Introducing ExpertEngine

Journalistics has launched a new service called ExpertEngine. ExpertEngine will help journalists (eventually) quickly (and anonymously) search for, find, and contact experts for the stories they are working on. Before I give you the full scoop (and the sign-up info), here’s a quick story about why we – a blog about journalism and PR – decided to create ExpertEngine.

One of the best and worst things about working with start-ups, particularly if you’re entrepreneurial like me, is you inevitably find yourself wanting to do your own thing again. As some of you know, I majored in public relations and journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University. It’s one of the few colleges that combine instruction for journalism and PR – so since college, I’ve learned about both sides of the fence. I’ve always thought of starting a business related to PR/journalism – but not a service business as I did with my agency, but rather a product business.

Somewhere in the midst of Web 2.0, but before the social media craze, I started thinking to myself, “There has to be an idea I can take to market that PR people will love?” PR is hard work… how can I make it easier? What problem hasn’t been solved yet? Surely there is an outdated or overpriced service that could be updated for the 2000s? I mean, what independent PR professional can afford $5K a year (at the time) for a media database? I ultimately settled on creating a FREE media database. You know, Vocus/Cision meets Wikipedia? If you ever read Wikinomics, you know there are plenty of examples of peer production and mass collaboration successes out there – I was sure it would work if I built it. I did start to build it, but then…

Know a Bad Idea When You See One

As I started interviewing journalists – you know, doing market research for the idea – I was blown away by how bad the “PR spam” problem was. Shortly around this time, Chris Anderson came out with his infamous listGina Trapini followed with her wiki of PR spammers, and there were dozens more examples of PR gone wrong. It was at that time that I decided there was NOTHING I wanted to do to make it easier for PR people to spam journalists with more “spray and pray” pitches (or to find myself in the cross hairs of Chris or Gina).

I also realized during this time that journalists were seeing a tremendous increase in workload. Now forced to produce more content than ever, with less help than ever and less revenue than ever, and… you get the picture. If it weren’t bad enough, journalists were fielding an endless barrage of story suggestions from PR pros, which often translated into hundreds of letters, packages, phone calls, emails, direct messages, blog comments and other interruptions per week. You think that phone call from a telemarketer during dinner is annoying? Imagine if that happened every hour or every day and you had to figure out a way to filter through it all (or choose to ignore it and risk missing a good story?).

But There Was Hope…

With the launch of Help A Reporter Out (the HARO we have all come to know and love), Peter Shankman did something amazing. The impossible actually. He broke down the barriers between journalists and PR professionals and found some common ground on which they could collaborate on stories. It’s easy for people to say, “Oh, HARO is just a free ProfNet,” but it’s much more significant than that. HARO was pro-journalist all the way. It prohibited bad pitches from the beginning, and blacklisted anyone that broke the rules. It worked better than anyone could have imagined. But still, PR people tried to work around the rules and still tried to make their crap stories fit a journalist’s query, regardless of how specific the query was. People do crazy things when their job is on the line and their success rests on whether or not they get news for something that isn’t newsworthy.

This think called Twitter launched too… and the media embraced Twitter. All of the sudden, guarded journalists were comfortable talking publicly. If you could communicate your pitch in 140 characters, you had a chance. But, you know the Twitter story…

So, Can We Build Something to Help Journalists?

can i help journalists?

So back to my desire to launch something. That was the nugget I got from everything going on in the market. 99% of the PR services out there focus on helping PR people get more press, not making it easier for journalists to get their work done. Having worked with a lot of start ups over the year, I also know there’s a huge problem trying to break through the clutter created by this PR spam/information overload journalists have to deal with. If you don’t have an existing relationship with a journalist, you’re going to have a hard time breaking through the filters. Social media has made this easier, but not unless you’ve got some reach.

So that’s how we ended up at the ExpertEngine idea. Tejus Parikh, a developer I had worked with at a previous job, started hacking away at code. Our top priority was to build a database of great sources a journalist could search when they’re starting research for a story. While journalists at large organizations have bookings departments or editorial assistants to help them find sources, most don’t have a lot of help.

Consider the options a journalist at their disposal to find a source:

  • Call somebody already in their Rolodex (yes, they still use ‘em) or check your contacts – some newsrooms have shared databases of sources they’ve used in the past, which is obviously a great resource
  • Ask around the newsroom for suggestions (or email some trusted PR people)
  • Search Google (even the best power users of Google will have a hard time finding a person – and then finding the person’s contact info – using Google)
  • Search LinkedIn (great for finding experts – but LinkedIn users are notoriously slow to respond, which doesn’t work with the deadline nature of the reporting world
  • Tweet the request – this works great, a lot of times journalists find a good source quickly this way
  • Issue a query – HARO is the best option available to journalists today

These are just a few of the source-finding options available to journalists. Is there another option though? One that caters to my bias in this post? Why yes, there is… What if there was a database of sources journalists could quickly search to see if there were a source that fit their needs? If they could review some profile background and some recent social media updates to get a feel for the person’s expertise? If the journalist could click a button to request an interview, without having to broadcast what they’re working on to their competition or sources they’re not interested in, would they use it? In hundreds of conversations with journalists, they said “yes.”

Journalists don’t want to have to register to use a service. They don’t want their competition to scoop them on a story. And they don’t want to have to filter through low-quality pitches. They would much rather find a source that fits their interests, contact that expert directly (preferably without any PR intermediary to deal with) and get on with filing their story. That’s our vision for ExpertEngine.

What is ExpertEngine?

ExpertEngine is an expert search engine journalists can use to quickly and anonymously search for sources. If they find a source, they can contact the source directly through the system. Experts add their profiles to expert engine to put themselves in front of journalists interested in their expertise. It’s a simple matchmaking service. If journalists don’t find a source in ExpertEngine, they can proceed to step two and use the other options at their disposal. If they find a source however, maybe we save them an hour today. What’s an hour worth to a journalist? You decide.

search for experts

Of course, the DIY PR potential of this concept is significant as well. Rather than hiring a PR person to badger journalists all day long, often with mediocre returns – a source can add themselves to the database, along with some story suggestions, and let the journalists come to him/her. It’s an inbound marketing approach for PR if you will. Stop interrupting journalists – put your stuff out there, and if they’re interested, they’ll contact you.

That’s what the ExpertEngine is all about. Want to check it out? Sign-up for the beta: Love or hate the idea? Sound off below.

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