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So what does Digital First really mean?

18 October 2011 · By Adam Burnham

Putting digital products first — ahead of the printed newspaper — is a hard nut to swallow for most newsmedia companies. But the Journal Register Company shows why this digital first mindset can actually better serve both readers and advertisers.

I get this question all of the time. So Journal Register Company is dumping its print way of life and only focusing on digital? Hardly, but in some respects, yes.

Change is something that too many in our industry fear. We have spent the last 10 years watching our classified business erode into virtually nothing., and have taken what was the bread and butter of newspapers and moved the medium of choice to the Web…and we let it happen. We can no longer afford to look the other way. We can’t simply wait for an economic rebound and assume all of those print dollars will come streaming back in. Mark my words, it will not happen. It is time to invest in a new model, the digital first model.

Since launching our Digital First strategy in May of 2010, Journal Register Company has been producing year-over-year results in digital revenue that are 7 times the industry average. This is something we are very proud of and also something we are very transparent about. No smoke and mirrors here. This is a dedicated approach to selling true digital products and solutions to our customers, with the large majority of this revenue coming from local selling efforts.

If I told you two years ago that you could replace every dollar of print loss with digital gains and build a plan in which digital could sustain your organisation for years to come…hell, if I told you that today, what would your response be? Probably something like, sign me up!

That is exactly what JRC is doing.

Digital First in its essence is a concept built behind content and audience. As a local news medium, we must deliver our content to our audience using the quickest means at our disposal. No surprise that those means are digital, hence digital first, print last. So as our CEO, John Paton began preaching the gospel of digital first, it became quickly apparent that our sales organisation had to get on board. And get on board we did.

I wish I could tell you there was a magic switch we threw that turned on the digital revenue spout. This was a well-planned approach that required buy in from all members of the sales organisation. The process to retrain and rebuild was time consuming, but it was time well invested. We have 600 full-time employees (FTE) in sales in our company but prior to March of 2010, only 18 of those FTEs were focused on digital. Today, all 600 are focused on our digital first selling effort.

Our secret sauce begins with a unique value proposition, something that can easily be conveyed to advertisers large and small, something we all have but have not fully engaged…our Audience. Eyeballs are what the advertisers want. At JRC, we prioritise those eyeballs based on our largest audience, which is digital. In fact of the 21 million people we reach every month, 13 million are reached via digital products thus making our audience digital first. (Connecting the dots.)

If there is anything that the history of advertising tells us; all businesses want to reach a demographically rich audience. And at last check, your online audience is just that. We now lead with digital in every sales pitch; which represents our largest and most desirable audience. Print is not forgotten, but it is considered supplementary in the client presentation.

So it is one thing to say and yet another thing to do. We are not growing digital by 80% year-over-year by just selling audience. Not at all. We have a firehouse of new digital products and initiatives that we are constantly rolling out, over 50 in the last 12 months. This is at the core of our success. We have built out a number of options to engage our advertisers with true digital solutions. And we challenge the bandwidth of every sales person in the organisation.

The playbook we have put into place is thick, and we have followed it religiously. Have we made mistakes? Absolutely. But we course correct quickly. Try Fast. Fail Fast. Move on.

We have aligned every person in the sales organisation with the same goals focused on delivering results to the top and bottom line. Our goals are aggressive, but so is the compensation plan. Digital sales efforts are no longer a “blitz” at JRC, they are a way of life.

I admit it is hard to sum up the last 18 months into one blog. But since this is my first one, I thought it best to share with everyone a brief overview of what we have done at JRC and how we plan on carrying the digital first plan forward. We have a long way to go by my estimation, but the steps we are taking today will build the foundation of what JRC and our industry will look like in the digital first future.

Until next time…

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About this blog

The Innovative Advertising Solutions Blog looks at not only integrated advertising sales for newsmedia companies but the full spectrum of agency-level marketing solutions for advertisers: print, digital, package, and event sales; social media marketing services on behalf of advertisers; and behavioural targeting across a range of digital products.

Meet the bloggers

Greg Bobolo
New York, New York, USA
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Adam Burnham
Vice President
Affinity Express
Elgin, Illinois, USA
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Brooke Christofferson
Vice President of Marketing and Strategy
Republic Media and Gannett Community Publishing West Group
Phoenix, Arizona, USA
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Darrell Kunken
Director of Research/Market Analysis
The Sacramento Bee
Sacramento, California, USA
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Suzanne Raitt
Vice President, Marketing and Innovation
Newspapers Canada
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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