There being no newspaper bankruptcy, fire sale, layoff, frequency reduction or shutdown news (yet) today, I've been pondering what newspapers should do in the coming year to maximize their sales of online advertising. Anything they accomplish in that direction will help position them better for the day they follow the Detroit papers and begin, one way or another, to curtail print delivery. Or when print readership just melts away of its own accord. So here goes:
1. Lead with the DotCom brand. Publishers: take out your wallet and check your business card. And have a look at the cards your salespeople hand out. What's more prominent: the name of your newspaper, or the name of your web site (if it's even listed on there)? If the biggest element on the card is not your online brand, confiscate all the cards and replace them. Do the same thing with all other printed or online sales materials, rate cards, media kits, whatever. In other words, make sure your graphic message is: we are first and foremost an online news and marketing organization.
2. Don't separate online and print sales staffs. Many papers have flip-flopped on this question for years, but a staff with expertise in both areas will be most successful in maximizing revenue. Sure, in a larger paper or group you need some online specialists. But don't test clients' limited time by sending in two separate reps—teach reps to craft and sell the appropriate mix of print and online for each client.
3. Research how your customers use the Web. You expect them to use your site. When's the last time you looked at theirs? What's their web marketing strategy? How can you plug into it and enhance it? Look at big advertisers, look at small advertisers, and look at non-advertisers in the "Long Tail." You'd be surprised how many businesses, even the smallest, have invested in sophisticated web sites. But how's their traffic, compared to competitors? Research them by investing in a premium version of a traffic comparison service like Alexa or Compete. Do they show up in appropriate searches? Do they have plenty of inbound links? (Find out with a simple "link:[URL]" Google search.) Chances are that a retailer's site is like a billboard in the jungle: nobody can find it, nobody sees it, and nobody can point to it (and nobody hears it when it falls down). There's opportunity in pointing this problem out and showing what you can do to fix it.
4. Train salespeople, designers and customers alike. Training print reps (if it happened at all) used to be a piece of cake compared with what it takes to trainweb salesmanship. Your all-media reps need to be expertly conversant in web terminology, technology, traffic statistics, ad formats, clickthrough rates, pricing structures and more. Train and retrain, since the picture shifts just about daily. Remember that some of the old imperatives like the value of multiple brand exposures are still key in the online ad game. Consider bringing in a speaker like Mel Taylor to talk to a gathering of advertisers, as well as to energize your reps about online sales. Include your designers in as much of the training as you can, so they understand both the marketing and the design sides of the equation. Communicate frequently with customers via an e-newsletter.
5. Invest in the technology. It can be tough to pry loose a few bucks for capital expenditures these days, but you need to keep up with the latest tools for designing and publishing web ads of all kinds. If your sales reps aren't taking a laptop along on every sales call, buy them one for Christmas. Make sure it's equipped with both WiFi and a way to demonstrate options where they can't go online. In most cases, this won't cost more than a week's worth of ad commissions. (Capability to do order entry from the field would be nice, too.)
6. Make sure your sales incentive plan rewards online selling first. I probably hold a record for the number of newspaper sales commission plans I've assembled over 30 years, because I constantly tweaked plans to adjust for changing conditions. If your plan is older than the calendar on your wall, this would be a good time to throw it out and start over as of January 1, 2009. Your reps have a bucket full of things they can sell, and without the right incentive structure they will earn as much money as they want by selling everything but online, if they're so inclined. Be sure that the only way they can make some real money is by hitting targets in multiple categories—for example online, daily print, and niche products. Miss your goal in any category, and you won't earn the higher commission rates on over-goal sales. And be sure goal setting is a rigorous, monthly process the reps participate in.
7. Make it easy for advertisers to do business with you online. A longstanding web mantra, not well observed by newspapers, is that virtually anything customers can do with you in person or by phone should be possible, and easy, online. Think about how you make airline reservations, for example, or explore the Google AdWords site for inspiration—it gets Google billions in revenue with very little human interaction on their part. Or consider your own frustration when you're researching a purchase online and can't find the information you want, or complete a transaction. Remember that there are 168 hours in a week, and your reps are selling for 40, if you're lucky. At any time, day or night, your advertisers should be able to find your marketing materials (not PDFs of rate cards, please—take some time to transform that printed stuff into an effective web format), find answers to questions, place advertising, see and approve proofs, get digital tearsheets, access accounts, and pay bills. (This includes classified advertisers—they're flocking to Craigslist not only because it's free, but because it's easy, compared with the cumbersome classified placement process at many papers.) Be sure also that advertisers can easily find all the contact info they need to communicate with your sales, production and accounting personnel directly. And of course, all of this applies also to customers looking to do business with your circulation and news departments.
Related post: Nuts and bolts: What an "online-first newsroom" means
(Shameless disclosure/commercial message: I'm available to newspaper publishers for consulting on any of the above. )