Two decades ago, David McInnis distributed a press release via PR Newswire and was disappointed in the results. That led him to found PRWeb, and the rest is press release history.
PRWeb upended the rationales, distribution methods and audiences for the press release forever. Before PRWeb, traditional PR wire services like PR Newswire and Business Wire had licensing-based models for news distribution. Similar to newswire services like the Associated Press and Reuters, they focused on distributing content directly to outlets like newspapers, TV and radio stations. Those gatekeepers determined how and whether to turn press releases into news stories.
PRWeb, by contrast, distributed releases directly over the internet -- and as the internet came to subsume traditional media, the web emerged as a force for traditional PR wires to reckon with. Eventually, PR Newswire and Business Wire came to incorporate PRWeb's innovations, and today both PR Newswire and PRWeb are owned by Cision, the 800-pound gorilla of PR software companies.
In this MarTech Talk interview, we chat with David about the evolution of company news as a marketing tool. We also learn what's next for him -- a PR wire service based on blockchain technology that promises to take on the problem of "fake news."
Here's a lightly edited version of our recent conversation —
How did you come up with the idea for PRWeb?
It all started when I was building websites for people back in 1994-95. It was the early days of the internet. I put out a press release on PR Newswire and I was so excited to see how this was gonna blow up my business. So I put out this press release—and nothing happened.
So I started thinking, "What is the function of a newswire?" The function of it should be to get my story in front as many people as possible, right? I thought there's got to be a better way, even if I just created an email wire and took in press releases and sent them out via email. That would be way more efficient and I don’t have to charge people for that. I had the infrastructure for that. I just built it and put it out there. So that's how it started.
I worked on search engine optimization—this was before Google was a thing—and so we were going to Infoseek, Excite and all the different search engines, literally optimizing placement for each of the search engines for these press releases. They started getting quite a bit of traffic.
When Google came along, we had an instant authority. It got traffic and visibility for our customers and, when Google added PageRank, it was a great way to get backlinks for SEO as well. After Google launched Google News in 2002, we were very well positioned there.
Why did PRWeb releases have so much more visibility online than releases distributed by the traditional wire services?
It comes down to business model. Their model was licensing content. My business model was visibility. I didn't have hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure behind me that I had to cover. My business model was a little bit different. I was trying to drive traffic to a press release that was going direct to consumer. I was eliminating the whole news-reporting layer.
And yet over time, journalists began to use Google News searches in their own research, so you got to have your cake and eat it, too. Which presented a real threat to the wire services.
Right. One of the first offers to acquire us came from PR Newswire in 2005. We ended up selling to Vocus in 2006. Now both are owned by Cision.
Pretty soon, the wire services were all pitching the SEO benefits of press releases.
Yes. What caused me the most concern about our model was that people were increasingly using the platform to game Google. Paying for press releases to build backlinks and trade on our PageRank. I was really nervous about Google taking that away. Eventually they did it, but not until 2013.
So, you moved onto other things after selling PRWeb, but now you're getting back into the news distribution business using blockchain technology. Tell us about that.
Yeah. I’m developing a concept that I call Conveyance. It’s a newswire service that is blockchain-authenticated. Right now, you have a centralized model. The person distributes a release through one of the PR wire services, and the content resides on the wire service's server, and maybe it gets read 3,000 times on their server. And the report you get says it has been read 3,000 times. And then you go into your own site's Google Analytics and say, "Well, I got six clicks off of that."
The idea is to pull that press release closer, so that the company reaps the benefit of that traffic and not just the few click-throughs. So now it's not, "Hey, I got six clicks for my press release after 3,000 people read it on the wire." No, I got 3,000 page views on my website. My website lives there. I control the entire environment around my website. It's a very decentralized approach, and blockchain is ideal for that.
Then my grand plan is to decentralize the entire news syndication space, because I'm fed up with AP and Reuters and how they control the flow of news. So Conveyance would just be a big decentralized database. It's decentralized and it’s trusted. Because it's trusted you can actually go back and verify the source of the story. Because it's a completely open system, you can trace back to the origin of the story to quickly find out if it's legitimate.
Can blockchain technology help ferret out "fake news"?
That’s the whole objective of what I’m trying to do. And it can also ferret out fake journalists. Because now if you have a credentialing system that’s open and transparent and not controlled by the Fourth Estate, then people can be peer-qualified as journalists very transparently. And you know the origin and author of every story out there. Blockchain provides for ultimate transparency.
When do you think we'll be hearing more about Conveyance?
I'm working on it actively right now, if people want to help me do it. We may have an ICO at some point because it will be a token-based system.
We've seen a lot of consolidation in public relations software and services over the past few years. Where do you see this portion of the MarTech space going?
I think those companies have started thinking about their customer a little bit more. They've made their services less about them and more about the customer. That needs to be their focus.