Tell us about the story behind Covatic: what was the spark that lit the flame?
I was working on the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage back in 2013 and that same weekend both Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix were on too – as is the way with the British TV scheduling in the summer - and the Glastonbury viewing figures were being absolutely obliterated by those of the tennis. Wimbledon was all about the red button, allowing viewers to drop in and catch up on matches that interested them at a time that was convenient to them, while the festival broadcasting was the opposite: based entirely around live sets and not around your average person’s Saturday.
I realised that it was about more than knowing what sort of things people enjoyed – be it music, sport, food, travel – but about when they enjoyed it. What did their typical day look like and when did they tend to catch up on their favourite content? The secret to finding out that sort of information is ridiculously obvious: their phone. Almost everyone has a smartphone now and it goes everywhere with them. Most people charge their phones overnight, therefore it registers the time they wake up and the time they go to sleep, and everything in between, be it their commute, their media consumption or their calendar. I knew there had to be a safe and non-invasive way to use those windows of opportunity to provide a better way for brands to speak to their consumers. And, as it turned out, there was.
How did you go from initial idea to operational business?
It was a couple of years before I actually quit my job to dedicate myself full time to setting up Covatic. Initially I got involved with Oxford University Innovations, an initiative run for entrepreneurs, and over the following four years we have built up to a 12-strong team with clients both in the UK and the US. Just as we started Covatic we built a comprehensive prototype with the BBC which showed us early on that we had a fantastic product and one that the industry was in real need of.
We have created original tech from the ground up – nothing is cobbled together using bits and bobs from existing tools and intel, everything is based on stringent research and rigorous testing, supported and influenced by copious amounts of expertise from the very best brains in their field.
That connection with Oxford University has also been instrumental in attracting some phenomenal talent. We’re now a team of 12, made up of engineers, data scientists, and analysts with offices in The Custard Factory, the heart of Birmingham’s creative and digital district.
And how exactly does the tech work?
Our offering is driven by our piece of proprietary software we call Serendipity, which is integrated into the host app and builds a unique engagement profile for every individual user by learning and predicting their activities, behaviours and preferences. Our Insight Portal then provides a comprehensive overview of audience metrics – all based around their behaviour, habits and lifestyle. From this data we create user segments - groups of people who fit the same or very similar profiles – and clients can create a bespoke, optimised communication strategy for maximum impact.
How do you do that in a way that adheres to privacy protocol?
Our tech is driven by Edge AI which sits within the app itself and acts as gatekeeper to the user’s privacy. Everyone with a smartphone agrees to certain data sharing, such as access to location, calendar, analysis of app usage and so on, which in turn gets to know a person’s behaviour. All we do is use the existing data which is already on the device and run our AI to identify the most effective moments to send a notification for that particular user. We never have sight of that information, Edge AI does all the work for us while keeping the user’s data private. All it tells us is the exact moment to share a particular notification. For example, if your phone tells our tool that you go for a run at 1pm three days a week, we know 12.45pm is the best time to serve you a playlist from your preferred radio app. Equally, if your calendar shows you have a meeting from 4-5pm, your favourite pizza place won’t send you a 241 offer for that evening at 4.15pm, they’ll wait till 5.30pm when your day is finished and you’re starting to think about dinner plans.
If someone has your app it means they’re already engaged, doesn’t it?
Not necessarily. It means they were engaged once but that’s no guarantee of regular engagement. How many apps does the average person have on their phone that they never open? Maybe they were prompted to download it and then forgot all about it, or they’ve got out of the habit of using a service they once enjoyed, such as a radio station or meal planning app. A lot of lifestyle apps are downloaded in a moment of enthusiastic resolve - meditation, exercise, meal planning and so on - and then usage drifts. With Covatic those brands have the opportunity to re-engage with people in a contextually appropriate way, be that at the best time of day or during some downtime, in such a way that will maximise the chances of them responding positively.
But it’s not just about bringing people back into the fold, it’s also about adding value by sending them relevant, targeted messages that mean they get the best brand experience possible.
So, what is the art to effective in-app messaging?
Like any effective advertising it all comes down to adding value and not being annoying. And naturally one feeds into the other. If someone has downloaded your app that’s a great start, but to get the most out of that relationship, to drive retention, you need to optimise your communication strategy. It’s not about firing them any or all of your in-app messages, it’s about ensuring every contact you have with them comes at a time of day in which they will be most receptive, based on what you know about their lifestyle. So, whether that’s during their 45-minute commute, on their lunch break, or early evening, you know you’re sending the best messages for them at the best time for them and not spamming them with irrelevant comms where the only action they take is to delete your app from their phone.
How will the end of cookies impact your business?
Put simply, it won’t. That is the joy of what we do – absolutely no personally identifiable data is released at any stage. It doesn’t rely on cookies or any sort of tracking, just personalised, targeted advertising that will only add value to both parties. Working with our current clients we have identified methods which can result in over 10 times engagement.
You’ve obviously had a positive experience as an entrepreneur – what’s next?
In Covatic, I have realised a long-held ambition to create my own business that services a gap in the market, and it’s something that I know has enormous potential so I’m excited to see where we can take it over the coming years.
But you’re right, my mind is always whirring with the next big idea, and alongside our day-to-day work we are also working with Birmingham City University on a project called iamzero, which is an app that enables users to see what their impact is on the environment, then make amends.
Using similar principles to the tech behind Serendipity, the app analyses your behaviour and calculates its impact on the environment – so whether they drive to work, take the train or cycle, for example – and then notifies you of your ‘green score’. From there it invites you to purchase an offset to get you back to net zero.
We’re incredibly excited about officially launching the app later this year as I think it really taps into a growing demand from consumers who want to be more environmentally responsible.