The measurement business has been ripe for consolidation for a while – there are just too many vendors with similar products competing for too few customers. The question that I have is this: Who is all this consolidation good for, the shareholders or the customers?
Let’s look at what happened when the social media monitoring business went through a similar consolidation a few years ago. It started in 2010 when Attensity acquired Biz 360, Then MarketWired bought Sysomos, Salesforce bought Radian 6 and SDL acquired SM2 and Visible Technologies acquired Symphony. Despite all the hype and the promises, are customers actually seeing more benefit from any of them?
All were touted as providing a new level of integration between social and marketing metrics. What I find most fascinating is that while all that was going on, there was a simultaneous explosion of brand new startups doing what all these newly enlarged companies but faster, prettier and cheaper. Companies like Social Bakers, Tickr, Brand24 and Shoutlet for example. My takeaway is that it is probably easier to start from scratch these days than it is to get two competing technology platform to work seamlessly.
All that activity aside, I still see remarkably little good, standards-compliant measurement. I think these fast moving high-tech startups (and their equally fast-moving and early adopting customers) have little appetite for the blocking and tackling work of real measurement. That’s not just my observation that is coming from a constant stream of complaints from both current and former customers.
Certainly the promised synergies between Radian 6 and Salesforce have yielded little more than an increase in complaints about the service. SM2 hasn’t gotten much better either, although the ability to integrate it into a more comprehensive platform adds a strength they didn’t have before. Of all those acquisitions, only the Marketwired/Sysomos and Visible/Symphony have the kind of happy marriage needed to continuously meet the needs of this rapidly moving marketplace. In fact, Forester just gave the called the latter a one of the top three in their most recent evaluation of Enterprise Listening Platforms.
Net net: Customers 2; Founders: 2
In 2014 the consolidation contagion has it the traditional media measurement companies. But in this space, the reasons are less about integrating on higher platforms than survival of the fittest.
First there was the takeover of Carma by Salience Insight/News Group. I’ve competed against Carma frequently throughout my 28 years in PR measurement and for years it enjoyed a solid reputation for delivering good PR measurement to fiercely loyal customers. In the past few years it has gone through a series of leadership changes and fallen far behind on the technology front. The industry assumed that its founder and longtime leader, Al Barr, was looking for an exit strategy. The News Group/Salience acquisition clearly provided him with one.
While Carma’s list of prestigious clients may help Salience grow its business in America, it won’t be without its challenges. If they maintain two separate brands as planned, the potential for customer confusion is high, especially with international clients. According to the press release, Salience only bought the US Operations, not the numerous Carma franchises in Asia Pacific, Europe, Canada Japan Brazil and India – all of which will be directly competing with the Salience Brand in a number of countries. I wouldn’t wish the job of navigating THAT mine field to anyone.
Net net: Customers .5; Founder: 5 ++++
Then there’s Cision and Vocus who have long dominated the lower end of the media monitoring and analysis marketplace with offerings that included PR management as well as monitoring. Vocus invested heavily in expansion into the marketing space over the past few years and was reportedly less successful than expected, losing close to $50 million in the last two years and running short of cash. So you can imagine the head-scratching that went on when going on when private equity firm GTCR came in with an offer of $446 million – a 48% premium over its current price. Clearly investors saw more to their offering than their customers did, most of whom I hear from about two months before their contract is up to ask me about alternatives.
Net net: Customers 0; Founders and Investors 5+
Then to no surprise to anyone in the marketplace, Cision announced that it was for sale, and promptly became the industries’ very own Mary Crawley. GTCR made the first offer which was then raised by Meltwater – another PR measurement automation company. Not to be outdone GTCR then topped that by another million or so. Customers are already calling me to find out what other companies should be on their list to consider when the inevitable change in management occurs.
Once again, net net: Customers 0, Investors 5+
Here’s what I find fascinating. The media measurement companies (including my own) that have sold in recent years, were all at one time leaders in the industry. And they all sold for what is virtually a rounding error compared to the deals that Cision and Vocus have cut — never mind the earlier wave of deals. The clear message is that investors perceive high-tech platforms and marketing automation to be a whole lot more attractive than high-touch, human-being driven analysis. I get that.
What I don’t understand is where GTCR and other investors in the space see the market going? Why is it that all these eye-popping sales come at a time when most clients have come to the conclusion that purely automated solutions come about as close to real life as life at Downton Abbey. I hear daily from clients about their frustration with these platforms, about how inaccurate the data is, and how they all feel over promised and under serviced. What they’ve all learned is that no matter how “automated” the system, computers are only as smart as the people who program them. Thus, whatever system they purchase still needs a great deal of human intervention. The promised platforms turn out to be more grating than integrated, and while they are swimming in data, they are starved for insight.
The only really happy clients are the ones that realize that you get what you pay for, and are investing heavily because they see the value. MasterCard’s project with Prime Research is a perfect example. Prime uses an army of developers to customize a platform to do exactly what the client needs it to do. It integrates social and traditional media, listening with responses, distribution with measurement. What a brilliant concept! (Ironically, that was exactly the platform I was designing in 1999 when I first met Mark Weiner, (now Prime US’ CEO) and I was trying to merge my company into what is now Cision. The response from one of the team (not Mark) was “That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard,” reinforcing my philosophy that a good entrepreneur is never wrong, just early.)
The problem today is that there are far fewer clients out there like MasterCard’s Andrew Bowins, than there are PR Managers in mid-sized companies who aren’t as clear about what they want, so they fall for the pitch from Meltwater or Vocus or Cision and muddle along until the contract is up when they start the search process all over again.
Maybe GTCR can pull it off, or maybe yet another new startup will provide the solution. All I know is that right now, the founders and shareholders are doing a lot better than the customers.