The local media industry is in desperate need of new business models. By now, after seven or eight years of brutal shrinkage in ad revenues — in the United States anyway — it’s painfully obvious.

And heaven knows we’ve been looking. We’ve tried a lot of things: new digital advertising and marketing products, sales department re-organisations, newsroom re-organisations, different content models, new niche products and Web sites, paywalls and meters, just to name a few.

Some are even working, at least to some extent.

But here’s a model we haven’t tried: Calling on every possible local advertising/marketing customer at least once a year.

This fact jumped out at me back in May or June, when I was brainstorming with Mark Lane, Morris Publishing Group’s vice president of sales, about an upcoming sales summit for Morris sales leaders and publishers.

Mark wanted a programme that could produce real and continuous growth in the number of active advertising/marketing customers we serve.

This is a huge challenge for the entire newspaper industry, because our active account lists have been shrinking steadily for years. You could argue that this single metric — the number of active accounts — is the most critical indicator of our industry’s decline. If you haven’t looked at this metric in your company, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise when you do.

Our industry has been losing accounts in large numbers for many reasons. The biggest one is the steady rise in disruptive competition from digital and other forms of advertising and marketing. Another one is our own retention practices, which have tended to range from weak to non-existent.

Reframing the opportunity

As Mark and I discussed ideas for a conference programme to turn this around, it suddenly struck me that we were looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We were looking at how to increase the yield incrementally from our existing sales teams and processes.

Instead, we needed to start by stepping outside the limits of our existing structure. We needed to start with the vastly larger number of un-served accounts in our markets and figure out what it would take to reach every one of them regularly with our sales message.

We’re not doing that now — not even close.

Our model makes sales people into service people who spend most of their time on existing accounts, with very little time left to pursue new accounts. As a result, thousands of businesses in our markets have never been called on. They have no idea of the broad array of digital and print solutions we can deliver for them, at price points virtually all of them can afford.

To the businesses we don’t call on, we are still just a newspaper company.

In our Augusta, Georgia, market, for example, our media business unit (formerly known as a newspaper) reaches only about 500 active accounts a month — maybe 1,000 or so in a year, because advertisers drop in and out.

But there are, depending on how you count them, roughly 10,000 or so potential advertisers in the market. This wide gap is pretty typical of our 12 daily markets and across other U.S. newspaper companies, too.

But what if we sized and structured our sales staffs to reach those thousands of non-customers regularly? We would be likely to double or triple our active accounts, maybe more.

At the sales summit

We framed our July sales summit around that opportunity. We provided the active accounts stats that our sales leadership needed to understand the dire situation, and we posed the challenge to them: What would it take to reach every one of the prospective advertisers in our markets every 12 months?

Mark asked the participants to do a little research in advance, looking at other industries that operate high-volume sales models. Yellow pages companies have been doing this for years, sending sales teams into a market to storm through hundreds or thousands of calls in a few weeks and then moving them to the next market.

At the summit, the group spent a morning brainstorming about what it would take to make sales calls at the required pace and about what our current structure and process lacked in that context.

Then we broke the group of about 40 people into three teams and sent them off for a half day to develop their own proposals describing the structure, process, and personnel required to reach every business at least once a year.

They presented their proposals on the second day. All three had much in common.

Here are some of the strongest themes:

Sales teams: Must be pure hunters, making a high volume of in-person sales calls every week. Numbers like 100 door pulls, 10 presentations, and one or two closes per week were borrowed from our own Main Street Digital sales operation, which is modeled after yellow pages teams.

Sales would be one year and paid for by credit card. These reps would not build books of business; they would close sales and move on.

To do this, they would need close coordination with a team of “success managers,” a title that emerged at the summit meeting. The SMs would handle the accounts from closing through the life of the contract, providing on-boarding, ROI reporting, programme optimisation, regular account touches, and enhancement upsells.

Some team members would be internal, while others, on larger accounts, would be external. These positions would be crucial to the ongoing success of the operation.

Marketing: High-volume sellers would need highly effect effective lead generation. Our teams called for a non-stop programme of digital marketing, using our digital tools to market our own solutions and drive inbound customer contacts.

Data operations: More lead generation should come from a small data team, using commercially available databases, segmenting businesses according to probable sales success, and feeding the leads to the hunter teams.

Phone team: A central phone team would handle in-bound customer calls produced by our marketing. It would also make outbound calls to certain market segments identified by data operations. Phone reps could close small deals and schedule appointments for the hunter teams on larger accounts.

Human relations: This high-volume sales structure would demand the hiring of different skills and characteristics. We would need better recruiting, pre-hire testing, on-boarding, and perpetual training on a scale far greater than in the past.

Finance: To the greatest possible extent, financial and accounting functions should be moved off our sales teams and into our finance departments, freeing more time for sales and account support.

Okay, what now?

At the close of the session, Mark recruited an “action team” to work with us in taking these ideas from concept to execution. We realise we need to identify a “get-started” version of the grand vision developed at the summit meeting. As with most disruptive innovations, this one has to start small and learn from experience.

We’re working now to identify the “get-started” version in each of the categories above, and to size the opportunity and the required sales force in each of our markets.

We are just setting out on this path, so it will be months before we have any results to share. However, my colleagues at Morris gave me the okay to share the notes from the summit, providing a wealth of additional information about the vision we’re working to build out.

You can download the document here.

What we’re attempting is, in my view, one of the most promising disruptive innovations our industry could possibly undertake. We already have the advantage of operating the largest in-person media sales forces in our communities, but we’re handicapped by a sales model that is not designed to capture the whole market.

If we can succeed in deploying a sales model that reaches anywhere near 100% of the potential customers in our markets, we will take a giant leap ahead of the competition.