Not your father's release distribution services

Press release distribution services are going far beyond their black and white, text-only foundations to embrace brands' focus on content creation, multimedia, and measurement and analytics.

Press release distribution services are going far beyond their black and white, text-only foundations to embrace brands' focus on content creation, multimedia, and measurement and analytics.

In a sign of the times, longtime player Marketwire rebranded as Marketwired last week to emphasize it goes far beyond just distributing press releases. In a deeper strategic move, it also hired data specialist Stu Ogawa away from Yahoo as its EVP for product and technology.

“The landmark trends going on through the entire business are rooted in what I would refer to as an explosion in connectivity. We're getting into a world where there are so many channels to get across, so many new voices to be pulled in, and the speed is so much greater than it has been and is accelerating,” says Michael Nowlan, president and CEO of Marketwired. “[Two-way conversations with consumers] are changing not just the products, but the entire company and the way we approach things.”

Big-picture changes in how brands market their products and reach media and consumers are being felt across the space. Industry leaders tell PRWeek that the days of strictly targeting journalists with tightly worded releases are long gone. Now, CMOs and other business leaders look to wire services to reach a range of influencers, from reporters and editors to bloggers, celebrities, and other influential consumers.

Asked if he still considers his company a wire service, BusinessWire marketing SVP Tom Becktold says “in the very best sense of that word, yes.”

“I would say that the term wire service has a changed meaning for a lot of people. The core of what we do is get news to influencers, but the influencer has changed, and we have to broadly retarget and deliver news to audiences on behalf of clients,” he explains. “We're also seeing the broader marketing profession become more familiar with what we do.”

The agency side

The evolution of the press release means agencies are doing their part to create new types of content and working to disseminate them across nontraditional channels.

Ted Birkhahn, president of Peppercomm, says he's noticed more use of multimedia in releases. However, he adds that many brands no longer solely rely on the release to spread information.

“There is less reliance on pure press releases to disseminate news. A lot of clients still use them, but it is less effective than it had been in generating earned coverage,” he says. “We have more success disseminating it across other channels, whether the company's social media or targeting specific journalists or bloggers.”

The role of the PR practitioner in drafting the release has also changed, Birkhahn adds.

“Five years ago, we would write a press release and our job would be to write and edit it,” he explains. “Now we're helping them creating a lot of supporting media and infographics, all of which can be embedded into the wire service's distribution.”

Tara Mullins, account director on Ogilvy Public Relations' Media Influence team, notes that agencies are also educating clients on the options available.

“There are some clients that want to see the press release go across the wire, and we're showing them how to do more than show the text content to make an impact. Targeted media outreach also helps supplement that,” she explains. “I think it's important that all channels are linking together, so what you're seeing on Facebook is on Twitter or even newer channels.”

Critical Mention president Dave Armon, who spent four years as COO at PR Newswire, explains that understanding this changing audience is especially critical for release-distribution services.

“To stay viable, the commercial newswires really have to pay attention to who is consuming their content,” he says. “In the old days, that was going into newsrooms and understanding the needs of beat reporters and editors. Now those news organizations are skeletons of what they once were, so it's about doing that with other downstream consumers. It could range from a mom blogger to a content creator, and [wire services] have to understand how to cater to them and get them the content they want.”

Beyond black and white
In recent years, major wire services have widely embraced multimedia, adding video, audio, and infographics to the less colorful but informative press releases. They've also bolstered their analytics and measurement services and learned to push content through Twitter and other social media. Insiders say the press release is by no means dead, but it has evolved. 

“Personally, I don't think the press release is going away,” says Heidi Sullivan, SVP of digital content at Cision, adding that she was astounded at traffic driven by a recent release. “At the same time, we need to think about other types of content, everything from a blog post to a tip sheet, or a YouTube video, photo reel, or slide show.”

PR Newswire CEO Ninan Chacko compares this range of offerings to the different styles and sizes of envelopes or boxes offered by a delivery service.

“If you fast-forward to today, what has fundamentally changed is the content is much richer. It's text plus hyperlinks, video, and iPhone apps,” he explains. “[Releases] are still being sent to media outlets, but as you can imagine, it's less about targeting individual journalists independently.”

The embrace of the “multimedia press release” by wire services is proving insightful as brands, and the PR agencies that service them, are adopting content-creation services of their own. Agencies including Edelman and Weber Shandwick have launched content-creation units, and brands from Target to Coca-Cola have unveiled editorial-style outlets in recent years.

“The number one problem that [brands] see is they know they have to do a lot of content but they find it hard to get it done. Either they don't feel confident in their creativity or they don't feel like they have enough news to share,” says You Mon Tsang, SVP of products at PRWeb-owner Vocus, adding that the company has brought in consultants to help with issues from strategy to editing. “We've made a big investment in technology on the content side.”

“It's a good time to be in this business,” adds Armon. “They've invested so much in infrastructure over the years, and so many people are building content farms or in-house journalism functions. But when it comes to distribution, all they have is the standard platform everyone has. It's going to be a good time for third-party distribution resources.”

Do you still consider your company a wire service?

“I would certainly say we're more of a wire service-plus than a wire service. We see ourselves collaborating with the clients and also CMOs, and we see ourselves bringing the voice of the customers into the decision-making process, far more than we would have ever done as just a wire service.”
--Michael Nowlan, president and CEO, Marketwired

“I'm not sure even the Associated Press or Agence France Presse refer to themselves as wire services today. I think a lot of people look at that term as an anachronistic model. We've been adaptive, and I like to think of ourselves as a new distribution platform that can be used for multiple purposes.”
--Neil Hershberg, SVP, BusinessWire

Bottom-line changes
Sea changes in both media and marketing strategy have significantly altered distribution services' business models, both in terms of the services they offer and their interactions with customers. Wire services have embraced subscription-based business models, moving away from the à la carte payment methods of the past.

“We are changing all that,” Nowlan says about moving from pay-as-you-go models to subscriptions. “It's more subscription and more value added.”

Tsang adds that his company believes “the place of a press release within the PR function and the bigger marketing function has changed.”

“We used to sell one-off press releases where you would buy one release at a time and really focus it on a certain event, but we've had our clients look at it in a different way,” he explains. “The majority of our releases now come through a subscription model, so over the course of a year, they can send two a month or five a month. We are saying you should be thinking about it through a broader content marketing view.”

PR Newswire has also expanded its specialty well beyond pushing releases to reporters. The company manages a network of Twitter accounts and helps companies manage their own media rooms and investor relations websites, among its services.

“Our name is our name, and our historic roots are in being a newswire, so I think there are still some people who think of us as being that historic newswire,” says Chacko. Instead, he contends, “we are in the workflow business.”

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