customer, Nestle

While Facebook continues to repair its image with consumers disenchanted with the social network’s role in disseminating misleading or false information and mishandling their personal data, it’s ironically been finding some traction for its enterprise-focused service, Workplace. Today, the company announced that it has added another huge company to its books today: Nestle, the coffee, chocolate and FMCG giant with 2,000 brands and 240,000 employees, has signed up as its latest customer.

Facebook’s enterprise service competes against the likes of Microsoft Teams, Slack and smaller players like Crew and Zinc, among many others in a crowded market of mobile and desktop apps built to address a growing interest among organizations to have more user-friendly, modern ways for their employees to communicate.

Workplace positions itself as different from its competitors in a couple of different ways: it says its communications platform is designed for all different employment demographics, covering so-called knowledge workers (the traditional IT customer) as well as waged and front-line employees; but it also claims to be the most democratic of the pack, by virtue of being a Facebook product, designed for mass market use from the ground up.

In the workplace, that translates to apps that do not require company email addresses or company devices to use; a strong proportion of employees at Workplace’s bigger customers, such as Walmart (2.2 million employees) and Starbucks (nearly 240,000 employees) do not sit at desks and, until relatively recently, would not have been using any kind of PC or phone on a regular basis on any average day.

But as smartphones have become as ubiquitous as having your keys and wallet, acceptance of having them and utilising them to communicate workplace-related information has changed, and that is the wave that services like Workplace are hoping to ride.

But despite the strong engine that is Facebook behind it, Workplace has a lot of challenges up ahead.

The company has not updated its total number of customers in over a year at this point — its last milestone was 30,000 customers, back in November 2017 — and today Facebook VP Julien Codorniou said that the company might put out a more updated number later this year.

“We’re not using that metric to communicate our success,” he said, “but we have to communicate growth, I feel the demand from the market.” Slack claims 500,000 organizations, over 70,000 of which pay; Teams from Microsoft has some 329,000 customers, the company says.

There is also the issue of how a customer win is actually translating to usage. Last month, a much smaller competitor, Crew, with 25,000 customers, noted that at least some of them were in fact those that Workplace was claiming to have secured.

“Starbucks is theoretically using Workplace, but it’s been deployed only to managers,” Crew CEO Danny Leffel told me. “We have almost 1,000 Starbucks locations using Crew. We knew we had a huge presence there, and we were worried when Facebook won them, but we haven’t seen even a dent in our business so far.”

Codorniou said that this also doesn’t tell the full story. He describes the approach that Crew and others take as “shadow IT” in that the companies don’t talk to central HQ when winning the business. “You can’t give a voice to everyone by going in through the back,” he said. He also contends that it just takes time to deploy something across a massive business. “Workplace only works if you get 100 percent of the company using it,” he added. Notably, today Facebook announced that Nestle has already onboarded 210,000 customers to Workplace.

There is also the bigger question of how these products will develop technically to further differentiate from the pack. For now, it feels like Slack still reigns supreme when it comes to desktop knowledge worker functionality — even without usefully threaded comments — because of the fact that you can integrate virtually any other app you might want to into its platform.

Crew, meanwhile, has differentiated by focusing on providing handy tools to help businesses managing scheduling for shift workers, who comprise the majority of its user base.

While others like Teams, and yes, Workplace, have also added in integrations and their own functionality — Workplace’s most interesting features, I think, are how it has translated consumer-Facebook features like Live into the Workplace environment. But there is still a lot of space for apps to consider what other features and functionality will be most useful and stick for the most employees and for the business customer at large.

It will be interesting to see how and if this is affected by way of a key leadership appointment. Last month, Facebook appointed a new “head” of Workplace, Karandeep Anand, who came to Facebook three years ago from Microsoft (and thus has a close understanding of enterprise software). Codorniou said Anand be relocating to London, where Workplace is developed, and will focus on the technical development of the product while Codorniou focuses on sales, client relations and business development.

Technical leadership for Workplace had previously come straight from CTO Mike Schroepfer, Codorniou said. “We decided that we needed someone full time, here in London,” he said.

It’s not clear if Workplace’s win at Nestle is replacing another product: it seems, however, that it is more likely a trend of how more businesses are making an investment in company-wide communications platforms where they may never have had one before, in hopes of it helping keep employees switched on, linked up, and generally more happy and feeling less like expendable cogs.

“Nestlé is a people-first environment,” said EVP Chris Johnson, in a statement. “We really rely on our talented teams to manage more than 2,000 Nestlé brands worldwide. We help our employees develop and we give them the right tools, so Workplace is a perfect fit.”

PR management firm Cision is acquiring to expand into social media marketing

Social media has become a primary conduit for getting the word out, in some cases proving to be an even stronger force for publicity than more traditional media outlets and paid advertising, and so today, a company that has grown its business around public relations services has acquired a social media management company to make sure it has a foothold in the medium. Cision, which provides press release distribution, media monitoring and other PR services to businesses and the media industry, has acquired, a startup founded in Denmark that lets companies post, manage and analyse their presence on social media platforms.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, the companies tell me, but the whole of the Falcon team, including CEO/founder Ulrik Bo Larsen, are joining the company, where they will continue to operate its existing product set as well as integrate it into Cision’s wider business. The last valuation noted in April 2017 at the Danish Companies House was about $52 million (€45 million), but they have been growing very rapidly, and one source tells us that the price paid was around $200-$225 million, while Danish publication Borsen says it’s 800 million Danish kroner, or around $122 million. I’m still trying to get more detail.

Falcon had raised around $25 million according to PitchBook, and it has never disclosed its valuation. Cision — well-known to many journalists — is publicly traded and currently has a market cap of just under $1.6 billion. For some context, two other prominent social media management firms that compete with Falcon, Sprout Social and Hootsuite, are respectively valued at $800 million and anywhere between $750 million and $1 billion (depending on who you ask).

The latter two are bigger firms — Falcon has around 1,500 businesses as customers that use it to manage their social profiles and read social sentiment across platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, while Sprout says it has around 25,000 and Hootsuite counts millions of individual users — and both have raised significantly more capital, but their valuations underscore the demand that we’re seeing for platforms and user-friendly tools to target the world’s social media users — estimated to number at upwards of 2.5 billion people globally.

Kevin Akeroyd, who came on as Cision’s CEO after long stints at both Oracle and Salesforce, among other places, describes Falcon as a “top five” social media marketing and analytics firm, and in an interview he said that the new acquisition will form a key part of the “communications cloud” that Cision has been building.

As with Salesforce, Oracle and Adobe (which also use similar cloud-themed terminology to describe their product suites), Cision’s strategy is to build a one-stop shop for customers to manage all their communications needs from one platform. Falcon itself may be smaller than its competitors, but the idea is that it will be cross-sold to Cision’s customers, which currently number 75,000 businesses.

“We’re seeing too many of our customers using one application for content, another for something else, and so on. There are too many apps,” Akeroyd said. “We have always believed in earned media” — that is, media mentions that are not in the form of paid advertising — “and the role of influencers alongside paid and owned marketing. We believe we could provide the first solution for businesses across earned, communications services and public relations, helping to build a better data stack to measure and attribute what you are doing in comms.”

As social networking companies like Facebook and Twitter build more of their own tools in-house to serve the social media needs of organizations that want to better manage their profiles and interactions on these platforms, this has led to some consolidation and shifts among social media management companies. Some are merging or getting acquired, and some are shopping themselves around.

And in that wider trend, it’s not too surprising to see public relations firms get in on the action. Social media has completely changed the landscape for how information is disseminated today, sometimes complementing what traditional media organizations do — there are many examples of how newspapers and other news outlets leverage, for example, Facebook to grow and communicate with their audiences — and often replacing traditional media altogether. (Pew last month said that social media outpaced newspapers for the first time as a news source in the U.S., although TV and radio are still bigger than social… for now.)

Given that public relations management has long been the connecting link between organisations and media outlets, they have had to take a bigger step into social media in order to provide to their clients a more complete picture of the media landscape. Cision is not the first to have done this: Last year, Meltwater, another media monitoring firm, acquired DataSift to add social signals and traffic to its platform mix.

“This consolidation has to come because there is just too much value for the user,” Akeroyd said. “CMOs and CCOs do not want their own islands, they want something bigger.”

Crew, a Workplace and Slack messaging rival for shift workers, raises $35M, adds enterprise version

When it comes to shift workers communicating with each other in the workplace when they are not face-to-face, gone are the days of cork announcement boards. Now, the messaging app is the medium, and today one of the startups tackling that opportunity in a unique way has raised a round of funding to get to the next stage of growth.

Crew, a chat app that specifically targets businesses that employ shift workers who do not typically sit at computers all day, has now raised $35 million in Series C funding from DAG Ventures, Tenaya Capital, and previous backers Greylock Partners, Sequoia Capital, Harrison Metal Capital and Aspect Ventures. With the funding news, it’s also announcing the launch of a new feature called Crew Enterprise, which helps businesses better manage messaging across large groups of these workers.

The funding and new product come on the heels of the company hitting 25,000 organizations using its service — many of them multi-store retailers with an emphasis in the food industry, household names like Domino’s Pizza and Burger King — with some strong engagement. Its users are together sending some 25 million messages or responses to other messages each week, on average six times per day per user, with more than 55 percent of its whole user base logging in on an average day.

There are quite a lot of messaging apps out in the market today, but the majority of them are aimed at so-called knowledge workers, people who might be using a number of apps throughout their day, who often sit at desks and use computers alongside their phones and tablets. Crew takes a different approach in that it targets the vast swathe of other workers in the job market and their priorities.

As it turns out, co-founder and CEO Danny Leffel tells me that those priorities are focused around a few specific things that are not the same as those for the other employment sector. One is to get the latest shift schedules for work, especially when they are not at work; another is to be able to swap those shifts when they need to; and a third, largely coming from the management end, is to make sure that everything gets communicated to the staff even when they are not in for work to attend a staff meeting.

“Some of the older practices feel like versions of a Rube Goldberg machine,” he said. “The stories we hear are quite insane.” Shift schedules, he said, are an example. “Lots of workplaces have rules, where you can’t call in to check the schedule because it causes employees to come off the floor. One hotel manager told us he couldn’t hold staff meetings with everyone there because he runs a 24/7 workplace so some people would have to come in especially. One store GM from a supermarket chain told us that the whole store has only one email address, so when an announcement goes out, the GM prints that and hands it to everyone. And the problems just compound when you talk to them.”

Crew is by no means the only business internal messaging service that is aiming to provide a product specifically for shift workers. Workplace, Facebook’s own take on enterprise communications, has also positioned itself as a platform for “every worker,” and has snagged a clutch of huge clients such as Walmart (2.2 million employees globally) and Starbucks (254,000) to fill out that vision.

Leffel, however, paints a sightly different picture of how this is playing out, since in many cases even when a company has been “won” as a global customer that hasn’t translated to a global roll out.

“Starbucks is theoretically using Workplace, but it’s been deployed only to managers,” he said. “We have almost 1,000 Starbucks locations using Crew. We knew we had a huge presence there, and we were worried when Facebook won them, but we haven’t seen even a dent in our business so far.”

Leffel has had previous some experience of getting into the ring with Facebook — although it hasn’t ended with him the winner. His previous startup, Yardsellr, positioned itself as the “eBay of Facebook,” working as a layer on top of the big social network for people to sell items. It died a death in 2013, when Facebook took a less friendly turn to Yardsellr using Facebook’s social graph to grow its own business (it was a time when it was cutting off apps from Zynga for similar reasons). Today, Facebook itself owns the experience of selling on its platform via Marketplace.

Crew seems to have found a strong foothold among enterprises in terms of its usefulness, not just use, which is one sign of how it might have more staying power.

survey it conducted among 50,000 of its users found that 63 percent of leaders who use Crew report fewer missed shifts and 70 percent see increased motivation on their team. Crew worked out that among respondents, it is generating time savings of four or more hours per week for 93 percent of surveyed managers. And because of better communication, people are working faster when handing off things to each other on the front line, with a Domino’s Pizza franchisee sped up delivery punctuality by 23 percent as one example. (The company offers services on three tiers, ranging from free for small teams, Pro at $10 per month per location, to Enterprise priced on negotiation.)

Crew’s new enterprise tier is aiming to take the company to the next step. Today, Leffel says that a lot of its customers are buying on a location-by-location basis. The idea with Crew Enterprise is that larger organizations will be able to provide a more unified experience across all of those locations (not to mention pay more for the functionality). Managers can use the service to message out details about promotions, and they have a better ability to manage conversations across the platform and also get more feedback from people who are directly interacting with customers. Meanwhile, admins also gain better ability to manage compliance.

If some of this sounds familiar, it’s not just because Workplace is the only one who is also targeting the same users. Dynamic Signal and Zinc (formerly Cotap) are two other startups that are also trying to provide better messaging-based communications to more than just white-collar knowledge workers. Crew will have its work cut out for it, but there is a lot of room for now for multiple players.

“We are seeing a shift in the marketplace, going from absolutely don’t use your phone at work to don’t use it when customers are present,” Leffel said of the opportunity. “Some have started to change the rules to allow workers to use their own phones to perform price checks. We are solving for this evolving workflow.”

Sprout Social raises another $40.5M to double down on social tools for businesses

Sprout Social, a social media monitoring, marketing and analytics service with 25,000 business customers that helps these organizations manage their public profiles and interact with customers across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Google+ (soon to RIP), has raised $40.5 million in funding in order expand its business internationally and add more functionality to its platform.

The money — a Series B led by Future Fund with participation from Goldman Sachs and New Enterprise Associates — brings the total raised by Sprout to $103.5 million to date. We’ve asked the company about its valuation, and we’ll update as we learn more. For some context, Sprout last raised in 2016 — $42 million also from Goldman Sachs and NEA — and at the time it had a post-money valuation of $253 million, according to PitchBook.

That cold mean that the valuation now is just shy of $300 million. But between then and now, there have been some interesting developments that could have shifted that price in either direction.

On one side, multiple sources have told us that Sprout was being courted by Microsoft for acquisition at one point (both companies declined to comment on this for us at the time we were looking into it). One reason, one source told us, that the deal didn’t go through was because they couldn’t reach a deal on pricing.

On the other, one of Sprout’s biggest competitors, Hootsuite (with 15 million users, paid and free), has been rumored to be shopping itself for about $750 million, or potentially going public, while smaller competitors have moved in on some consolidation to bulk up their own presence in the field.

In the meantime, Sprout itself has been growing. The company’s 25,000 customers are up from 16,000 two years ago, with current users including Microsoft, NBCUniversal, the Denver Nuggets and Grubhub and MTV.

One of the reasons for the growth is the larger shift we’ve seen in how businesses interact with the outside world. Social media is today perhaps the most important platform for businesses to communicate with their users: not only has social media helped customers circumvent the often frustrating spaghetti that lies behind the deceptive phrase “contact us” on websites, but social media has become a spotlight, which businesses have to watch lest a sticky situation snowballs into a public relations disaster.

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, to grow their revenues, have ramped up their efforts to work on social media campaigns and interactions directly with organizations. But there is still a place for third parties like Sprout Social to manage work that goes across a number of social sites, and to address services that the social platforms themselves do not necessarily want to invest in building directly.

“I think there are a bunch of reasons why we don’t build bot experience ourselves,” Jeff Lesser, who heads up product marketing for Twitter Business Messaging, told me when Sprout launched a “bot builder” to be used on Twitter, and I asked him why Sprout shouldn’t worry about Twitter cannibalizing its product. “There are millions of types of businesses that can use our platform, so we’re letting the ecosystem build the solutions that they need. We are focusing on building the canvas for them to do that.”

In other words, while Sprout (and competitors) should always be a little wary of platform players who may decide to simply kick them off in the name of business, there are always going to be opportunities if they have the resources double down on more tech to solve a different problem, or simply execute on fixing an existing problem better.

“Social marketing and social data have become mission-critical to virtually all aspects of business. Sprout’s relentless focus on quality and customer success have made us the top customer-rated platform in every category and segment,” said Justyn Howard, CEO of Sprout, in a statement. “In many ways, social is still in its infancy, and we’re fortunate to help so many great customers navigate this evolving set of challenges.”

UK’s DCMS calls in Facebook again over user data access, asks competition authorities to investigate

The latest revelations about Facebook’s handling of user data — an investigation by the New York Timesfound that Facebook had been providing special data access to large companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Spotify and others — has landed the social network once more in hot water in Europe, and specifically the United Kingdom.

Today, Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, issued a statement in which he called on competition authorities to open an investigation into abusive market dominance, and also for Facebook to once again appear before his committee to “explain how their policies work on access to user data, and whether policies are a breach of data privacy law, as it would appear that user data was made available to firms without the informed consent of the user having been given.”

Specifically, Collins is focusing on the fact that the report published early today appears to contradict Facebook’s previous testimony.

“I feel that we have been given misleading responses by the company when we have asked these questions during previous evidence sessions,” Collins said in the statement. The full statement is below.

The DCMS has hauled Facebook in for questioning multiple times now over to its ongoing investigation into how Facebook provides access to and safeguards (or doesn’t as the case may be) user data. Previous requests (hereand here) have also specifically asked for Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook, to appear, although he has yet to do so.

While the statement from Collins doesn’t make mention of it, there are other angles to be explored as well. Earlier this month, LinkedIn was singled out for how it leveraged Facebook’s ad platform to gather information about users’ friends for LinkedIn marketing and networking purposes, and a report in Gizmodoalso published yesterday highlights how that this kind of cross-pollination is/was rife among several other players too. This is likely also to come up in subsequent investigations.

The bottom line is that while these may not be API loopholes along the lines of those exploited by Cambridge Analytica, they all point to just how tangled and intentionally confusing a lot of these relationships are, obscuring just how much information about us is known and used.

The competition authority reference, meanwhile, is linked with the fact that Facebook appeared to give preferential access to user data to larger companies over smaller ones — in fact, cutting smaller companies out of the equation altogether.

Irrespective of whether it was appropriate data access or not (Facebook, of course, argues that each specific dealhad a purpose that did not violate user privacy), there are questions here about whether Facebook abused its market-dominating position in social media by favoring large companies over smaller ones in forging partnerships or providing access to services.

To be clear, Facebook has not been deemed a monopoly by any authorities — although there are investigations underway both in Washingtonand Germanythat are considering whether Facebook could and should be investigated as such. In that context, Collins appeal to competition authorities appears to be a step in the long process of determining whether there are grounds for investigating on that front, and my suspicion is that this is not the last you will year of this.

“The Competition authorities should also investigate how Facebook decides which companies have access to user data and which don’t,” Collins said. “Given the dominant market position they enjoy in social media, this gives real concerns about whether they are behaving as a monopoly, exercising their considerable power to further dominate the commercial environment in which they trade; making some businesses, and breaking others in the process.”

All in all, this is a damning development for the social network — which has over 2 billion users and is fighting fires on other fronts— in its relations with authorities and regulators, one that will continue to erode the company’s reputation with them and users alike.

The full text of Collins’ statement is below:

“This latest investigation adds to the evidence published earlier this month by the DCMS select Committee, from documents we received from the American app developer, Six4Three.

“The investigation shows that Facebook offers preferential access to user data to some of its major corporate partners. The scale of the business these companies do with Facebook underpins the value their relationship. Facebook rewards these firms with data privileges that other organisations to not enjoy.

“We have to seriously challenge the claim by Facebook that they are not selling user data. They may not be letting people take it away by the bucket load, but they do reward companies with access to data that others are denied, if they place a high value on the business they do together. This is just another form of selling. We remain concerned as well about Facebook’s ability to police what happens to user data when it is shared with developers, as was highlighted by the Cambridge Analytica data breach.

“Facebook should come back in front of the Committee to explain how their policies work on access to user data, and whether policies are a breach of data privacy law, as it would appear that user data was made available to firms without the informed consent of the user having been given. I feel that we have been given misleading responses by the company when we have asked these questions during previous evidence sessions.

“The Competition authorities should also investigate how Facebook decides which companies have access to user data and which don’t. Given the dominant market position they enjoy in social media, this gives real concerns about whether they are behaving as a monopoly, exercising their considerable power to further dominate the commercial environment in which they trade; making some businesses, and breaking others in the process.”

As NAACP kicks off boycott, Facebook says content moderation, infrastructure changes are coming in 2019

Facebook’s ongoing efforts to repair its image as a greedy, neglectful accessory to the spread of misinformation and other nefarious practices has taken a turn to civil rights and specifically how it serves non-white users, which proportionately account for the social network’s most active members.

Today — the first day of #LogOutFacebook, a week-long boycott of the service led by the NAACP — Facebook published an update to its ongoing civil rights audit, where it laid out some goals for the year ahead. In 2019, it said it plans to address censorship and discrimination in its content moderation; and it’s also working on a “Civil Rights Accountability Infrastructure,” in which civil rights are put front and center in the development of new products and policies.

“We take this incredibly seriously, as demonstrated by the investments we’ve made in safety and security,” noted COO Sheryl Sandberg in a blog post introducing the update to the audit. “We know we need to do more.”

But as has been the case with Facebook on a number of occasions in recent times, its contrition appears too little too late.

The NAACP — which has called on like-minded groups and individuals to join it in its campaign — has built up a strong list of grievances against the social network, which now has around 2 billion users. They range from ongoing issues around a lack of diversity in its workforce and the fact that the company has not taken strong-enough measures to safeguard users’ privacy in breaches, through to more recent developments. Just yesterday, two reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Russia-backed organizations specifically targeted African Americans on the Facebook platform in their misinformation campaigns.

“Facebook’s engagement with partisan firms, its targeting of political opponents, the spread of misinformation and the utilization of Facebook for propaganda promoting disingenuous portrayals of the African American community is reprehensible,” said Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO, in a statement.

As part of the announcement of the boycott, the NAACP also said that it had returned a donation Facebook had made to its organization.

Facebook itself didn’t make specific reference to the NAACP statements, nor to the boycott, in its audit update. Led by Laura Murphy, who had previously worked for the ACLU, the audit — which kicked off in May of this year — provides a summary of the work she and her team have been doing for the last six months. It has included taking a bird’s-eye view of the state of the company today, and engagement with outside stakeholders and Facebook itself to assemble a list of priorities that need to be addressed.

There is, she writes, “no question that Facebook faces a number of serious civil rights challenges… To be clear, the civil right groups that are raising these concerns are pro-technology but firmly anti-bias; moreover, they are concerned about the impact of the platform on public discourse and the institutions that are the foundation of American democracy.”

The list of areas that have been identified to address is long and a reminder of how many shortcomings there are on the platform. As Murphy lays it out, these include voter suppression tactics; accountability infrastructure; content moderation; advertising targeting; diversity and inclusion among employees; taking out bias from AI and algorithms; privacy and transparency. 

As we’ve seen over the last several months, the company has already started to take some steps ahead in areas like AI, transparency, advertising and trying to improve practices around elections and inclusion in its own ranks. But as you can see from recent reports, and this week’s boycott, there is still a long way for the social network to go.

LinkedIn violated data protection by using 18M email addresses of non-members to buy targeted ads on Facebook

LinkedIn, the social network for the working world with close to 600 million users, has been called out a number of times for how it is able to suggest uncanny connections to you, when it’s not even clear how or why LinkedIn would know enough to make those suggestions in the first place.

Now, a run-in with a regulator in Europe illuminates how some of LinkedIn’s practices leading up to GDPR implementation in Europe were not only uncanny, but actually violated data protection rules, in LinkedIn’s case concerning some 18 million email addresses.

The details were revealed in a report published Friday by Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner covering activities in the first six months of this calendar year. In a list of investigations that have been reported concerning Facebook, WhatsApp and the Yahoo data breach, the DPC revealed one investigation that had not been reported before. The DPC had conducted — and concluded — an investigation of Microsoft-owned LinkedIn, originally prompted by a complaint from a user in 2017, over LinkedIn’s practices regarding people who were not members of the social network.

In short: in a bid to get more people to sign up to the service, LinkedIn admitted that it was using people’s email addresses — some 18 million in all — in a way that was not transparent. LinkedIn has since ceased the practice as a result of the investigation.

There were two parts to the supervision, as the DPC describes it:

First, the DPC found that LinkedIn in the US had obtained emails for 18 million people who were not already members of the social network, and then used these in a hashed form for targeted advertisements on the Facebook platform, “with the absence of instruction from the data controller” — that is, LinkedIn Ireland — “as is required.”

Some backstory on this: LinkedIn, Facebook and others in the lead-up to GDPR coming into effect moved data processing that had been going through Ireland to the US.

The claim was that this was to “streamline” operations but critics have said that the moves could help to shield companies a bit more from any GDPR liability over how they use process data for non-EU users.

“The complaint was ultimately amicably resolved,” the DPC said, “with LinkedIn implementing a number of immediate actions to cease the processing of user data for the purposes that gave rise to the complaint.”

Second, the DPC then decided to conduct a further audit after it became “concerned with the wider systemic issues identified” in the initial investigation. There, it found that LinkedIn was also applying its social graph-building algorithms to build networks — to suggest professional networks for users, or “undertaking pre-computation,” as the DPC describes it.

The idea here was build up suggested networks of compatible professional connections to help users overcome the hurdle of having to build networks from scratch — that being one of the hurdles in social networks for some people.

“As a result of the findings of our audit, LinkedIn Corp was instructed by LinkedIn Ireland, as data controller of EU user data, to cease pre-compute processing and to delete all personal data associated with such processing prior to 25 May 2018,” the DPC writes. May 25 was the date that GDPR came into force.

LinkedIn has provided us with the following statement in relation to the whole investigation:

“We appreciate the DPC’s 2017 investigation of a complaint about an advertising campaign and fully cooperated,” said Denis Kelleher, Head of Privacy, EMEA, for LinkedIn. “Unfortunately the strong processes and procedures we have in place were not followed and for that we are sorry. We’ve taken appropriate action, and have improved the way we work to ensure that this will not happen again. During the audit, we also identified one further area where we could improve data privacy for non-members and we have voluntarily changed our practices as a result.”

(The ‘further area’ is the pre-computation.)

There are some takeaways from the incident:

Taking LinkedIn’s words at face value, it would seem that the company is trying to show that it is acting in good faith by going one step further than simply modifying what has been identified by the DPC, changing practices voluntarily before it gets called out.

Then again, LinkedIn would not be the first company to “ask for forgiveness, not permission,” when it comes to pushing the boundaries of what is considered permissible behavior.

If you are wondering why LinkedIn did not get fined in this process — which could be one lever for pushing a company to act right from the start, rather than only change practices after getting called out — that’s because until the implementation of GDPR at the end of May, the regulator had no power to enforce fines.

What we also don’t really know here — the DPC doesn’t really address it — is where LinkedIn obtained those 18 million email addresses, and any other related data, in the first place.

Other cases reviewed in the report, such as the inquiry into Facial Recognition usage by Facebook, and how WhatsApp and Facebook share user data between each other, are still ongoing. Others, such as the investigation Yahoo security breach that affected 500 million users, are now trickling down into the companies modifying their practices.