What a (Journo) Tool: Sleuthing Around
By Stephanie Forshee
Occasionally even the most seasoned journalists get stumped when searching for the perfect outside voice to round out a story.
For instance, one journo, Andrew Wicklander, was stuck when he sat down to get one of his podcasts together for Project Idealism, a blog published by Chicago web development company Ideal. Wicklander wanted to speak with someone who had been to space, so Source Sleuth connected him with astronaut Clayton Anderson.
The reason reporters are quick to turn to Source Sleuth more and more is because of their promise to deliver credible sources in 48 hours or less. (There are, of course, exceptions for varying deadlines).
Much like with Help a Reporter Out (HARO), ProfNet and like services, a journo will visit SourceSleuth.com and answer basic questions about the type of source he or she is in search of.
But Source Sleuth takes a different approach in its sleuthing to enhance the results it delivers.
“HARO, while it’s good, has a lot of inefficiencies,” said Ryan Evans, chief executive of Source Sleuth. “We just realized the process could be better.”
Evans came across HARO when he was planning marketing strategies for his digital marketing company, Lift Marketing. “One of the things we wanted to figure out was how to get journalists to write about us,” Evans recalls.
Enter HARO. Evans was impressed at the idea of a more cost-effective solution than hiring on a big, expensive public relations firm.
With HARO, Evans’ firm Lift paid a fee to show up in journalist’s results to be considered for a source in the story.
“We started from the opposite side when we started introducing our marketing service and were monitoring requests from journalists. In doing that, we kind of realized there were some ways we could do it better ourselves.”
Evans’ main beef with HARO is that they have a massive email distribution list that they dispatch to for every request from a reporter. According to HARO, an average query receives approximately 18 pitches, but can vary.
“Multiple people get back to you. However, only a small percentage work for what you’re working on,” Evans said. “From a journalist side, instead of giving them 30 or even 25 people who don’t make any sense, what I could give them is a handful who do make sense. On the flipside, it’s the same thing: Businesses don’t want to be connected with people who don’t make sense.”
Profnet, a subsidiary of PRNewswire, works similarly to HARO but differently than SourceSleuth in the sense that it does not filter results, rather reporters and experts connect directly.
“No one knows the article the reporter is working on better than the reporter themselves,” said Sandra Azzollini, VP of online communities at ProfNet, in an email. “The expert may not be perfect for that particular story the reporter is working on but might make a good sidebar or might be an expert the reporter would be interested in contacting for a future story.”
Beg to differ
So with its streamlined approach, Source Sleuth launched about a year and a half ago.
Pulling from his staff of six, Evans uses the entire team that works across all three of his companies, even though Gina Spencer works almost exclusively for Source Sleuth. Everyone primarily telecommutes, since four team members live in Chicago, while the others live in Virginia and Russia. Evans said the company also works with contractors in various parts of the world.
As far as what the core team is doing behind the scenes, he said it varies each day based on the amount of requests flowing in.
The team starts each request with its proprietary database it built. (Industry experts are placed in Source Sleuth’s database from a variety of sources – people who have been in the press before, who are affiliated with a particular university, have an authoritative website, etc.)
“Honestly, it’s still a bit of a gut feeling for some,” admits Evans, noting each source is given a score based on his list of criteria.
“If you work at Tesla, you’re probably more credible than someone at a smaller startup,” he explains about weeding through all potential sources. “And then if they’ve been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, that carries a certain weight to it.”
Evans did not disclose the total number of users on the Source Sleuth site, but the company boasts about 2,700 Twitter followers. In fact, Twiiter was one of the main vehicles Source Sleuth used to get its name out there.
The company has been active for a year and a half, but as Evans was quick to note, there was a significant gap between when they launched it and when everyone knew about it.
“Journalists are typically on Twitter, so we started paying attention to what journalists were saying,” Evans said. “We were active in comments that made sense and tweeting out stuff people would find interesting. “
The initial awareness might have spawned from Twitter, but Evans has found other users through word of mouth and by networking at journalism conferences such as SABEW’s two major events it hosts each year.
The sleuthing site is still hoping to receive more feedback from users so it can more accurately track which sources were actually used.
“We have people who are coming back again and again, so we’re assuming those people used it,” Evans reasoned.
To date, Source Sleuth isn’t yet profitable. Only a small percentage of professionals are subscribed to get top billing in reporters’ search results. Which at this point, Evans finds to his advantage because they are using this time to win over journalists’ trust.
The company might have a little ways to go to catch up with HARO and ProfNet, which both are used by about 30,000 journalists. (They have both been around longer, though, so only time will tell).
As Source Sleuth’s network grows though, Evans believes experts will pay a premium fee to appear among the shortlist. HARO’s basic “freemium strategy” is a model that starts as free for sources, but paid versions with more features are available for $19 to $149 per month.
ProfNet membership is priced on a sliding scale that starts at $80 per month and varies depending on the type of business and number of people at the organization who will receive the queries.
Evans said journalists shouldn’t worry about the Source Sleuth quality going downhill once more sources begin to pay to participate. He likens his Source Sleuth model to that of Google’s AdWords: A company might be paying to keep the No. 1 spot in search results, but if you think about it, the top results are typically very relevant to the search topic.
Evans pointed out that, for example, a soap company is not going to be paying to show up first in “soap” searches if they are not completely relevant to that audience. So he envisions Source Sleuth’s experts will eventually pay in to do the same.
For the time being, Evans said, “We are in the business to make money but we think that will happen if we provide a good experience for journalists. Over time, we’ll have a very solid model, but we have to earn the trust of journalists,” Evans said. “Everything else comes secondary. That’s the fundamental difference in us and what other people have tried or are doing now.”
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