As PRWeek and other outlets reported in April, GTCR Valor Merger Sub, the private equity firm that recently agreed to acquire Vocus for $446.5 million, also snapped up a large majority share of another PR software firm, Cision AB. Speculation was quick to follow on whether or not GTCR Valor would combine Vocus and Cision and, if so, what impact this alignment would have on users of these tools.
This week, GTCR Valor made it official: Vocus and Cision will be combined into, according to the company, "a premier global public relations cloud company." Cision chief Peter Granat was named CEO of the newly combined entity. By the way, could the two companies have dreamed up a better mash-up of company names than "Vision?"
I’m a Vocus customer and have been for several years save for a brief one-year (contract stipulated) flirtation with a competitor service that left me with a heaping plate of regret. During my six years as an independent PR professional, I appreciated Vocus’ ease of use and in my opinion superior end-user-experience relative to other tools. Yet, it was tough to swallow the fact that Vocus represented 80% of my annual expenses, and that at times Vocus sales staff would pull an end-around by contacting my clients directly and position the tool as a potential "PR firm replacement."
The acquisition activity in this space may affect PR and marketing professionals who rely on these tools. Vocus has made a decisive services push beyond PR monitoring, hopping onto the marketing-automation bandwagon as businesses crave to automate more lead nurturing and generation functions, as well as a need for deeper measurement analytics to ensure their marketing campaigns are effective. Vocus has also added other services to position the company as more of a one-stop shop for marketing and PR professionals, such as mobile landing pages, workflow automation, integrated email. and Salesforce integration.
It is safe to assume that Vocus-Cision and other providers will place an even greater emphasis on the marketing-automation side of their offerings going forward – and that leads to some intriguing questions. How will the marketing-automation push affect investments and innovation directed towards media monitoring and broader public relations capabilities? And if focus on the latter suffers, will the tool have declining value for PR professionals?
As is the case with any product or service, the surest way to guarantee future value is to invest in features that users will find of value. As a long-time Vocus customer and someone who has frequently trialed competitor tools, there are a few capabilities that, in my opinion, will go a long way in preserving the viability of these tools for PR professionals.
Add Boolean search capabilities
If you canvas users of Vocus, Cision, MyMediaInfo, etc. on their biggest pet peeve, outdated and generic contact information will likely rise to the top. Part of the problem with leading PR database and distribution services is that media contacts are categorized by topic areas that are often so broad that the user has to invest considerable time culling a media list down into something usable – unless you are willing to blast an email pitch to the masses knowing full well that the pitch will not be relevant and borderline insulting to one-third of the recipients.
I’ve never been comfortable using an email pitch blast that automates sending a single pitch to hundreds or thousands of media contacts. I think that though these emails can be customized, savvy reporters can still tell it is a blast pitch. Frankly, to be fully effective, most pitches require more authentic customization that shows you actually read up on what media cover. More useful to me personally are Boolean search capabilities that allow media-list building based on the actual articles that reporters have been writing as opposed to static coverage categories. Without question, Boolean gets trickier for TV and radio, but adding this type of search for print and online will improve the accuracy of list-building and the effectiveness of outreach, while cutting down on the time it takes PR professionals to hone in on the right media contacts.
Improve press-release-distribution focus
Vocus acquired the press-release-distribution service PR Web in 2006. Vocus has done a nice job in some respects translating that transaction into an easy end-user experience for Vocus customers and developing some pricing bundles that make sense for both Vocus and PR Web customers. But Vocus-PR Web still offers a lot of cookie-cutter vertical and topic categories that often don’t line up directly with the target audience – which isn’t to say the target audience would be reached given the dubious impact of press releases in general. But this is their business, and users should not be forced to insert square pegs in round holes when selecting the topics and categories that match the content of the release.
Consider segmenting media database by market
If you asked ten executives whether it is better to develop a horizontal tool that can be used widely or develop a vertical tool that will resonate strongly with a more niche audience, it is likely the responses will be split right down the middle. Today’s conventional media monitoring and database tools have taken a generalist approach designed to appeal to professionals across every market category. Now, if I focus exclusively on technology press, speaking, and awards, I can certainly build custom lists, but it tends to be a rather inexact science. The subject categories don’t always match up and whittling a usable list down takes some effort.
The market seems to recognize this, evidenced by the emergence of vertical PR tools such as IT Database – a media monitoring, events, and editorial calendar cloud-based service that focuses exclusively on technology. To the extent that horizontal PR management tools can incorporate more effective vertical segmentation will allow these tools to continue to be relevant to a mass market audience of PR and marketing professionals, while also improving ease of use for those only interesting in a set of specific verticals.
Bigger does not always mean better, but it does not automatically equate to worse either. The combination of Vocus and Cision represents an opportunity to cement the firm’s market leadership through innovation – not just for emerging marketing-automation tools, but for the public relations service as well.
Brian Lustig is a partner at Bluetext, an integrated digital marketing, branding, and communications services firm based in Washington, DC.