How Independent News Organizations Can Build Sales

This is a report from 2013, when Eleanor Cippel, corporate managing director of sales, business development and operations for EW Scripps, addressed INN’s Community Journalism Executive Training (CJET).

“It’s incredibly important to know your identity as a business,” says Cippel. “You should have a very clear message both internally and externally – and that should help you develop an elevator pitch that expresses what your unique value proposition is.” This applies to for-profits and nonprofits, says Cippel. “Unless someone is walking by with a tray floating you money, you have to ask people for money, and to do that you have to understand what your value is.”

Cippel encourages news entrepreneurs to go through a thought exercise: “Describe your website as though it was a person.” Once you do that, it “gives you a sense of the emotional pull and audience connection for that site.”  Combine that with a short statement of business intent, Cippel says.  You should be able to express who you are and why you exist in a clear, consistent, and compelling way.

Next, you need to know your primary user. “It helps you build a sales story and define who your audience is.” CJET participants were asked to write a paragraph describing a typical user of the site.  Are they male or female?  How do they arrive at your site?  What do they want when they get there?  What are the kinds of things they might say or do on any given day? This is important because it “helps us tie those personas back to people who want to reach them, and connect the dots as to why they can…through you.”

“I have heard some frightening user pitches that make me not want to give an organization money, and doesn’t lead me to someone I want to get to,” says Cippel.  More often, sales presentations fail by being aimless, “not connecting the dots between me and something I want.”

Next, Cippel recommends organizations define their sales targets.  “You need to have a strategy around who you’re targeting and why, rather than ‘spraying and praying.'” which she defines as, “I’m just gonna talk to a lot of people and make a lot of calls and just hope something happens.”  Earlier in her career, Cippel was a salesperson in just that situation, and it was “impossible to manage.”

Get out of that situation by doing two things, says Cippel: create a business list, and segment those two ways. The business list is a research process: you’re building a list of potential customers.  Good sources of information include Chamber of Commerce guides, business directories, and local business journals, many of which publish annual directories of businesses.

Second, go through a process and categorize them by the type of business or organization they are.  “We had certain categories to us [in the newspaper business] that were religious to us, like cars and homes, so we wanted a complete list of those organizations to call on.” Count the number of businesses in each segment — which segment is the most “target rich”?  How many in each category have you been able to convert into advertisers or underwriters?  At that point, you can also plan areas of focus that are related to your organization, whether it’s retail, education, or another sector that you will approach as part of your sales effort.

Cippel says she starts at the top. “My sales path always starts at the CEO. Do I think when I call that I’m going to get him on the phone? No – but I will get an assistant who wants to get rid of me,” and that assistant will refer a salesperson to someone who can talk to them.

Cippel also segments customers by size, which she nicknames as “Big Fish,” small and medium businesses, and “Mighty Minis.” Big businesses have a long sales cycle, Cippel says, so it’s important to have a mix of organizations of different sizes to call on, since small and medium business will close faster if they become customers.

Don’t assume big players who already spend a lot will spend with you, says Cippel. ” Just because they spend a lot of money doesn’t mean they’ll spend on you — they still have to be connected to a cause, a problem they’re solving, or an affinity they have an interest in.”

Cippel says she usually expected “10,3,2” from a salesperson each per day – “ten new calls, three presentations to a potential customer, and two followups.” Having a regular and disciplined approach to making sales calls reduces ups and downs in revenue, Cippel says.

Take a strategic approach to individual sales calls, too. “Don’t tell them the price when you walk in the door,” says Cippel. “When you walk in the door, whether your product costs forty bucks or four thousand, it has no value.  You haven’t established value yet – so why mention a price?” Also, track your progress – understand how many advertisers you are getting in each segment, what percentage of the segment that represents, and how effective you’re being at converting organizations into customers.

Finally, Cippel says, “Remember, this is not a date – ask for the order.  If you have a salesperson come back and say, ‘Oh, I had such a great meeting and she’s going to call me next week.’ No, she’s not!  Ask for the order.”