PR phone conversation

SumoStory started with the idea that PR services for startups could be cheap if automated. Source: Shutterstock

This Singaporean startup is using data science to automate PR

SURVIVING the startup world can be akin to navigating a minefield.

Apart from the painful process of securing financing, there are countless other issues that could frustrate the startup newbie’s business plan: maybe their value proposition isn’t compelling enough, or maybe they overestimated market demand, or perhaps they just entered the market at the wrong time.

Or maybe, they simply underestimated the power of good PR to gain competitive advantage.

The harsh reality is that it’s not easy for budding entrepreneurs with limited resources to secure good, yet affordable PR services.In Singapore, the average cost to employ help from a PR agency is roughly SGD5,000 (US$3,700) per month, a sum many small businesses can ill-afford. Even with the necessary funds, tech entrepreneurs seeking PR are considered extremely high-risk, and are therefore unattractive to many traditional and well-established agencies.

When these issues arise, the PR-related tasks are often delegated to under-qualified individuals. The result is a poorly packaged press release that may end up in the spam box of the intended target, if it reaches them at all.

An effective marketer spends a lot of time working with journalists to push out their stories. Source: Flickr/NBT

As Asia’s startup scene continues to grow and thrive, this problem hasn’t gone unnoticed.

After speaking with multiple individuals, Christopher Chong, founder of  PR firm SumoStory, realized entrepreneurs are an under-served customer segment. While these entrepreneurs understand the power of PR, the problem lies in finding an agency willing to represent them for an affordable price.

“Most entrepreneurs are savvy enough to appreciate the value that a good PR boost can provide for their brand,” Chong told Tech Wire Asia in an email interview.

“Press brings in traffic, users, social validation, and legitimacy. Those are things that are hard to get enough of.”

Chong had previously co-founded the e-commerce site Beeconomic, which he sold to Groupon. He noticed the correlation between the startups’ lack of press and the overall success of the venture, and began devising a new plan. After leaving Beeconomic, Chong was ready to be at the helm of another operation.

His new company, SumoStory, was launched in August with a mission to use data science to match entrepreneurs with journalists. It’s a business model that’s created a win-win situation: the startups get press coverage that lands them more attention and resources, while journalists get relevant leads for their stories.

According to Chong, SumoStory employs a “deployed scraper” that “scans through the journalist’s portfolio, converging on a Venn diagram to find the sweet spot between topics the journalist wants to cover, and topics they have covered.”

That data is then matched up against a processed press release, which then prompts the release of a personalised email, that is targeted at the journalist. In a nutshell, it matches the startup with the right reporter, who will then receive a pitch from SumoStory.

“SumoStory saves brand marketers up to an hour,” said Chong, who explained that the automated system means that everyday operations are carried out at a considerably faster rate.

The PR company currently offers two packages for prospective clients priced at SGD1,800 (US$1,330) and SGD2,400 (US$1,770). Both bundles offer six months’ worth of long-term PR strategy development services, including story angle development, press release copywriting, and a management of journalist relationships from the initial contact to later interviews and follow-ups.

The premium package offers a more hands-on experience, with the company maintaining constant contact with their client.

Lean, mean PR machine

For SumoStory to remain sustainable, however, costs must remain low without foregoing efforts to constantly innovate.

“There is a large amount of waste in traditional PR agencies, where a lot of human labor can be replaced by technology,” Chong said.

“We started our operations lean, with an emphasis on using technology to help our PR professionals.”

He noted however, that the technology is there to “streamline the PR process, not replace it.” SumoStory still currently relies on PR professionals to “ideate, craft pitches, and analyze feedback from journalists.”

ideas

SumoStory won’t go totally technological, and will continue to employ humans. Source: Shutterstock

SumoStory employs several people including a data scientist, a software engineer, a UX/UI designer and a PR manager. As far as PR firm goes, it’s shoestring-thin, and Chong said that he is himself involved at every point of the business, from initiating relationships with journalists to the actual PR work.

The company is still expanding to meet the demand from startups starved for help with their PR strategies, and Chong gets some help from previous mentors who are leaders in Singapore’s PR industry. In the meantime, Chong continues to work to improve SumoStory’s media outreach and expand the tool so that journalists may use it to identify relevant clients.

By the beginning of next year, Chong intends to invest in Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology that could potentially automate the writing of press releases.

“I believe that about 80 percent of writing a press release could be automated using scrapers,” he said

Ultimately, he hopes to automate SumoStory as much as he can, without sacrificing the quality of its process. However, he emphasized the fact that even if he manages to introduce more automation into his company’s workflows, there will still be a need for staff within the company.

“Even though it’s devoid of any emotion or any insight, sometimes the job of PR is to just create a fact sheet with a hook or a lede,” he said.

“[Aside from the press release writing] the last 10 to 20 percent would require a PR practitioner to look at news and recent trends in the industry to provide the right hook for a journalist.”






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