Newspapers can take advantage of today's economic downturn and refocus attention on advertising sales that make a difference, said Mike Blinder, principal of The Blinder Group and author of Survival Selling: Even in the Toughest Times.

Blinder said that, counter-intuitively, a recession has benefits for those who can effectively sell. It makes salespeople better at their craft, it thins the herd of others who are not as good but who took some market share nonetheless, and forces advertising salespeople to provide solutions for their prospective clients' business woes.

"When you want to grow your business, you're going to purchase some media," he said, asserting that media was vital to small- and medium-sized companies staying afloat. They need their brand to remain in the public eye. "The bean counters think we sell inches - (but) we rent eyeballs. The reach of those eyeballs needs to be figured out."

He pointed out that the average North American consumer sees 5,000 ads per day, so frequency is something that is important to offer advertisers. Advertisers' messages should be a call for the reader to take action.

Blinder made the point that in advertising, it's all about numbers, and sales managers should know their stats cold. Everything about their company and the thing they are selling should be broken down into metrics that can be analysed.

The main opportunities for advertising sales were with these small- and medium-sized businesses that have been traditionally underserved by local advertising, and which think they need web ads and a web presence to save them. The best categories for advertising sales growth are currently auto aftermarket, health care, home improvement, and legal, Blinder said. "We're in a war posture," he said. "Newspapers have 50 percent market penetration, but the war that we're having is getting to these small businesses."

Blinder gave examples of how salespeople should establish rapport with their clients and practice pitches that will get them in the door to people who have the ability to pull the trigger on deals. These strategies include coming up with an "elevator statement," which quickly gets across all the benefits of buying an ad in the publication; a "shiny toy statement," which uses a new product or service as an excuse to get in the door and talk to a buyer; and a "permission to pursue," which allows for effective follow-up even if the answer seems to be "no" for the time being.

Part of effective sales is getting staff on board and motivated. The salesman must be sold on the product first, they must know why they're visiting a prospective customer, they must feel worthy of the customer's time, and they must be the "consummate killer professional." Blinder gave examples of how a salesperson can be taught to interact with a potential client, and what avenues of conversation might be most fruitful.

Blinder also stressed the importance of mentoring and coaching sales staffs, and said there should be weekly meetings to set goals and review performance so there is a constant emphasis on optimising the process of how the sale is made.

Key takeaways from the Blinder presentation were:

  • Instruct on the "eyeballs."
  • Sell more frequency with better messages.
  • Target new, smaller-level businesses.
  • Train representatives to be solution-based.
  • Know your numbers.
  • Coach and mentor the process.