Changing the culture of (newspaper) advertising sales


EEarlier this month I had three experiences that successively drove home how profound the changes in our (newspaper) marketing philosophy have become. Each was a uniquely different circumstance, but each in its own way provided perspective both to me and to others on the increasing complex and sophisticated approach we (newspapers) have developed to revenue generation.

In the interest of brevity, I will recount each encounter briefly, but provide details on only one in particular.

Encounter 1: In late November, Rutgers University brought a visiting delegation of Korean newspaper executives to our offices in Newark, New Jersey. They wished to study the response of American newspapers to the challenging consumer and economic environment. We exchanged ideas on subscription development and multi-media content delivery, but what really fascinated them was our still-evolving transition to multi-media thinking in advertising sales. To say that they were skeptical would be an understatement.

We explained our desire to shift thinking from “Hi, I'm your Star-Ledger ad rep and I am here to sell you an ad” to “Hi, I represent Everything Jersey Media Solutions. Let's discuss your marketing objectives so that I can understand how I can best address your needs and make your business more successful.”

We reviewed the tools now available to our account executives: traditional newspaper ROP, targeted inserts, glossy magazines, direct mail, online impressions, rich media formats, search, e-mail, mobile, custom client literature and multimedia applications. They were fascinated, but the general response registered was disbelief.

The predominant opinion of our visitors was that a newspaper company could not offer sufficient technical expertise and that a newspaper account executive would be incapable of understanding the use of multiple media platforms. I hope that they are wrong. If they are correct, then newspapers cannot match the capabilities of a small, entrepreneurial advertising agency. It's not rocket science. If we cannot compete in that arena, shame on us.

Encounter 2: In mid-December, a marketing class from New York University's technology campus presented their capstone project to the Star-Ledger. These engineering students had chosen to study the newspaper industry, and specifically the Star-Ledger, to hone their skills in applied engineering/consumer marketing.

What was most gratifying was the fact that a classroom of 20-year-old techies was confident in the future of the printed medium. What was reassuring was their approval of what they had observed of our pursuit of interactive media platforms and product line diversification. They also had some harsh criticism of the industry and specific practices, but overall I think many of them would have judged our industry a good career choice.

The resounding chorus in their presentation, though, was customer-centric thinking. When applied to the consumer it meant one thing, but when applied to the advertiser, it came back to the same topic we had discussed with our Korean visitors: changing our approach from selling ads to providing solutions to address client marketing problems.

These first two experiences both involved institutions of higher education and, to a degree, academic discussions regarding best practice theory. Now, let's discuss theory in practice and I will share an evolving case study.

Encounter 3: The last of the three encounters was a meeting with urban planners and economic development officials in one of the cities located within the Star-Ledger's marketing area. This city has been achieving slow but steady progress in revitalizing their core urban small business retail district while also pursuing major suburban style big box and mall retailing using reclaimed industrial space on the periphery of the city limits. They are balancing the issues of fostering urban main street storefronts with the opportunities of major regional shopping destination development. Many municipalities have abandoned the former in pursuit of the easy success of the latter.

Our advertising department had developed a successful marketing partnership with these officials in 2010. With some initial support from an urban enterprise grant, the ad department launched a zoned monthly newsprint publication and destination web site in close collaboration with the economic development officials. While Star-Ledger marketing writers edited and designed the content of the publication, the content itself was supplied by various stakeholders representing neighborhood merchant organizations, the mayor's office, cultural and health care institutions and chambers of commerce. The grant provided the funds necessary to provide financial support while the local Star-Ledger account executive cultivated a client base for the venture.

The meeting I am referencing was to serve two purposes. We were to evaluate the performance of the first year in the context of making recommendations for the second year. Our audience was a panel of municipal officials.

Fortunately, we had a number of quantifiable examples of return on investment and testimonial endorsements for the efficacy of the 2010 grant investment. Participation in community (bike tours, footraces, health clinics, tree lighting) and business (restaurant week, farmers market) promotions had increased significantly and was directly attributed to the new publication and web communication.

What made this meeting relevant to the previous two experiences? The proposal for 2011. The print-and-deliver newsprint section with traditional destination web site launched in 2010 had been successful but had also coincided with our learning curve of being a solutions provider. We had listened to the client and addressed their needs successfully, but in 2010 we had stayed pretty much within the confines of familiar media platforms.

For 2011, the breadth and depth of our expanded media capabilities and confidence in providing diverse solutions is obvious. Here are the bullet points of our 2011 media plan/proposal:


  • Full page zoned newspaper “poster” page and calendar monthly zoned to the local market.

  • Monthly glossy eight-panel brochure distributed more broadly to attract shoppers from outside the core market.

  • Twice-a-year bilingual 12-panel glossy saturation mailing to all city residents to be sure that everyone has access to the promotional plans.

  • Seasonal (four times per year, 60 seconds each) video “invitations” by the mayor presented online with viral distribution, inviting everyone to come and enjoy upcoming activities, events and promotions.

  • Blog-site/social media launch linked to all popular sites relevant to the city. Video treatment added for major event features.

  • Five million rich-media impressions on leading general-interest web sites driving traffic to the city destination site.

  • Templated multi-media marketing packages for the city's small businesses that include print, web identity development, loyalty marketing/social media applications and client training to manage communications continuity.

The 2010 report was met with approval. And the 2011 proposal not only generated excitement, there was an element of astonishment. One executive representing the county literally commented, “This is great and I am thrilled at the state-of-the-art approach and use of digital media, but why is the newspaper offering all this? I mean, aren't you the ones in trouble and isn't this stuff threatening your future?”

The obvious reply?

The newspaper is “offering all this” because it is our future.

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