Instagram caught selling ads to follower-buying services it banned

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Instagram has been earning money from businesses flooding its social network with spam notifications. Instagram hypocritically continues to sell ad space to services that charge clients for fake followers or that automatically follow/unfollow other people to get them to follow the client back. This is despite Instagram reiterating a ban on these businesses in November and threatening the accounts of people who employ them.

A TechCrunch investigation initially found 17 services selling fake followers or automated notification spam for luring in followers that were openly advertising on Instagram despite blatantly violating the network’s policies. This demonstrates Instagram’s failure to adequately police its app and ad platform. That neglect led to users being distracted by notifications for follows and Likes generated by bots or fake accounts. Instagram raked in revenue from these services while they diluted the quality of Instagram notifications and wasted people’s time.

In response to our investigation, Instagram tells me it’s removed all ads as well as disabled all the Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts of the services we reported were violating its policies. Pages and accounts that themselves weren’t in violation but whose ads were have been banned from advertising on Facebook and Instagram. However, a day later TechCrunch still found ads from two of these services on Instagram, and discovered five more companies paying to promote policy-violating follower growth services.

This raises a big question about whether Instagram properly protects its community from spammers. Why would it take a journalist’s investigation to remove these ads and businesses that brazenly broke Instagram’s rules when the company is supposed to have technical and human moderation systems in place? The Facebook-owned app’s quest to “move fast” to grow its user base and business seems to have raced beyond what its watchdogs could safeguard.

Hunting Spammers

I first began this investigation a month ago after being pestered with Instagram Stories ads by a service called GramGorilla. The slicked-back hipster salesmen boasted how many followers he gained with the service and that I could pay to do the same. The ads linked to the website of a division of Krends Marketing where for $46 to $126 per month, it promised to score me 1000 to 2500 Instagram followers.

Some apps like this sell followers directly, though these are typically fake accounts. They might boost your follower count (unless they’re detected and terminated) but won’t actually engage with your content or help your business, and end up dragging down your metrics so Instagram shows your posts to fewer people. But I discovered that GramGorilla/Krends and the majority of apps selling Instagram audience growth do something even worse.

You give these scammy businesses your Instagram username and password, plus some relevant topics or demographics, and they automatically follow and unfollow, like, and comment on strangers’ Instagram profiles. The goal is to generate notifications those strangers will see in hopes that they’ll get curious or want to reciprocate and so therefore follow you back. By triggering enough of this notification spam, they trick enough strangers to follow you to justify the monthly subscription fee.

That pissed me off. Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks send enough real notifications as is, growth hacking their way to more engagement, ad views, and daily user counts. But at least they have to weigh the risk of annoying you so much that you turn off notifications all together. Services that sell followers don’t care if they pollute Instagram and ruin your experience as long as they make money. They’re classic villains in the ‘tragedy of the commons’ of our attention.

This led me to start cataloging these spam company ads, and I was startled by how many different ones I saw. Soon, Instagram’s ad targeting and retargeting algorithms were backfiring, purposefully feeding me ads for similar companies that also violated Instagram’s policies.

The 17 services selling followers or spam that I originally indexed were Krends Marketing / GramGorilla, SocialUpgrade, MagicSocial, EZ-Grow, Xplod Social, Macurex, GoGrowthly, Instashop / IG Shops, TrendBee, JW Social Media Marketing, YR Charisma, Instagrocery, SocialSensational, SocialFuse, WeGrowSocial, IGWildfire, and GramFlare. TrendBee and GramFlare were found to still be running Instagram ads after the platform said they’ve been banned from doing so. Upon further investigation after Instagram’s supposed crackdown, I discovered five more services sell prohibited growth services: FireSocial, InstaMason/IWentMissing, NexStore2019, InstaGrow, and Servantify.

Knowingly Poisoning The Well

I wanted to find out if these companies were aware that they violate Instagram’s policies and how they justify generating spam. Most hide their contact info and merely provide a customer support email, but eventually I was able to get on the phone with some of the founders.

What we’re doing is obviously against their terms of service” said GoGrowthly’s co-founder who refused to provide their name. “We’re going in and piggybacking off their free platform and not giving them any of the revenue. Instagram doesn’t like us at all. We utilize private proxies depending on clients’ geographic location. That’s sort of our trick to reduce any sort of liability” so clients’ accounts don’t get shut down, they said. “It’s a careful line that we tread with Instagram. Similar to SEO companies and Google, Google wants the best results for customers and customers want the best results for them. There’s a delicate dance” said Macurex founder Gun Hudson.

EZ-Grow’s co-founder Elon refused to give his last name on the record, but told me “[Clients] always need something new. At first it was follows and likes. Now we even watch Stories for them. Every new feature that Instagram has we take advantage of it to make more visibility for our clients.” He says EZ-Grow spends $500 per day on Instagram ads, which are its core strategy for finding new customers. SocialFuse founder Alexander Heit says his company spends a couple hundred dollars per day on Instagram and Facebook ads, and was worried when Instagram reiterated its ban on his kind of service in November, but says “We thought that we were definitely going to get shut down but nothing has changed on our end.”

Several of the founders tried to defend their notification spam services by saying that at least they weren’t selling fake followers. Lacking any self-awareness, Macurex’s Hudson said “If it’s done the wrong way it can ruin the user experience. There are all sorts of marketers who will market in untasteful or spammy ways. Instagram needs to keep a check on that.” GoGrowthly’s founder actually told me “We’re actually doing good for the community by generating those targeted interactions.” WeGrowSocial’s co-founder Brandon also refused to give his last name, but was willing to rat out his competitor SocialSensational for selling followers.

Only EZ-Grow’s Elon seemed to have a moment of clarity. “Because the targeting goes to the right people . . . and it’s something they would like, it’s not spam” he said before his epiphany. “People can also look at it as spam, maybe.”

Instagram Finally Shuts Down The Spammers

In response to our findings, an Instagram spokesperson provided this lengthy statement confirming it’s shut down the ads and accounts of the violators we discovered, claiming that it works hard to fight spam, and admitting it needs to do better:

“Nobody likes receiving spammy follows, likes and comments. It’s really important to us that the interactions people have on Instagram are genuine, and we’re working hard to keep the community free from spammy behavior. Services that offer to boost an account’s popularity via inauthentic likes, comments and followers, as well as ads that promote these services, aren’t allowed on Instagram. We’ve taken action on the services raised in this article, including removing violating ads, disabling Pages and accounts, and stopping Pages from placing further ads. We have various systems in place that help us catch and remove these types of ads before anyone sees them, but given the number of ads uploaded to our platform every day, there are times when some still manage to slip through. We know we have more to do in this area and we’re committed to improving.”

Instagram tells me it uses machine learning tools to identify accounts that pay third-party apps to boost their popularity and claims to remove inauthentic engagement before it reaches the recipient of the notifications. By nullifying the results of these services, Instagram believes users will have less incentive to use them. It uses automated systems to evaluate the images, captions, and landing pages of all its ads before they run, and sends some to human moderators. It claims this lets it catch most policy-violating ads, and that users can report those it misses.

But these ads and their associated accounts were filled with terms like “get followers”, “boost your Instagram followers”, “real followers”, “grow your engagement”, “get verified”, “engagement automation”, and other terms tightly linked to policy-violating services. That casts doubt on just how hard Instagram was working on this problem. It may have simply relied on cheap and scalable technical approaches to catching services with spam bots or fake accounts instead of properly screening ads or employing sufficient numbers of human moderators to police the network.

That misplaced dependence on AI and other tech solutions appears to be a trend in the industry. When I recently reported that child sexual abuse imagery was easy to find on WhatsApp and Microsoft Bing, both seemed to be understaffing the human moderation team that could have hunted down this illegal content with common sense where complex algorithms failed. As with Instagram, these products have highly profitable parent companies who can afford to pour more dollars in policy enforcement.

Social networks and self-serve ad networks have been treated as efficient cash cows for too long. The profits from these products should be reinvested in policing them. Otherwise, crooks will happily fleece users for our money and attention.

To learn more about the future of Instagram, check out this article’s author Josh Constine’s SXSW 2019 keynote with Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — their first talk together since leaving the company.

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Spotify’s increased focus on podcasts in 2019 includes selling its own ads

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Having established itself as a top streaming service with now over 200 million users, Spotify this year is preparing to focus more of its attention on podcasts. The company plans bring its personalization technology to podcasts in order to make better recommendations, update its app’s interface so people can access podcasts more easily, and broker more exclusives with podcast creators. It’s also getting into the business of selling ads within podcasts, as a means of generating revenue from this increasingly popular form of audio programming.

In fact, Spotify has already begun to dabble in podcast ad sales, ahead of this larger push.

Spotify, we’ve learned, has been selling its own advertisements in its original podcasts since mid-2018 year, including in programs like Spotify Original “Amy Schumer Presents: 3 Girls, 1 Keith,” “The Joe Budden Podcast,” “Dissect,” “Showstopper,” and others. With more exclusives planned for the year ahead, the portion of Spotify’s ad business focused on podcasts will also grow.

The company appears to be taking a different approach to working with podcasters than it does with it comes to working with music artists.

Today, Spotify gives artists tools that help share their work and be discovered – it invested in distribution platform DistroKid, for example, and now lets artists submit tracks for playlist consideration. With podcasters, however, Spotify wants to either bring their voices in-house, or at least exclusively license their content.

“Over the last year, we become very focused on building out a great podcast universe,” said Head of Spotify Studios Courtney Holt, speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week. “The first step was to make sure that we’ve got the world’s best podcasts on Spotify, and integrated the experience into the service in a way that allowed people to build habits and behavior there,” he said.

“What we started to see is that the types of podcasts that really were working on Spotify were ones where they were really authentic voices…so we just decided to invest more in those types of voices,” Holt added.

Spotify’s collection of originals has been steadily growing over the past year. Last August, for example, Spotify nabbed an exclusive deal with the “Joe Budden” podcast, which is aimed at hip-hop and rap culture fans, and launched its first branded podcast, “Ebb & Flow,” focused on hip-hop and R&B. Its full original lineup today also includes “Dissect,” Amy Schumer’s “3 Girls, 1 Keith,” “Mogul,” “The Rewind with Guy Raz,” “Showstopper,” “Unpacked,” “Crimetown” (Its first season was wide, second season is exclusive to Spotify), “UnderCover,” and “El Chapo: El Jefe y su Juicio.”

At CES, Spotify announced the addition of one more –  journalist Jemele Hill is coming Spotify with an exclusive podcast called “Unbothered,” which will feature high-profile guests in sports, music, politics, culture, and more.

In growing its collection of originals, the company found that podcasters who joined Spotify exclusively were actually able to grow their audience, despite leaving other distribution platforms.

For example, the Joe Budden podcast had its highest streaming day ever after joining Spotify.

This has led Spotify to believe that influencers in the podcast community will be able to bring their community with them when they become a Spotify exclusive, and then further grow their listener base by tapping into Spotify’s larger music user base and, soon, an improved recommendation system.

There are other perks for Spotify, too – when users come to Spotify and begin to listen to podcasts, they often then spend more time engaged with the app, it found.

“People who consume podcasts on Spotify are consuming more of Spotify – including music,” said Holt. “So we found that in increasing our [podcast] catalog and spending more time to make the user experience better, it wasn’t taking away from music, it was enhancing the overall time spent on the platform,” he noted.

While chasing exclusive deals to bring more original podcasts to Spotify will be a big initiative this year, Spotify will continue to offer its recently launched podcasts submission feature to everyone else.

With this sort of basic infrastructure in place, Spotify now wants to help users discover new podcasts and improve the listening experience.

One aspect of this will involve pointing listeners to other podcast content they may like.

For instance, Spotify could point Joe Budden fans to other podcasts about hip-hop and rap. It will also leverage its multi-year partnership with Samsung to allow listeners pick up where they left off in an episode as they move between different devices. And it will turn its personalization and recommendation technology to podcasts – including the ads in the podcasts themselves.

“Think about what we’ve done around music – the more understand you around the music you stream, the more we can personalize the ad experience. Now we can take that to podcasts,” said Brian Benedik, VP and Global Head of Advertising Sales at Spotify, when asked about the potential for Spotify selling ads in podcasts.

The company has been testing the waters with its own podcast ad sales since mid 2018, Benedik said. The sales are handled in-house by Spotify’s ad sales team for the time being.

Benedik had also appeared on a panel this week at CES, where he talked about the value of contextual advertising – meaning, ads that can be personalized to the user based on factors like mood, behavior and moments. This data could be appealing to podcast advertisers, as well.

But to scale its efforts around podcast ads, Spotify will need to invest in digital ad insertion technology. Benedik told us Spotify is currently deciding whether that’s something it wants to build in-house or acquire outright.

Spotify’s rival Pandora went the latter route. It closed on the acquisition of adtech company Adswizz in May 2018, then introduced capabilities for shorter, more personalized ads in August. By November, Pandora announced it was bringing its Genome technology to podcasts, which allowed for a recommendation system.

Now Spotify aims to catch up.

The addition of podcasts has reoriented Spotify’s focus as company, Holt said.

“We’re an audio company. We’re trying to be the world’s best audio service,” he told the audience at CES. “It’s a pure play for us. We’re seeing increased engagement; there’s great commercial opportunities from podcasting that we’ve never seen on the platform…And, obviously, exclusives are to give us something that makes the platform truly unique – to have people come to Spotify for something you can’t get anywhere else is the sort of cherry on top of that entire strategy,” Holt said.

Image credits: Spotify

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Anchor wants a future where everyone reads Squarespace ads

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In the future, everyone will get Blue Apron ad copy. Meantime, Anchor’s helping users monetize their shows with Sponsorships, a new program designed to match podcasters with advertisers. The feature is pretty straightforward for anyone who’s ever attempted to make some money podcasting, but now it’s integrated into the site’s overall mission of democratizing the podcasting process.

Starting this week, Sponsorships will be integrated into Anchor’s platform, letting users turn the feature on for the full show or on a per-episode basis. Anchor will then match a custom sponsor based on various factors, including size, recording location and podcast topic, sending hosts a note when they’ve found a proper match.

Hosts can import a pre-recorded ad into the show or do their own reads, determining where in the episode to place it. In my experience, advertisers love a good mid-roll ad, though I’ve always balked at breaking up the flow of things mid-conversation. The system can also ad advertising spots retroactively to older episodes.

Anchor’s got a bunch of advertisers on board — many of which will prove familiar to those who’ve spent any time listening to podcasts. The list so far includes SeatGeek, Cash App, Ro, Dirty Lemon, Baboon, Living Proof, The Citizenry and, of course, Squarespace. Money will be deposited into an account, which can be withdrawn via Stripe. Both stripe and Anchor will get a small cut of the transaction.

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As Taiwan prepares to vote on LGBTQ issues, a homophobic group is running ads before kids videos on YouTube

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This Saturday, several issues related to LGBTQ equality, including marriage, are up for referendum in Taiwan’s mid-term elections. A little more than a year after the country’s top court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, the LGBTQ community is once again fighting for their rights due to efforts by anti-gay groups. The battle has reached social media platforms including YouTube, where a group called 3 Yes is running an ad, including before popular children’s videos, that claims teaching about LGBTQ issues in schools will confuse young children about their gender identity.

3 Yes’ name refers to three referendum items (proposals 10, 11, and 12) that anti-gay groups want voters to approve during Saturday’s election. The questions ask voters “Do you agree that marriage should be restricted to being between one man and one woman under the Civil Code?”; “Do you agree that the Ministry of Education and schools at the elementary and junior high level should not teach about homosexuality as detailed in the Gender Equity Education Act?” [passed in 2004 to promote gender equality and prevent discrimination]; and “Do you agree to unions outside of the ones defined as marriage by the Civil Code to protect the right of same-sex couples to live together permanently?”

In an attempt to counteract those proposals, LGBTQ advocacy groups introduced two additional referendums (14 and 15) that ask “Do you agree that the rights of same-sex couples to get married should be guaranteed by the Civil Code’s marriage regulations?” and “Do you agree that gender equity education as defined under the Gender Equity Education Act should be taught at all stages of the national curriculum and include education about emotions, sex, and homosexuality?”

Even though Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2017, the fact that the issue and others made it to referendum this year underscores the power of anti-gay groups led by religious conservatives, including the Bread of Life Christian Church, the Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance, and the Alliance of Taiwan Religious Groups for the Protection of the Family. In addition to YouTube videos, groups such as these have also spread homophobic propaganda and misinformation through demonstrations, flyers, banners, and other online platforms including YouTube, Facebook, and Line, one of the most popular messaging apps in Taiwan.

An example of a flyer denouncing education about LGBTQ issues.

In addition to YouTube videos, groups such as these have also spread homophobic propaganda and misinformation through demonstrations, flyers, banners, and online platforms including YouTube, Facebook, and Line, one of the most popular messaging apps in Taiwan.

3 Yes’ YouTube channel has three videos. Two appear to show same-sex couples before they suddenly veer into messaging that marriage is between one man and one woman. The third, which was uploaded to 3 Yes’ channel a week ago and is currently running as an ad, is even more pernicious. It opens at a school, with young students looking at a textbook. A girl says “He must be 80% like a girl,” referring to a boy, who gets upset and runs home. Upset, he asks his parents “My classmates are laughing at me for being 80% like a girl. Do you think I’m a boy or girl?” as they look in shock at the textbook. His older sister then turns to their father and says “Dad, you must be 100% girl” as both parents gape at her in horror. The ad cuts to the slogan “Support ACCURATE, AGE-APPROPRIATE gender equity education.”

(It is worth pointing out that Taiwan’s government had to issue guidelines against sex-selective abortions because the preference for boys has skewed the country’s sex ratio).

I am the parent of a toddler and began noticing the ad popping up this week when we watched popular kids’ channels on YouTube. The example embedded above shows it running before a video by Super Simple Songs, a channel with over 12 million subscribers that features nursery rhymes and other content for very young kids. While I’ve seen it at other times, the frequency it appears in the afternoon and early evening suggests that 3 Yes scheduled their ad to run during those time slots, when many kids are home from school, in front of content targeted to them.

(It is important to note that while YouTube content creators can filter out certain advertisers from running before their videos, many may be unaware of ads like the one by 3 Yes because they aren’t located in the same market. Super Simple Songs, 3 Yes, and Google have all been contacted for comment. When reached through their Facebook page, someone from 3 Yes said they don’t run TV ads. I clarified that I mean YouTube ads and am awaiting a response.)

The ad is especially concerning because it helps the spread of misinformation about sexuality and gender by anti-gay groups in Taiwan. Debates are required for referendums and during one of them, the executive director of the National Alliance of Presidents of Parents Associations, Yang Chun-tzu, stated that children should not learn about homosexual issues during elementary and junior high school because it could influence their sexual orientation. That notion has been debunked by growing mounds of evidence that sexual orientation is mainly determined by genetic factors.

Indeed, statements like the those made by Yang and 3 Yes support the case for more education about LGBTQ issues in Taiwan’s schools, not less. 3 Yes’ video also appears to contravene Google’s new initiative against misinformation, though it’s less clear if it violates its policy against hate speech.

But even if it doesn’t incite physical violence, it promotes harmful stereotypes about LGBTQ people and is a sad echo of other instances when anti-gay ads have run on YouTube, sometimes appearing before videos by LGBTQ YouTubers. It is also a reminder that YouTube’s attempts to make its platform safer for children, including “safeguarding the emotional and physical well-being of minors,” is difficult to enforce.

Imagine being a LGBTQ child in Taiwan and seeing an ad like that pop-up while you are watching your favorite channels, at a time when the basic rights of LGBTQ people are up for a vote, and you are already confronted every day by banners and posters that declare you are in a lesser category of human. This is a stark reminder that social media platforms and content creators must pay more attention in different markets to the kind of ads and content that are allowed to be targeted to kids, especially during elections and other politically-charged times.

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Instagram’s next cash cow: instant Promote ads for Stories

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Instagram hopes dollars from long-tail of small businesses and social media stars can help it pull its weight in the Facebook family. A new ad type called “Promote” for Stories allows Instagram business pages to show their ephemeral slideshows to more users without doing much work. Admins can choose to auto-target users similar to their followers, people in a certain location, or use all of Instagram’s targeting parameters to inject their Story into the Stories queue of more users as an ad that can also link to business’ Instagram profile or website.

Facebook confirms to TechCrunch that Promote for Stories works similarly to Facebook’s Boost option that lets them pay to instantly show their feed posts to more users. “I can confirm that we are testing this feature globally. We don’t have an immediate timeline for 100% rollout, but will keep you posted” an Instagram spokesperson told me. Screenshots of Promote were first shared by social consultant Matt Navarra.

Instagram already has 2 million active advertisers, compared to Facebook’s 6 million. But designing and targeting ads, especially full-screen video Stories ads can be daunting to small businesses and public figures. Promote offers an easy way to turn their existing Stories into ads.

The feature could unlock more spend at crucial time when Facebook’s revenue growth is in massive decline. It dropped from 59 percent year-over-years revenue growth in Q3 2016 to 49 percent in Q3 2017 to 33 percent in Q3 2018 as it hits saturation in lucrative developed countries and runs out of News Feed space. Facebook warned Wall Street about revenue deceleration as sharing shifts from feeds to Stories and advertisers have to adapt, but turning local merchants and influencers into paying customers could smooth that transition.

Instagram Analytics Launches In Beta

In other Instagram business news, today it launched Instagram Analytics in beta as part of Facebook Analytics. The tool goes beyond Instagram’s existing Insights tool that just counted different types of engagement with an account and its content, such as new followers, website clicks, post impressions, and Story exits. With Instagram Analytics, business accounts can track life time value and retention rates for people who do or don’t interact with their content, and create audience segments to see if people who commented on a particular post generate more value for them. They can also analyze how their Instagram audeince overlaps with people who visit their site, download their app, or Like their Facebook Page.

The more Instagram analytics businesses have access to, the better they’ll be able to prove that their investment in the platform is paying off. Being able to see exactly how followers move through a conversion funnel will result in higher confidence in campaigns and translate into more ad and content spend.

IGTV Hopes For Virality With Stories Previews

And there’s one final piece of Instagram news for the day. IGTV hasn’t quite blown up like Instagram Stories since launching in June, but a combination could bring some much needed attention to the app’s longer form video hub. Instagram today launched the ability to share preview image of an IGTV video to your Instagram Story. Friends can tap through to actually watch the full video on IGTV.

IGTV has also recently added a History tab that shows what you’ve recently watched. This could be helpful for getting back to your favorite clips or jumping to a new episode of a show you’re hooked on.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on Tuesday’s earnings call that “People really want to watch a lot of video”, and the company plans to invest more in premium Facebook Watch content. But so far, it’s niether publicly announced any deals to pay for IGTV content, nor has opened any direct monetization options to creators. With viewership taking time to grow, there just aren’t enough incentives for creators to invest to producing polished, longer-form vertical video when there’s nowhere else to put it but IGTV. Virality through these previews could convince them there’s big fan base growth opportunities available if they stick with IGTV.

Combined, these updates show that the departure of Instagram’s co-founders hasn’t slowed down the company’s innovation. Former Facebook News Feed VP Adam Mosseri kept up a brisk pace of product launches, and now with Instagram he seems determined to keep users, creators, and businesses glued to what’s quickly becoming the social giant’s premier property.



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As stock rises on a slim earnings beat, eBay tells analysts to focus on payments and ads

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Despite increasing competition from traditional retailers like Walmart and Target, which have invested heavily in e-commerce, and the whupping it’s routinely taking from Amazon among pure e-commerce companies, eBay the 20-year-old lumbering Pez dispenser of an e-tailer, keeps plugging along.

Now, as it manages to eke out another earnings win by matching analysts’ expectations, the company is telling the bankers that watch it to look to advertising and payments for its future growth.

The company met analysts’ estimates of revenue totaling $2.65 billion, up from $2.41 billion in the year-ago period. That amounts to adjusted earnings of 56 cents per share, up from 48 cents per share in the year-ago period and beating analyst estimates of 54 cents per share. Profits for the company hit $720 million for the quarter.

The news sent shares up over 4 percent in trading after the market closed on Tuesday.

But more interesting than the the tepid results was its outlook for the future. Right now, eBay is at a crossroads as it tries to get a new group of users to forget about its past as a marketplace for used goods and resellers — and as a more pure e-commerce company.

“This quarter we continued to make foundational investments to improve the long-term competitiveness of our marketplace while setting the stage for significant growth opportunities,” said CEO Devin Wenig in a statement. “We will continue to innovate the customer experience while executing our growth initiatives in Payments and Advertising to position eBay for future success.”

The fact is, eBay is growing. It saw the number of active buyers across the platform increase by 4 percent, and has 177 million global active buyers. While that number is dwarfed by Amazon’s over 300 million global buyers (as of 2017), it’s one of the largest retailers in the U.S. The company’s StubHub business saw revenues of $291 million, up 7 percent from the year-ago period and sales of $1.2 billion. Its classified payments also grew.

As eBay looks ahead, payments and advertising are going to receive a bulk of the company’s internal investment dollars as it tries to complete the rollout of a new payment experience in the wake of its divorce from PayPal and its embrace of Adyen, Apple Pay, and the technology-based financial services company, Square.

The company has already processed $38 million in payments and through the partnership with Apple Pay has grown that payment method to 12 percent on the platform. Advertising on eBay has seen 400,000 sellers promote over 160 million listings.

“We continue to grow the inventory on the marketplace,” Schenkel. “Just recently we rolled out a direct from brand and direct from authorized resellers… Brands want choice and they want to sell on a marketplace with 177 million users that doesn’t compete with them.”

The company will also continue to have an aggressive investment and mergers and acquisitions strategy, the executives said. Especially since the company found its earnings buoyed by the $1 billion it brought in from the sale of its stake in Flipkart,<a href=”https://techcrunch.com/2018/05/09/walmart-confirms-16b-flipkart-investment-giving-it-77-in-indias-e-commerce-leader/”> when it was bought by Walmart for $16 billion.

What’s somewhat interesting is that there are new companies in the retail space that are making a mint doing things that eBay once dominated. Vinted and DePop are both used-clothing e-tailers that have enviable cache and significant revenues, while LetGo and OfferUp are also raiding used goods to turn trash into treasure.

A quick trip to eBay’s homepage shows that the company has all but consigned its collectible past to the trash heap. Given the death and dissolution of so many of its peers from the first generation of internet giants, it’s worth keeping an eye on eBay if only to see how the 20-something company approaches middle age as an independent entity.

“We have a unique situation. [The] eBay brand is very well recognized and not as well understood. We’re seeing this; that new buyers are responding really well to the changes that we made in the last few years and we need more of them and part of that is messaging our brand,” said Wenig on the earnings call with investment analysts.

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New ‘Dark Ads’ pro-Brexit Facebook campaign may have reached over 10M people, say researchers

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A major new campaign of disinformation around Brexit, designed to stir up UK ‘Leave’ voters, and distributed via Facebook, may have reached over 10 million people in the UK, according to new research. The source of the campaign is so far unknown, and will be embarrassing to Facebook which only this week claimed it was clamping down on ‘dark’ political advertising on its platform.

Researchers for the UK-based digital agency 89up, allege that “Mainstream Network” — which looks and reads like a ‘mainstream’ news site but which has no contact details or reporter bylines — is serving hyper-targeted Facebook advertisements aimed at exhorting people in Leave-voting UK constituencies to tell their MP to “chuck Chequers”. Chequers is the name given to the UK Prime Ministers’s proposed deal with the EU regarding the UK’s departure from the EU next year.

89up says it estimates that Mainstream Network, which routinely puts out pro-Brexit “news”, could have spent over £250,000 on pro-Brexit or anti-Chequers advertising on Facebook in less than a year. The agency calculates that with that level of advertising, the messaging would have been seen by 11 million people. TechCrunch has independently confirmed that Mainstream Network’s domain name was registered in November last year, and began publishing in February of this year.

In evidence given to Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee today, 89up says the website was running dozens of adverts targetted at Facebook users in specific constituencies, suggesting users “Click to tell your local MP to bin Chequers”, along with an image from the constituency, and an email function to drive people to send their MP an anti-Chequers message. This email function carbon-copied an info@mainstreamnetwork.co.uk email address. This would be a breach of the UK’s data protection rules, since the website is not listed as a data controller, says 89up.

The news comes a day after Facebook announced a new clampdown on political advertisement on its platform, and will put further pressure on the social media giant to look again at how it deals with the so-called ‘dark advertising’ its Custom Audiences campaign tools are often accused of spreading.

89up claims Mainstream Network website could be in breach of new GDPR rules since, while collecting users’ data, it does not have a published privacy policy, or contain any contact information whatsoever on the site or the campaigns it runs on Facebook.

The agency says that once users are taken to the respective localized landing pages from ads, they are asked to email their MP. When a user does this, its default email client opens up an email and puts its own email in the BCC field (see above). It is possible, therefore, that the user’s email address is being stored and later used for marketing purposes by Mainstream Network.

TechCrunch has reached out to Mainstream Network for comment on Twitter and email. A WhoIs look-up revealed no information about the owner of the site.

TechCrunch’s own research into the domain reveals that the domain owner has made every possible attempt to remain anonymous. Even before GDPR came in, the domain owners had paid to hide its ownership on Godaddy, where it is registered. The site is using standard Godaddy shared hosting to blend in with 400+ websites using the same IP address.

Commenting, Damian Collins MP, the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the UK Houde of Commons, said: “We do not know who is funding the Mainstream Network, or who is behind its operations, but we can see that they are directing a large scale advertising campaign on Facebook designed to get people to lobby their MP to oppose the Prime Ministers’s Brexit strategy. I have been sent a series of emails from constituents as a result of these adverts, in a deliberate attempt to alter the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

“The issue for parliamentarians is we have no idea who is targeting whom via political advertising on Facebook, who is paying for it, and what the purpose of that communication is. Facebook claimed this week that it was working to make political advertising on their platform more transparent, but once again we see potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent to influence the political process and no one knows who is behind this.”

Mike Harris, CEO of 89up said: “A day after Facebook announced it will no longer be taking ‘dark ads’, we see once again evidence of the huge problem the platform is yet to face up to. Facebook has known since the EU referendum that highly targeted political advertising was being placed on its platform by anonymous groups, yet has failed to do anything about it. We have found evidence of yet another anonymous pro-Brexit campaign placing potentially a quarter of a million pounds worth of advertising, without anyone knowing or being able to find out who they are.”

Josh Feldberg, 89up researcher, said: “We have no idea who is funding this campaign. Only Facebook do. For all we know this could be funded by thousands of pounds of foreign money. This case just goes to show that despite Facebook’s claims they’re fighting fake news, anonymous groups are still out there trying to manipulate MPs and public opinion using the platform. It is possible there has been unlawful data collection. Facebook must tell the public who is behind this group.”

TechCrunch has reached out to both Facebook and Mainstream Network for comment prior to publication and will update this post if either respond to the allegations.

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Google-incubated AdLingo uses chatbot integration to create conversational ads

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“Conversational marketing” is a phrase that I hear a lot, but when the team at AdLingo uses it, they mean something specific — namely, bringing chatbots and other conversational assistants into online advertising.

The startup is part of Google’s Area 120, and co-founder and general manager Vic Fatnani said he’s worked on advertising at Google for more than a decade.

“One of the things we saw happening was this paradigm shift with users and consumers going towards more of a conversational medium,” he said. “Everything is becoming more conversational, whether it’s through devices such as your phone, your speaker and eventually your car … We asked ourselves, ‘Hey if this shift is happening, why can’t marketing be more conversational?’”

You may be wondering whether consumers are really clamoring to interact with ads, but Fatnani said he and his co-founder Dario Rapisardi were determined not to build “a solution that needs a problem,” so they spent months talking to marketers and chatbot developers.

Apparently, when they asked about what challenges everyone was facing, the big answer was “discovery.” As Fatnani put it, “Hey, I have this amazing conversational assistant, but it’s really hard for me to bring this in front of audience.”

General Manager Vic Fatnani, Head of Partnerships Stephanie Lyras, Head of Engineering Dario Rapisardi

In his view, advertising provides the perfect medium to solve this problem. Instead of building a chatbot and just letting consumers find it on their own website or app, brands can integrate it into their advertising, allowing people who see the ad to ask questions and provide feedback.

“Imagine you want to launch a new soda drink in Brazil, a market that you’ve never entered before,” he added. “Imagine you can now run a conversational display ad and actually have people vote to say what kind of flavor would you like to drink.”

Or for a real example, there’s the Allstar Kia experience that you can see at the top of this post. Che company’s director of internet marketing Chris Ferrall said in a statement that “AdLingo lets our customers browse inventory, determine car trade-in value and make an appointment with a salesperson — all within an engaging, interactive experience that meets them right where they are.”

To be clear, Adlingo isn’t building the chatbots. Instead, Fatnani said, “The brands and developers bring the conversational experience to us, and we distribute that experience all over the web.”

To do this, the platform integrates with chatbot tools like Dialogue Flow, Microsoftbot Framework, LiveEngage and Blip. It’s also partnered with Valassis Digital and LivePerson (the Kia campaign happened through Valassis).

How does this all fit into Google’s larger plans for advertising? Fatnani said it doesn’t, at least not yet.

“We are completely separate efforts in terms of our product roadmap and what we execute,” he said, later adding, “At this point, we just want to make sure we’re really, really focused on our customer.”

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YouTube TV’s DVR now lets you fast-forward through ads on more major channels

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Since its launch, one of the top complaints about YouTube’s live TV streaming service, YouTube TV, was that its DVR feature would often default users to the video-on-demand version of the show – which means you’d have to watch the commercials. It’s been one of the biggest drawbacks to YouTube TV, and a selling point for competitors’ services, frankly. That’s been slowly starting to change, however. And this week, YouTube announced several more deals that will allow users to opt for the recorded version of the show instead of the ad-filled, video-on-demand one.

This includes deals with AMC, Disney/ABC, FOX, NBCU and Turner-owned channels, says YouTube. Thanks to these deals, a number of the most-watched TV networks will now allow users to switch to the recorded version of the show, where they’ll have full control over pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding at any time during playback – even during an ad break.

The change is not because of a technical advance, to be clear, but rather one that required negotiations on YouTube’s part. Its original compromise with TV programmers was that it would switch users to the on-demand version of the show, if available. But for YouTube TV subscribers, that’s been a subpar experience – and one that could drive them to rival services, like Hulu with Live TV or DirecTV Now, where fast-forwarding through commercials is supported.

YouTube also officially announced this week a number of other changes that aren’t brand-new, but recent ones it hadn’t publicly noted yet – including the rollout of a Dark Theme on the desktop – similar to the one on YouTube proper; the ability to personalize its Live TV Guide by reordering networks and hiding others; and the ability to turn off spoilers to hide sports’ scores.

The streaming TV service is one of the newer ones to arrive, and still behind market leaders Sling TV and DirecTV Now, which have millions of subscribers. However, YouTube’s service is growing quickly, having gone from an estimated 300,000 paying customers in the beginning of 2018 to 800,000 this summer. With the DVR improvement, those numbers could grow even more quickly.

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Google’s head of its $110B+ ads and commerce business is leaving for Greylock Capital

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Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s head of commerce, is leaving the company after more than 15 years and will be joining Greylock Partners, sources inside the company told us and Google confirmed. Ramaswamy will become a venture partner at Greylock Capital. At Google, his position will be filled by Prabhakar Raghavan, who was previously the company’s VP of apps for Google Cloud.

While at Google, Ramaswamy oversaw virtually all of Google’s Ads and Commerce products — that is, basically everything outside of the Google Cloud that makes the company most of its money. Ramaswamy joined Google as an engineer, but quickly moved up in the company’s ranks. He took his current position back in 2014, after Susan Wojcicki moved to YouTube.

At Greylock, Ramaswamy will focus on earlier-stage entrepreneurial projects.

Prabhakar Raghavan, vice president of engineering and products at Google Inc., speaks during the company’s Cloud Next ’18 event in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.

Google’s advertising revenue still accounts for 84 percent of the total revenue of Alphabet. Last quarter, Google’s advertising revenues came in at over $28 billion. Annual revenue for 2017 was over $110 billion. It’s no secret, though, that Google has struggled to build a stronger commerce business, with projects like Google Express falling relatively flat as its competitors continue to grow.

Raghavan, who will take his place, joined Google in 2012, after a seven-year stint as executive VP and head of Yahoo Labs, which he founded. Like Ramaswamy before him, Raghavan will focus on products while Philipp Schindler will continue in his role as Google’s Chief Business Officer, working side-by-side with Raghavan.

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