Ferndale firm hooking up small- and medium-sized businesses to the media using the Internet
As a 27-year-old owner of a Web development and hosting company in Dallas, David McInnis was still learning the ropes of the business world in 1997.
But when he hired a public-relations firm to help him get some information out about his company and they charged him $500 for writing a press release, the experience just didn’t jibe with him.
“I was sure that $500 for a press release was reasonable for IBM, Dell or Microsoft, but it wasn’t for a small business like mine,” said McInnis.
So he decided he was going to change the way news was distributed to the media and others.
Every company, he believed, regardless of size, should have access to the media without having to pay the hundreds or thousands of dollars many PR firms and traditional newswire services typically charge.
“I had the infrastructure and the programming know-how, so I figured I’d just put together my own news-distribution service,” he said.
Today, McInnis, now 35, serves as CEO of Ferndale-based PR Web, one of the nation’s largest press-release newswires, which distributes some 10,000 news releases per month.
And, true to his vision, the majority of PR Web’s 125,000 clients are small- or medium-sized businesses which are charged fees well below traditional firms’ costs, or utilize his services for free.
While PR Web offers a variety of options, McInnis said its most-popular services are the “free” and “edit and polish” releases.
With the free service, clients can go to www.prweb.com, create an account and follow PR Web’s instructions for writing a basic press release, with information to include, like a dateline, headline, pertinent information and company contacts.
For $69, a company can submit to PR Web a rough draft of a news release and one of PR Web’s editors will spruce up, or “polish and edit,” its layout and writing.
PR Web also writes releases from scratch for companies for $299. “We don’t really like to do those because it requires a lot of interviewing and is really time consuming,” McInnis said.
Once a press release has been written, PR Web distributes it through four channels:
Its Web site.
A syndicated news feed that goes to other Web sites, like Yahoo! News and AltaVista.
By e-mail, to a database of about 100,000 media contacts.
Through search-engine submissions.
Throughout the process, clients can access their releases if they wish to make changes. Their releases remain in PR Web’s online system for as long as a business chooses.
While McInnis had a vision of how to distribute news releases to the masses, it took him about a year before he started to make money from it.
Initially, he aimed to make profits by charging clients for “flashy” advertising, but realized there wasn’t much money to be made that way, because Internet advertising in the late 1990s was relatively inexpensive, selling at around $4 per 1,000 impressions, he said.
That’s when he came up with his ideas of a free press release distribution service and “fair commerce,” which set PR Web apart from other newswire services.
“I told my clients, ‘I’m going to take off all the advertising and you’re going to own the page. Now, all I ask is that if you get value out of the service, contribute something financially,’” McInnis said. “It’s more of a participatory activity where they’re rewarding us for providing a service.”
While clients can utilize the free service and still potentially reach hundreds of thousands of journalists and Web users, those who pay the “contributions,” which start at around $30, get prominent placement on PR Web’s outbound newsfeeds and Web sites and are thus likely to reach more people.
McInnis believes it’s the visibility PR Web provides that’s attracted clients, although he acknowledges no PR firm or newswire service can guarantee the media will report on a news release.
“With a traditional newswire service, you send your news release out and it goes into a black hole,” McInnis said. “Nobody knows if an editor is even going to look at it, and journalists can only track so much in a given day. What we set out to do was continue delivering old-style press releases but through e-mail and databases and by creating a media bypass. We created what we call an ‘online visibility engine’ that takes press releases and puts them out on the Internet where people can see them.”
PR Web’s services, McInnis said, can be especially beneficial to small companies trying to reach a national and world-wide audience.
One local company that’s seen its business grow with the help of exposure from PR Web is Microstaq, which produces tiny silicon chips capable of controlling the flow of refrigerants in vehicles’ air conditioning systems, a development which could potentially increase fuel economy.
In May, for about $200, PR Web helped Microstaq officials craft news releases about its technology and placed the information prominently on several search engines.
Since contacting PR Web, Microstaq COO Jeff Chance said, the 10-person company has seen “a significant jump in Web traffic” and has been contacted by several venture companies.
“We’re a company that really relies on a national and international market for our product,” Chance said. “For any company that has regional or national clients or customers, this is a great way to get your name out there. PR Web has ways to filter your information to make sure it gets to the right audience.”
Since PR Web has clients located around the world, starting this summer it will have editors at its office 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In the next few weeks PR Web, which opened its Ferndale location last April with three employees, plans to add five more editors and a Web designer to its current 16-person staff.
McInnis, who’s had an entrepreneurial spirit dating back to his junior-high school candy empire — when he was making $100 a day by contracting with friends at different schools to sell lollipops — said he’s sometimes amazed by his company’s success.
After all, while he earned a degree in international studies from Southwest Texas State University, he jokes that he got his computer degree from the “University of Barnes & Noble,” spending thousands of dollars and hours as a young man reading their computer books.
And while he’s enjoying being a member of the Ferndale community, sponsoring local sports teams, bands and giving academic scholarships, he said he’s still surprised at times he ever found the town.
In 2001, while working in Vancouver, British Columbia, as a Web consultant, he wanted to take a day trip to Bellingham to tell friends he’d driven across an international border. On his way south on I-5, he saw Ferndale’s Main Street exit and assumed he’d arrived.
“I thought it was Bellingham and I went into the 7-11 and said, ‘This is pretty small for Bellingham,’” McInnis said. “They laughed at me and said it was Ferndale. When I came back out, there was Mt. Baker and I was hooked on the area from that moment. Also, I’d done quite a bit of golfing and it was May and 5 a.m. and I snuck on a golf course.”
He made the full-time move to Ferndale with his wife and three sons a few days later.
McInnis, who grew up on a 30-acre farm in Maryland, hopes to continue to grow PR Web, through additional marketing, and innovations he wasn’t quite ready to discuss. When he first moved to Whatcom County, however, he was prepared to return to his roots if his business didn’t succeed.
“I figured if this didn’t work out, I always knew how to milk cows,” he said.