For smaller newspapers in small and medium markets, to advance in digital advertising means to maximise results within limited budgets and constrained time commitments.

This is the reality of being a small- to medium-sized operation; the true cost concern is opportunity cost. For a newspaper to adapt to the needs and desires of today’s readers, it has to evolve in multiple areas. But with limited resources (staff and money), the choices we make in terms of prioritisation, of which areas to focus on first, become all that much more important.

Having recently transitioned from my role at a larger newspaper group, Stephens Media’s Las Vegas Review-Journal, to my family’s newspaper (I’m in the fourth generation of family ownership) in Eugene, Oregon, The Register-Guard, the most obvious challenge has been the tighter resource constraint.

Not an unexpected challenge and in some ways, it can be a benefit — to be smaller, tighter, more nimble, and have fewer complexities in terms of herding the collective cats toward getting all ducks in a row (sorry to mix metaphors).

With the wealth of challenges that lay before newspapers, it’s hard not to attempt to attack on all fronts at once. Of course, in doing that (or attempting to do so), it quickly reminds us that there are only so many hours in a day and that everyone has a breaking point. So, priorities must be made and reality checks must be acknowledged.

To hone in on the projects that will prove to yield the most profitable time spent, it’s crucial to know two simple and yet hard-to-uncover truths:

  1. What are each of my sales reps’ hottest hot buttons that will turn the digital light on, thus exciting them to the expansive opportunities that the digital realm provides?

  2. What is it that my newsmedia Web site can offer that few or no others can provide in my market? 

Hopefully, those two opportunities collide to make some easier decisions. (If not, you may have larger problems.)

In Eugene, home of the formerly green-and-yellow Oregon Ducks — yes, we’re proud of our hyper-color uniforms and all the fashion accolades we get for them — we’re constantly investigating the opportunities we have in the market to maximise within our resource and ability constraints. So, with every vendor call we get and every new industry article that gets passed around, touting the latest development that’s driving the market buzz, we have to remind ourselves of what can be accomplished within a reasonable timeline, what we can do better than others in our market, and what our sales staff will get behind and push wholeheartedly.

Most of these decisions depend on top-down direction and strategic deployment of these limited resources, so I don’t mean to imply that the ship is being guided by the waves instead of the captain. As a new parent of a 6-month-old boy, I think what I’ll come to further realise is that, much like guiding the direction of a business, if you can find the hot buttons that cause people to respond genuinely within their existing paradigm, they’re more likely to do so and require less persuasion (i.e., incentives, training, punishment, etc.).

That said, I’m the first to acknowledge the need for additional training and leadership when it comes to the digital evolution of newspapers. Simply doing what newspaper people have been doing for years is no longer cutting it, and few would argue that. I just think there’s a fine line between forcing the horse to drink the water via a stiff arm and a full tub, and leading the horse to sip from a very tantalizing fountain dripping along their usual route.

So, how do we find our traditional sales reps’ hot buttons and, by extension, the keys to getting more of our local accounts to dip their toes in the proverbial digital waters?

It starts, as most things do, with a simple conversation. Some Dale Carnegie 101 and standard-needs analysis will go further than heavy-handed, minimum call requirements and expectant sales level increases alone. By finding the interest areas and analogies that most closely match the sales reps’ (and business owners’) own vernacular, we have the best chance of creating true integrated paradigm shifts. 

Recalling a good line from a fairly lousy Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn movie (“The Break-up”),we don’t want to have to tell our sales reps and advertisers to do the dishes, we want them to want to do the dishes, because they see the value and importance in it. Just as pitching an advertiser a digital package wouldn’t work well if we told him, “You just have to buy it because we say so,” we’ve got to show him why it’s a wise investment.

Similarly, we have to show our sales reps why and how this will help their clients and themselves (and ultimately all of us) by driving new eyeballs to their Web sites and storefronts, reinforcing traditional media placement, and illustrating to new and growing potential customers where more and more people are flocking.

As for the “market leader” project approach, that will vary by market. But, hopefully, you can discover those opportunities without too much research needed. The one certainty is that we have to try, fail fast, and try again on a number of fronts, as my blog colleagues have reiterated lately. As we continue to experiment, however, remember the opportunity cost that comes with venturing too far from what you do best and what will reap the most lucrative rewards the fastest.