A Quick Editorial Note: This is a bit weird for me. Generally, I do not like talking about myself. I certainly do not like referring to myself in third person, so don't expect that here. I have had enough people interested in knowing my story that I have decided to include it here. As I wrote much of this in a single evening I will revisit this page from time to time and add memories. Please share your memories of the early years of PRWeb below.
My journey into news marketing began in 1995. I had a background in neither public relations nor journalism. I have, however, always been very entrepreneurial--an attribute I most likely inherited from my mother. Even though few people have ever asked, I did earn my BA in International Studies at Texas State University.
My first encounter with the online connected world was while I was at university in 1988. Before the Internet was commercialized and before the first web browser was popularized, we would spend countless hours on Bitnet. As an entrepreneur I saw opportunity to help companies come online. At my new company Topsites.net, my sister Poem and I built some of the first web sites in Texas. The tools for creating websites back then were as impressive as the first web sites we deployed.
By 1996 I was inspired by the rapid growth of new technologies, especially in the news business.Pointcast, for all of its bandwidth sucking headaches, offered direct access to business desktops everywhere. I noticed that press releases from PR Newswire were appearing in the feeds. I had just discovered a way to get in front of a massive audience. All I had to do was to distribute a press release at PR Newswire. Everyone would see my press release and I would get a bunch of new web development and website hosting work. The Internet was still new enough that I was certain that the news media would beat a path to my door. That was the idea anyway.
My first press release cost me $600, not a trivial amount for an aspiring entrepreneur with a wife and young sons to support. I expected great things. Journalists would call or email me and carry my message to the masses and Pointcast would deliver my message directly to the desktops of potential customers. That is not how it happened. I did briefly see my headline run across Pointcast and absolutely nobody from the media came calling.
Oops! I just learned a $600 lesson. I was by no means a newbie to marketing test failures, but it did wrestle with this one for a bit. How could I improve the experience for other small businesses. The answer came to me one day while mowing the lawn.
Here was my new plan. If I could not get the media to pay attention I would take our message directly to the end customer. This was the inception of Direct-to-Consumer press release distribution. I would build a web site that allowed people to submit their press releases free of charge. I would then optimize the site and each press release to rank well in search engines.
For all my visions of success, things did not work out very well. My plan was to offer free press release distribution services to small businesses. This would provide me with content that I could optimize so that I could get search engine traffic. I had no budget so I could not afford to acquire traffic via advertising. I need bunches of content and it all needed to rank well in search engines. If I could get one million page views I could generate $40k per month based off of a $40CPM advertising rate.
Pieces of my plan came together just fine. I did get a bunch of press release content and we were able to optimize those pages so that they ranked well in search engines. The piece that did not work well was the advertising part. Ad rates bottomed out right after we launched to between $1.50 and $3.00 CPM if you had the kind of traffic ad networks were looking for. We didn't. The most we made from PRWeb in any single month between 1997 and January of 2001 was a whopping $167. This was not sustainable. But I continued to babysit the service as I did see momentum starting to build in number of press releases and traffic.
We did briefly have a PR firm based out of NYC offer us just over $1 million for PRWeb in 1999. My inexperience saved me from the sale of PRWeb at that time. In 2002 I attended Garage.com where Internet guru Guy Kawasaki told me that PRWeb would never work.
PRWeb also served as development sandbox of sorts. It was a live, responsive environment from which I could learn. In January 2001 I decided to relaunch PRWeb on the Linux operating system using PHP and Mysql. I did this because I needed to learn those skills.
During the relaunch I emailed our users and make a pledge with them. I promised to remove the gaudy banner ads if they would contribute as much as $10 when they submitted a press release. I also offered to improve the service by adding statistical information and priority listing to those who contributed. The response was awesome. PRWeb was built initially on the voluntary financial contributions of our users. $80k in 2001, $340k in 2002, 1.6 million by 2003.
The more users contributed the more services we could roll out. We spent relatively little on marketing PRWeb. Most of our marketing budget went into two buckets. The biggest of these buckets was enhanced distribution. I discovered the virtuous content cycle that we are duplicating today at Cranberry. The more visibility we could create for our customers press releases the better we did. Increased press release visibility meant more traffic, more customers, more press releases and more revenue. It was a beautiful formula. The smaller bucket was in support of the SEO community. We sponsored and attended numerous trade conferences from 2002 until we sold PRWeb in 2006.
I owe much of our success from 2001-2003 to Google News and paid inclusion agreements we were able to negotiate with Yahoo! News. These two outlets provided a huge visibility boost to PRWeb press releases. We were not the first press release service to be included in these channels but we were the first to optimize for those sources.
From 2001-03 we added thousands of RSS feeds to boost our syndication into niche channels that were often neglected by PR Newswire and Business Wire.
With success comes sleepless nights. How do we stay ahead of the boogeyman? Or more importantly who is the boogeyman and where is he hiding?
In our case I knew exactly who it was, Google. I felt vulnerable every day. Google controlled the search algorithm. Google, at its whim could delist press release content or downgrade press release content within search engine results. (It turns out that my concern was well founded as this is exactly what happened from 2011-2013.)
I had built a platform that had a single support pillar. Sure we had other distribution and a robust RSS syndication platform but Google was our major traffic source. From 2003-04 I experimented with content marketing by creating ad units tied to press release headlines. It worked but was costly.
By 2005 the Social web revolution was in full swing. I viewed this as an opportunity to prop up the PRWeb platform with additional pillars. These included an even more robust RSS Syndication platform, support for blog trackbacks, social bookmarking and social discovery.
By 1995, PRWeb had become the first social media press release platform. It was then that we rebranded as the "Online Visibility Engine" and moved in new directions to improve visibility. We started PRWeb Podcasting, PRWeb Photowire and RSSPad as new members to the PRWeb family of visibility services.
In 2006 I had a big decision to make. I had just completed radiation treatments following the removal of a brain tumor about a year earlier. PRWeb revenue was tracking at about $7 million annually with continued monthly growth. Things started happening in rapid succession. Public relations platform provider, Vocus, was courting me. PRNewswire was making a bid and Institutional money was asking to buy in. PRWeb was generating enough free cash flow that I did not need outside investment to continue to grow. I had to tell big money that I had no idea how to use their money. After meeting the team at Business Wire I lost all interest in becoming part of PRNewswire (I still have good friends at Business wire today.)
It took Vocus a few attempts but they finally convinced me that they wanted PRWeb as part of their portfolio more than I wanted to keep it. In August 2006 I sold PRWeb to Vocus. Those details are publicly available so I won't go into them here.
When I sold PRWeb I contractually obligated myself to stay out of the press release business for a period of five years. By 2011 my non-compete had expired so I decided to take a look at the press release space again. As I got into client work I found that press releases were starting to lose traction. By the end of 2012 even new drafting techniques I had pioneered has proven less reliable.
The field was also thick with wannabe and copy cat services. I began to see that less traffic was coming from search engine traffic. The Google traffic machine was no longer as effective as it had been. I did build out a site to start hosting press release content and decided at that time that I would become the anti-search engine press release platform, relying instead on content marketing strategies to carry our traffic.
Most good things come to an end. In late 2012 PRWeb had a few mis-steps that caused them to be dropped from Google's news index. PRWeb went into panic mode and made some over-reaching editorial changes which included headline attribution, a move that pretty much crippled the press release as PRWeb had been the only remaining service not to require headline attribution. (headline attribution is a requirement that a company identify the source of the release within the headline. This requirement makes it difficult to write effective headlines.) They eventually recovered but not to the same level of visibility. In 2013 we began to notice that other services suffered degraded visibility. Read the"Truth About Google News".
We still use press releases, but not as much for direct-to-consumer marketing. We use press release more strategically now. Usually in conjunction with a content marketing push or when a client has some really newsworthy content to share with the media.
Our new push is sponsored news. You can see what we are doing with sponsored news at Cranberry.
I tried to hit most of the important milestones in my PRWeb journey. They are accurate to the best of my recollection. Did I miss something? Is there something that needs to be corrected for the record? Please contribute your memories and experiences below.
-- Davidcomments powered by Disqus
When used responsibly news has the power to carry a brand message better than just about any other medium. Consider the following,
It is impossible to mention everyone who contributed to the success of PRWeb but here are a few along with their contributions.
Here are the personal bits. It is helpful to understand the lens through which one views life.
Most of these items will only mean something to those who were employed or intimately involved in PRWeb. Again, not in any real order (although, #1 belongs there).
"Cranberry is sheer genius. But what more could you expect from the David McInnis's—the man who brought you PR Web and single handily invented the entire industry of Online Press release distribution? If you’re a part of any small to mid-sized business and you want to dominate your niche online, hire Cranberry." - Michael Drew, Promote A Book.