Even in tough times, a newspaper can build revenue

By Stanley Schwartz

Omaha, Neb. – The most important thing a newspaper can do is to have its salespeople read the newspaper, said Jason Taylor, president of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press.

Taylor spoke during the 2010 National Newspaper Association Convention and Trade Show.

"The biggest sale you have is the sale inside your building," he said to a packed room in the Qwest Center on Oct. 1.

Even with the best ideas, he explained, if the sales staff is not behind it, it will fail. He insisted that newspapers increase the accountability of their salespeople.

He offered several tips to do that:

  • Department head ride-alongs with salespeople.  This includes people in the admin office. To do this, pick one day each week to have a surprise management ride-along with the salespeople. This tells the entire newspaper how important sales are to the company, he said.  

    You may ask what an editor or a human resources director has to contribute. A human resources director can talk about what impact the newspaper's payroll has in the community. Editors can talk about stories and content. They all have something to talk about, he said.

    Taylor's paper does this once a quarter.  The salespeople know it's coming and book the entire day full of meetings. "It's very productive."

  • Set new standards. Taylor said his paper has a new set of minimum standards that every new sales rep has to sign off on.

    "It's not OK to just hit goal anymore," he added. As an example he explained that every sales rep must have 10 small businesses in the newspaper on any given day. "We have to engage new small businesses and you have to make it mandatory...." If 10 is too many for your market, he said, make it three and then build from there.

  • Post sales on the office wall. "Every special section, everything is posted; who sold it, what ads have been sold. It's just like the old days. It's accountability." If someone hasn't sold an ad in six weeks, he or she looks bad. "And no one wants to look bad."

    At the Free Press, he said, commissions are posted on the board, too. No names are posted with the commissions, but your sales reps need to know that someone is making money. It's an incentive for them to do better.

  • Daily sales meetings.  If you're not meeting your monthly budget, meet every day, Taylor said. The first few weeks will be long and tedious, he added, because you're changing a culture. But find out where everyone on the sales staff is going and then at the end of the day, ask about the day's results.

    He also does what he calls a power hour.

    To close out special sections or to hit goals, for one hour each week sales reps have to sit at someone else's desk and make appointments – they can't answer e-mail or do anything else. All they can do is make appointments.

  • Content quizzes.  "Some of your sales people do not read your newspaper," he said. And it's important that they know the value of your product. The quizzes will keep them on their toes and make them read the paper.

  • Product tests.  Find out if they know the open rate, what a click-through is and what the sections of the paper are. "I don't want anyone going out in the market that cannot talk about our paper," he said.

  • Establish what will not print.  Taylor said he set a precedent – his paper would not print a special section that had earned less than the previous year in revenue.

  • Video sales reps.  The reps are videotaped doing a presentation and it is viewed by the entire sales staff. You may think it's cruel, he said, but most reps will appreciate the feedback they get from watching themselves.

SPECIAL SECTION IDEAS
Taylor advised that when a newspaper launches a special section, it should go all out with a Powerpoint presentation that promotes features and benefits.  Don't just hand the businesses a flier, he said; it makes you look bad. He suggested newspapers pre-design the covers for their special sections and run promotional ads for them in the newspaper.
Businesses will come to you first, Taylor said.

It's also important to put the reader first when coming up with ideas for a special section, he added. "If it's not valuable to the reader, it's not valuable to the advertiser."

Jawbreaker ads – Taylor suggested going through your newspaper and finding little holes that can be filled with small, dynamic ads. These ads can anchor pages or become sponsors for some of your regular features, such as the crossword puzzle. Broadcasters sell everything going into and out of a break, he said. "It's not an ethical violation to have a little sponsorship ad." At his first paper, Taylor said he anchored an ad on the sports statistics page. It all becomes plus revenue because you don't have to increase the page count.

Classified front – Instead of having the first page of his classified section be the traditional gray columns of line ads, he turned it into a colorful page, with featured sections for antique dealers and auto dealerships. One antique dealer said she had to hire staff because of all the business the newspaper was garnering for her, Taylor said. "After one year, every item she had advertised on that page had sold, and that's a powerful statement about newspapers" and their effectiveness.

Dining guide – A weekly dining guide he launched is now billing $500,000 in revenue a year, Taylor said. The section features menu changes, advertorials, etc. If your community doesn't have a lot of restaurants, he added, you can do just one of these a year. People will hold onto it. The guide, he said, encourages people to try something new. He also places the guide online, so readers have easy access to it.  Taylor encouraged publishers to make sure restaurants prepay for inclusion in the dining guide – and have it a mandatory buy-in as part of their ad contract.

Weekend guide – When his newspaper first started a weekend guide, it was centered on bars and nightclubs. But what Taylor learned is that the majority of entertainment dollars are spent by families, so now he has information on day trips and things families can do for under $50.

This can work as a monthly guide for smaller markets, he said. Tell people what's coming in the next month. "It's a huge opportunity," he said.

Summer recreation guide – Sometimes all it takes is a little marketing and a new name to sell a guide like this. At the Times Free Press, the guide was renamed Splash. "Doesn't that just sound better than `Summer Recreation Guide?'" he asked. "Something as small as that will get your sales reps excited." Extra copies should be distributed to tourist locations. A special section like this could even have a special rate, he added.

Progress section – Even though Taylor said he hates them, his newspapers still produces a section on businesses in the community. "These (sections) speak to what I believe is wrong with our industry," Taylor said. "We have been doing progress sections forever, and we don't want to get rid of them because they bring in the money." At his paper, they decided not to write about the past, but to look at the future.

"So we killed progress and named it `Trends,' and it's what the future holds." His staff divides it into three sections – people, places and products.  Who are the people who are moving and shaking in Chattanooga? What are the new places that are going to open next year? What are the new churches in town? What's happening at the places that exist and what will be new and different next year. What are businesses doing to make their businesses relevant for the future?

Back to school – Taylor changed the name to "By the Numbers," and made the section all local content. He published all the regional report cards, the PET scores, how many children are on free lunch at every school, the racial breakdown of every school, etc. Taylor said this encourages private schools to advertise, and real estate agents like it, too, because they are not allowed to talk about schools but they can hand some one the section.

Living green – It's the new buzzword, Taylor said. Green sections are making lots of money across the country, he added. But what do you do for content?  “Every community, no matter how big or small," Taylor said, "should have LEV certified businesses. Make your feature stories about those LEV businesses."

Locally-owned businesses – One of his sister papers does special sections on locally-owned businesses. Full- and half-page ads are sold in the section, and those businesses receive an advertorial for their ad buy. With all the backlash against the big box stores, he said, people want to buy and save money locally.

Christmas in July – Taylor said news papers are still the best way to reach local people in their markets, so he encouraged newspapers to create an event. The Christmas in July product wrapped the front page of the paper and had little squares containing advertorials that sold one item each. Because it wraps the front page, he said, you can charge a premium for the space.

Mother's Day and Father's Day – A strip of ads stuck to the front-page like a sticky note helped bring in extra revenue, Taylor said. People pulled off the "Just for Her" ads and used them as buying ideas for Mother's Day.

Thanksgiving – The day after Thanksgiving is considered the busiest shopping day of the year. Taylor's paper produces "The Great Big Book of Savings" for shoppers. He priced the ads to allow smaller businesses to buy full-page ads. There was no content, just ad after ad of Christmas deals. It helped the smaller advertiser to compete with the big stores.

"People held onto it," he said, "and they loved it." The last one had 96 pages in a trimmed and stitched tab. A digital version of the book is on the newspaper's website.

Vendor sections – Taylor said newspapers should train their sales reps to spot new construction when they're driving around town. "Have them get out of the car and ask, `What's going in here?'" Volkswagen announced it was opening a new facility in Chattanooga, so the paper sold a vendor section about it.

Interactive football picks – It may be a little late for this football season, Taylor said, but what his paper did was sell individual businesses, such as car dealers, sub shops, pizza places, etc., squares on a page that features one person from their staff who does football picks all season. Each advertiser has to commit to the entire run, Taylor said. He charged $300 a week for the 14 weeks of the season. That brought in $3,900 a week for a total of $54,600 for the season. His staff told the advertisers that the business that picked the most winners would receive the entire ad package for free. He also suggested giving one of the squares away to a local radio personality. He or she will help promote the contest on the radio by talking about his or her picks versus what all the others picked.

Football blitz – Taylor said he started this program last year and was shocked by how well it worked. High school foot ball is huge in his area, he explained, so he took that content and moved it to the front in a sponsored wrap, every week of football season. He said it increased his Saturday single-copy sales 12 percent to 20 percent each week. The flap that wraps the front page contains the highlights from the Friday night games and an ad. Inside that flap are photos of the fans. The wrap connects to a full page of football news, with a sponsor ad on the back of that page.

The slide show Taylor used to present his revenue-building ideas is available on NNA's website. It has numerous ideas that could not be included in this article. Go to the events tab in the top navigation bar and click on the 2010 Annual Convention button. Look for the link for the convention session handouts and follow that to the link "Best Ideas that Work in Tough Times."

© Stanley Schwartz 2010

Stanley Schwartz is the managing editor of Publisher’s Auxiliary NNA. You can contact him at stan@nna.org.

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