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6.19.20   10:00 AM Tech

"Conversation AI" companies are starting to quiet down

Once the talk of the town, conversation AI companies are quieting down.

At the start of 2020, “Conversation Intelligence” companies were an investor darling. These are some of the fastest-growing startups, earning $10.7 billion total investment in 2019, over half of which was raised in early-stage funding rounds. But the proverbial foot's been taken off the gas as this once-fertile industry starts to feel the same squeeze as its clients.

“Conversation Intelligence” might sound like it teaches customers to make eye contact on dates or job interviews, but the "conversation" is actually happening behind your back. These companies develop AI that listens in and analyzes interactions with customers to highlight which ones could take their business elsewhere. This helps the companies configure successful sales techniques. Topics of conversation, mentions of competitors, and pricing preferences all become data points that clients use to get the most out of their marketing and sales calls.

As is the case with so many tech companies, three major players in the field - Gong.io, Chorus.ai and People.ai - have all slowed hiring considerably in the face of COVID-19. The downturn is especially significant for industry leader Gong.io, whose job listings have declined 78% since January.

It’s easy to understand why hiring has slowed. These tools are used to analyze customer interactions, and Americans are simply spending less money. With less money going around, there are fewer sales and fewer interactions to pick apart for data. That, and some of their biggest clients - like Lyft for People.ai, Zoom for Chorus.ai and Pinterest for Gong.io - are all on the downswing.

Overall headcount is shrinking, too. People.ai started the year with steady growth, but has lost 21 employees since March 15. Chorus.ai’s numbers have tilted down a little, but their headcount remains mostly stagnant.

The notable exception is Gong.io, which has brought on 96 new employees since the end of January. Gong’s hiring spree comes off the back of a $65 million funding round which the company said it would use to add 150 new employees. Recently named one of Forbes’ “Next Billion Dollar Startups,” Gong has enjoyed a healthy media buzz in the last six months - though even the golden child is beginning to taper off. Only seven employees were added during the last month and a half.

Experts are unsure if Americans’ spending habits will remain conservative when the economy eventually rebounds, but their impact is still trickling down to businesses that augment others’ sales. It’ll be a while longer before “conversations” start back up again.

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online - jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings - and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.


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