Selling digital space: how advertising salespeople can avoid being left behind

Even the most superficial reader of newspaper websites can’t fail to notice the abundance of new technology that is now regularly incorporated into the storytelling process – and as the demand for new ways of telling stories evolves, the range of editorial skills required is evolving almost as quickly as the technology used to publish.

But it isn’t just in editorial that new digital skills are required. As publishers, both local and national, struggle to work out how to make money from digital, the roles of advertising salespeople are changing even more rapidly.

Over the course of the last few months, I’ve been immersed in the newspaper sector; talking to senior decision-makers about the kind of posts they find hardest to recruit. By some margin, the most common answer has been ‘good salespeople who really understand digital’.

They are fewer and farther between than you might think, even now. Digital advertising sales jobs are hard to fill with tiptop candidates.

When interviewing salespeople, particularly ad salespeople, one of the lines I often have patted back to me is: ‘If you can sell apples, then you can sell anything.’

I don’t believe this has ever been true, but it has never been less true than now.

The range of skills involved in selling digital advertising is completely different to that of print and many salespeople struggle to make the transition.

Selling print advertising is more straightforward than digital. Everyone knows what a page of advertising looks like and those who buy print still attach considerable value to it even though it’s harder to track effectiveness and ROI.

Digital gives the advertiser a clear idea of the eyeballs looking at it, the number of click-throughs, and the overall effectiveness of a campaign. In addition, the price of standard run-of-site inventory is a lot lower. However, this market is increasingly fragmented and the advent of technologies like programmatic buying only increase that trend. Salespeople need to catch up.

If businesses want to drive real revenue from digital, publishers will need to put together far more sophisticated packages for advertisers. This means salespeople knowing considerably more about the readership – their interests, location, buying patterns. And they need to have sufficient understanding of data to be able to display the value of all that to potential clients.

Digital salespeople need to become comfortable with the idea that the jobs is now selling different facets of a diverse and engaged community. It’s about working with potential clients to develop bespoke solutions, and having a full understanding of what’s possible with the available technology. And crucially, it’s about making that comprehensible to clients.

All of this requires a much more consultative, solutions-based sales process. In a fragmented, digital age, salespeople need to understand every aspect of what a client is hoping to achieve – and to work with them to put together complex packages.

This may be new for the newspaper world, but this is the sort of process software salespeople have used to for years, as have those selling high-value subscription-based online information products.

As one digital director at a national newspaper told me: ‘The days of being able to sell advertising on a handshake down the pub are gone.’

These days, if you’re a newspaper salesperson and can successfully show people how you can sell on a consultative basis, you’ll find your market value going up considerably.