Conference Notebook: Sales More Important Than Ever for Local

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Sales force optimization doesn’t tend to draw big crowds. But it’s arguably the most pressing issue facing legacy local media’s slow but accelerating shift into the digital space — and the issue is potentially paramount to the future profitability of the hyperlocal space.

Speakers at last week’s Local Online Advertising Conference in New York demonstrated how tedious — yet potentially game-changing — it is to develop a next-generation sales strategy for legacy local companies. With distribution democratized in a digital environment, sales networks remain a stronghold for legacy media as fragmentation continues to erode market share.

A big question addressed by a handful of speakers last week was to what extent digital sales could be tacked onto an existing (e.g. print/radio/television) sales force.

By the numbers, digital-only makes more money. According to data presented by Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates, account executives dedicated to digital sales generated nearly two and half times the gross online revenue than those who sold both.

DexOne, the legacy Yellow Pages publisher that has since pivoted to becoming an SMB marketing solution, replaced over 40% of its sales force with digital-only reps, the company’s CMO told Screenwerk’s Greg Sterling on stage Thursday.

The bottom line for local media companies is that you can’t simply tack on digital and expect revenue to take off. The digital product that local media companies are selling is far more complicated than a digital banner or print ad. And local media’s product is only becoming more complex. In a digital environment, where audience is ostensibly an inexpensive commodity, building a business on selling “audience” is as profitable as building a business on selling computer hardware (see HP). The opportunity, as many local media companies are recognizing, is in creating solutions that can interact and leverage local audiences — regardless of medium — in dynamic and engaging ways.

The quick adoption of daily deals by local media companies is a first step.

In a presentation last week, Christine Merritt, who heads up North American channel sales at Google, pitched local media companies on potential sales partnerships with the search giant. The value in partnering with Google goes far beyond the revenue generated for the company. As it becomes clearer that the model for local media moving forward will be more akin to a marketing agency than traditional media model, a partnership with Google would add critical local marketing products like paid search to a local media brands toolset, validating a claim as a full-service marketing solution.

Instead of selling a fixed product, salespeople are now pitching a multi-dimensional, customizable service. Though sales will always be about relationships, selling local media is about to get a lot more complicated.

Steven Jacobs is an associate editor at Street Fight.