Local online news publishers offer advice on hiring, managing, paying advertising sales reps

By Matt DeRienzo | Sep. 17, 2017

Hiring an outside advertising sales rep can make a crucial difference in whether a local independent online news site reaches sustainability. Three veteran publishers offered advice on hiring, managing and paying advertising sales reps in a LION webinar Sept. 14.

LION members Jay Allred, publisher of the Richland Source in Ohio, Scott Brodbeck, publisher of ARLNow.com and RestonNow.com in Virginia, and Kelly Gilfillan, publisher of the Home Page Media network of sites in Tennessee, talked about who makes a good sales rep, how to structure pay plans, how to find new advertising customers, and software that can help manage the process.

Listen to the full webinar here.

Gilfillan said it's important that the most important thing you can teach a sales rep is to seek to understand a local business and what they need before trying to "sell" them something.

"We sell on relationship," she said. "I want to sell how I'd want to be sold to."

That means you "don't set exepctations you cannot meet," she said, and you are transparent about results.

Brodbeck said that a rep will be successful if they truly believe what they are selling works, and that no publisher should be selling ad products unless they're convinced they'll be effective for a local business.

"You or whoever sells for you needs to believe in what you're doing," he said. "You know your product, and hopefully you really believe in it and believe it works."

Allred and Gilfillan both pay their sales reps a base salary plus commission. Brodbeck used a similar plan to build up a base of advertising, but after an experienced rep left, he is choosing to handle advertising sales himself for now.

When Gilfillan first founded Brentwood Home Page and sister local news sites, sales reps were paid commission-only on a flat rate of 25 percent. She has since made everyone employees. "I needed the control," she said.

New reps "pay for themselves after 90 days," Gilfillan said, and she's learned to "hire slow and fire fast."

Allred said that base salary can vary wildly depending on the cost of living in your community.

Each new rep at Home Page Media is given a sales quota and is expected to have a certain number of appointments set up ueach wake and to make a certain number of calls seeking new clients each day.

Those kinds of expectations are important, Allred said, because "people are not coin-operated," will reach a comfort level of personal income, and start focusing more on renewals than new business.

Allred looks for reps who bring qualities or contacts that he and/or the team doesn't already have. This can include some prospects without direct media sales experience. He said a local PTA president, for example, could already be considered a successful salesperson. If they're raising a ton of money for their organization, it means they're comfortable asking people for money and articulating why it's worth it for someone to pay.

Each uses customer-relations management (CRM) software to track potential leads and the activity and performance of sales reps. Alternatives to the more expensive Salesforce program, they said, include Infusion Soft and Zoho. Allred and Brodbeck both use Pipedrive to manage accounts.

Like many local independent online news publishers, Brodbeck had a background in journalism, not sales, when he launched ARLNow.com. He tried to learn as much as he could about advertising, but when he hired his first sales rep, he didn't use a CRM and didn't really monitor their level of activity in setting up meetings or making calls. The rep turned out to be great without that kind of oversight.

The next rep that Brodbeck hired, however, barely made a single sale, and probably needed the kind of management and oversight that are part of Gifillan's and Allred's organizations.

Brodbeck said that he's fortunate that many of his sales leads for his Arlington, Virginia, site, come from inbound calls. That's a luxury for a publisher, he said, but is a credit to the engaged audience he's built and the site's reputation in the community.

It's a little more challenging at his Reston site, Brodbeck said, and there he looks for the "lowest-hanging fruit" - major businesses such as the local hospital, or car dealers, who clearly have a significant marketing budget and/or are spending money on advertising elsewhere.

Hiring a good sales rep is not the end of the process, Gilfillan said.

It's important for publishers to get out and meet with advertising clients as much as possible, to understand how their needs should dictate the advertising products and pricing you offer, to monitor reps' peformance, and to help close deals.

Another big point of emphasis for Gilfillan, now that she has more than 100 local businesses advertising with Home Page Media, is "fulfillment" - making sure that ads that are ordered actually get built and served, and that the client understands how the process works and what kind of results they're getting.

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