Thursday 20 June 2019

Knowing you, knowing me - NewsWhip's new world order for media

Paul Quigley's NewsWhip distils the world's chatter into a package of 'digital signals' for media companies and big corporations. Our technology editor talks to him about influence, algorithms and growth

Software engineer Andrew Mullaney and entrepreneur Paul Quigley, co-founders of NewsWhip, in their new Merrion Square offices in Dublin.
Software engineer Andrew Mullaney and entrepreneur Paul Quigley, co-founders of NewsWhip, in their new Merrion Square offices in Dublin.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Although aged 36, Paul Quigley doesn't regard himself as being a millennial. "I'm Generation X," he says in the basement of a Georgian Merrion Square office block. "Kurt Cobain died when I was 14. I identify more with that era."

His company doesn't. NewsWhip is one of the most millennial-like media technology crossover firms emerging from Ireland. It mines social media and online publications for 'digital signals' that big companies and media corporations can turn into triggers. Signed-up customers like The Guardian and AOL get a headstart on what people are talking about and what they're likely to start talking about.

"We look at a combination of different factors," he says. "We pick up on something which has all the signals of going viral."

This involves a bit more than just checking what is trending on Twitter. Quigley says that the company has developed "machine learning" and "statistical algorithms" that give clear predictive pictures as an alternative to a hunch or a lot of people scouring through the internet all day.

The result is the ability to get into a story early and, if you're an online publisher, own a large slice of it.

It seems to resonate with a swelling list of corporate media clients, including The Guardian, the BBC, RTE, Newstalk and a host of US media conglomerates such as 'USA Today', AOL and the 'Washington Post'.

"For these people, it's getting in there early and finding things they wouldn't otherwise see," says Quigley.

This wasn't always NewsWhip's path. When it started out in 2010, the company was set up as just another curation service, showing articles that were popular in different fields. It was too generic and it flailed about, largely unnoticed. Quigley and co-founder Andrew Mullaney decided to look instead at what others were talking about and tailor that as a specific service.

One of its earliest customers for the new product was the left-wing US news and politics site Think Progress. It wanted something to discover stories about gun violence by police, without spending hours constantly typing in search terms or scouring noticeboard threads. As Quigley tells it, they found such stories using NewsWhip's revamped service.

"There was a case of an 18-year-old schizophrenic boy in Connecticut whose parents called the police to help them restrain him so they could give him his medication," says Quigley. "When the police arrived, they shot him dead. Think Progress found this story trending locally in Connecticut but it hadn't yet made it to the national market. So they framed the story around what the police had done, took it to the national market and it became a major international story with networks like the BBC and the Guardian covering it. That helped kick-start a much higher level of awareness in those kinds of stories."

At this point, a layman might ask: is this not something that free online alerts services, from Google and others, could cover?

"Things like Google News alerts are good but they're not great," he says. "They don't give you a lot of contextual information around the story like how much traction is it getting, whether it's over or whether it's still growing. We supply a lot more of that contextual information around each story. For some people that's very helpful."

The formula appears to be an in-demand one. NewsWhip is in the middle of a hiring round that Quigley says will see its headcount double to 50 by the end of June.

It has also significantly expanded its market beyond media clients. Intel and MasterCard are now paying customers, as are brands such as Reebok and multinational PR agencies such as Edelman and OMD.

"We've got about 320 clients now and it's rising briskly," says Quigley. "Our biggest sector is still media and our biggest customers would be Yahoo, AOL and other big media companies, such as the BBC. Our fastest growing sector is PR and ad agencies."

Quigley says that law firms are another growing sector.

"If you've got Chevron as a client you want to know what's big in oil," he says. "You also want to know about different oil products or maybe what the political situation in Venezuela is. There are different topic areas you want to stay really intelligent on."

Isn't that what a clippings agency does, though? "There is a little crossover but we're coming at it from a different angle," says Quigley. "The clippings agency was when the boss wanted to get this big stack of every mention something got in the media. The problem now is that there are so many things mentioned online that you need something simply to give you the important things, and really quickly with the news cycle having speeded up.

"That's where we come in. Instead of every mention of your brand you get the important ones. Plus we'll ping you if anything big is taking off."

Trusting NewsWhip to tell what's "important" from what's not would seem to be a core part of the deal. Quigley's loose position on this is that being "important" is derived from being "talked about" or "published". It's an outsourced sovereign judgement.

For journalists, it's a double-edged sword. On one hand, those with access to the system can get an insight into hot-button topics, including ones they may not have provisioned for. On the other hand, a journalist's work is more categorically quantified according to visual impact metrics online, a trend that probably encourages homogenisation and clickbait.

"Many big companies are constantly looking who the big influencers are in journalism," says Quigley. "They want to know which journalists they should be talking to, based on who is writing the stories that are getting shared on a topic. These are earned media decisions and marketing decisions around the data."

Social media monitoring services have some of this covered already, but not to the same depth, says Quigley.

"Social media monitoring might tell you about the sum of your mentions, including how many are positive and how many are negative," he says. "But that's not always actionable information and it's not really useful. Instead, a company like MasterCard might want to see those who are relevant in conversations around financial inclusion or payment security. So they might use us to monitor those and to find the big stories, to identify the important authors in those areas. That then informs their earned media and, subsequently, their content strategy."

Where does this leave experience, judgement and instinct? Are tools such as NewsWhip's a formula for white-labelling of media targeting strategies? Or do they democratise them outside the walls of expensive media consultants and overly-cosy relationships?

The answers to questions such as these are not Quigley's concern.

"Our customers know their market," he says. "We're just the guys with the data."

Not all online publishing areas are penetrable by NewsWhip. Snapchat, which has hundreds of millions of users globally and hundreds of thousands in Ireland, remains hidden behind a big wall.

"We'd love to relate it back to what we're doing but there isn't an API there yet," says Quigley.

Such private sharing platforms are one of the biggest limitations to what NewsWhip does. And this year could be a seminal one in deciding whether the companies that own such platforms - especially Facebook, which has Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp - make messaging services more searchable or more fortified.

"I think we'll see more private sharing, especially Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp," says Quigley. "What I'm hoping is we'll be able to get more signals out of that. That will be important for us."

There are other still-impenetrable areas for NewsWhip. It doesn't have the computing power, or even the ambition right now, to tackle live video and audio streams.

If a subject gets 20 minutes with Morning Ireland's 400,000 listeners, it won't, of itself be picked up by NewsWhip. And because people don't tweet in the same numbers at that hour of the morning as they do for evening shows, it might only register as a minor media intervention compared to broadcasts with a quarter of the impact and a much reduced 'influencer' grade.

Quigley says that there is no short term plan to tackle this.

"We don't want to go right in and fully rebuild the media monitoring stack," he says. "Because we think we're better starting where we are now and getting very good at what we're doing now. It would be interesting to integrate TV, for example, but it's almost mind-boggling hard to estimate how we would integrate that into the general signal. We pull in a lot of video content but we don't try to extract text from it.

"There are services that do that but they charge too much for it for us to incorporate it now. There are captions on most TV broadcasts anyway."

That leaves the company with text-based services. Within social media, there are different tiers, says Quigley.

For NewsWhip, Twitter is an "influencer network". "It has a lot of people doing a lot of things that Facebook still doesn't have," he says.

By comparison, Facebook is "the 10,000lb gorilla". "It's got very strong API data that we're able to do some great work with."

Pinterest and LinkedIn, meanwhile, are "stable for particular types of content".

"I think we'll see Facebook push its live service very hard," says Quigley. "We'll be encouraged to broadcast to our friends through Facebook and brands will be encouraged to do it through very favourable treatment of life in the Facebook algorithm. Everything that Facebook does has a lot of knock-on effects for everyone."

Ireland isn't an especially rich hunting ground for NewsWhip, even though it has a collection of clients here, including RTE, Newstalk, and others.

But things are going well enough for the company to have growing pains. The company's 35 new hires will vary between its operations, says Quigley.

"We really need to build out our machine learning team. We also need more Java developers, front end developers and designers. We need more people on sales in Europe, too, and also for product management."

And the company will continue to sell its core asset: other people's conversations.

"It's trust in our system," he says. "You trust the crowd to share the most important stories.

The value is there are billions of people every day deciding what to share and what not to share and their friends are getting the benefit of that.

"What we do is gather all of that into one signal so that every one of those weak signals taken together can turn into very strong signals. The value, to some degree, is in its time-saving."

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