Upbeat gets $1.5M to create a data science-driven alternative to PR agencies

Out of all the how-to guides ever written about pitching journalists, I’ve never seen one address the truth—that most are simply too busy trying not to get murdered by their inboxes to even open emails. Upbeat wants to use data science to create PR pitches that don’t automatically end up in the Trash folder. The San Francisco-based startup (formerly called PRX.co) launched the public beta of its cloud-based PR platform today and also announced that it has raised $1.5 million in funding.

Upbeat’s investors are Draper Associates, Maverick Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, FirstRock Capital, UpHonest Capital, Quest Venture Partners, SV Angel, 500 Startups, Stanford-StartX Fund, and Y Combinator. Angel investors, including former journalists Esther Dyson and Philip Kaplan, also participated.

CEO Ricky Yean, who co-founded Upbeat with CTO David Tran (the two, pictured above, previously launched Crowdbooster, which provides social media marketing analytics), said that it has worked with more than 300 companies so far.

Not surprisingly, a lot of its clients are other tech startups, but its customers have also included non-profits, activists, writers who have self-published books (the author of Bible Emoji was a client), and conferences like Emojicon, which was organized by former New York Times journalist Jennifer 8. Lee.

Yean said that many of Upbeat’s users usually would not seek a PR agency, but they have also included at least one large company with an in-house communications team.

“What’s interesting is by reducing the friction of engaging a PR agency, we make it easier for all kinds of stories to bubble up to the surface,” said Yean in an email interview. “For example, Uber’s former Head of Compliance started an initiative called the Vendor Security Alliance, and although he was inside Uber, he needed on-demand, extra PR support from the outside and so he came to us, resulting in WSJ coverage. The initiative may not have surfaced otherwise from within the organization.”

While Upbeat’s cloud-based software relies on data analysis to figure out which journalists to contact, it relies on two in-house media strategists (who sit next to Upbeat’s engineers) to assess potential story ideas and coach clients for interviews.

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In order to preserve the quality of its pitches, Yean said that it only accepts 25 percent of the ideas it gets. Criteria includes credibility, the uniqueness of headlines, and timeliness. Then Upbeat matches pitches to journalists with its algorithm, which considers data from a number of sources, including articles, tweets, and each writer’s past interactions with its other pitches.

“For example, we run latent semantic analysis on your writing history to find the topics you most like to write about, so we can pitch you on stories that are right in your topical wheelhouse,” said Yean. “Rather than pitching you about diapers because of that one article you wrote in 2010 about the Diapers.com acquisition, Upbeat uses natural language processing to understand that you likely wrote about it because it was a big acquisition.”

Like a lot of other journalists, I’m familiar with getting pitches based on old articles that I’ve forgotten writing about companies I usually don’t cover, so Upbeat’s premise sounds intriguing to me (even though the idea of having everything I’ve written run through latent semantic analysis is a tad disquieting). But the emails I pay the most attention to are from sources I’ve spent years talking to already, so I asked Yean how Upbeat deals with the fact that a lot of successful pitching is simply about old-fashioned networking.

Yean replied that Upbeat’s goal is to become trusted in the same way that well-known agencies like Edelman or Outcast are, but instead of cultivating a relationship with one or two people, the journalist would work with its platform.

The success of a campaign isn’t measured solely by how many articles (if any) it results in.

“Of course, with all this vetting, targeting, and pitching, we definitely aim to get media coverage for every campaign, but PR is not transactional and it shouldn’t be,” said Yean.

Instead, Upbeat’s customers are subscribed to its platform, which helps them keep track of their interactions with journalists in the hopes of serving as a source on other stories.

Other tech startups tackling PR already include PressFriendly and Publicize. One of the main things that differentiates Upbeat from current (and potential) competitors is its media database, which Yean said is “designed for a future where covering ‘tech’ could mean anything, interest areas change by the minute or hour, and moving publications or starting and supporting your own blog is easier than ever before.”

“Innovation in PR is overdue,” he added. “Technologists did a lot of infrastructure-level work to help online advertising go the way of the exchange and help us trust strangers enough to ask them to drive us around or let us stay in their house. We think we’re doing similar infrastructure-level work with Upbeat for media and PR to exchange stories.”