With an Increasing Portfolio of Products and Services, Newspapers Should Learn to Think Outside the Box When Recruiting Salespeople

By: Sharon Knolle

What’s harder than landing an advertising client? These days, it’s likely more challenging to find a salesperson with the right skill set and the necessary dedication. And once you do find them, how do you keep them in such a competitive market?

As newspapers branch out into new revenue streams, E&P talked to sales experts who mapped out the biggest challenges in recruiting talented sales staff and what they’re looking for in today’s media landscape.

Beyond asking “What makes a great salesperson?” Jed Williams, chief innovation officer at Local Media Association (LMA), said publishers should be asking, “Why is securing elite sales talent so difficult?”

“Interestingly, what’s not necessarily near the top of the list is a deep understanding of media,” he said, “which is why hiring from outside the newspaper industry isn’t necessarily an obstacle.

“Instead, in a fragmented and constantly-changing environment, traits like adaptability, empathy and ability to learn quickly are more important,” Williams continued. “Can salespeople consistently, and willingly, expand their capacity to master new products and services? And in doing so, can they keep the customer at the center of the conversation to ensure that solutions are tailored to customer needs? Can they utilize modern sales tools (CRM, prospecting, and more) to operate with discipline and efficiency? These are essential questions that sales managers are looking to answer to find high performers.”

Tom Black is the founder of The Tom Black Center for Excellence and recently presented “Foundations of Success in Sales and Sales Management” at the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association (SNPA) News Industry Summit in Nashville. Based in Brentwood, Tenn., the center offers sales training, sales management training and executive coaching.

Speaking to E&P, Black provided a daunting list of what makes a great salesperson: “They’re committed to hard work, at least 60-80 hours per week. He or she also has a positive attitude and thinks of the possibilities. They believe that constant improvement is possible, they embrace changing conditions and they are good listeners.”

Dan Fritts, director of sales at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., also looks for “traditional” qualities in candidates, such as hard work. “We also look for individuals with a helpful and curious spirit and drive. These aid in having better conversations and understanding of clients which we feel results in more successful business relationships.”

Biggest Hiring Challenges

According to Williams, “Finding salespeople who fit the criteria noted above is extremely difficult. It’s the challenge that keeps media executives up at night. Then factor in competition and the headwinds grow stronger.”

Jed Williams

He added, “Media companies aren’t just competing with each other for sales talent—they’re competing with a wide array of agency, vertical, SaaS technology players and more. Many of these offer attractive cultural benefits and compensate handsomely.”

Black concurred: “Talent is in limited supply. It doesn’t matter what department you’re recruiting for. The lower unemployment goes, the more difficult it becomes. However, if you’re the best place to work you can always find talent.”

And it’s not just newspapers who are struggling. “Many employers from various industries throughout the area are struggling to fill sales positions,” said Fritts.

It’s a different picture at the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette though. Brent Powers, the paper’s director of advertising, marketing and digital services, said fortunately, Little Rock is “one of the best places and fastest growing places in the US. We have had a few job postings generate over 100 applicants in just a few short days…While we do have some challenges, overall, we have been blessed to find quality salespeople, videographers and journalists for the revenue team.

Brent Powers

“We are always looking for the next superstar. I try to make sure we consider the candidate and their skills as much as I do the job description for the open position. I think being flexible and utilizing the skill sets that are available is the best opportunity to increase the quality of your team.”

 Finding the Right Talent

For many news organizations, revenue no longer comes from just their print product. So, how are publishers recruiting people to sell new products like events and sponsored and branded content?

“It’s difficult, certainly, but many local media companies aren’t building vertical or product-specific sales forces,” Williams said. “Some have dedicated digital sellers, although there’s been some movement away from this model. Few have sellers focused exclusively on selling specific solutions such as sponsored content or agency services. However, those who do provide compelling case studies for the industry to study.

“Take GateHouse Media. Granted, it’s a massive company, but one that has dedicated digital agency services sellers (UpCurve/ThriveHive) and also has a team focused exclusively on empowering success with promotions and live events. As a result, these are some of GateHouse’s fastest-growing business lines.”

LMA president Nancy Lane said in a 2016 Street Fight interview, “Events are not new but creating a separate events division is for most media companies. The companies that have done this (Tribune, Utah Media Group, Emmis Communications and more), are seeing profit margins up to 50 percent and revenue well into the seven figures. It is a no brainer (but can’t be handled by existing staff.) Billy Penn, the digital start up in Philly, built events into their business model from day one. Events account for more than 50 percent of their revenue. This is a must-do for local media companies.”

“While our industry’s overall perception is viewed as challenging, digital and events are viewed as vibrant employment opportunities,” Fritts said, adding that these areas have attracted “above average” numbers of applicants.

Powers relies on Recruitology, a recruiting platform for media companies, to pinpoint qualified candidates. “It offers us audience extension,” he said.

Roberto Angulo

Roberto Angulo, CEO of Recruitology, explains that the company doesn’t just help newspapers find job candidates for themselves, they also provide a digital recruitment platform that papers can brand as their own to local employers, such as this one seen on the Chicago Tribune website. The Tribune is among their more than 400 clients.

“All these solutions are powered by Recruitology and offered by our media partners under their own brand. Employers can post through one place to sites like Indeed, CareerBuilder, Craigslist, Facebook, Google for Jobs, and over 150 niche job sites. They can also search for resumes and profiles and get matched candidates,” Angulo said.

And the company offers perks for sales staff incentives and contests to sales reps at media partners.

“This helps with retention since reps can supplement their income above and beyond what they earn as part of their regular compensation. On average, reps that sell Recruitology earn $200 extra a month and some are earning up to $2,500 extra per month,” said Angulo. “Over the past year, most of our partners have posted jobs through Recruitology for their own hiring needs, including sales roles. They’ve posted to our social channels, MaxRecruit, which is our programmatic job offering, and to our sales and entry-level niche networks. In the past year, media partners have advertised nearly 14,000 sales roles for themselves or their clients through Recruitology.”

 Pros and Cons of Hiring Outside Industry

Is it essential that salespeople know the ins and outs of publishing? Not necessarily.

“At this point, I believe there are more pros than cons,” said Williams. “Local selling is moving away from being about media sales and shifting to solutions-based selling. Hiring sales people who can adapt quickly, who embrace new products and services, and who have a deep understanding of and appreciation of customer service are best positioned to succeed. Those qualities don’t require a media or newspaper background. That’s not to say that newspaper reps can’t be successful in this changing climate, but they must show a predilection to change with it.”

Black added, “I don’t worry about what someone is selling. I believe I can teach them the industry. I look at the track record of the candidate. Many times people have bad habits when they’ve been in the industry.” Although, he added, “Of course, all things equal, I’d rather hire in the industry.”

Powers said, “The con is that the candidate wouldn’t know how we have or why we have made decisions and put processes in place.” But overall, he sees the experience of those from different industries as a benefit: “I tell our team each week that we are successful because of our diversity not in spite of our diversity. It is and will continue to be one of our best strengths.”

Dan Fritts

Fritts weighed the pros: People from different industries bring new thoughts and perspectives from other industries that aid in supporting a shift away from traditional newspaper services.

“In general, other industry sales organizations have navigated and experienced highly competitive selling environments much longer than our industry,” he said.

But on the other hand, “It takes time to learn our business. Media sales is tough. We have our own language, challenges with countless products, services and deadlines every week…It takes about nine months for reps to be effective managing their territory and reaching various sales expectations consistently.”

Attracting Younger Salespeople

If you want to stay current, you need a younger salesforce seems to be the prevailing methodology. But how do you attract them?

“This starts with culture,” Williams said. “If younger salespeople perceive a media company’s culture to be static and outdated, they’re less inclined to even consider media. However, if the culture can be re-imagined and re-positioned as one of growth, where there’s investment in professional development, room for personal growth, competitive compensation, and no ceiling on the ability to bring creative solutions to market, then media companies can again be a destination.”

“We fish where the fish are,” said Powers. “It makes it much easier to catch one you are proud of.” He “fishes” by using social media and depending on younger team members to recruit.

“Overall, we hire the best candidate regardless of age. We have given several recent college grads their first job and it has proven to have been the correct decision,” Powers said.

Fritts said hiring younger people definitely has been a priority at the Spokesman-Review. “We’ve discussed this and will be looking at working with HR to reach out directly to area college campuses to participate in career fairs.” Spokane is home to Gonzaga and Whitworth Universities, and Washington State University is one of the many nearby colleges.

He said that the paper has also adopted Handshake as a tool to attract and recruit college students. Handshake’s 2018 annual report noted only 3.5 percent of students planned to pursue a career in “advertising, PR and marketing.”

And, something that will make recruiters happy, Handshake finds that students are learning to quantify hirable skills in terms that more readily transfer to the marketplace. Instead of listing themselves as a “hard worker” or being “dedicated” or “reliable,” they’re now describing skills such as “creative problem solving,” “client relations” and “community engagement.”

After the Hire 

Congratulations, you’ve hired the best salespeople. Now it’s time to work on retention.

“If recruiting high-performing sales talent is the top challenge, then retaining the talent is right behind it on the list,” Williams said. “Talented salespeople are restless—it’s the DNA that fuels their success. They want new opportunities to succeed. Ongoing professional development is important to them. Competitive compensation matters. They’re not looking for guarantees or an easy path. But they want to know that they can continue to grow, backed by an organization that supports this growth.”

Tom Black

Black agreed that salespeople want to be challenged and appreciated. But in his experience, money is still the most important factor in keeping people from leaving. “Talented salespeople are hard to keep unless you pay them what they can make in the market working somewhere else. People will always change jobs for money.”

At the Spokesman-Review, Fritts said, “We’ve been fortunate with little turnover. Keys for us have included flexible work schedules, helping staff balance work and family, providing opportunities to lead various sales projects and monthly and annual sales recognition.” He also recommended including sales staff in the planning process for various projects or committees to incorporate their ideas and expertise.

Powers said, “I think it can be hard, but shouldn’t be. Share the vision, the mission and the destination. Let the salespeople help get you to that goal. I encourage participation and input. We often tweak or change things based off the (salespeople’s) feedback. That keeps us winning—the staff making commission and the staff being personally invested.”

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Published: December 3, 2018

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