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Meet the CEO: Alex Orap of YouScan talks the future of ‘visual listening’

Social listening platform YouScan was founded in Ukraine in 2010. Today, the company employs 85 people across its headquarters in Kyiv, sales office in Moscow and international offices in the UK and the US. YouScan’s customer base includes well-known consumer brands such as Nestle, AMD, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Google, L’Oreal, Chanel, and Samsung, plus large agencies including Mediacom, Kantar TNS and Ipsos.

The Social Intelligence Lab recently spoke to YouScan’s co-founder and CEO, Alex Orap, to learn more about the growth of YouScan and his vision for the future of the company…

 

When did you first become involved in the ‘Social Intelligence’ sector and what motivated you to establish YouScan in 2010?

Back then, I was working in Yandex, one of the biggest consumer internet companies in the region. I saw how frustrated our PR/marketing teams were as they attempted to capture users’ feedback about Yandex’s product launches, as they were lacking the dedicated tools they needed.

This insight, combined with my entrepreneurial mindset, was an inspiration to launch YouScan as a pioneering social media listening tool for professional use.

 

How would you describe the company?

Our mission is to help companies become better by listening to their customers online. We position ourselves as a “smart Social Media Listening tool” for medium and big enterprise customers (consumer brands). We focus on delivering actionable insights from social media to the users instantly, with as little manual work as possible required from their side.

 Our product is mostly used by marketing and PR departments, helping brands to find actionable consumer insights (including Visual Insights, with the help of our image recognition capabilities), do the marketing research, and manage their brand reputation.

 

What have been the key challenges to growing the business?

Thanks for asking. It wasn’t easy (very hard, in fact) to come such a long way from a tiny start-up to the established global business we are today.

The first challenge was entering a nascent, or should I say non-existent market, for social media listening, and the need to invest heavily not only in platform development but also in market education, back in 2009-2010. As a result, sales growth was much slower than we originally anticipated. Being mostly a regional player until recently, we’ve also had to overcome region-specific challenges related to political and economic crises that hit us in 2014.

We started with the founding team of five people based in a coworking space. After raising initial funding round from European seed-stage fund, The OpenFund, we were bootstrapping for a few years, iterating on our product and searching for a product-market fit. In 2015, after raising a Series A round led by Swedish funds Kinnevik and Vostok New Ventures, we have boosted our growth, invested a lot in a team and our product (especially in AI-powered functions) and started an international expansion. We have also acquired one of our competitors, BrandSpotter, along the way.

Technical challenges can’t be underestimated too. Back when we started, it seemed like the barrier to enter the SML market was minimal for new vendors, and pretty much anyone with a desire and some funding can do it. We were the first product of its kind in our region and witnessed many teams and startups trying to build SML tools in the following years, too – with varying levels of success.  It’s clear now, though, that it takes a considerable effort, focus, and dedication to build a robust SML platform from which customers will get value. We learned a lot of lessons the hard way, too, but ultimately it made us a strong player with extensive domain expertise.

All in all, it’s been a long journey, and it’s not over yet: with major social media platforms constantly changing the ‘rules of the game’ with regards to data access, we need to constantly adapt. This business is never boring!

What I like about the industry, though, is the friendly competition that makes everyone better in the process. It’s not a cut-throat kind of market where the winner takes it all – it is a big enough market for multiple vendors to innovate, differentiate, and thrive.

 

How do you distinguish YouScan from the other listening platforms on the market?

 YouScan  provides a broad set of opportunities for Social Media Listening: from simple cases like reputation management to deep consumer behavior analytics based on image recognition. Our Visual Insights functionality is one of our key differentiators because the system is able to detect not only logos, but also visual context — scenes, objects, activities and even dominating colors.

A few months ago, we introduced one more subproduct included in our subscription plans – Mention Wall to address the needs of event management market. It helps brands to interact with their audiences during events and engage their employees to see the consumer insights in the offices.

 

You mention that your platform’s assistant Aina will soon have ‘a face’ – how did you go about choosing this face and what factors were important in the decision?

Our product vision is all about building a “smart product” for our customers, where they can get to insights faster thanks to AI/ML-powered capabilities, such as automatic trends discovery, smart alerts, and image recognition.

We also believe data analytics should not be boring, especially if it is the data coming from social media where you deal with unfiltered consumer opinions (which can be hilarious at times, but also sometimes depressing).

So on the intersection of these thoughts, we came up with this idea of having a cute character in our platform – Aina, AI-based virtual analyst, which will deliver the most significant insights to the users in a friendly and personalized manner. We believe it will be really helpful to our users, and a bit entertaining, too.

Think of Aina as of our version of Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s  Alexa, specifically tailored to deliver you business insights from social media.

 

Analytics based on image recognition? Tell me more.

 We think that good old text-based social media listening is not enough anymore. With a vast amount of visual content posted online in the form of photos and images, we found that up to 85% posts related to the brand are implicit, i.e. they don’t have a brand name mentioned in a post, but rather contain its logo in a picture.

So the ability to monitor images that contain brand logos is a must for popular consumer brands, but this is only a start.

With an extra ability to analyze visual context surrounding the brand (like scenes, objects, types of persons, activities, colors) using image recognition technology like ours, companies can uncover a whole new level of consumer insights by looking at real-life consumption situations; and even narrow down such analysis to specific target audiences.

It also allows brands to detect visual content which can be potentially harmful to their reputation and apply appropriate strategies to minimize risks (for example, alcohol brands do not want to be associated with driving or cycling, etc.). On a more positive side, there are tons of beautiful user-generated photos that contain brand logos, so brands can license them and use them in their marketing.

Use-cases for visual content analysis (besides basic brand logo detection) are vast, and we believe it will play a crucial role in SML going forward.

 

What market sectors/industries do you think could be utilising Social Listening and/or Social Intelligence more than they do at present? 

In my opinion, most industries are still not using social media intelligence to its full potential. Take CPG / FMCG, for example: across our customer base, this is probably the most significant segment of users, and many of them are indeed forward-looking. They have made social listening an integral part of their consumer research process.

But as I talk to potential customers, I realize that there are thousands of other businesses and brands in the same CPG / FMCG space who are just approaching the concept of analysing consumer opinions online. Given the lack of standardised processes, and often without a clear way to calculate the ROI of social media listening projects, it can take time for businesses to adopt these practices.

I also agree with an opinion in this recent article on your site that pharma companies are among those who could be benefiting more from social media listening much more than they do today.

 

Does the ‘social intelligence’ sector need to establish an agreed code of ethics to govern the handling of social data and research based on this data? 

Absolutely. We want the industry to use social data ethically and thrive as a result, and not be associated with recent privacy-related scandals, which are already well known to the general public. That’s why we have made “Treat user’s data ethically” one of our core company principles, which is on our culture deck and shared across all team members. We always keep it in mind when we develop new product functionality or conduct research projects for our customers.

Moreover, in our contracts and platform terms of use, we legally bind our customers to use the data we provide only for ethical, lawful consumer research purposes and disallow to use it for any manipulation, targeting, spamming, persecution, or other unlawful, unethical, or discriminatory purposes.

I’d love to see other players in the market take this approach, too.

 

How do you see the future of the market for SML tools like YouScan?

The social media landscape changes at a rapid pace, with existing players experimenting with new formats, new players emerging on the market (TikTok is a recent example), and of course, data and privacy restrictions which play a more prominent role now. All this directly affects the business of SML vendors, of course. It is never boring! That said, we believe that the market will be evolving in two key ways:

1) We’ll see a continued trend for consolidation, as international customers require from the vendors to provide the cutting edge technologies, along with global and regional coverage. The BrandWatch/Crimson Hexagon merger last year is a prominent case here.

2) Data and privacy restrictions will drive the need to develop better technologies to uncover consumer insights within anonymised data. We believe that AI-powered image recognition capabilities will play an important role here.

 


Learn more about YouScan on our Social Intelligence Marketplace.

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Michael Feeley
Michael Feeley
Michael Feeley is Editor of The Social Intelligence Lab. More content by

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