local media insider
Cedar Rapids

Holistic shift to digital yields 60% growth in digital sales at Source Media

Vice President of Revenues for Source Media Group, Chris Edwards, says his approach is "an evolution not a revolution." How has Eastern Iowa become a leader in digital sales?

Alisa Cromer
Whose calling on the power company? PG&E runs on key real estate on both major sites.
In the position reserved for BIM on KCRG.com in Cedar Rapids: Meg Whitman targets me in California via IPaddress. Sorry Meg, I'm voting for Jerry Brown.
Ford runs in the footer leaderboard, called the "catfish" position, on all pages of KCRG.com.
Take note: Another credit union ad campaign promoting auto loans (like two others in our winning ads). This one on KCRG.com
...while the TV site promotes mobile weather alerts
The newspaper site promotes mobile news...
Gazetteonline.com reports road construction
KCRG's back-to-school photo contest; "You might even see them on KCRG-TV9!"

Sites: KCRG.om.  3 to 4 million UV’s, 10 million pageviews;  Gazetteonlinecom:, 350,000 UV's; plus IowaPrepSports.com and CorridorCareers.com
Market: Eastern Iowa
Company: Source Media Group (formerly Gazette Communications)
Key Executives: Chuck Peters, CEO; Chris Edwards, Vice President of Sales and Customer Service

Summary:  Source Media Group (formerly Gazette Communications) was one of the first traditional media organizations to commit to separating product (print, broadcast, Twitter, online, etc.) from content. But the revenue side lagged behind the innovative content group. That is until  CEO Chuck Peters hired Chris Edwards as VP of Sales and Customer Service. With no direct media experience (he spent three years as a VP at Adtrack.com, which provides leads and lead management for large corporations) Edwards methodically transformed the business side. His strategies are producing 60% to 70% year over year online sales growth in online offerings. 

Challenge:  Major properties owned by Source Media include the Cedar Rapids Gazette, a daily newspaper, and local television station KCRG, their web sites and two large niche sites as well. The new VP of Sales,  Chris Edwards was tasked with reorganizing the sales departments to embrace principles of an ad agency and beef up digital revenues. 

Strategy:  Edwards' approach included consolidating the sales force, rebranding the sales departments, creating new partnerships and providing heavy on-going training. 

1. Sales force consolidation
The original sales force had three teams: Print, online and television.

“It was a horrific disaster. The digital team was not driving much in the way of revenue, not engaging well with the market." In the new sales force, television and print reps would also sell online. Online reps could also sell print, and although they were not enthusiastic,  "we do not have a unique online sales force any more.”

Edwards says he took advantage of the huge slide in revenues in late 2008 and early 2009 to sell the sales team on the need for radical change. As mentioned above, the best print reps embraced digital right away. Turnover was within a normal range, and included only the "non-players."

“This has been an evolution, not a revolution."

2. Back to basics

'When I started we were not selling much of our available inventory on the newspaper side."

But rather than stressing the "newness" of digital, Edwards went back to basics;  in his words, "it was management 101 issues: contests, spiffs and prizes, $25 lunches, coupons and half days off for being the first people to sell the first section of the site." 

These standard management techniques got the team on the site map: They sold 16 spots on virgin inventory in the first 60 days. 

3. Full-time training

Edwards says his biggest challenge continues to be executing a performance-based model in the field. “Newspapers traditionally don’t have aggressive sales people. They are not consultative, not asking good questions, such as what are we measuring.”

He now uses a  combination of training programs:

• A full-time field trainer (we've seen this investment in a number of top-performing local media sales teams).

• Weekly team meetings in which 50% of the time is dedicated to skill-based training, elevator pitches, and role playing sales 101 to 201 and refreshers.

• Outside digital sales trainers, including  Mike Blinder and "Mike Blinder types."

4. Rebranding the sales organization

The company changed its name to Source Media Group in June, 2010,  re-branding itself so "reporters and sales representatives can better articulate the solutions they represent," Edwards says.  This effort was mostly to avoid misperceptions on the part of sources and advertisers; however, rebranding also aids in delivering the agency concept to the marketplace.

Edwards is articulate in the vision: “Our goal as a sales agency is to become the trusted adviser, and if they choose to advertise in products our company owns, fantastic! If they chose to advertise outside of the legacy brands we may not own, but can represent, we can do that and take a small cut.”

5. Product development: Research consumers not just advertisers

The agency model also changed how products are developed and launched internally. Edwards partnered with Zillow and EasyAuto to quickly gain online classifieds footholds before Craigslist arrived. Special editorial products were re-thought as online products and improved as a result. Edwards said that second-rate special editorial product designed to push ads were even "turned back" for more work before being accepted by the new team.  “It forces our products to get better.”

To create better products, the company also uses focuses groups that start with the ultimate customer – people in the market who are making buying decisions- using a heavy amount of community surveys. The sales team takes that information to the advertisers.

“We know very tightly what the community is after. This data arms reps to go out and have conversations with the advertisers, to tell them here’s what the community wants, how do you want to tap in to this need.”

 6. Reducing ad positions and selling them out

Edwards guided the online departments  to adopt the broadcast model of selling "share of audience"  to create scarcity. In other words, instead of selling a CPM price, the teams would sell portions of either audiences or channels on the site. 

“[In broadcast] the moment the inventory is sold out we can raise our rates. The same is true for web properties. We started dropping our cpm’s to find out where the market is. We started packaging up sponsorships, especially sections,  to roll it up and say ‘you just own it’.

"Theoretically we are giving away money, but if we are getting money where we didn’t before we are increasing overall revenue. The goal is to sell bundles of 4 to 8 “shares of voice” on primary sites."

(Note: Edwards says Blinder Group was instrumental in creating the initial packages, search his name on this site for other references and guidance about his approach).

"Within 60 days we had 16 web spots sold which had never seen paid space before,” Edwards says of the initial packaging and use of spiffs to incent "cracking" new zones on the site. Because the traffic is so high, Gazetteonline.com site has only 2 ad positions per page. The  KCRG.com site has four positions per page, but one of the medium rectangles on the right is reserved for partner (BIM) and the bottom leaderboard is roadblocked for Ford in a negotiated deal. Edwards says overall online revenues are now tracking 60 to 70% over prior prior year. 

Lessons learned

• A wholistic approach addresses improving revenue performance on a variety of levels is key.

• Reliance here on traditional models of incenting sales people and building incrementally, even though leadership is from outside traditional media.

•Consolidated and integrating the sales force is neccesary to get sales traction.

•Rather than setting CPM pricing and then overlaying a Share of Voice model, Edwards created the packages and sold them out, then raised prices. 

•Basic sales management - spiffs and half days off - still works in the new digital environment. 

•The greatest challenge is training sales representatives in traditional media companies (both print and broadcast) is to establish measurable results for new campaigns.

Alisa Cromer

The author, Alisa Cromer is publisher of a variety of online media, including LocalMediaInsider and  MediaExecsTech,  developed while on a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute and which has evolved into a leading marketing company for media technology start-ups. In 2017 she founded Worldstir.com, an online magazine,  to showcases perspectives from around the  world on new topic each month, translated from and to the top five languages in the world.

chris, edwards, chuck, peters, gazetteonline.com, source, media group