The CyberAlert Story…
by Bill Comcowich, CEO
Bruce Mather, then a product manager at what is now AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, called and asked me to develop some software to automatically monitor and clip what people were saying online about his anesthesiology product.
Some of the posted recommendations by anesthesiologists on use of his product were not only incorrect, they were dangerous. He could find no existing service to do the job — and wanted me to develop customized software for his use.
Smart guy that I was, I stiff-armed Bruce. I was busy. His project didn't seem all that interesting. I didn't do anything.
About two months later, Bruce called again. "Hey, Bill", he said, "Are you going to develop that Internet monitoring and clipping software for us — or do I have to get someone else to do it?"
I visited him the next week in Delaware — and he showed me the issues he was facing. It quickly became much more interesting to me.
On my drive home to Connecticut, it occurred to me that many other companies faced the same issues and would benefit from the same media monitoring software.
Typically, multimedia production is a work-for-hire contract; the client owns everything. For the AstraZeneca Internet content monitoring software, we wrote a contract in which my company, UltiTech, Inc., retained ownership of the software and AstraZeneca received the service. It was one of the first software as a service (SaaS) businesses.
Early DevelopmentThe AstraZeneca contract funded V1.0 of what became CyberAlert. It was entirely custom coded and took about four months to develop. That early version was pretty basic, but did a good job of finding, clipping and delivering online articles and posts about the product.
Between 1997 and 1999, I personally funded V2.0, adding news monitoring to the monitoring of message boards, forums, Usenet newsgroups, and non-news Websites. Just about every penny I was earning from video and multimedia productions was being reinvested in development of the new media monitoring software. My wife kept asking why I was taking home so little money even though I had multiple large production contracts from pharmaceutical companies.
During this start-up period, we had a few customers. One was the security department of a major credit card company, searching for security breaches. Remarkably, within weeks, the CyberAlert software identified an employee who had (inadvertently?) posted a password that gave access to the company's secure servers.
Venture FundingIn Fall 1999, I started searching for venture capital, aided by Harry Sedgwick, a veteran of corporate start-ups (and, incidentally, father of actress Kyra Sedgwick). After making a few presentations to New York area venture firms, I received a cold call from Mark Callaghan of Andlinger & Co., Inc., a private investment firm that specializes in leveraged buyouts.
Andlinger provided the venture funding for CyberAlert at the end of 1999. CyberAlert is one of only two start-up firms it funded.
Product DevelopmentOur research on the traditional press clipping services indicated that their customers were dissatisfied. Too many missed clips; delayed clip delivery; too expensive; too many billing hassles.
During the first six months of 2000, we refined and upgraded our software, and built the hardware/bandwidth infrastructure. We designed the software to deliver what PR customers wanted and weren't getting: fewer missed clips; 95%+ clip accuracy; overnight clip delivery; lower costs. We also committed to delivering flawless customer service.
We launched the first commercial version of the product in July, 2000. At about the same time, we licensed our software to Bacon's Information, now Cision.
Product LaunchWe decided to launch the CyberAlert 3.0 media monitoring service (including news monitoring) with key customer-friendly features. First: Fixed monthly price with no per clip charges and no long-term contract required. No existing press clipping or media monitoring service offered all those customer-friendly pricing features. It was a big hit with PR professionals — and we've kept those pricing policies right up to this day.
Second: Guaranteed overnight clip delivery via e-mail at no extra charge. Another big success.
Third: An online clip archive that's accessible to client users from anywhere at anytime. We call it "Digital Clip Book". We promised to store the clips "forever", meaning for as long as you're a client. We continue that policy today. Fourth: Our "big idea" - or so we thought — was fully-integrated media monitoring. The CyberAlert service was designed to deliver unlimited clips each day from online news sources, corporate web sites, and consumer discussion groups in message boards, forums, and Usenet news groups for one fixed price of $295 per month. That price was less than most customers were paying then for news alone.
"Fully integrated media monitoring" was a huge failure. The vast majority of corporate and agency clients wanted to monitor only news. At that time, they could care less about consumer discussion or online word-of-mouth. They were unwilling to pay for the services they didn't want.
Within a few months, we offered a news only service and reduced the pricing to $195 per month.
The Internet CrashBy then, however, we faced some stiff headwinds. First, we monitored only 2,000 news sources in the U.S. (all that were online at that time) - so we couldn't position ourselves as a replacement for traditional press clipping services. We were an additional cost - not a cost saving. Second, the PR market wasn't ready for digital media monitoring services in 2000. They weren't nearly as ready to leave their existing press clipping suppliers as our research indicated. It was a tough "sell". But, more than that, we faced an economic tsunami. The Internet economy crashed. Previously free-spending companies and PR firms cut back drastically on outsourced media monitoring services. To husband our venture capital, we cut back staff. We squeezed nickels any way we could.
The remaining staff worked long and hard to increase media coverage, to improve the accuracy of the clips, to offer new features to differentiate our service, to customize the service to customer requests — and to find new customers. Some of our employees volunteered to take deep salary reductions, including me. (My wife wasn't happy about that, either.)
But we also had some big "scores". Durrant's, the press clipping service in the U.K., Media Monitors in Australia, and Luce Online all utilized CyberAlert to deliver online news clips to their press clipping customers. Those big accounts kept us alive during the toughest times of the Internet crash.
Surviving / ThrivingBusiness started to pick up - slowly - in 2002. But, by then, other competitors emerged in online news monitoring including deep-pocket companies like Lexis-Nexis, Factiva, and Burrelle's, now BurrellesLuce. (We lost the LuceOnline account when they merged with Burrelle's.) CyberAlert was a "puppy" battling "big dogs." The only way we could survive and succeed was to offer a better service that provided more comprehensive media coverage, more accurate clipping, and more timely delivery at a lower price. And we became totally obsessive about meeting every customer request and solving every customer complaint as quickly as possible. We adhere to that even today.
We maintained the $195 price until September, 2005 when we raised the price for new customers to $225 per month for national news monitoring and $325 for worldwide monitoring. In nine years, we've never raised the monthly price for our existing customers. That's our gift to them for their loyalty over the years.
Today, for the same monthly price, we monitor over 35,000 news sources in 250+ languages in 189 countries — with many other quality improvements and additional features. We also monitor the closed caption of TV news programs on all national and cable networks as well as news program on local TV stations in the Top 100 U.S. markets.
The early success with press clipping agents reselling our services prompted us to implement the CyberAlert Partners Program. Under the program, other companies resell CyberAlert services under their own brand. Partners include Business Wire in the U.S., MediaProof and Millward Brown Precis in the U.K., and Media Image in Romania.
Listening to CustomersCyberAlert started by listening to a customer. Through the years, we've tried hard to be responsive to customers. Some customers wanted clip delivery throughout the business day instead of once-a-day in the morning. We created RushClips. Instead of monitoring all publications, some customers want to monitor their own customized list of news sources. We do that. One customer — a major software company - wanted to receive only the "important clips", deleting mere mentions. We created IntelliClips. Another customer wanted a customized morning news briefing for executives. We created a.m. NewsBrief. One customer wanted a "research service, not a clipping service". He wanted one copy of each story from a major news source, not all clips from all sources. We created CyberAlert SSE (same story exclusion). Although we're a software-driven company, we even offer a human-edited service AccuClips to guarantee absolutely, positively 100% clip accuracy (for that small number of clients for whom the 97% accuracy of our standard service is not good enough). To provide media measurement services, we licensed software for ClipMetrics, a media analysis dashboard designed to meet the needs of mid-size and smaller companies.
My staff and I take great pride in customizing CyberAlert services to meet the very specific needs of every client. We like so-called "problem customers". They become our most enthusiastic advocates.
Social Media MonitoringNow, social media monitoring is the "hot ticket". It's also called word-of-mouth monitoring, buzz monitoring, and consumer discussion monitoring.
Over the years, we've added the BlogSquirrel blog monitoring service to monitor over 50 million blogs; Netpinions word-of-mouth monitoring tracks over 100,000 message boards, forums, complaint sites, and Usenet news groups; and CyberAlert VDO monitors over 200 video sharing sites.
Now, we've come full-circle to our original failed service: fully-integrated media monitoring of news and consumer discussion. It's our hottest service.
Acquisition OffersDuring 2007, two large PR services companies offered to acquire CyberAlert. Though reasonable, the offers weren't great - and they didn't protect the jobs of our valued employees. We decided to remain independent and to continue to grow our business.
SummaryCyberAlert's early software pioneered online media monitoring of news and online consumer discussion. Through the years, the Company's process of continuous improvement and quality control has made CyberAlert a worldwide leader in online media monitoring for news and consumer buzz. Most clients now use CyberAlert 5.0 news monitoring as a replacement for the old-fashioned press clipping services.
Today, we're proud to be a dot.com survivor — and an integral service for our hundreds of clients in corporations (including many PR agencies and most of the leading media measurement/analysis companies), government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations in the U.S. and countries throughout the world.
We're a profitable company month-to-month and we're still growing each month. We're still a "puppy" up against the "big dogs" — but we love it. And all of us work our butts off to make sure we deliver services our customers love.
Our deep appreciation to all our customers and especially to Bruce Mather. Bruce now heads CG Lock, a seat belt tensioner to improve child safety.