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In order to understand what resonates with consumers, it’s important to talk to them.
Consumer brands have long recognized this, and put lots of effort in pursuit of gaining the customer voice. They deploy research teams that conduct focus groups to seek out feedback from consumers about their own behavior, as well as what might motivate them to purchase a particular product.
Under this model, the qualitative side of the research is key. Being able to hear directly from consumers allows brands to incorporate their voice in strategies they set out, and decisions they make. It’s where the pulse of the consumer is taken, and effectively de-risks what they release in the meantime.
In a digital age, however, these focus groups can feel like increasingly cumbersome endeavors. Brands might spend weeks – not to mention tens of thousands of dollars– traveling around to talk to groups of dozens of people. And we’ll emphasize here that they’re doing this in-person.
“That’s not going to work in today’s digital environment,” Aneesh Dhawan told The Current. “The world is moving too fast. Consumer preferences are changing too quickly.”
Dhawan is the CEO of a startup with an answer to the focus group for the time of TikTok.
Knit offers a platform that allows brands to upload market research questions or ideas for new creative, which in turn go to a network of more than one million Gen Zers. In return, the brands get feedback through a 30-90 second video, as well as via traditional survey format. Research that has traditionally required getting a big group together in the same place is now available on-demand.
“Because it’s asynchronous, you’re still able to talk to hundreds of people, but it happens within hours and you’re still getting that qualitative feedback through these videos,” said Dhawan.
The platform also has AI tools that allow video analysis of the feedback in what the company said is minutes. This helps brands turn qualitative feedback into quantitative data. With brands able to tap this network frequently, consumer feedback can be incorporated at multiple steps of a team’s process.
With brands including Moët Hennessy and NASCAR signed on as customers, the company recently closed on $3.55 million in seed funding. The investment round was led by Silicon Road Ventures with participation from Bread and Butter Ventures, Alumni Ventures, Bootstrappers.mn, Operate Studio and TiE Global Angels.
While the Gen Z voice can often be painted as elusive, the startup has a direct understanding of the cohort, since the founders are in the group themselves. For his part, Dhawan has long been captivated by the power of connecting brands and Gen Z consumers. He launched a cause marketing agency called Feed A Friend at the age of 16, and went on to start a nanoinfluencer platform specifically designed to help connect brands and the age cohort.
Cofounder and CTO Raahish Kalaria previously founded adtech company FreeCopy and computer vision-based home automation solutions company One Remote.
Through their personal and professional experience, the entrepreneurs saw how their digitally native generation can be difficult to reach for research by brands, and their tastes and behavior change quickly. At the same time, the video format of TikTok and YouTube was a primary means of creating content and interaction. They sought to put those insights together to build the company, offering a large, diverse and unbiased group of Gen Zers for brands, with feedback delivered through a medium that meets them where they are.
Starting the company while in college, Dhawan and Kalaria participated in the Techstars accelerator’s 2019 ‘Farm to Fork’ program, which was a key building block toward the launch of Knit in January 2021. Working with marketing and innovation teams, the company now has over 30 enterprise customers, including the WNBA and Harman International (maker of JBL Speakers). It also works with startups.
With an Austin-headquartered team of about a dozen people, Dhawan said the company is working to expand the available voices in provides access to beyond Gen Z, enabling brands to tap consumer insights in all age groups. In one step toward that, it has a network of four million millennials to draw on. Knit also wants to make these insights available from consumers globally, and plans to start expansion in the EMEA and LATAM regions.
“One of the biggest leaps that we’ve made and are continuing to make is expansion past Gen Z and into the general population so that any brand can talk to any consumer, anywhere in the world,” Dhawan said.
Through the investment round, it now has support from investors who bring experience to assist the company beyond providing funding. Atlanta-based Silicon Road Ventures has a particular focus on commerce, while Bread and Butter Ventures brings particular expertise in SaaS.
“The quality of partners that we brought on with this round of funding is going to help us accelerate our trajectory not just over the next 12-18 months, but also over the next 7-10 years as we build a category defining company,” Dhawan said.
Trending in Marketing
The company raised $10 million in a Series A to build on work with Bloomingdale's and Dior.
As retailer set out to achieve omnichannel goals, they work to connect ecommerce and in-person retail. But consider each of the channels on their own, and it becomes clear that they both have advantages when it comes to the shopping experience.
Ecommerce boasts the convenience of getting an item delivered to a customer’s door, and a vast assortment. Brick-and-mortar stores allow shoppers to casually browse for items that stand out to them, and more fully visualize an item before buying it.
So the question is: How do you find a middle ground that offers the best of both?
Emperia believes virtual stores offer an answer. The company has put its platform to work with Bloomingdale’s, Dior, Ralph Lauren and Lacoste to create immersive experiences.
Accessible through a laptop, mobile device or TV, the virtual stores can be accessed anywhere, while offering shoppers the ability to move through a store and browse.
In the digital world, the in-store experience can also be taken to new creative levels, as untethering from the physical world can take shopping to new settings that accent a brand’s story. In the Bloomingdale’s holiday store, for example, the Ralph Lauren section was in a holiday forest, while Nespresso was at a Parisian cafe. Chanel’s experience took shoppers to the moon.
Emperia now has new fuel for its own rocketship. The company said Wednesday that it raised $10 million in a Series A round. This funding will help to grow its 40-person, 14-country team, and further develop its virtual store platform and corresponding data suite.
The round was led by Base10 Partners with participation from Daphni (via its retail fund Dastore), Sony Innovation Fund, Background Capital, Stanford Capital Partners and Concept Ventures.
Bloomingdale's Chanel store, on the moon. (Photo via Emperia)
Emperia was founded in 2019 by fashion and retail expert Olga Dogadkina and VR technologist Simonas Holcmann.
“While working in fashion, it became clear to me that e-commerce was the future, but 2D websites were merely a tool that enabled an online purchase, but were lacking the customer journey and story-telling that brands are after,” Dogadkina said. “The solution was to bridge that gap, with the aim of making virtual experiences into the future of brands’ long-term ecommerce strategy.”
Emperia’s platform provides the technology and visual infrastructure that architect the virtual stores. Importantly, it is all undergirded by data. This shows how a digital experience can change the data equation for retailers, even as they keep features of an in-store experience. Emperia tracks movement within the store, demographics, behavioral patterns, important steps of the purchase journey events and more. Analytics are used in layout, design, user experience and merchandise placement.
This allows Emperia to continuously optimize the virtual stores, all while measuring against the KPIs of brand and retail clients.
The result is that the virtual stores can become revenue drivers, Emperia said. The company said its platform increased conversion rates 73% when compared to regular ecommerce sites for its customers, and the average return on investment is 750%.
Following the funding round, Emperia sees a new opportunity to leverage virtual store data to provide retailers with new personalization tools. It is also working with partners in the ecosystem to bring a variety of virtual ecommerce capabilities under one roof.
Base10 Partners’ Luci Fonseca said the firm was “absolutely stunned” by the team and early traction.
“The more we spoke to customers, the more we saw that Emperia is on the edge of a global revolution on how consumers interact with retailers and brands,” Fonseca said. “One way to think about Emperia is through the lens of ‘web 2.5’—it is a device-agnostic bridge for brands to engage with a new generation of consumers while driving real commerce.”
What it means for ecommerce
Emperia shows that virtual experiences don’t have to require VR headsets. Offering access to stores through a mobile or laptop device brings immersive elements to customers where they already shop. Meanwhile, experience design elements that mimic in-store shopping offer a format that is familiar. The goal is the same as ever: to meet their needs and even delight them with the unexpected.