The great challenge for local TV is not only to create compelling digital products and services, but to find and train people to sell them. Station groups are stepping up those efforts, hoping to latch on to some of the dollars that are migrating from broadcast to digital. “Digital, social, secondary channels, websites, mobile – it’s literally a laundry list that each sales rep needs to understand, then master himself,” says sales consultant Adam Armbruster. Part II of this special report tomorrow will address integrating new programmatic or automated selling platforms with existing sales, traffic and billing workflows. Also see today’s Open Mike on sales compensation for new hires.
The digital advertising revolution sweeping through the media world has reached local TV, upending the lives of broadcast salespeople, requiring them to do more and learn more, while sometimes earning less.
In markets of every size, stations and station groups are creating and offering a host of new digital products to prospective and long-time clients to keep pace with the invasion of digital and other media on their turf.
The broadcasters are re-emphasizing training, creating new digital-only positions, hiring digital specialists and even establishing whole new units to sell digital products and consulting services that often have little or nothing to do with selling traditional TV time.
It’s happening everywhere. In Columbus, Ga. (DMA 126), NBC affiliate WLTZ launched a digital ad agency last April called Alligator Digital – a move inspired by other stations that have done the same thing, says WLTZ general sales manager Fred Steppe.
“It’s a separate company and I have separate sellers who are not competing with my broadcast account executives,” Steppe tells TVNewsCheck. He declined to divulge how much money the new company has made since its launch, but he said it’s making some and he’s hopeful for more. “We’re still perfecting the pitch,” he says. “It’s been a real learning process.”
Indeed, the local TV business appears to be in the midst of an industry-wide learning process when it comes to ad sales. It is a massive conversion to the new world of local digital selling. Just this year, NBCUniversal took steps to train 400 of its local and national salespeople on the ins and outs of digital sales.
Training sessions were held in 10 different regions, drawing salespeople from all of the NBC and Telemundo O&Os, says Frank Comerford, chief revenue officer and president of commercial operations for the NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. The training was actually conducted by New York-based Digital Media (DM) Training.
“We just spent a lot of money and time [on] training,” Comerford says. “We thought that it would make sense to have every single salesperson in our organization – both NBC and Telemundo in the local markets and in the national rep firms – trained.”
The company’s goal: To have everyone “IAB-certified” – or, in other words, to earn professional certification in digital advertising sales from the Interactive Advertising Bureau.
NBCUniversal’s focus on digital is nothing if not timely. Analysts are declaring 2015 as the year when online will finally overtake traditional local media. “This year, online media shimmied to the top of the local media food chain, appealing to the largest percentage of local advertisers and taking the largest share of ad budget,” says one report issued last June by Borrell Associates, with the title “Local Advertising Hits a Tipping Point.”
“Over the next 12 months,” the report said, “the gap will almost certainly widen to the point that all traditional advertising channels – print, broadcast, outdoor and mail – [will] begin to look like niche support mechanisms to a local business’s digital marketing plan.”
An earlier report from Borrell – issued last January – predicts that “digital advertising at the local level will grow 42% [in 2015]. At that rate, it would account for $2 out of every $5 spent by local advertisers.”
The result is a tidal wave of change washing over the local TV ad sales business, with stations facing a new set of challenges, including adding and selling a lengthy menu of new digital products and services, including website management. At the same time, they’re trying to stave off competition from a host of digital competitors, while working to maintain their traditional clients’ spending on old-fashioned TV commercial time.
“It is a completely different time,” says Jim Doyle of Jim Doyle & Associates, a TV sales consultancy in Sarasota, Fla. “The industry has to be much more oriented toward creating demand than managing demand,” he said.
To create demand, local ad salespeople are now selling an array of products that are taxing their ability to keep up with it all. Increasingly, local TV salespeople are being asked to position themselves as digital-advertising consultants who can help local SMBs (small- and medium-sized businesses) manage their digital portfolios, which includes assisting local businesses with their Facebook pages, managing their profiles on sites such as Yelp or Angie’s List (part of an overall “presence” management effort), optimizing searches, guiding them on geo-targeting strategies, choreographing e-mail blasts and everything else that local small businesses are dealing with digitally.
“[Station salespeople today] are drinking out of a fire hose of new product offerings that their companies are rolling out. Digital, social, secondary channels, websites, mobile – it’s literally a laundry list that each sales rep needs to understand, then master himself. [Account executives] have gone from one product to, I kid you not, 12 to 20 products that these folks are now responsible for selling,” says sales consultant Adam Armbruster of New Jersey-based ESA & Company.
“For a local AE, it’s harder,” says WLTZ’s Steppe. “And for a manager it’s harder to find those people who are really good at it because we’re not paying AEs what they used to make. …A lot of stations I know are paying less commission now.” [Editor’s note: For more on recruiting and compensating account executives in the digital age, see today’s Open Mike by sales headhunter Laurie Kahn.]
To be successful in the new world, local TV salespeople will have to embrace the faster pace of doing business, the experts say. “People who have been sales professionals or AEs the last 20 years may have a hard time in that new world,” says B.J. Boyle, vice president of product management for Pittsburgh-based Matrix Solutions, which sells CRM (or customer relationship management) software designed to help advertising salespeople stay organized.
In a local media world that grows more complicated everyday, organizing software can come in handy. “I think it’s wise for a station to embrace CRM tools just to keep track of what you’re saying to every customer – what they want, even their birthdays and favorite drink,” says Armbruster.
Account executives use CRM to manage their account lists and keep track of orders and prospects. Sales managers use the software for the same organizational capabilities, but also to keep tabs on their staff’s activity levels. And while sales managers have long required account executives to keep records and turn in activity logs, some AEs feel the CRM systems just make it easier for managers to keep an eye on them.
“Great salespeople have complained about paperwork for as long as there have been pens,” says Jim Doyle. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a new issue. The reality is that in a perfect world, none of us likes anyone seeing what we do.”
Even as they worry about the inroads digital is making in local media markets, salespeople also say they’re optimistic that they can manage both their traditional businesses and the new opportunities presented by digital. “At the end of the day, we’re still a TV station,” says Steppe. “We still have to be able to entertain and put on a good news product and run commercials and traffic them the right way. We have to remember our core business. But there’s an opportunity for us to be able to help our clients grow with digital.”
For an account executive in the new world, the biggest challenge is multi-tasking, Steppe says. “They’re not just selling television.”