Are ad sales teams and e-commerce a good fit for media’s future?

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


As many publishers move their advertising revenue focus to programmatic and others sense there will be less reliance on “traditional” advertiser revenue in future, there is a thought that we should re-look at the role of our sales teams. 

What should they be selling in future? Should we restructure those teams? Are there revenue opportunities being left “on the table,” which, if we exploited using our sales teams’ skill sets, could expand our revenue areas? 

Let’s look at one such area where there just could be a big opportunity. 

In recent times, e-commerce gurus Amazon have created huge disruption in the way consumers purchase everything from books and music to fresh food baskets and many other categories. 

In the consumer world, e-commerce brings great deals and perhaps, most importantly, convenience. People don’t have to visit a physical store anymore to find/purchase what they need.

How do we as publishers also best tap into all this? And is this something our advertising sales teams should be developing more for us as we continue to reshape what future sales teams should actually be selling?

An e-commerce opportunity that may exist already for you 

In one of my recent newsletters, I talked about how BuzzFeed is working in the affiliate and direct e-commerce space. The media company is banking on growth in commerce, currently its smallest business, to accelerate its top-line growth as part of its sales operation.

Like other digital media companies, BuzzFeed makes money in affiliate commerce by putting links to retailers’ Web sites within its articles. If readers click on a link and end up buying something, BuzzFeed gets a cut of the revenue.

BuzzFeed sells cookware products direct to consumers, connected to its “Tasty” food brand.
BuzzFeed sells cookware products direct to consumers, connected to its “Tasty” food brand.

BuzzFeed also sells products directly in areas like cookware, which relates, for example, to its Tasty food brand. They generated US$57 million in commerce revenue last year or 14% of total revenue. The company expects that number to hit US$150 millionin 2022 (or 23% of its total), and US$330 million (or 31% of the total) by 2024. 

If you are not in this world yet, there might be a “close to home” opportunity, already existing and easy way of doing so … and to do so using existing resources. 

In media circles, there’s an extra opportunity to consider here: The ad sales team. Could they be well positioned to sell deals to businesses, adopting an affiliate role in the e-commerce chain?

Is “commerce” a revenue stream that could be exploited greatly by a professional sales team with regards to taking their expertise and deal negotiation skills to advertiser clients (and/or relating this to the reader/customer base)?

Utilising existing sales teams

Even if you’re a small- or medium-sized media company, e-commerce may look initially as a threat to the sales team. But no. Especially if your way forward involves more for programmatic advertising and less direct selling, this could be a big opportunity for publishers to sell and use sales teams in new ways.

As demand for e-commerce options grows, it’s perhaps wise practice to at least consider a strategy around this area.

Incentives needs to be built in 

In some media companies, this could start with offering a standard commission or other monetary incentive for sales reps who refer business customers to buy into the opportunity of say, a Web e-commerce deals (negotiated by the media sales team with the many e-commerce firms out there). This could be in isolation or part of a wider package of offerings.

Incentives will motivate your sales teams to succeed with e-commerce offers.
Incentives will motivate your sales teams to succeed with e-commerce offers.

Key would be the initial set-up. It will not work if there is no real incentive to sell it on the part of the sales team. I recall (back to my experience inside some of the big UK media companies) that when “mobile” first emerged on the scene as a new channel to sell, we struggled at first to excite the salespeople as the incentives weren’t structured in. They told us they felt they already had a myriad of things to sell, and mobile was “just another.” That’s when part of their commission incentive scheme was amended to make it a “must sell,” with the relevant incentives in place.

Be it as a B2B or a B2C opportunity, some media houses may simply offer a limited amount of offers, made based on the media target audiences. And, in many cases, e-commerce companies would bite your hand off for the opportunity to reach a new audience that have loyalty to the media brand already — even paying themselves for the privilege (before a product or service is even sold). 

Print still important 

I know of some media companies that produce print supplements for third-party sellers (am thinking of specific examples, here in there UK, of things like gardening products), where that print supplement (don’t overlook the power of print still), is charged top advertisers/third-party product suppliers for inserting the supplement, with the media house still taking a commission on top of any reader sales. The next step could be for ad sales teams to re-sell the opportunity of the offers made (for selected/relevant advertisers) to put before their own audiences, set up in a similar fee plus commission basis. 

You may argue that these are not where your sales team’s talents are best utilised. But why not? It may actually be a piece of a jigsaw that can generate revenue for an advertising client by just “quietly” sitting on their Web site and perhaps in some way pay for the ad campaign they are planning separately.

Pilot it first

Maybe think about a pilot project in your company. Pick a trusted advertiser to trial it? If it works, extend it to others and then utilise knowledge and learnings to feed back to your perhaps already existing, B2C e-commerce teams. 

This could be new vertical to grow your revenue, starting with current clients with whom you have a relationship with. Tell them (both your advertisers and your sales teams) that it’s a trial. See where it leads? There is then no risk of diverting a salesperson away from existing accounts.

Checklist for resource exploitation 

Look for ways to exploit the sales team’s knowledge of what makes a good deal/user experience when negotiating. This may include:

  • What information should be within the product copy/offer? Sales tricks they have learned that could be applied?
  • How can online orders generate useful data on interests, behaviour, etc., to feed into your data platform/warehouse?
  • How best monitor e-commerce sales for pivoting to different or higher-margin (other) products, for cross-selling or upselling opportunities?
  • How is the customer service element set up requiring minimal or no resource for the salesperson (instead via the originator of the service)?
  • Is the sales teams well trained on e-commerce tools to make it  easy to implement and report on? Eg, having immediate access to things like stock checking, order information, etc.

Create a list of ways to use the sales team’s knowledge of what makes a good user experience when negotiating.
Create a list of ways to use the sales team’s knowledge of what makes a good user experience when negotiating.

Finally, a question to think about: If your media brand name is attached to all this, should any e-commerce offerings reflect your media companies’ethics, culture, and beliefs? Does it complement what you stand for in the communities in which you serve? 

Looking ahead, you can be sure that the concept of driving our readers to commerce platforms and services was heading that way prior to the pandemic; the virus has only accelerated the trend as many people now shop from home and don’t need to visit an actual physical store. 

Is this an area we just can’t miss out on as part of our future revenue? 

It’s all about selling “stuff” in new ways. Traditionally, we have sold items from calendars to books to holidays “off the page.” The ability to now sell these and a whole lot more online adds extra power to our offerings, even using attractive, e-commerce packages as part of our subscription deals or membership bundles.

Commerce objectives

Just be clear on your objectives for commerce offerings: 

  • Do you have any necessary technology needs to action it all (whether your own proprietary tech or that of your third-party partner(s))? Tech that can make the user experience easy and frictionless? Will it link purchase and behaviour to your data sets and personas on your buyers?
  • Have monetary budgets/targets set from day one.
  • Have KPIs to measure performance of your commerce activities and be prepared to adapt them as you go, on the fly.
  • Make sure your media brand is seen as offering a relevant, good value, desired product suite that must seek to enhance your brand and your relationships with your readers … as well as make money.


There is no doubt e-commerce holds big opportunities for publishers in many guises. 

In future newsletters, we will explore specific areas of things like:

  • Mobile commerce (a fast-growing area).
  • Social commerce (using platforms to target and exploit).
  • Voice/conversational shopping (currently small but growing as customer begin to use smart speakers and a whole proliferation of IoT-enabled devices).
  • Scan and shop. Scan items featured in editorial articles in print and/or (e.g. home improvements, motor car sales etc.), via a smartphone, to be diverted to the seller’s Web site. “Click on the photo (of the product) for a special offer for readers of this news site”) for instance.
  • Couponing opportunities. Discounted high street offers where affiliate revenues are shared between third-party suppliers and media companies for any purchases made by their readers.
  • Using existing resource such as newspaper delivery trucks to aid the process of delivering items, in downtimes, could be a way to exploit our position, just as is being done by the likes of Torstar in Canada and NTM in Sweden — a part of their businesses that is growing fast.
  • Focus on the readers and what they want, not just that you think is good for them.
  • Consider multi-channel marketing/promotion top reach the biggest audience possible. But stay relevant to the product vs. audience in terms of likelihood of desire and customer targeting.

Sign up to this newsletter now (here) so you don’t miss out on the conversation.

Quality of service, credibility, brand enhancement (halo effect), being in sync with your community — as well as revenue generation — are all important factors on the road to commercial success.

You have sales teams at your disposal, experienced and experts in selling to help with much of this. Use them!

Further reading

Upcoming Meet-Up

On Wednesday, December 8, I will host our next Advertising Initiative Meet-Up, discussing how media companies can provide real solutions to advertisers with two principals of the Alexander Group. The Meet-Up is free to INMA members.

Register here

How to get involved with the Advertising Initiative

This is the newsletter for the INMA Advertising Initiative and represents just one of several ways you can get involved and communicate with your global peers in the media advertising community. 

The basic premise of this initiative is to look at how we rejuvenate data and research-backed media advertising sales for what will we think be a resurgent post-pandemic market. Our aim is to provide actionable, unique insights, thought leadership, and education into future media advertising opportunities for CEOs, senior managements, and sales teams.

There will be many ways for you to connect with us in this initiative. Here are a few: 

Newsletters: Get bi-weekly Advertising Initiative newsletters in your inbox. Sign up here.

Meet-Ups: Join your advertising peers for practical members-only upcoming Meet-Ups, where we can discuss the latest trends and case studies in our industry.

Master Classes: Link to the best advertising minds, exchange ideas at deep-dive Master Classes. We have just completed our first Master Class in September. Watch out for news of our next one, which is scheduled to take place in February.

Also, look out for over the coming months for reports, presentations at INMA conferences and we will also be offering private briefings for corporate members. 

I hope to see you getting involved in one or more of the above channels. We will only be as strong as the community we serve. So, I personally encourage you to contact me at or on Twitter (@challinor) with any thoughts, comments, or suggestions, and I promise to get back to you.

About Mark Challinor

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