Marketwired Blog

IR, social Media…and skiing: Marketwire’s Nowlan interview with IR Alert

ir-alert-logoNote: IR Alert’s Brian Pittman sat down with Marketwire CEO Michael Nowlan for an exclusive interview. Check out the original article, posted on August 12, 2010.

As anyone following industry news knows, Marketwire acquired Toronto-based social media monitoring and sentiment analysis provider Sysomos one month ago this week. Since then, we’ve seen a spate of alerts, Tweets and byliners flowing from the wire service sector, touching on everything from evolving web disclosure and online newsroom services to competitive providers challenging each other’s claims.

The upshot: Changes are afoot as the wire services jockey for position in the era of social media–and the beneficiaries are you, our readers.

So what exactly does the Sysomos acquisition mean for you? How could such a move help you identify, analyze, reach and understand your publics and even shareholders more effectively? What market forces set it in motion–and what strategy is driving Marketwire’s response to them? Who is the face behind this vision? And what other developments can you expect to see from your wire service providers in the future?

Michael NowlanFor the answers, we went straight to Marketwire’s leadership–and in the process discovered that moguls are found both in and out of the boardroom:

Marketwire has been a company to watch since launching as Internet Wire 16 years ago. For example, Sysomos is the latest in a string of acquisitions since OMERS invested in 2006. You seem to be ramping up—for what? An acquisition yourself? A sale?

We are clearly ramping up for the expansion of our business and a renewed definition of what our business is. We’ve been working toward that for years. But with regard to a sale of our entity—absolutely not. That’s not in my mind or that of our board. We are owned by private equity. Their metrics and requirements support our business plan for not just 12 or 18 months, but for longer-term strategic execution. That’s what I’m building.

What was the strategic thinking behind the Sysomos acquisition in particular? Can you share marketing data points or client requests that indicated this was a direction the business had to go in?

There are a number of things to address here. First, Sysomos represents far more than a social media monitoring solution. Why is that an important point for me to make? They’re important to us because, first and foremost, the explosion of social media is changing all business and communications. We were hearing a high degree of concern around that from our clients. If anybody says they understand what social media will do to their communications, it’s just too early for that. So there was confusion and probably fear, uncertainty and doubt on the part of our clients about what to do with this. That was a major driving factor.

We’re looking at it as, “What is our role in communication?” We have been looking at our role across the board. Five and even ten years ago, we were a push company—pushing information to the world for our clients. We were a conduit. Shrinking timelines and a need to respond quickly have changed things. Today, you need to be on top of what’s happening on a global basis. Our definition and our role is now to put ourselves in that entire cycle. It’s no longer sufficient to be a conduit to push information. You need to tell clients what happened to that information, what the reaction was—and you need to provide the tools to interact and respond to the discussion around your brand.

This is where Sysomos fits it.

What other SM measurement and monitoring companies did you look at–and why was Sysomos the right choice? What made them stand out?

A number of things made them stand out. We are always looking at alternatives throughout the entire process. In particular, in the social media arena, there are all sorts of monitoring alternatives available–and there will be new ones. But what truly differentiated them was that their service was far more than social media monitoring. It was the ability to put conversations out there in context and bring intelligence around it so users can craft strategies to respond. Monitoring implies simply hearing what’s out there, but this is “intelligence,” which allows you to have informed engagement into that conversation.

Put another way: You’re not just an idle listener. Sysomos brought advanced technology to contextualizing the conversation. They started as a research project at University of Toronto. Grad students were having discussions and their thesis was on text analytics and sentiment analysis. It boiled down to the massive amounts of conversations out there—and dissecting that into the relevant pieces. None of us can digest all the information out there. Table stakes entry into this market is the ability to monitor. But the next step is to put that conversation into context and provide things like advanced sentiment metrics, demographic metrics and so on. Sysomos has all of that, and more. So you can tell in their dashboards that your brand might have an issue, for example, with 30-40 year-old males on the West Coast. That lets you know how to craft and tailor your response.

How does this position you against Business Wire, PR Newswire, Thomson Reuters, PRWeb and others? Don’t they all already offer social media measurement tools?

I look at our strategy and it’s to provide a full communications solution and to assist clients with their workflow in its full cycle. The Sysomos technology is ahead of anything they have. We’ve all had monitoring–but this is about intelligence, compared to those direct competitors you mentioned, and frankly, anybody else in the communications world today.

It’s not an easy wave of a wand, because we are in the middle of the largest development process in the history of our company, and that impacts the whole definition of our platform. Our technology development initiatives started well before Sysomos. You can buy, build and partner to grow—and we are doing all of those. In this case, we’re investing in technology now. We bought them because their capability fit into our core strategic future. We didn’t want to partner and decided we couldn’t build that technology. They had five years development behind this. We couldn’t build that in time for our market.

There is a lot flux in the PR and IR services sectors–what other big changes on a macro level do you think we can expect to see in the year ahead?

Generally speaking … there has been lot of talk around the convergence of PR, IR and marketing communications in general. I think you are seeing that happening and it’s accelerating. I’ve been saying it for years.

Why is it happening now versus five years ago?

Technology is facilitating it, and it’s also driving requirements for clients and the general marketplace for intelligence solutions to improve productivity. All of that is working together to move us toward convergence in the industry in general, not just in these communications fields.

Is social media a catalyst of much of this?

Technology is the catalyst, and social media is a reflection of that. I defy anybody to tell me in three years if we’ll be talking about the same big names in “social media”—so it’s technology in general driving these changes and disruptive forces in the communications cycle.

What’s your sense of the pace of adoption of social media in IR?

We are very prominent in the IR and PR communities. The IR community may be slower on the uptake around this. The level of knowledge and implications of social media may not be as advanced as PR. But if I was IRO and/or CFO at a public company and I have strict rules around social media and have my policies in place, I’d want to be monitoring the chatter from our employees for SEC issues and purposes. So monitoring is important for IR.

How do you get into social media? Minimum is to know the conversations from potential shareholders, customers and employees. If you can’t engage them directly, then at least, you need to monitor them. There truly shouldn’t be a single IR program without a sophisticated monitoring program in place.

What are the rollout stages for integrating Sysomos into the Marketwire platform?

We are now selling it. Sysomos was a young company, but Marketwire has developed an experienced sales force over the years. So virtually overnight, we took the Sysomos service and put it in the hands of our global sales force. From the perspective of Sysomos, building a sales team is long and arduous. Now they have that sales force.

We are bringing the message to market quickly. Our guys are out there positioning it right now to meet client needs.

How are sales going?

Sysomos is a tremendous success–and was that way only two weeks in. We have a number of deals completed and signed for this. There is a tremendous level of interest from global brands, and agencies very interested in this. It’s early days.

Zeroing in on social media monitoring—what are some key social media benchmarks every brand must track, and why?

In terms of breaking it down to useful KPIs, I am probably not the best expert on that front. I look at it from the bigger picture. Sysomos lets you know what conversations are going on out there. What are the keywords driving that conversation, for example? Who are the key influencers driving that conversation? Sysomos provides an ability to interact, respond and engage directly. It also allows you to take out all the junk from the conversation so you can focus only on relevant information. A lot of monitoring tools will dump in irrelevant information. But Sysomos can parse it down. You don’t just put in keywords like your brand name or competitors. Instead, it looks at your phrases and puts it in context and provides only what’s relevant. In the past, only humans could to that contextualizing.

How can readers use monitoring tools like Sysomos to show ROI for their social media programs and efforts?

There is no silver bullet. But that’s the biggest issue out there–what’s the ROI? Sysomos has something in beta with 10-15 testers right now called “Audience.” It puts metrics to measure ROI on your social media activities. So when you get an action from particular influencers out there and they start talking about your product and that translates to sales–it connects some of those dots.

Watch for more on that. Sysomos is an 18-month-old company. There will be tweaks. We’re not talking a year here. We’re talking quarters–one, two. That’s the speed things have to move at.

How would you define your SM strategy? Who heads that up? Who drives your SM content?

We believe in the value and importance of engagement in social media and monitoring, too. A perfect case study is the Sysomos acquisition story. How did we handle that story and how did we benchmark ourselves? We have our blog that we use. We have our social media individual who manages our social media presence, we have Facebook pages and we use all the other social media tools, too.

So as part of this, we did a social media press release. It included videos, links back to calls to action. It had a Sysomos “Heartbeat” video, YouTube videos of impressions and placements, keywords and links to multimedia presentations, and easy quotes for the media to pull.
Concurrent with that, we posted blog posts, got comments and responded, and sent those communications to everybody—we reached out to the significant influencers in our industry. We got the conversations going around this in the social media world. We basically did all the things we recommend to our clients.

Then we used Sysomos to monitor what was happening. We did the benchmarking of our acquisition and the response compared to announcements by other organizations that did similar strategic acquisitions. All these things informed us that this was being watched daily.

What, more specifically, did you discover?

We found out our share of voice compared to other similar announcements was significant–even a week later. Also, our level of activity, commentary and tone was very positive. We were very pleased with the results and the volume of what it brought. We had a tremendous level of conversation. In addition, continued engagement helps keep it alive.

There were also various learnings from the results and we’re reviewing all that. It’s been several weeks now. For instance, engagement wise, we responded quickly. And the commentary was overwhelmingly positive. For example, we heard comments like, “Why would Marketwire be doing this?” So we responded to clarify. That taught us that we needed to include something in our messaging about our not being “just a news release company.” We are beyond that.

You’ve changed the business model there–and look to be trending the right way in this economy. How are you doing it? What lessons for surviving and thriving in this economy can our IR and PR readers take from your experience?

One: Be informed of the tools available today. This is not an infomercial for Sysomos–but you cannot ignore the technology changes in the communications world. To be effective, IR, PR or whatever must be aware of the implications of technology and the way it’s changing your profession. If you’re a senior IRO, you can’t ignore this and say SM doesn’t apply to you. Get a level of understanding on this, the pros and cons, what the risks are and so on.

Two: Be aware of the conversations going on about you. I really think, this is the infomercial part, that if you do nothing else, you at least need to monitor and have some ability to sort through what’s being said in terms of tone and sentiment around you out there. Whether you’re in PR, IR or marketing—you need to know that. If you’re in government or whatever, every person in communications must understand that and be aware of the conversation.

Three: Don’t be pennywise and pound-foolish. You can use free entry-level tools like Facebook search, Twitter search (which is very, very powerful), sure. If nothing else, utilize those free tools. But don’t be frugal to the point that it hurts you. The fact of the matter is there are so many conversations out there that you could miss a lot of significant information. You are playing a dangerous game if you’re relying on just one of these free tools—in this era of constant change, there is no guarantee they will be there in future. Don’t just look at this as an expense, but as an investment. For example, you might not get the budget to increase your headcount, but this will help improve productivity.

What’s next–not just for Marketwire, but in terms of technologies and innovations that will change the way we practice PR, marcom, IR, etc.? What trends and developments are you looking forward to?

If you looked 12 months ago, just doing monitoring was the hot area. But quickly, it’s moving into intelligence and providing those tools. There are three major issues driving all technology today: mobility, immediacy and productivity. So you will see products and services grow in those areas. In our technology and our communications services industry–all of those factors are impacting our view of the future and what we will provide. That’s why you hear about Foursquare and other intelligence tools.

Our model is focused on the integration of all of that capability into very powerful platforms. If you talk to me in three to six months, you’ll see how we’re providing a platform to integrate outbound reach, inbound response gathering and the development of the reaction to all that. It’s no longer sufficient to have one piece of that puzzle.

Who are you? What drives you in your day-to-day work?

I believe it’s important that you have free time. I believe it’s important that you keep a life in balance. That sounds cliché. Beyond that, I am passionate about what we’re trying to do as a company. I hope you can hear that. The only way I can maintain that energy—and we will be doing a lot more over the next little while—is if I have time away to think and recharge.

How do I do that? My family is big part of my ability to do this. I ski, and we have cottage on Georgian Bay. I am up there as much as I can be in this short Canadian summer. I enjoy that as an escape. I enjoy camping, canoeing and kayaking on Georgian Bay. Those things let me break away. I travel a lot with work, so that helps me clear my head.

How is skiing like leading Marketwire?

Leading is to some degree an individual undertaking. So is skiing. You can push yourself, but I am also a social person–so I have to turn to others and ask how far we’re going to go on this together if it’s getting steep. To some degree, they can both also be about the exhilarating sense of speed, and the ability to push yourself into new areas.

Similarly, it’s all about looking down the hill–having a clear indication of where you’re going, but being able to respond on the fly. When you set off down the hill and you come across a bump, a mogul, you have to be ready to respond with ability and, hopefully, stay on your feet.
I also have to say that you need to enjoy the fruits of your work. For example, I enjoy après ski and a nice glass of Stella or wine after.

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