local media insider

The new sales force: Ten lessons from Chron.com

The number one sales team in the Yahoo consortium shares its philosophy and strategy

Alisa Cromer
The new brand: Hearst Media Services

Site: Chron.com, the site of the Houston Chronicle
Owner: Hearst Newspapers
UV's: 6 to 7 million
Page views: 85 million
Mobile page views: 2.1 million
% of total net ad revenue: 10 to 12%
Key executive: VP of Digital Sales for Hearst Newspapers and EVP of Advertising & Digital Services for Texas: Stephen Weis

The local media sales force of the future will be comprised of digitally savvy experts able to tailor a suite of products and services to deliver measureable results for clients.  Legacy media will be an important but smaller portion of total revenues. 

But only a few companies  are moving at sufficient pace to transform the sales organization.

Among them,  Hearst Newspapers' Chron.com  stands out.  Typically the beta site for new product launches for Hearst, the site's  sales force is now  number in sales in the Yahoo Consortium.  VP of Digital Sales, Stephen Weis, shared his strategies in transforming Chron.com sales culture with us. Here are ten key take-aways from that interview:

1. Rebrand as agency services
To support the agency model Hearst sales reps are branded as working for "Hearst Media Services". The marketing for the company is not handled on Chron.com, but on a separate site, HearstMediaServices.com that portrays a diverse set of marketing services: Chron.com, Facebook partnership, Yahoo geo- and behaviorial targeting, email marketing and mobile.

2. Sell like an ad agency representative
 Weis says his teams have “ moved away from traditional product selling” and “do our best to sell on more of an audience or performance based model” that includes multiple products and services, some of which are owned and operated some are partners through some kind of reseller relatsionships.”

“We go to market as more of an agency. We don't sell tv and radio, but maybe one day we'll do that."

3. Focus on share of customer
Chron.com's  focus in both developing product is to increase  “share of customer."  by paying attention to what customers say they are buying and studying digital trends. Weis aims to “sell every product that aligns with our other products ” and “create a protfolio, like a mutual fund.” Current products include direct mail, Yahoo, Zillow, SEO and SEM, mobile text messaging and a package that includes Facebook fan pages and applications.

4. Sales Drives technology
Focusing on share of customer also means that digital sales drives the development of technology-based products and services, rather than the other way around. Weis says strategies are created in part by  reacting to the market needs and partly from researching trends.  He tries to stay immersed in the digital industry -  “I can’t tell you how many interacative conferences I've been to where I'm the only person from a newspaper company" - but the key driver is feedback from advertisers.

“We try to really understand where the market is moving and select partnership that we think have legs and we know customers are asking about.We try our best to listen to what our customers are buying or looking at. If all of the sudden we are getting a lot of feedback that we are losing market share to Facebook, we pay attention to that.” To stay connected, he talks to customers in the field, keeps an open door policy for reps and scans the notes in the CRM platform.

5. Create parameters for partnering

Chron.com is known for large sweeping partnership strategies, but each of its partnerships is based on critical thinking around these core principles. This has allowed the company to sustain efforts that other media companies may have dropped, but which are important to its long term share-of-customer goals, as well as embark on new initiatives that are unproven as profit centers, but "in demand" by the marketplace.

For example, when other large newspaper sites (such as SJmercurynews.com) abandoned AdWords as not profitable enough, Chron.com stuck it out since SEM achieves  “share of customer” goals and adds incremental dollars.

“I don't see why you wouldn't take 20 cents on the dollar as long as you are growing your pie, which is key to this strategy. We need to recalibrate what we believe is an appropriate margin. The core more profitable product has been in and is still in decline. While I absolutely believe that our core business will level off and have opportunities for growth in the future, we need to continue to look at other alternatives to help grow our business."

To better provide SEO and SEM services, Hearst purchased a technology company Metrics 4 Media and continues to leverage and build upon that platform. Pararmeters on whether to buy, develop or parther depend on the upside for both parties, whether or not it aligns with the core mission.

“We believe in our brands and feel that they have all kinds of fantastic value and customers relate to them and so forth. But if partnering with someone can help us maintain our goals we will look at that. We ask can we do that on our own, and will it be able to drive deep in the market and satisfy our clients or will partnering with someone help us or our clients better.” Hence Facebook, Google and Yahoo were incorporated, but Groupon was left out in the cold, though Chron.com is partnering with a white-labeled daily deal.

6. Start with sales packages, then customize...then optimize
To make the sales process more efficient, most sales still start with preset packages; there are numerous ones specialized for different demographic cuts, such as Moms. After meeting with the advertiser the packages are “tweaked and customized.” When customizing the package managers look “at the sales funnel” with branding at the top of the funnel and form-fills, clicks or calls at the bottem.

“We slot in all of our product and services in that funnel and get which ones are appropriate for the client.”

Sales representatives also attempt to obtain agreement on measuring performance “as that campaign continues to fullfill, we look for ways and try to optimize that campaign, if that means shifting one product to another, if that product is achieving a better return, we'll do that.”

7. Take a wholistic approach to training and managing the sales force
 “I don't think there is one dial you can turn," says Weis, whose training is rich and on-going. “We can’t just train a person (once) and expect them to go out and understand and sell it.
At the heart of the sales training is focus: “We focus our sales organization to understand the clients needs.”

For the last 18 months the sales force meets every monday morning for 30 to 45 minutes to “have fun and celebrate and do contest and training vignettes, 15 minutes on whatever product it is and how to incorporate it into our packages.” Training also includes instructor led classroom sessions, in which reps need to test out to be Google Yahoo certified. Managers train in the field, and specialists continue to train on four-legged calls.

8. Align compensation
Compensation for sales representatives and managers was adjusted and aligned to meet overall digital revenue goals and overall goals for the company. Rather than just increasing digital commissions, the group "adjusted dollars throughout the plan" to help achieve "the behavior we feel will help us attain those goals."

9. Let creative report through the revenue channel
Chron.com is one of the few large newspaper organizations in which creative now reports to the revenue division. Not surprisingly, organizations who have made this shift are also the ones furtherest along on the path to selling more like an agency.

“I feel strongly that anyone who is touching a customer, that customer interaction should report up through sales so that all that information can be captured in some way and that customer contact is managed in a formal way...we can do a better job of retaining clients than in the past when that contact may have been under a different group with different priorities."

10. Embrace social media sales

Weis sees the Facebook initiative is also important to delivering new revenues in the future. “The targetting capabilites are staggering” and the combinaton of selling social media and fanpages is powerful, particularly when sold in combination with other services.

Chron.com currently has 10 to 12% of revenues supplied by digital sales, and is positioned to advance more rapidly in the future. For media companies looking for "what to do right" this model has tremendous potential to multiple both the number of customers and dollars per customer. We see this company as a leading in sustaining and growing overall local media dollars in the years ahead. This case study is also provided in the soon-to-be-released Sales Force Insights study produced by the American Press Institute and ItzBelden. For a copy of the full research that includes 12 more top performing companies and a small business advertiser survey please send an email at alisacromer@gmail.com (the full report is $500). 

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.

yahoo, Facebook, Weis, Chron.com, houston, sales, sales force