Digital Sales Certification is Must in Today’s Ad World

By: Ellen Sterling

Digital Sales Certification is Must in Today's Ad World

It used to be easier. “Sell, set it, and forget it” was a simple guide to advertising. Once the right outlet was found, it used to be a relatively simple matter of size, placement and frequency of ads.


That’s all changed now. To succeed in the digital world, an advertising salesperson needs to master new media, a new vocabulary and a new approach to sales.  It can be a steep learning curve but there are methods to make it easy and, also, to assess how well a salesperson will adjust to the move from print to digital.


There are three most often used measurements of digital sales skill. The industry standard is set by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (, a group with more than 500 member organizations whose “core objectives” include supporting the industry by developing and sharing standards and best practices, to generate industry-wide research, monitor legislation and to be as strong as other media, marketing and agency trade groups.


When Michael Theodore, IAB Vice-President of Training and Development, talks about the organization’s certification program for digital salespeople, he first emphasizes the difference between the IAB’s Digital Media Sales Certification and certificate programs.


“A certificate is based on a course,” he said. “Certification is based on an assessment of what you know. The bar exam is a good example of this. You don’t have to go to law school to take the bar. Knowledge doesn’t have to come from a classroom, so you are tested on your knowledge. The same is true for IAB certification.


“The overwhelming majority of people who apply for the test meet the requirement of having two years experience in digital media sales.”


Theodore added, “We are in the process of becoming accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).”


The IAB certification costs $500 for non-IAB members; $400 for members. “We will work closely with companies to meet their needs,” Theodore said.


Digital ad sales grow

At Condé Nast, Joshua Stinchcomb, Vice-President, Corporate Partnerships, who oversees corporate digital sales, said, “Digital has become a much bigger part of our revenue. We rarely have conversations that aren’t integrated in nature. Our magazines have digital presences on the tablets and our structure and our staff has evolved to serve our digital needs.”


Condé Nast has 22 brands. Of those, 18 have magazines and websites; others are website-only.


Looking at certification for digital sales, Stinchcomb said, “We’re a member of IAB. I had a conversation with the IAB about certification and how the industry would be well served with a certification program. I talked about it as a hypothetical and as soon as they decided to move forward, we jumped on it. Someone on my team was part of the group that came up with the test itself. I had all the people on my team get certified.


“Digital sales is a pretty broad area,” he continued. “Search, display branding, direct response …. there’s a lot to that. Things like search engine optimization (SEO) are important to understand so you can build more integrated marketing programs. I had all the people on my team get certified. The test is like the SAT. It’s structured. You even need two forms of ID.”


As much as he is a proponent of the certification process for his company, Stinchcomb noted, “Small publishers might get more value out of it. There’s an assumption that publishers like us know what we’re doing, and we do, but we can help. Anything that moves the industry along and improves the intelligence of the industry is good.”


One of the companies whose needs IAB met was Cox Media Group. Jeffrey Ulrich, Senior Director, Digital Sales, Training and Talent, explained, “Cox Media Group is the parent company that oversees a collection of radio, TV stations, websites and newspapers in 17 markets. We have more than 500 salespeople and all the digital sales managers at our local companies are IAB certified.


“It’s about sending a message both internally and externally: We recognize digital media is the number two advertising medium in the country behind TV as ranked by total ad dollars spent in the U.S. this year. Estimates place it between $41 and $42 billion in 2013. In 2005, digital spending was at $7.3 billion and, in 1996 — the first year it was tracked, digital sales totaled $300 million. The compound growth rate for digital sales is just over 20 percent per year for the past 10 years.


“We want to start by reaffirming the credentials of our digital sales leaders,” Ulrich added. “They must understand the elements in the digital ecosystem so they teach and evangelize their salespeople. It is not an easy exam. The IAB does provide a study guide. While all our digital sales managers, possess the requisite years of experience, there are facets of the business they need to study and learn.”


Google, Yahoo certify

Google and Yahoo, too, provide a test and certification utilized by many sales forces. Jeff Griffing, Chief Revenue Officer of the Star Tribune Media Company, said, “Prospective salespeople have to pass the Google certification test or they are not hired.


“Google certification gives me an understanding of whether our salespeople have an aptitude for the digital marketplace and if their applied learning skill is honed. It is one of six or seven indicators of success that we use.


Griffing continued, “When someone is out in the field, certification is not the indicator whether or not he or she is going to be successful. Google certification is a tool, not the toolbox. For internal staff, we have an instructor teach the basics and mechanics. That requires a couple of hours and, then, a couple of days to understand the digital terminology.”


Google focuses on its products. Ad Words is paid advertising, the buying of space to promote a product. Ad Sense is the leasing of “real estate” on a website to that buyer and is a popular way for even a small website can generate revenue. Google Analytics gives you immediate feedback on utilization of your ad and Google Enterprise is an internal business tool, with intranet and email solutions among its offerings.


Local Edge, a division of Hearst Media Services, was introduced about 40 years ago as a producer of yellow pages directories and, now, has evolved into a multi-media consultant for small and medium-sized businesses. Shawn Christensen, Director of Sales Operations and Training at Local Edge, says, “We offer a very broad, very defined product set and all of our products are scalable.


“All of our salespeople,” he noted, “are Google certified. We use Google because it doesn’t focus on general sales skills, but on selling a product.”


Christensen said that Local Edge’s sales methodology is closest to SPIN selling, the method that takes into account the customer’s Situation, Problem, Implications, Need-Payoff (SPIN).  “We’ve added our own steps but, in essence, we are solution-based. We want them to get from point A to point B. We’ve found Google certification is a good way to begin the process.”


Stephens Media owns 10 newspapers in 11 states. Vikas Kohrana, Director of Digital Media, said they chose not to go with the IAB, Google or Yahoo programs because “we want our salespeople to know our products. Our required sales force training involves our own social media and advertising products”


Charlie Hanks is a digital sales specialist at Stephens’ Las Vegas Review Journal. She works with resorts on the Las Vegas Strip and automotive sales. With a background in digital design, she says, “There is still a learning curve and a refocus for the people used to selling print. For a traditional legacy print rep it can be a difficult transition. In print, we did all the work before the ad was published, while in digital there’s so much that’s done after.”


She does point out that the Review Journal gets 9.8 million page views per month in a city with a population of 1.9 million. “That’s pretty good,” she said.


Khorana, as a manager, stresses the importance of the individual salesperson. “We give tests after training. We need to know the salesperson knows the product. To accomplish that, we have training for different knowledge levels, from novice to expert.”


The IAB says that, 1,200 applied for the certification in the first year of the program’s existence with 500 becoming certified. “This is the way the industry can survive and thrive,” Michael Theodore said. “The future is here now.”

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