The PR and marketing playbook for the past several decades has relied heavily on news distribution services. But today, the divide between legacy news outlets and modern news sites, bloggers and social media influencers is enormous, fragmenting readership and fed by a never-ending 24/7 news cycle. Do we even need newswires with so many channels for getting the word out to the public?
On this episode of the Lay of the Brand, News Direct CEO Gregg Castano joins us to provide his insights on the current state of the news distribution industry and where we’re going after a year like no other. Additionally, he’ll shed light on the key areas PR and marketing professionals should look for when assessing news distribution services.
Here are highlights of our conversation. Click below to listen to the podcast or visit layofthebrand.com.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: I want to start off with an existential question, niche publications and narrowcasting mean exponentially more channels for news and there’s a lot of ways to share the news with those channels that are basically DIY. Considering all of the avenues for distributing content available to marketers and media professionals, is there still a need for news distribution services?
Gregg Castano, News Direct: Let me start off by saying I have been in this business for about thirty-four years now. Over those three-plus decades, I’ve seen predictions about the demise or the death of the news wire coming and going continuously because there’s always new technologies that come around that can threaten it. First, it was the introduction of commercial broadcast faxing, which everyone said, “Now I can just fax everyone. I don’t need a newswire service.” Then it was followed by the ability to send content by mass email list, which is even better than faxing. Again, that was seen as a potential threat to the model. Then, of course, is something we have come to know as the internet that came about in the mid-nineties and at that point pretty much everyone was convinced that that was going to spell the end of the news wire.
Then the internet itself spun other functionalities that also became a threat, such as, for those who are publicly traded company employees, ‘notice and access,’ where public companies were permitted by the SEC to meet disclosure by posting their earnings results on corporate websites rather than distributing them via news wire. In that case, I can assure you that even those of us at Business Wire where I worked, perceived this as a significant or existential threat to the core of our revenue model. Yet, nearly 20 years later after ‘notice and access’ was approved by the SEC, that practice has still remained largely limited to a relatively small percentage of companies. So again a threat that looks like it could be a huge threat didn’t really come to be in that sense.
When you look at the other forms and options for distributing content such as the ones that you named earlier, each of those has its strengths and weaknesses, and each of them has a place in the ecosystem. For example, Twitter is widely regarded as a platform that can replace newswires. However, although it is extremely valuable and a useful tool to reach target audiences, it is limited by the fact that only those who follow your company have access to your content, other when that content is shared through retweeting by your followers. But the reality is, the overwhelming majority of companies do not have very large followings unless you’re a company like Apple, so that negates that threat in some way.
Nothing has yet come along that enables companies to widely distribute content to multiple constituency segments at the same economy of scale as a news distribution service or a news wire.
One significant example of this is that newswires are the only way for a company to guarantee that their content gets posted on major online news portals like Yahoo Finance and many others. The answer to your question simply is yes, there is still a need for new distribution services, and all of the other ways of connecting with your audience don’t necessarily have to be viewed as competing with a news distribution service, but rather should be considered complementary to each other. The news wire can’t do it all, and neither can these individual methodologies. That is where I feel the news distribution service will continue to survive. Our company was founded to improve and replace some of the practices and functions of the news wire service that needed to improve in order to stay viable.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Let’s talk about that a little bit more. It used to be you used your news wire service in order to just get a press release out to as many newspapers and magazines and editors that you could, but it’s gone way beyond just press releases now. Obviously, you have new content elements, graphics, video, audio, you want to let people know about your latest blog, there’s interactivity. How have the wire services evolved to keep up with these changes?
Gregg Castano, News Direct: I would argue that the news wire industry, in general, has really not done nearly enough to keep up with those changes that the digital era has produced. In fact, the very premise of News Direct was to bring the business model up to 21st century standards, which I believe can only be done by using 21st century technology. All the major news wire services, like PRNewswire, Business Wire, and Globe, continue to rely on technology platforms that really pre-date the digital era. They’re largely hardware-based systems, which by nature lack the flexibility and the capability to adequately address how modern communication professionals do their jobs now. That’s not to say that there haven’t been things that they’ve done to keep pace and that were, at the time, fairly revolutionary.
For example, all the services can distribute multimedia assets downstream to their network, but that technology is a 25-year-old technology.
Business Wire actually introduced what they call, The Smart News Release, in the late 90s in which images and video, and other content could be embedded into text-based news releases, and then the others followed suit soon thereafter. Since then there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in that space.
When it comes to distributing assets like infographics and video, I felt that it was necessary to go a step further than that. In my opinion, many or most of the news releases that are going over the wires now that have multimedia embedded in them don't necessarily require and should not necessarily be accompanied by a news release. If you require a news release to explain your infographic or your video, then your infographic or your video isn’t very good. On top of that, writing a news release, as everyone knows, is a very time-consuming task, and anything that takes time costs money. Then, there is also the expense of distributing both the press release and the multimedia asset over the wire and thus the whole exercise becomes pretty costly, both in time and dollars when you’re using a traditional news wire service to get that multimedia distributed.
Basically, we believe that the necessity existed and the potential existed for distributing stand-alone multimedia, meaning not embedded into a press release, (and) making that ability available to communications people—which not only allows them to tell their story in a different way but also saves them all that time and expense. For various reasons, the legacy services don’t do that, for either technological or economical reasons, I’m not sure what it is, but thus far they have not adapted to that. As far as social media is concerned, it definitely has a very prominent seat at the table, and again I don’t see that as a competing resource, but rather as a complementary one.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: With all of these different features and services, have the metrics changed for you? How do you know news distribution has done its job?
Gregg Castano, News Direct: I would say that the profession, in general, is becoming much more sophisticated about the metrics they use to measure success. For a long time, people were mostly interested in seeing these big, giant numbers like page impressions, “Oh, I got 500 million page impressions,” to gauge the effectiveness of their messaging. However, it’s become more and more obvious that those kinds of analytics don’t really provide any real actionable value, which is why the term vanity metrics has come into play. It’s called that because it makes the C-suite feel good, but it doesn’t really tell you much about the performance of your content. So having said that it’s now necessary to offer more granularity in those metrics and in turn more insight into what those numbers on the screen, that you’re actually looking at, really mean. I can tell you that we found out immediately that when we launched our product that,
Regardless of how slick and intuitive and economical and secure your platform is, if you don’t provide meaningful analytics, all the other stuff is moot. Nobody cares because they need to see meaningful analytics.
We’ve worked hard to make sure that we do provide unique and useful data along with the traditional stuff that everyone else offers. We think it’s necessary that you give the customer both things because many people have not been completely weaned off that security blanket of showing the boss that their news release has the potential of being viewed by 500 million people—because that, in many cases, masks the reality that it was only 25 people. We’re trying to improve upon that by offering things like click maps that show a geographic segmentation of people that have been looking at your content. It allows you to identify geographically where your message is resonating. We also use a proprietary algorithm that gives customers a more realistic sense of how many people actually had access to your content out of that large vanity number. We also have a number of advancements in the pipeline that will allow for greater insight and understanding of how content is performing. But at the end of the day, every company and individual has a different definition of what success is, and that’s why no service has created that kind of holy grail analytics platform. Our approach, and in general the approach should be, is to identify the commonalities and what is considered valuable data and solve for those first. Then you can look at adding more niche-oriented metrics that appeal to individual market segments.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: What should PR pros who are working at brands and marketing agencies consider when they’re looking at choosing a news distribution service?
Gregg Castano, News Direct: I would say that there are several factors that everyone should look at, and then there are some that should be specific to the individual company or brand based on what their objectives are. The factors that I think are necessary for everyone to look at in their use of a distribution service, and this is in no particular order because it differs from user-to-user, but I would say: the ease and speed of use, because time is money and everyone is crunched for time and that’s a very valuable commodity. Security is absolutely at or near the top of the list, because there’s always someone trying to do something illicit with content that they can make a profit on.
Obviously, the breadth and depth of distribution and reach are very important, and that might be geographic in the sense that maybe you don’t need national distribution, but you might want to target certain geographic areas. You have to make sure that the service you choose is strong in those areas. You have to look at the cost-benefit, obviously. Everyone, especially now, is focused on cutting the budget and so forth and you have to make sure that what you’re getting out of it is worth what you’re paying for it. Again, the depth of analytics are very important, and that’s sort of a moving target, but we have to keep solving for each individual piece of it as we go along. Then lastly, the good old fashioned thing, which is customer support. You have to make sure that if you have a question or a problem or an issue, you should be able to easily reach someone at your provider and get the answers, responses, and resolution that you need in a fast and efficient way.
Beyond that really becomes a matter of unique objectives of the issuer. For example, “does service X reach the specific vertical trade media or specialized media that my company, brand or organization, needs to reach?” Those are the kinds of things you have to look at on an individual basis and it will vary from organization to organization what those things are. I would say no news wire can satisfy everyone’s needs. There are some newswires that are good at some things and some that are not. You have to do your research and figure out, in the case of your unique needs, what the right fit for you is.
There are three audiences here. You have B2C, B2C, and B2G. B2G is actually a good example of what I was just discussing because it’s a lot trickier than reaching a B2C or B2B audience, because the target audience for B2G, which is government, it’s not just media, it’s not just public, it’s also legislators, lobbyists and other types of influencers. Not every news wire has the capacity to effectively reach those kinds of audiences. In cases like that, I think specialization is a good thing and is necessary in order to get the job done properly, because it requires certain industries, certain segments like the one I just mentioned. It requires a specific kind of knowledge, a specific set of contacts, in a very siloed environment. Another good example of that is corporate social responsibility and ESG. That’s a highly specialized market segment that also includes specific media, websites, and bloggers. You really need to understand that environment in order to provide high-quality content-delivery to the right audience.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: The biggest news story of the year and unfortunately the biggest impact on the world this year has been COVID, and I’m wondering if that had an impact on news distribution. Did it change your process and are these changes likely to stick around for a long time?
Gregg Castano, News Direct: There is pretty much no area of human life that COVID has not affected and changed in some ways permanently and in some ways temporarily. In the case of the industry that I’m in, I’m not so sure that COVID changed the process as much as it has accelerated the process. I think there was a movement prior to COVID towards more of a work from home strategy, more self-reliance from a technological standpoint. Zoom didn’t come along because of COVID but no one could argue that it wasn’t in the right place at the right time. Now, even your grandmother knows how to schedule a Zoom call.
COVID has turned practices that used to be outliers into standard practices.
In our case, we have a platform that is self-directed, meaning that we don't have news wire editors acting as a middleman to process content. This is something that, although we think pre-COVID would have ultimately been embraced, there’s no doubt that COVID has also substantially moved up the timeline for our target customer base to adapt to this way of doing news distribution, because they’ve become used to it in other parts of their job. It’s made them more comfortable and more accepting of not relying on a third-party to do the work for them because now you can use technology to do that work. I think it’s made people much more aware of the power of technology, some for good and some for not. Whether or not that will be permanent with all these changes, there is obviously evidence that people are getting Zoom fatigue. I believe that there will be, to use a COVID expression, a flattening of the curve when it comes to conducting online meetings and using technology to achieve certain efficiencies.
I think folks will initially be enthusiastic about getting out and meeting face-to-face, taking people to lunch, and so forth. But to a large extent, you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube. Meeting online has now become a very acceptable, convenient way to conduct business, and economical as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that it will be integrated into nearly all existing company standard practices to some degree, to the extent that people have become more comfortable with technology that maybe before they shied away from, that technology will become a permanent fixture.
Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: This time of year, the beginning of a new year, is always a time when we look for predictions as to where things are going. I’d like to ask you your thoughts about where news distribution services are headed in 2021.
Gregg Castano, News Direct: One thing I’ve heard my whole adult life, while I was in this business, is that the news release is dead or dying, and as a result of that the news distribution services will no longer be available. I say quite often that as a communications tool, the news release itself and by extension, the news distribution service, it’s not dead, it’s not dying, and it never will be. There will always be a place for it in the communications toolkit. However, given the trajectory of technological advancement in the communication space using digital technology, as well, the millennial generation graduating into positions of power, influence, and decision-making, plus the continued evolution of the immediate media consumption habits of target audiences, the news releases, no doubt are going to have to share the stage with other content formats. Ultimately, It’s likely to go from what was the starring role to a supporting player as these factors continue to accelerate and become more of the norm.
However, the total transition from a news release-dominated communication strategy—and therefore a news distribution platform—to a multimedia one is still in my view, a few years off. In 2021, I expect to see more movement towards that, but I expect to see much more of a hybrid use of news releases and multimedia still being employed at best together, rather than as separate entities. For newswires in ‘21, I don’t think it will have a drastic impact because all of the newswires can do that hybrid approach. However going forward, and I’m not sure when this is going to happen, I think it’ll probably be in ‘22 or ‘23.
The future viability of the news wire model will depend on their ability to pivot to a more multimedia oriented strategy.
By that specifically, I mean the ability to send only multimedia, as opposed to a press release being required in order to get multimedia distributed. They have to do this carefully because potentially it could really destroy their business model because so much of it is based on text-based content, because they charge based on word counts. It’s a very tough assignment because they’re very tightly tethered to a certain revenue model, certain technology, and thus far business philosophies that have not really changed in a while.
In our case, we saw that and having been in the business for so long—I saw that while I was at Business Wire—I tried to change that internally, but the appetite wasn’t there for it. I started News Direct to leapfrog all of those legacy issues by building something from scratch, using state of the art technology and also listening closely to the users of the platform. We also developed a platform that was very flexible and agile so that we don’t fall into the same trap where we’re not able to quickly pivot as new technology takes hold. We believe 2021, especially if and when we emerge from this COVID nightmare, will be a year of significant traction for our business model... which is new and to some degree uncomfortable for people to change to. But we think because of all the other things that have happened this year that that process is going to be made easier than it may have been without this pandemic happening.