10 Things You Must Ask Your Sales Staff

by: Gretchen A. Peck


An advertising director recently confided that the job was far simpler in newspapers’ past boon times. The phones rang off their hooks; display space was popular and coveted. Classified teams fielded calls and checked fax machines for incoming copy bound for sections that thrived. Sunday circulars and weekly magazines were must-haves for subscribers, so advertisers clamored for a presence there. The ad director noted that back then, advertising sales were largely comprised of “taking orders” and coordinating with production. Sales and rhetorical acumen wasn’t always necessary. The ads came to you, that ad director recalled.

Today, the job description is much more complicated, and the measurements by which advertising sales professionals are judged are newly challenging. If newspapers want to thrive, they must stay one step ahead in the game in the sales room. Here are 10 things ad directors must be prepared to ask their sales staff. Their answers will not only assure success, but prepare them for things to come.

1. Now that we’re publishing in print, electronically, and on mobile apps and social media, our mission and value proposition as a media organization is changing. How have you relayed this message to advertisers?

In past eras, the newspaper’s value proposition was pretty simple, too. There was one product—the newspaper—and there was a number, the readership. Now, sales reps are tasked with selling for print, websites, mobile Web access and mobile apps. Content marketing has also been added to the products and services menu for some newspapers.

It’s easy to get bogged down in selling products, when the more compelling message is all about audience.

“What we do as an organization is deliver your perfect customer to you. It all boils down to that,” said Beth Douglas, advertising sales director, Digital First Media. “Who is your perfect customer? How can you reach them? That’s what we offer.”

Don’t overcomplicate the messaging, she said. The value proposition may be that simple: You want audience? We can deliver it. Product pitches can come later.

And sometimes the value-proposition is a message of integrity and longevity, according to Greg Popa, publisher of Vermont’s Stowe Reporter and Waterbury Record.

“As a publisher of two small weeklies, we’ve been less affected by the changing media landscape. However, we have noticed a fall-off in submissions from community members for things such as birth announcements and weddings. We run campaigns in print and on our social-media pages, reminding people that the shelf life for Facebook, Twitter, and the like is short-lived. Sending those sorts of things to us ensures that these life-changing events become part of our towns’ histories.”


2. How are you creatively partnering with clients to help tell stories about their businesses, people, products, or services?

Today’s ad execs aren’t just masters of “the pitch” or production liaisons. They’re ad-campaign engineers, building custom programs featuring effectively targeted messages.

“Would you rather reach 10 people that really want your product or service? Or do you want to pay to reach 10,000 people, with only two who want it?” Douglas said. “It’s the value of the list. It’s the targeting.”

There are elements of puzzle-solving and match-matching required of today’s ad sales execs. In effect, you’re matching audience with advertiser and enabling them to share a story.

“During 2014, we established a content-generating team entirely outside of the newsroom with the express goal of creating storytelling solutions for our advertisers,” said Michael Moses, director of marketing and digital strategy for The Day in New London, Conn. “We leveraged that marketing content team to feed all of our sponsored content platforms in print, online, and custom publications.

“The creation of this division has allowed tremendous organic growth through new products and provided new opportunities to monetize our rich database—leading to over $300,000 in new revenues in just eight months. Our initial success provided new opportunities in 2015. We added depth to our content team with an editor and designer, both transferred directly from our newsroom. This additional depth allowed us to expand our Sunday magazine brand.  During 2015, we will publish 27 titles, all supported by sponsored content.  Budgeted revenues associated with marketing products exceed $1.5 million this year, from $0 prior to 2014.”


3. How are you approaching clients in a more consultative way?

Consultative selling skills are a must in today’s ad-sales job market. The most successful advertising sales pros are adept at getting to know their clients’ businesses, their market opportunities, their challenges, and their goals.

“We try to keep products off the table and talk about what the advertiser is trying to do, and how they’re going to measure the success of the campaign,” Douglas said. “Then, we come back with a proposal that may or may not have a newspaper component to it.”

Consultative selling isn’t new at the Stowe Reporter and Waterbury Record, according to its publisher. “We make an attempt at this every day, but it’s not easy,” Popa said. “Our advertisers, for the most part, do not employ long-range planning when it comes to advertising and marketing. When they open the door, we start those conversations. Frankly, we understand their businesses by being in them as often as possible to make an ad sale.”

At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and AJC.com, vice president of advertising sales Eric Myers said a consultative approach to sales allows the ad team to focus less on products and more on “moments in time.”

“We try to get advertisers to walk through a handful of their pain points that they foresee over the next calendar year, where they need to grab business from their competition. It gives my sales force a good framework, and then they can introduce them to all of our complex ad solutions that share a common goal,” Myers explained.

“We may ask, ‘Tell me about your retail paint points that you have coming up…and then we can put together a very strategic six-, seven-, or 13-week campaigns that focus on a particular creative, a particular initiative. That really allows our sales force to bring back a number of advertising solutions, including contextual and native applications.”


4. How are you incorporating data into your pipeline planning and sales process?

Data isn’t just for publishers, circulation managers and marketing minds to parse. It can offer invaluable information for sales teams too, allowing them rich insight into audience trends and behaviors, enabling sales to help their advertisers build campaigns based on them. Here’s where sales and marketing and circulation need to have some coherence and cooperation in gathering data, mining it, and messaging it—but, all this takes resources.

When we think of audience data, images of numbers crunching and behavioral modeling comes to mind, but for newspapers with limited staff and limited budgets, gleaning insight about readers is more grassroots in nature.

Bill Brod, publisher and CEO of the Syracuse New Times, publishes a newspaper with a staff of just 21. “We are a small, efficient, nimble, but powerful team,” he said. “We’re a small company, and we don’t have those resources…We do a lot of our analysis organically. We spend time on the street. We survey people. We put things into the paper and ask people to respond to them. We spend only the resources we can afford to analyze readership. We don’t have statisticians on staff.”

And sometimes that’s enough to get your know your readership and precisely what they want. “We’re a weekly, in arts, dining, and entertainment. We tell people what their options are with their discretionary time and income.”

Data is increasingly important not just to audience/circulation development. Myers noted that leveraging DMPs—data-management platforms—allows for richer data mining and management for the client. “Depending on the level of data the client has and the cleanliness of it—and determining that can be a tedious process—we can match that data to information about the marketplace, as well as to our reader-subscriber-viewer base, in order to come up with an optimized buy.” 5. What data are you regularly looking at, and how are you taking that data and turning it into something that’s actionable for your clients?

Advertisers want a return on their investments, and they’re hip to the audience data publishers can now reap from their digital publishing ventures. Increasingly, they want to speak to their target audiences with targeted messaging. While the newspapers published in the print-centric centuries offered exposure to a broad audience, spanning demographics, today the expectation is to deploy ads with laser-like precision.

“Advertisers are not necessarily focused on circulation, but who we are circulating to,” Moses said. “The value—and ultimately the results—are driven by reaching the right readers. Selling data and information is critical to success.

“Newspapers now have two products: our content and our data,” he added. “Our ability to match our behavioral profile groups, through an enhanced suite of print and digital products…(marrying) advertiser client data to those profile groups, is invaluable.”


6. How are you generating buzz about our mobile apps and mobile Web advertising opportunities?

In April, Pew Research Center published its State of the News Media 2015 study, which noted digital advertising (including mobile ads) had tallied $50.7 billion in revenue in 2014—$19 billion of which was derived from mobile advertising, up 78 percent over the previous year.

To label mobile-Web and mobile-app publishing an “opportunity” is understatement. It’s a necessity for news publishers, now, though it often proves elusive for smaller papers.

“As we look to build our team, we’re looking for a skill set and a mentality more than media sales experience,” said Meg Boyer, vice president of sales and marketing at the Idaho Statesman.

“Today, it’s more critical that we find sales professionals who are willing and eager to adapt to change, who take a consultative approach, and who are tuned in to the latest technology. It’s not critical that candidates have sold mobile marketing solutions before, but it is critical that they engage with that technology and understand how critical it is to our business.”

Ron Clausen agreed. He’s the advertising sales manager at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where a tech-savvy sales force has become increasingly important. “I think that a fundamental factor in a salesperson’s ability to build trust and credibility with potential customers is their understanding and belief in the products they sell. That said, a person that does not have experience with the product will always struggle convincing a client of its value…I think that attention to this important skill set (and) attribute in a company’s hiring and training strategies should be a priority if it is not being done already.”


7. How are you inspiring advertisers to leverage our digital channels for video campaigns?

Business Insider writer Mark Hoelzel pointed out that online video ads often garner three times the number of clicks than other types of ads. Though the cost of creating digital ad campaigns are certainly more expensive than creating a static graphic ad, Hoelzel noted how a recent BI Intelligence report revealed that “prices are steadily declining as more publishers rush into video, and placements open up.”

In addition to a team of journalists “with a capital J,” according to Myers, at the Journal-Constitution, there is a growing team of other talented creative professionals. “We’ve been ramping up our digital and tech staff, and they’ve been blending well.”

“As far as mobile and video goes, we reach out for partners or rely on our own videographers on staff,” he said. “But, again, we’re looking for that ‘moment in time’ sales opportunity. Rather than just selling video because it’s hot, we integrate that in a complete solution. If a grocery chain wants to compete for market share at the beginning of the next tailgate season, we’ll show up with a plan that may include a video component that makes sense.”


8. How are you succeeding in creating ad programs that leverage all of our platforms and publishing channels?

Here’s where audience insight comes into play again. To create advertising campaigns that span the products and platforms, ad managers should be able to demonstrate how each of the products are uniquely able to connect advertiser with a coveted, highly targeted audience—and how working in conjunction with one another, print, digital, and mobile gives the advertiser the best return on investment.

Sounds easy, but it’s not.

Ad sales execs have to be agile, said Douglas, who acknowledges that trying to sell ads into all the publications, channels, and platforms feels a lot like “talking out of both sides of my mouth”—one day, highly focused on digital growth; the next, cognizant of the print goals.

“The business changes and the products change so rapidly, so you have to stay up to speed on all of it,” she said.


9. How are you using tools and technology to better manage your time, to better communicate with your clients, or enhance your sales process?

For ad-sales personnel, there’s a lot of information to manage, lots of balls to juggle, lots of pipelines to plan, and goals to attain. Publishers seek salespeople who embrace technology, and use tools to smartly manage time, information, and communication.

Newspapers need to attract sales professionals who are comfortable in a culture of technological innovation. Technology drives everything at today’s news organizations. It’s how content is distributed, how business is done. Even the most rhetorically savvy sales pros will flounder in this new age of publishing if they’re reluctant about the tools and technologies.


10. Have you leveraged professional development, continuing education, and networking opportunities, and to what benefit?

At Digital First Media, the ad team receives some form of training every week. These are face-to-face, in-person training sessions, according to Douglas. And that’s important, because the whole business of advertising sales is about developing and nurturing relationship. Tools like work-at-your-own-pace webinars aren’t always effective for experiential, hands-on learners.

For the ad sales team at the Journal-Constitution, parent company Cox Media Group provides frequent and formal training programs, according to Myers—especially related to the ever-evolving digital space. “We just completed a training program here, and our entire sales force earned diplomas. Both our legacy and our newer sellers all said it was very strong training. So at the brass-tax level, we have opportunities like that.”

Myers also created a cross-function culture: “We have account concierge teams that are focused on creating large campaigns that are truly unique and creative, and leverage all of our assets. We have representatives on the team from the creative side, the digital side, ad sales, marketing, and audience and circulation. They’re all highly knowledgeable about all of the assets we have at our disposal, and they work together as a team on a common problem or campaign goal.”

An advertising sales team member that manages to seek out opportunities, taking full advantage of inexpensive or perfectly free learning and networking events, is an ad pro that demonstrates ingenuity and professional passion. But publishers should also take heed of what’s missing here—how their ad teams are newly challenged, constantly learning, and thus, very much in need of professional development support. Now it’s up to newspaper organizations to match the right people to the new role, and equip them with the tools and knowledge they need to be successful in it.

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