Beyond Print Toolkit: Direct sold digital ads

A cornerstone in the post-print era

By Shira Toeplitz Center

June 27, 2024

Accogliente Design / Shutterstock

In traditional print ad sales, a sales rep would directly close a deal with a client for, say, a full-page advertisement in the Sunday paper. It’s the same with digital direct sales: The major difference is that advertising opportunities are more expansive, including website display, newsletters, sponsorships, events and more. As a result, seller education is more comprehensive, and you’ll need to consider new systems to deliver campaigns and report to clients. 

Digital direct sales require resources – research, sales, billing, execution, campaign monitoring, and reporting metrics to the client. Some of these can be integrated into existing systems for print sales – and some of them are completely unique to the product (for example, tabulating delivered digital impressions). As such, it is essential to assess which products and platforms will have enough return on investment to merit direct sales operations. 

When launching new, non-print products for direct sales, publishers must prepare and strategize around their respective markets. You should consider whether your print direct-sold clients can be converted to digital or events. You’ll also need to assess the spending capacity of any new direct digital business. There are some products that inevitably won’t have enough ROI to justify an upfront investment for direct sales. 

Fortunately, digital direct sales can be complemented by programmatic or other third parties sales. For example, most publishers attempt to directly sell as much of their digital display inventory as possible, and then offer up the remainder to programmatic vendors. 

Here’s what you need to know – and how to make the most – of your direct-sold advertising opportunities in the post-print era: 

The essentials: The direct sales menu 

Print: Same as before, direct sales include advertising in run-of-paper (ROP), special sections (Sports), specific dates/events (ex: the paper after The Super Bowl) or other initiatives (Sports season preview content). However, many publishers have outsourced classified ad sales — including death, legal and other notices — to third parties in recent years. Publishers should calculate what will be most financially advantageous for the future of their classified business.  

Digital: There’s a huge price advantage to directly selling digital display campaigns. The average CPM (cost per thousand impressions) for a direct-sold ad is $10-20; Programmatic ads have an average CPM of $1-5, according to the Google News Initiative. However, most publications don’t sell out of digital inventory, so they inevitably use both methods of sales. 

This is where knowing your product and audience metrics creates a competitive advantage. In many cases, information about your advertising performance and data on your audience — and, importantly, the story you tell about it in your sales collateral — is something that only you can provide a client. What’s more, a burgeoning digital subscription business can boost direct digital sales: The more subscribers, the greater the audience that you can sell.

Newsletters: Many publishers choose to sell newsletters directly, given there are similarities with digital display ad sales. These sales require minimum training for sellers and education for clients. What’s more, newsletter advertising revenue has exploded in recent years (see the rise of Axios, 6AM City, etc.). As such, publications with at least a few newsletters typically try to sell them directly – at least at first. The exception is a newsletter with a large email list that can successfully bring in programmatic ad revenue (think 60,000+ impressions, which would bring in $180 per send at a programmatic CPM of $3). 

Audio: These are still specialty sales that require unique creative (ad reads) and delivery systems (podcast platforms). Many publishers — especially those with limited audio options — partner with podcast distributors that also sell advertising. These third parties also have an advantage because they sell other podcasts that can provide the client with a greater scale. Sometimes, depending on the third party, publishers can pursue direct sales for podcasts alongside a third-party provider. However, podcasts are expensive to produce, and many publishers struggle to build an audience. Consider this investment carefully. 

Events: These are bespoke opportunities to the publication and, therefore, are almost always sold directly to clients. However, if the publication is just starting to develop events as a revenue stream, they could consider hiring a consultant with event sales experience to work on commission. 

Sponsorships: These are typically 100 percent share of voice (SOV) opportunities for clients who want to align closely with specific content (such as a program or series) or support the subject matter (i.e., a celebration of Black History Month). Sponsors can be offered for events, editorial programs, newsletters and multi-platform opportunities. A strong in-house sales team is best-positioned to sell them because they should know these initiatives and their properties well. 

Sponsored Content: This offering is almost always directly sold to clients, because much of the value for the client is a tone and appearance that is native to the publication. However, advertising departments will often outsource the creation of sponsored content to a freelance writer or vendor. 

Key indicators: Positioning the sales team for direct success

Because direct sales requires in-house resources, sales talent will be key to success. A few things to consider: 

Sales Education. For new products, leaders should dedicate time to educating their team to ensure sellers feel comfortable presenting new, non-print opportunities to clients. Importantly, sellers should understand the full offering – from audience reach and demographics, to case studies, ad requirements, and campaign reporting. Sellers should be comfortable with metrics such as monthly pageviews and/or unique views, audience demographics, average engaged time, and benchmark click-through-rates for each ad product. Much of this is more complicated than a print sale, which relied on circulation figures. 

Consider hosting weekly workshops, during which team members can learn about new offerings and showcase success stories, as well as regular reviews of non-print products. For example, your sales team could sign up for every major newsletter with advertising opportunities and be able to give an overview of each. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a session dedicated to prospecting, during which team members share their targets for new digital products. 

Books of Business. In recent years, many large publishers have moved sales teams to sell by category instead of geographical territory or products. For example, reps will sell healthcare instead of the northern suburbs or the weekly magazine. As local and small business advertising in news declines, this may seem like an intriguing option, especially for publishers in cities with large corporations and prominent industries. Sales reps get to know a specific industry and its players, and they can use that intelligence to improve their pitches and packages. 

A few points to consider about this kind of structure: 

  • What are the primary industries in your region, and do they spend on local marketing? How many of them want to reach your audience? Potential key metrics that will help include average deal size, number of clients by spend level, and recent win rate for medium and large companies. 
  • How many people are on your sales team, and do they do a lot of in-person sales? Category sales are usually a better fit for larger teams (at least 4-5 sales reps). Most likely, sales personnel will need to take on multiple categories. 
  • How good is your sales team at winning and keeping new business? Key metrics include your current percentage of new business (for example, has the client spent with you in the last 1-2 years?), their spend level, and renewal rate. Your customer relationship management program should track this, or you can create your own sales pipeline via a spreadsheet. 
  • How would you craft the rules of engagement and commissions under a new system? You’ll need to consider how each category is defined (for example, is Instacart a tech or grocery company?). How will sales goals and commissions vary for each category, based on anticipated spend levels? The good news is you should have historical data to inform these decisions.  

Commission. Even as print ad sales decline, it may be necessary to change commission structures to incentivize sellers to bring new products to market. For example, publishers may have distinct sales goals or commissions for print and digital products (sellers earn 6 percent on digital sales, and 5 percent on print, for example), or they can offer a SPIFF (sales performance incentive fund that serves as a one-time bonus for completing a sales challenge). Sales leaders can offer one-off incentives (a spiff) for the first team member to sell a new digital product. 

Tests: Creating effective sales collateral

For effective direct selling, sellers need collateral that showcases the full scope of your advertising capabilities. There are a few ways to go about this, but this typically includes a media kit, rate card, and advertising calendar. 

A mainstay in today’s sales collateral is the media kit, which, in the post-print era, should include all advertising products (print ads, display banner ads, newsletter sponsorships, etc.), anticipated reach or performance for those products (circulation, estimated impressions, click-through-rate, etc.), advertising requirements (display and print ad specs/sizes) and deadlines for reservations and asset delivery (for example, four days before publication/the ad runs).

Ideally, the media kit also tells the story of your value proposition to the client: Why should a potential advertiser work with you over a competitor? What can you provide to them that no one else can? There are numerous ways to tell this story. Some publications use a website page as their media kit, because it’s an easy way to keep information updated and available. Other publications use a PDF or slide deck, which sales reps can alter and send to a client based on their interests. Many regional publishers choose not to publicize their media kits. Instead, they require interested parties to submit their email addresses via an online form before receiving this – that way, they have a professional contact with whom to begin the sales conversation. 

Increasingly, many outlets publish an editorial calendar with advertising alignment opportunities. This requires coordination with news and/or editorial staff, and every publication is different: Sometimes, the editor will release the content calendar to the sales department when it’s ready (and on their timetable), but it’s much better for sales if this is a conversation with newsroom leadership. If you have a collaborative relationship with your newsroom, you can present revenue performance as data, including some suggestions for improvement. But, to protect editorial independence, it’s important to know that newsroom leadership makes the final decision. 

There are increasing benefits to an editorial calendar: Clients may be more interested in aligning with an event or theme (Earth Day, or an annual Holiday Shopping Guide), and they’re more likely to reserve for the entire year because they can plan their positions. An editorial calendar also gives sales representatives regular reasons to reach out to clients beyond traditional ROP opportunities (“Did you hear about our Holiday Shopping Guide running in November?”). Every market is different, but best practice is to publish and publicize the editorial calendar just before clients are planning the next year’s budget, which could be as early as August of the preceding calendar year. 

Finally, and most importantly for direct sales, publications should have a rate card that includes updated pricing for all products, including digital opportunities (sometimes this is also just a component of the media kit). As such, leaders should give special consideration whether they want this to be publicly available, and how they want to manage policies for discounts. Even if they published print rates, it’s wise to reconsider whether this is the best approach for digital products. 

The advantages to a public rate card are ease, transparency and consistency. The downside is less flexibility in deal-making, and the potential of losing new business if the price point appears too high (but in reality is lower due to deals, packages or bulk sales). Some publications will have an internal and a published, external rate card. Others will give minimum pricing in their media kits (“rates start at $500”) as a workaround.  

Implementation: Considering the full digital sales cycle

Publications that effectively sell advertising across platforms have a defined process that considers the entire sales cycle. Some of this is comparable to print, while other aspects require new systems. 

  • Productize: Like print, a digital product rate card should include specs and deadlines. This can get pretty unwieldy if you list every available digital offering. Start small, streamline and package your offerings, such as the price for display ads across various sections or certain positions (top banner, etc.). 
  • Pre-Sales:
    • Outbound/Opportunistic: For digital direct sales, this may be a very different prospect list than your regular print clients — converting these clients can be challenging, because they may still see your marketing value primarily in print. Additionally, sometimes these print mainstay clients are local businesses that require education about digital advertising. All the more reason to try to sell new business on digital products. 
    • Inbound leads: This is where it’s really helpful for a sales team to be very familiar with your digital product line. Use the new, comprehensive sales collateral to show what products, opportunities and initiatives could suit the clients’ needs. 
  • Package and propose: If the client is determined to order print, consider giving them a small digital option as added value to see if they can be converted.
  • Negotiate and close: Come to terms, deliver either the contract or the I/O (insertion order). One great thing about digital is there’s theoretically more room to negotiate than print, which carries the hard cost of printing and delivering the paper. 
  • Execute and deliver: Much like print, someone has to place a digital ad or sponsorship onto the website to fulfill the campaign/order. It’s possible to outsource this work to a third party, and some small shops have the sales team upload the creative directly for the campaign. Regardless, this is a new process for direct sales that you’ll have to consider and develop. 
  • Report and Renew: Unlike print ads, someone will need to track digital performance — usually calculated in the number of impressions delivered and/or click-through rate. If a campaign underperforms, you may want to consider extending it or adding some incentives, especially if this is a client with investment potential. This will help with the final step — renew — in which the team members are responsible for keeping that business. 

Additional resources: 

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