Where Are All the Good Online Ad Sales People?

No one goes to business school to become a great online ad salesperson. None of my NYU graduate students aspires to be one. Despite this, “Do you know any good online salespeople?” is one of the hottest questions in interactive circles. The significant transition of ad budgets online has caused publishers to expand their sales teams. Adding to the challenge, there aren’t many online ad salespeople with over five years of experience (not surprising, given the medium’s age).

Being a Good Online Salesperson

Advertisers and sales managers differ on what it takes to be a good online ad salesperson in today’s marketplace. Advertisers believe ad salespeople must appreciate their goals and needs. Marketers want salespeople to:

  • Understand their brand. This includes knowing where the product’s sold and the current online activity. Julie Barile of Lancome.com notes, “Sales representatives rarely do this research effectively.”

  • Know the performance metrics to be optimized. Understand advertisers’ need to deliver return on their ad investment and media’s contribution to it.
  • Listen to their needs and address them. Don’t make the advertiser fit the salesperson’s offering and available inventory.
  • Partner with marketers to meet their objectives. Continue to service the account after the sale.

Sales managers say good online ad salespeople must be able to listen to clients and package solutions to address their clients’ needs. Jen Cole of Brides.com looks for salespeople who can take complete ownership of the business, call on all levels at the client and agency, participate in their clients’ ad campaign management, and proactively work with the client. Google’s Jon Kaplan, meanwhile, looks for people with well-rounded media experience, including print, TV, radio, and online. “We believe the future of media sales will require people familiar with multiple forms of media.”

To break into online advertising sales, Mark Westlake of About.com suggests, “Knowing the online landscape is important. Forecasting and revenue recognition can be hard for traditional media salespeople to learn.”

Similarly, WashingtonPost.com’s Cecilia Lang points out, “Today’s online advertising landscape requires a hunter mentality to acquire new advertisers rather than servicing existing accounts.”

Tickle Inc.’s Steve Sarner looks for a desire to sell something where your compensation is based purely on performance to prove yourself.

Determining Who’s a Good Salesperson

When searching for good online ad salespeople, analysis starts with candidate evaluation. Techniques senior salespeople use to assess potential candidates include:

  • Have candidates give a presentation to sales managers to assess their style.

  • Assess past performance versus goals and the Internet average over the past few years.
  • Encourage sales candidates to spend time with peers to evaluate the work environment and to further qualify the opportunity, as ValueClick does.

As a marketer, I’m surprised senior media marketers, who are regularly pitched by sales people, are rarely asked to evaluate candidates.

Marketing Support

Online media companies’ marketers and business development people play a critical role in the ad sales process. Since many media outlets and advertising agencies remain lean-staffed, marketers must understand advertising clients and their objectives to help create and support ad opportunities. Some things marketers can do include:

  • Drive qualified traffic to site areas that can be easily monetized.

  • Generate qualified ad leads through special programs, such as PR, trade advertising, and trade event marketing. By creating site awareness, making it relevant for the advertiser’s product, and showing how content contributes to the advertiser’s product value proposition, marketers support advertising sales.
  • Create customized programs that can garner relatively large amounts of revenue. Consistently, senior salespeople at premium branded media sites like Economist.com, About.com, and Condé Nast, echo the sentiment that media marketers must push the envelope in terms of creativity.

Measuring Sales Success

In a dynamic market, assessing performance can be challenging. For both advertisers and salespeople, managing goals and expectations up front is key. Though revenue is the key indicator of sales success, ad salespeople and marketers use other metrics to evaluate performance. Some indicators to watch:

  • Top and bottom line metrics include revenues, margin, and profitability. Translating these measures to an effective CPM (define) is also useful. In a competitive market where sales managers need to pay to get and keep good people, managers must measure their team’s ability to generate greater sales to support these additional costs.

  • Sales measures include close ratio on RFPs (define), number of sales calls per week, sales pipeline (the number of proposals sent and waiting to close), and repeat sales.
  • Client relationship metrics encompass the quality of relationships established with clients and agencies (Do we know every marketing decision-maker at a company?), penetration into all company divisions (Is every client product/service advertised on the site?), increased product adoption by existing customers (Are advertisers taking advantage of the breadth of our media’s offerings?), and an articulated plan for growing the business.
  • Competitive yardsticks include changes in advertising revenue and measuring market share versus the competition.

The shift in marketing budget allocation has created a large, unfilled demand for good online ad salespeople. This problem is compounded by the fact online advertising sales career opportunities have been very limited until recently. Online media companies must figure out how to recruit, train, and properly measure a new generation of salespeople. And they want salespeople who are creative enough to build client relationships, not just meet a sales quota.

My next column will cover advertising inventory. I welcome your input.

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