With Online Advertising on the Rise, How Can Newspapers Find, Train and Keep Digital Sales Reps?

The need for digital sales reps in the newspaper industry is sky-rocketing but finding—and keeping—those reps on staff is a tough challenge for most media companies.

“There’s just such high demand,” says media analyst Gordon Borrell. “People are paying premium rates for good digital sales reps. Everybody is trying to recruit them. You can expect them to be called on by a recruiter a couple of times a year at least.”

Gordon Borrell

Another stumbling block: The new digitally savvy generation that employers are desperate for may not consider the newspaper biz as appealing as a company like Apple or Google with their famous millennial-friendly perks.

But newspapers haven’t given up. They recognize the importance of digital sales, and if they want to succeed, they need to focus on recruiting these reps.

“Digitally savvy reps and digitally focused reps are more important than ever for our business model,” said Brad Boggs, senior director of interactive sales for the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. “I think it goes without saying that upping the ante on digital sales is critically important for the future of our industry.”

Peter Newton

Peter Newton, chief revenue officer at Gatehouse Media, who is still in the midst of hiring 100 or so digital-only reps, said that’s a new trend for Gatehouse, but one that’s very likely going to continue.

“They’re critical,” he said of this new sector of salespeople. “More than half of all advertising spend is all digital. And that portion is growing the fastest, so we need to be keeping pace with that. We’ve got a big gap to close and most other newspaper companies are in that same boat. It’s vital. There’s no other way to put it.”

So how do you find the best digital sales reps? And once you’ve got them, how do you keep them on staff? E&P talked to Borrell, Boggs, Newton, and other industry experts about what methods are working best for them in this ever-changing field.


The Competition Will Be Fierce

While digital sales reps can demand sky-high salaries, digital ads sales aren’t yet on pace with the money brought in by traditional print, according to Borrell.

“There’s not as much money to pay these people,” he explained. “Which means the next person who’s going to give them $5,000 a year more in salary or benefits, they might jump ship.”

Digital sales take more time—and more staff. Besides costing more, digital reps also need to spend more time with the client and keep up to date with the latest terminology and technology.

“Digital is far more complicated than broadcast advertising or print,” said Borrell. “Digital media has so many tentacles to it that when a rep goes to sell digital, they really have to know this alphabet soup of terms, from SEO and SEM and things like click-through rates. There’s so much that comes along with it, so they’ve got to spend a lot more time with the advertiser and do a lot more listening to be able to craft all the facets of a good ad campaign.”

Lana Champion

Lana Champion, vice president of sales and marketing at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, concurred. “Digital sales require a higher level of ongoing learning as well as strong critical thinking skills. Digital reps have usually got to put in more time and effort than their print counterparts.” She pointed out that the new territory can also be daunting: “Highly experienced sales reps don’t want a position without a book of business.”

Borrell added that with digital sales “about 80 percent of the work that you have to do is after the sale, as opposed to selling traditional media, where most of the work is upfront.” No more sell the ad, sign the contract, run the ad, and you’re done. “During the campaign, you have to make some changes and restructure things. If Google or Facebook changes their algorithm overnight, you might be dead in the water with your campaign. So you’re going to have to respond and monitor the campaign as it’s running,” he said.

Fortunately, for most sales reps, it’s usually a tech support staff that handles those kinds of follow-ups. “The sales rep sells the program, then somebody handles the placement of the ad, a programmer selects the targets that the ad is going to appear in front of…it takes a village to implement digital advertising,” Borrell said.

Mark Lane, vice president of sales at Morris Publishing Group in Augusta, Ga., admits one of the challenges of attracting the best digital sales reps is that the newspaper industry can be seen as “old-school.”

Mark Lane

“The up-and-coming digital reps are typically your next gen or millennials,” he said. “Millennials want flex hours and cloud-based solutions. They want a sense of belonging to a company that has a clear vision. They know nothing other than technology, so they look for companies that embrace technology, offer hybrid training and are continually updating their environment to the latest technology.

“At Morris, we have tripled the number of digital only sales reps this past year and 2017 will be one of the biggest years for recruiting digital sales reps. To put it bluntly, it’s the difference between life and death of our business. Period.”

Borrell also said the newspaper business can seem a bit stodgy. “If you’re a younger person and you really, really know digital, are you going to go work for a newspaper? That doesn’t sound too cool. A lot of newspapers have made their environment a bit more interesting, and tried to make it a little more hip, but people in their 20s and 30s just getting in to the marketplace would much rather go work at Facebook or Apple. (Newspapers) just seems like their father’s Oldsmobile to them.”

And does print versus digital still exist on the advertising side? We heard two different opinions.

“More and more we see the lines between the two are blurring,” said Boggs. “I don’t think we can separate the two anymore because if your print reps aren’t selling digital, then we are missing out on opportunities.”

Lane disagreed. “Having separate print and digital sales models may not be easy to implement, but it’s critical.  I don’t think that digital reps can appreciate the print products.  I believe it’s easier to become an expert in their respective areas. It is also beneficial the revenue the digital sales team is bringing in is new business and not up selling existing clients, whereas multi-media reps can continue to sell reoccurring and up-sell.”


Creating the Best Digital Sales Reps

Gatehouse Media announced late last year that the company was planning to hire 100 digital-only sales reps who’ll primarily be drumming up new business. But where were they going to find them? Newton told E&P, “We’re using primarily internal recruiters, which is not something we at Gatehouse have really done in the past. And that’s been a huge help.”

Champion advocated using multiple recruiters, preferably local, as well as paying a recruitment bonus with a 90-day guarantee.

Increasingly, social media is the best place to find reps who live and breathe in the digital world. Both Boggs and Lane used LinkedIn as a resource for prospecting talented salespeople.

“Social recruiting is taking over recruitment,” Lane said. “Candidates can find email and phone calls passé. We text the first interview, then set up a video interview.  The final interview is the face-to-face. Facebook is another good way to recruit. We create a post then ask if anyone is interested or knows anyone to (private message) me.”

But what if you’re in a small or rural market? Where’s your pool of digital reps? Borrell pointed out someone just out of college might not want to relocate to Fargo, N.D.—unless they already live there.

“A good source in a lot of small towns are colleges,” he said. “Even if it’s just a community college, their students are willing to work part-time and (they can be) wonderful, fertile grounds for potential employees.”

While the pool of applicants in a smaller setting might be considerably less, it’s also likely that the need for digital sales in the first place is also a lot lower. “There tends to have been less of a shift to digital in some of those smaller markets,” Newton observed.

Champion hasn’t just turned to outside talent to round out her digital sales staff. “We have promoted two of our 10 digital-only reps from within our local sales department,” she said.

Brad Boggs

Boggs also believed in promoting from within, when possible. “We are identifying our best sellers to make sure they understand the importance of advancing digital and that has been successful for us. If a candidate shows the hunger, desire and sales acumen, we can teach the rest. A digital seller needs to be up to date on the latest offerings, but I can typically train and teach an eager rep on products if they have that self-starter mentality.”

The interview process has also become unique. Besides being able to chat knowledgeably about SEO and fielding the usual questions such as “Why do you want to work here?” prospective digital sales reps might be asked to discuss much more personal matters.

You might also expect to talk about loss (and perhaps about your favorite movie) at the interview.

Both Champion and Lane have “What was the most significant loss you have experienced in your life?” on their list of questions with the candidate expected to explain what they learned from the experience. Other questions Champion has asked: “When do you stop pursuing a client?” “How do you research prospects before a call?” and “Have you ever had a losing streak? How did you turn it around?”

Borrell favors a more populist approach. “I ask, ‘What’s their favorite movie?’ That’s the key to anybody’s psyche. If they say ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ you don’t want to hire them.”

Also crucial: “If you’re hiring a digital media person, they should be very adept at social media. If they’re not on social media, you got a problem,” said Borrell.

And should every digital sales reps be certified by IAB or another media association?

Boggs said the Post and Courier not only makes sure each of their sales reps are certified via third-party vendors, but also internally. “They are put through an internal five-part curriculum with a real-life scenario presentation required prior to passing the course. Digital advertising requires a high maintenance, consultative sales approach, so it is important everyone is well-versed in our product offerings and well-prepared for the field.”

Other the other hand, Borrell said, “I wouldn’t say it’s critical, because I don’t think the advertisers are really demanding it. But it can make them more attractive to the buyers of advertising.”

He stressed it’s more important for digital sales reps—whether they’re certified or not—to be able to make digital advertising understandable and inviting to their customers who may have never taken the plunge before.

When it comes to pay, everyone we spoke to said they offered their digital reps some combination of commission plus a flat rate, but that combination tends to be different than what their print counterparts get.

Champion said, “We pay a base salary plus flat percentage rate for digital sales,” adding, “Our commission plan is uncapped.”

Boggs said his company offers “a competitive all-in compensation plan with high percentage commission payouts on new business.”

“Since many digital reps are millennials, they may take a lower-mid salary base and work aggressively towards incentives and commission,” Lane said. “Millennials will choose a company with a lower salary if the company processes a proactive approach vs. a reactive approach.”

“What you’ll find with digital reps is base salary as a percentage of total compensation is quite a bit higher than for traditional media reps,” Borrell explained. “Traditional media reps tend to be compensated much higher on commission. That’s riskier, so to keep a good digital rep, you want to make it less risky, you want to give them a higher base. That works out pretty well because the commissions on some of these digital sales can be low. Digital advertising is usually not as pricey as traditional media.”

In addition to a paid training program, the Florida Times-Union is big on “gamification.”

“Our pay plan is seeded with multiple accelerators for monthly growth. Our gamification program rewards digital sales excellence every quarter,” said Champion. “Another fun contest we held in 2016 was a quarterly digital award for every rep and manager who exceeded their quarterly goal. We celebrated at the end of each quarter by spending a Monday at a local spa enjoying spa services, lunch and a day by the pool. This was a great opportunity for the A players and became very popular among the staff.”

Lane said prizes, celebrations and rewards through gamification is also popular at Morris Publishing.  He also advocates for ongoing training, not just to rake in the money, but to help boost morale.

“Digital reps are typically researchers, quick to review and quick to post on social media,” he said. “With consistent, relevant training, the digital rep with feel as though they own the knowledge and can then embrace the product making sales more passionate, which is how they like to feel.”

Newton said, “You need to have good compensation plans that reward really good performance or you’ll lose them in this highly competitive market. And you need to offer them a lot of room and opportunity to develop in their current position or with future growth opportunities in new positions in your organization. And they need to be able to see what those opportunities are.”

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