For pretty much as long as anyone can remember, a relationship triangle, or a “love triangle” if you will, has taken shape between companies and the PR firms that represent them and the press that covers them - existing in some sort of recursive loop. Yet, while that triangle should have come to represent a symbiosis and a valuable communication network, somewhere along the way the triangle broke down. (Defying the laws of Geometry, even.) In reality, today this relationship is more like the Bermuda Triangle.
While the matter of who is responsible for the disconnect is subject to debate, the PR industry (for right or wrong) usually takes most of the blame. While the causes are numerous, in the end, most of the problems inherent to the startup-PR relationship are a matter of transparency (or lack therof) and the inability for either side to find the best (and most mutually beneficial) match on the other.
AirPR launched into private beta last year with $1 million in seed funding from 500 Startups, Mohr Davidow Ventures, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg and others to help solve this problem by creating a marketplace in which startups can find PR representation that's right for them, and vice versa. Pitched as a kind of “Match.com for PR,” at launch AirPR focused primarily on matching top, pre-screened PR talent in the U.S. with technology startups looking for (and able to pay for) representation.
Last week, after a year of testing the system in closed beta, iterating and tweaking, the San Francisco-based company has finally opened its marketplace to the public. With its public launch, AirPR is opening its doors to all tech startups, expanding its marketplace to include companies in the lifestyle and consumer goods verticals and adding a few tweaks to its formula.
After watching 70 companies go through its PR matchmaking system and processing feedback from PR veterans, AirPR cut its onboarding process in half. Now, in order to find the best match, startups enter the date they want their PR campaign to begin and then answer a series of questions about their focus, stage of development, what kind of help they'd like, how much funding they've raised, and so on. AirPR then screens the startups and, if they meet its quality standards, uses the startup's answers to match them with reps whose experience best fits that criteria. If not, they're declined.
After being alerted to the incoming business leads, reps then place bids for the client, at which point the startup can sift through the offers, compare them, select the best option and pay for a 60-day contract.
Based on feedback from startups and PR pros, at launch, the platform also now includes a recommendation system, in which AirPR provides the top three matches based on the data its collected on the PR side. Initially, the company provided a list of all possible matches, but the co-founders tell us that companies were often overwhelmed by an abundance of choice and were less inclined to finish the process than if the system surfaced the three closest matches to the top.
In turn, by recommending PR reps and being more proactive in pushing reps to reach out to specific companies, the conversion ended up being faster and a higher percentage of companies closed the deal.
While there may be contention over the cause, most will likely agree that the PR model as it currently stands is in sore need of improvement. As someone who stands at one of the corners of the PR Bermuda Triangle, I can attest to this. PR reps have a tough job, and, as in any interest there are incredibly talented, bright firms and reps that get lumped in with the offenders who blanket journalists inbox with copy-and-pasted pablum and poorly worded pitches that aren't even relevant to a writer's beat.
Any improvement on the overall quality of the PR-startup relationship stands to benefit everyone involved, and while it's still early to say just how effective AirPR's model will be, it's worth the effort.
While the startup's matching algorithm and marketplace model are familiar, what may be even more valuable to the Bermuda Triangle (and to the industry at large) is the insight that can be pulled from the data AirPR collects on how startups are using the system, what they want help with, how effective PR is at meeting its goals, costs, publications they want to speak to, among other things. This data can help both startups and PR people be more effective and precise with their pitches and outreach. (One can also, much to the delight of everyone except PR, imagine AirPR eventually using this data to make a list of the “Top 10 Most Effective PR Firms,” for example.)
AirPR allowed TechCrunch an early look into some of the data (and insights) it's collected thus far, and the conclusions are telling. For starters, as Alex Wilhem of TNW shared earlier this week, the most popular keyword or service startups were looking for help with was “Growth,” with 84 percent of companies listing that as top priority, followed by 69 percent of companies looking for “Brand Awareness,” 36 percent for “Launch,” 25 percent for “Fundraising,” and 16 percent for “Recruiting.”
Next, another one that will be of interest to PR reps: The company found that fixed bids (a bid with one amount, like $20K for a 4-month project, for example) were 29 percent more likely to close than retainers (monthly bids). In explaining just why in the sam hill we should care, AirPR CEO Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer explains that, historically, the PR industry has primarily operated on a retainer model.
However, the monthly averages for both fixed bids and retainers are almost the same, he says, so the data thus far seems to show that the reliance on the retainer model is psychological, rather than what its customers want. Clients seem to appreciate the one-time fee with specific deliverables, the CEO explained - a conclusion that helps startups and PR move closer to transparency rather than clients being forced to ask “what exactly are we paying for?” each month.
To date, AirPR has found that the average bid accepted on the platform breaks down to roughly $5K/month in fees (whether fixed or retainer) for an average of 5 months. In other words, companies that have between $500K and $4 million in funding want shorter-term contracts with lower rates. This, in and of itself may not be surprising, but the more data it collects, the more it will be able to reveal correlations between not only funding and how much they're willing to pay, but size of bids and the work they want done, the industry they're in, and so on.
The CEO also tells us that several of the PR reps on the AirPR platform have doubled their business since joining and are “now looking to grow their practice with other folks on the platform, like a co-op situation,” he says. To this point, the idea from the beginning has been to not only help startups who often have no idea where to start when looking for PR, but to serve PR firms and reps that are looking to expand their practices. In the end, the AirPR co-founder tells us, this helps them weed out lower quality PR and put the best firms and people in control.
If AirPR can follow through on that idea, its marketplace could end up providing a lot of value to both startups and the PR firms that love them by helping them navigate the Bermuda Triangle and get more bang for their buck.