Digital Drill Sergeant: Do Your Sales Reps Have the Training They Need?

By: Rob Johnson

Digital Drill Sergeant: Do Your Sales Reps Have the Training They Need?

Even with the economy showing signs of recovery, sales of newspaper advertising are still largely down across the industry — both in print and online. Publishers have been frantically seeking ways to reverse that trend and generate sales, with much hope being placed in the digital realm. But with all of the new digital formats available — rich media, video embeds, GPS tagging, search engine optimization, social networking — how is a sales rep supposed to keep up?

Many publishers try to avoid overcomplicating the sales process for their reps, preferring to keep them focused on providing solid customer service. Others are diving head-first into digital training, and some have even restructured their entire sales department to accommodate new methods.

Digital Boot Camp
Dave Gould, vice president of advertising for Gannett Co.’s The Tennessean in Nashville, said his newspaper has been having weekly in-house sales training sessions as well as a monthly digital boot camp that lasts about eight hours over five days to make attendance easier.

“There is no question that the number of products and services that they have to understand today is probably twice as much as it was five years ago,” Gould said. “That in itself is a challenge.”

E.W. Scripps Co. vice president of sales Bruce Hartmann said his company has reduced the number of sales representatives who report to each manager to allow the supervisors to better oversee their staffers in the field. In addition, Scripps has been using a team-structure approach, with “account development specialists” and “acquisition representatives” who split the duties of developing accounts once clients have been signed on.
In that structure, Hartmann said, the acquisition representative usually only holds onto an account for about 90 days so he or she can focus on gaining new business. The client is then turned over to an account development specialist. He said that Scripps is focusing on local markets since only about 10 percent of all businesses in those areas have an advertising relationship with the local newspaper, leaving 90 percent untapped.

Mike Blinder, president of consultancy firm The Blinder Group, said coaching by management is the key to a successful sales force. “Is there truly coaching or meetings going on?” he asked. “Or, are people just inputting it into a computer and ignoring it?”

Figuring out what an advertiser needs and what will succeed can also be challenging, especially in an industry seeing such rapid technological changes. However, publishers’ revenue still comes overwhelmingly from print.

“A publisher or a media group owner will talk a good game that he cares about digital media, but at the same time he is so desperate for cash flow right now for meeting debt or other obligations,” Blinder said, adding that the most integrated media companies are only bringing in about 20 percent of revenue from digital at best. Smaller companies are earning less than 10 percent.

“Why would a publisher care about that 10 percent when he’s trying to meet a debt or pay a bill?” Blinder asked. “So they talk a good game about digital, but when it comes down to where they put the focus on the sales team, it’s just ‘make money.’ If a sales rep is totally focused on making money only, the digital product will never be sold.”

Consultant Leslie Laredo, president of the Laredo Group, disagrees. “The media world is getting more complex, and their clients are very aware of the changes,” she said, adding that advertisers are taking more interest in social networking, such as Foursquare and Facebook.

“Someone needs to start teaching advertisers how to do it right,” Laredo said, “And that does take knowing how to understand the complexities of the digital compounds.”

Integration Required
Jeffrey Ulrich is senior director of digital sales strategy for Cox Communications’ media group unit. He said his company has divided up its properties by the 10 largest and 18 medium- to small-size markets and has been training the sales staff on the integration of television, radio, and print.

“While it all may be digital media, the nature of the conversations is different between the largest markets and the mid-size to smaller markets in many instances,” he said.

Dennis Wade, publisher of The Valley Town Crier in McAllen, Texas, said the businesses in his circulation area are not using digital advertising on a large scale. However, he said, auto dealers are the advertisers that are the most interested in digital.

“They have the national brands that really put a lot of resources and emphasis on that,” Wade said. The Valley Town Crier’s revenue from digital advertising is less than 10 percent, he said.

“We don’t ignore it (digital advertising), but we don’t aggressively pursue it at this point either,” Wade said. “We want to stay ahead of the curve, of course. We are in what primarily pays the bills, and that is print.”

Laredo said publishers need to study changing consumer media consumption trends. “Where are the eyeballs now?” she asked. “If they’re online, the advertisers should be online, or they’re just not going to reach those consumers.”

Gould said the Tennessean offers integrated packages, but not everyone is interested. “In some cases we’re selling digital only,” he said. “If it makes sense for the customer, that’s what we’re doing.”

Hartmann said Scripps works with clients to find the right mix. “We’re always trying to sell a different audience,” he said.

To reach those various audiences, Cox has been integrating a new content management system to allow its properties — radio, television, and print — to share the content seamlessly, Ulrich said.

He said that when the “Medley” system is fully integrated, all the properties will be able to share content by more than just cutting and pasting links from the company’s websites.

“That (cutting and pasting) just doesn’t make sense when you own multiple media properties in a market,” Ulrich said. “The benefit goes up in the markets where we own multiple media properties.”

Ulrich said the need for a new system became apparent in February 2010, when a plane crashed into the Internal Revenue Services office in Austin, Texas. He said the company’s local daily, the Austin American-Statesman, could tap into cameras on the nearby highway, but the feed could not be shared directly with other Cox websites.

“That’s no way to be a fully integrated media company,” he said, adding that the “Medley” system is scheduled to be fully implemented in the fourth quarter of the year. After that, the content will be treated as objects and be seamlessly shared on various platforms — from mobile phones to tablets to devices that have yet to be invented.

“They’ll (advertisers) be able to reach consumers on the go,” Ulrich said. “Wherever they (consumers) are, our advertisers will be able to reach their target audiences.”

Ulrich said Cox has brought in three digital revenue development directors who are working in various parts of the country, focusing on key markets for the company and working directly with the sales staff and managers. Each one has more than 10 years of experience.

“They really are well-versed in the changes in the entire media space,” Ulrich said. “They’re working hand-in-hand with our teams across the country to keep us up to speed. Things change at a dizzying pace. It’s tough for any salesperson.”

Back to Basics
Executives and consultants agree that the best strategy is to keep the sales campaigns simple.

“All packaging of products has to be simplified so the ad rep is comfortable selling it, and the advertiser understands it,” Blinder said. “Simplify that offering to the small- and medium-sized business in the market so that it’s easily understood. Make it a simple, easy, painless way of selling it.”

According to Gould, the Tennessean’s sales staff keeps the best interests of the client in mind while forming an effective campaign.

“We do everything we can to encourage our salespeople to not jam something down a customer’s throat,” he said. “We’re not here to force them to buy things. We’re here to sell them solutions that are going to help them with their business to meet their goals. If that’s print, that’s great. If that’s digital, that’s great. More than ever, we have to really ‘wow’ over clients.”

According to Hartmann, Scripps has centralized product support teams that focus on emerging media, autos, classifieds, and display — both print and digital.

“It is going to take some work and energy to learn it,” Laredo said. “It is not simple. This is going back to college. Unfortunately, the world has changed.” In particular, she said, publishers need to be creative with the ads and understand how, and if, those ads perform for the customer.

Gould said the Tennessean has four weekly meetings — called client solution meetings —in which sales representatives, strategists, creative directors, and senior managers brainstorm.

Blinder said that while training is important for a sales representative to be successful, knowing the ins and outs of the technology that delivers the digital product is not vital. “A good idea on how to assess the needs of an advertiser, and bringing them a tailored solution is what’s more important,” he said. “I think it’s OK for a rep to be on a sales call and have an advertiser ask a very geeky question and say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Blinder pointed out that no one ever asks a sales rep about how a printing press works.

Gould said a lot of what the Tennessean is doing now to help sell its products came from input from advertisers as well as the head of a division created by parent company Gannett to help develop digital products. “If we think it makes sense for our customers, and we think we can make money from it, then we do it,” he said.

Gould said that knowing the needs of the advertiser is what matters to the client. “It seems like everything (print and digital) is integrated,” he said. “If it makes sense for the customer, that’s what we’re doing.”

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