It was March 15, 2013, and the clock was ticking.
By approximately 10 a.m. the next day, I needed to find and secure interviews with two Chinese admissions counselors for an article I was writing about Chinese admissions fraud. Not an easy task.
These admissions counselors needed to have helped at least 20 Chinese students gain acceptance to U.S. schools, and they needed to work independently (i.e., not for an agency).
I grabbed my laptop and started Googling. After a couple rejections, I finally persuaded two sources to speak with me.
It’s been two and a half years, and despite having to hunt down hundreds of sources in the intervening time, I’ve never deviated from my Google method. But is that a mistake?
Considering the many platforms out there promising to take the hard work out of finding sources, I decided it was time to discover which ones actually delivered—and whether any of them could top the tried-and-true method of Googling.
So, I developed a pitch to send out and see which platform worked best:
“**Investment 101 for Recent College Grads:** an article targeted toward recent college graduates (age 22-24) who have a minimum of debt and want to dip their toes into investing. Looking for investment advisors – those who have worked with younger clients preferred!”
I used this pitch on five of the most high-profile platforms—SourceBottle, Expertise Finder, ProfNet, SheSource, and HARO—to best both their quantity and quality of sources. Google was the control.
And note: While this isn’t a very scientific experiment (after all I’m a writer, not a scientist), it did reveal some valuable differences between the platforms. Use my findings at your discretion.
SourceBottle—like most of these platforms—bills itself as ease-to-use, and, in that respect, it doesn’t disappoint. To start, you provide some basic details (publication, topic, deadline, and so on). Then, you fill out a form outlining what you’ll be writing and the kind of sources you’re looking for. The entire process took me about four minutes.
Besides the simplicity, I also liked SourceBottle’s optional source requirements. You can select specific countries, add keywords to your pitch, request to have your call-out posted on SourceBottle’s social media accounts, and even indicate whether you’ll be paying sources. These all help to filter out unwanted pitches before they get to your inbox.
Within 24 hours, SourceBottle sends your call-out to its list of PR reps and experts.
But I’m guessing this list isn’t very large. Only two potential sources responded—and one of them was definitely not a financial expert. The other guy had some good tips, but some quick digging revealed he’d copied and pasted bullet points from his own website.
Quantity of sources: D
Quality of sources: F
When I discovered SheSource, an “online braintrust of female experts on diverse topics,” I was pretty excited. After all, research shows that men are quoted as experts far out of proportion to women.
Unfortunately for my speciality the platform is geared more toward news and current events journalists than writers like me, but I gave it a shot anyway.
There were two experts that seemed like they could have some insights for my piece. I emailed them both; neither responded.
Quantity of sources: D
Quality of sources: D
Expertise Finder is essentially a search engine for qualified experts—you search for the type of expert you need, browse through the relevant profiles, and contact anyone who looks like a good fit. So, unlike SourceBottle, the onus is on you to find your sources; that has both pros (no reading bad pitches) and its cons (you may miss a good source because of a poorly defined search).
I entered “personal finance” into the search bar and only got six results. Using the contact info on their profiles, I then emailed all six with my pitch.
The good news: All the experts were credible. To be listed on the site, you must be affiliated with an accredited university, four-year college, or reputable think tank—and judging from the profiles I saw, this kept the source quality up.
The bad news: Only two of them emailed me back. One of them said she “probably wasn’t an ideal person for this” and the other disagreed with the article’s fundamental concept.
Also, while I couldn’t find Expertise Finder’s total number of experts, I don’t think it’s high. Broad terms, like “sports” and “social media” only turned up 139 and 84 results, respectively.
Quantity of sources: D
Quality of sources: B
With ProfNet, a platform from well-known agency PR Newswire, you (theoretically) get the best of both worlds. It gives you two options for finding sources: filling out a query like on Source Bottle, and searching ProfNet Connect—a database of more than 50,000 experts and media professionals—like on Expertise Finder.
I tried both. The first option was surprisingly quick; within two hours after submitting my pitch, I’d already heard from two sources.
Unfortunately, the first one obviously hadn’t read my query. The second response was a much better match, although it turned out the representative had already emailed me after seeing my pitch on a different source-finding platform. I guess some overlap is to be expected.
Since these two responses were the only ones I got, I tried doing my own outreach. “Finance” returned 2,647 results. Each expert’s profile was really in-depth, which made it easier to figure out who’d be knowledgeable about my topic.
Of the eight experts I contacted, three answered. These sources knew their stuff and were reasonably helpful.
Quantity of sources: B-
Quality of sources: C+
Last, but definitely not least, I submitted my pitch to Help a Reporter Out (HARO). The query process is almost identical to SourceBottle and ProfNet, which means you could easily copy and paste your pitch if you wanted to use all three.
HARO has a much larger database than any of the other platforms on this list (they claim to have around 475,000 sources on tap), and the service’s scale quickly became obvious after my pitch went up. Within 48 hours, I got 31 responses. Some of them were easy to reject, but there were at least 15 sources that definitely would’ve worked for my story. (That includes the source who also saw me on ProfNet.)
I didn’t make an account, choosing to receive my responses by email. However, if you do, you can check out source ratings (which allow you to easily identify reliable sources), give your own ratings, and “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” relevant and irrelevant pitches, respectively.
Quantity of sources: A
Quality of sources: A-
The control: Google
Usually, I find sources by googling “[subject matter] + expert” and cold-emailing them. I wanted to see if this method was more or less successful than using an online service.
It took me around 45 minutes to identify and contact 10 sources, all of whom were subject-matter experts. Three responded within a couple days, saying they’d be happy to talk to me; four never replied; one said no; and the last expert emailed me back after the story was complete.
Quantity of sources: B
Quality of sources: A
Overall, I was pretty unimpressed. Plugging my pitch into SourceBottle and ProfNet was easier than individually emailing sources, but the results weren’t great.
Expertise Finder was even more disappointing because the sources didn’t pan out and it was fairly labor-intensive.
SheSource, on the other hand, showed some promise. I’d recommend it for journalists, as most of the experts seemed to be in the more news-oriented categories.
HARO was the clear winner in terms of both quantity and quality. From now on, it’ll be my go-to source-finding platform… along with good old Google.