A startup that wants to help creators harness fans' contact info has raised $3 million in seed funding

  • Startup Key has raised $3 million with backing from adtech and marketing tech execs.
  • The startup works with influencers to help them collect first-party data like email addresses.
  • Google’s and Apple’s moves are pressuring creators to build direct relationships with fans.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Apple’s and Google’s restrictions around tracking consumers on their platforms will make it harder for advertisers to target and measure their ads. Some members of the digital ad industry are positioning email addresses as the new basis to identify people online, making their collection more important than ever before.

A startup called Key has raised $3 million in seed funding so content creators and celebrities building followings on platforms like Instagram and YouTube can capture the email addresses and other contact information that their fans and followers input. Key raised the money from 50 investors, including current and former execs influential in the formation of the digital advertising industry, like Michael Katz, Jonah Goodhart, Bill Wise, and VC firm MathCapital.

Creators can use the first-party data collected through Key’s software to pitch brands for sponsorships and deals, send marketing email or text messages, or run programmatic advertising campaigns.

Creators want to build direct relationships with fans

Key powers landing pages that influencers link to from social media, where fans and followers fill out forms with their contact information. Key stores the data, and also provides tools that analyze a creator’s audience.

Its pitch is that it gives content creators more insight into their fans than they’d get if they just worked with walled gardens like Facebook, Google and Amazon, which limit the insight creators get about who sees and engages with their content. 

“The idea is to help brands unlock data — the walled gardens have a lot of locked data,” said Key CEO and co-founder Evan Wayne. “It’s an arms race but nobody is talking about creators.” Wayne, a former sales and revenue exec who worked at Clearstream, Sociomantic Labs, and Yahoo, co-founded Key with Stephanie Biegel, another former adtech sales exec.

Key’s SaaS model charges creators a fee for using its platform, and it takes a cut of media spend if creators run ad campaigns using the first-party data it collects on their behalf.

Wayne said more than 400 creators use the platform, including mixed martial artist Francis Ngannou, basketball player Isaiah Thomas, and talent agencies Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Elite World Group. 

With the seed funding, Wayne hopes to grow headcount from 12 employees to 25 employees this year, hiring specifically in engineering. About a third of Key’s staff currently is in engineering roles.

UFC champ Francis Ngannou used Key to sell NFTs worth $580,000

Key has gotten some attention from creators already.

CAA worked with its client, MMA fighter Francis Ngannou, and Key in March on a campaign promoting an non-fungible token (NFT) collection. Ngannou promoted the NFT leading up to the UFC 260 championship event with a link on his Instagram account. The link led to a landing page where people could enter their email addresses for a chance at winning an NFT.

CAA declined to share details about how many email addresses were collected but Ngannou reportedly sold $580,000 worth of NFTs.

Ngannou’s Key page also links people to his merch store and YouTube videos.

Marquel Martin, Ngannou’s agent at CAA, said that the NFT drop fits into the athlete’s bigger strategy of building a database that can be used to pitch an audience to brands and send targeted email messages. For example, Ngannou can vie for sponsorships from automakers if his audience is in the market to buy a car or segment email messages to people interested in fitness content. 

“It sets up the talent to better position themselves with data about what fans care about,” he said.

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