Empowering "heroes:" A storytelling approach to media sponsorship sales


In the fast-paced world of news media sales, traditional tactics can feel like a tired script. However, what if there’s a more powerful approach? It’s time to delve into a topic on my mind lately: my approach to selling sponsorships in the news media industry. Recently, I’ve been speaking at press associations and conventions and have realized the need to finally articulate my approach cohesively. I’ve noticed a shift in my conversations — a move toward a strategy built on emotional connection and collaboration.

My approach to news media sales centers on framing the news organization as the “hero” in a hero's journey tackling community issues. The sponsor becomes a crucial ally in this journey, and the method is rooted in a simple observation: News organizations are fantastic storytellers. So, shouldn’t our sales approach itself be a story? It took me a while to pragmatically articulate it, but my approach is two-fold and multi-layered. The foundation is based on a theoretical adaptation I developed from a learning and development model created by Morgan McCall, Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo, called the 70/20/10 methodology — suggesting a proportional breakdown of how people learn effectively.

Similar to learning through real-life experience, feedback and formal training, I emphasize how we process and make decisions leveraging an emotional connection (70%), data and evidence (20%) and justification (10%). I discovered this approach through my experiences and readings on consumer decision-making psychology. Other research by neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and consumer psychologists like Gerald Zaltman strongly supports the notion that emotions play a significant role in decision-making and how we perceive and respond to information. Leveraging this insight, I craft persuasive narratives centered around the represented content organization based on learnings, layering in The Hero’s Journey communication structure to guide potential sponsors through a compelling story highlighting their partnership’s importance. Lastly, and most importantly, I identify opportunities that align with the mission of both the news organization and the sponsor, creating a sense of shared purpose and collaboration.

Weaving together a compelling narrative that resonates with potential partners forges win-win partnerships that strengthen our communities and support vital journalism, fostering a sense of shared purpose and collaboration. By adopting this storytelling approach, news organizations can create powerful partnerships that strengthen their mission and serve their communities meaningfully. This approach addresses concerns about ad revenue influencing content and allows the news organization to secure resources for crucial reporting. By empowering the community with informative content and granting sponsors positive brand association with a targeted audience, all while maintaining its editorial integrity, this strategy fosters a reader-trusted approach that drives campaign success. In essence, my approach to selling sponsorships is more than just making a pitch — it’s about telling a story that inspires the necessary emotion and action to drive positive change.

While it might seem complex at first glance, implementing this strategy is straightforward and intuitive and occurs constantly. It’s been available for a long time and applies to every news organization nationwide, regardless of size. I always begin with the mission at hand — the North Star guiding our efforts. From there, I map out and highlight congruencies in specific areas or stories, identifying potential issues or causations within the community. Once I understand the situation, I develop a narrative based on the facts, articulating a problem statement or communicating the situation. Then, I substantiate the situation by leveraging reporting and data, illustrating what may occur if the problem is not addressed.

Next, I identify and target sponsors who could act as potential advocates and resources in this journey, bridging them into the story while offering them an opportunity to enhance their brand image and generate leads. To solidify the value proposition, I propose an objective, high-impact sponsorship program that clearly illustrates a strong ROI for the sponsor and leverages testimonials or case studies to showcase past successes.

For example, consider a local community news organization reporting on the critical shortage of school supplies in public elementary schools. The news organization becomes a champion for reporting on this issue, substantiating the information with evidence and data and even advocating for change. On the sales side, the aim is to engage large community corporations, foundations, nonprofits or local businesses as ideal partners and sponsors for this content, offering platforms for donations or special offers to teachers, students or families, addressing the issue while fostering a more vibrant community. Through this collaborative approach, the news organization creates powerful partnerships that strengthen its mission and serve its communities meaningfully.

So far, my experiences consulting and teaching this approach to sponsorship sales with various organizations have yielded positive results. Storytelling, audience development and even fundraising in sponsorship sales all contribute to a shared sense of purpose and community. This collaborative approach, presented with emotion, passion and clarity, can drive positive change. However, transparency is key. Nuanced conversations ensure content and sponsorships align, fostering trust in this ideology. For me, it’s the closest communication point in news media, promoting harmony and community development. It creates a vibrant exchange: sponsors offer solutions while editorial content shines a light on issues, creating fertile, sustainable ground for addressing them.

Richard E. Brown is a monthly columnist for Editor & Publisher and contributing writer for Digital Content Next. He currently leads the ads & sponsorships Lab Program at News Revenue Hub and is a recipient of the News Media Alliance Rising Star award. He has held positions at LPi, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Gannett and The Daily Beast. Additionally, he serves on the foundation board for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, is a coach for emerging news leaders for CUNY, and is a member NABJ-Milwaukee.


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