Doubling down on digital at Morris — Part I

You’ve probably heard this before: If you want to have a shot at holding and gaining digital market share in your local market, you need a separate digital sales force.

But “separate” can have a wide range of meanings.

Gordon Borrell, of Borrell Associates, the acknowledged experts on local digital media spending in the U.S., has preached the “separate” gospel for years to traditional media companies. And he’s supported his arguments with sales data showing that the highest-performing companies, without exception, have taken that path. Others, including the Newspaper Next project I led from 2005 to 2009, have echoed his message.

More that 15 years ago, Morris Communications created a separate digital division, Morris Digital Works, to drive digital progress in the Morris media companies, including the newspapers of Morris Publishing Group.

It worked well enough that Borrell Associates has generally ranked us among the high-performing newspaper companies.

But it wasn’t entirely separate. MDW drove digital sales at the newspaper units from outside, but they didn’t actually do most of the selling. They created and fulfilled the products and did the sales training, and they did their best to stimulate sales through visits to the newspaper business units, including four-legged calls. But the actual selling, day in and day out, was done by the traditional newspaper sales teams at each Morris Publishing Group media unit, plus — at some units, and during some periods — a local digital sales lead.

Is that separate enough? Borrell and others — including me during Newspaper Next — have generally defined it as at least requiring separate sales people, and as having those people report to someone other than a sales director whose primary responsibility is print. In other words, the publisher instead of the ad director. Even better, they might be part of a separate sales structure with its own leadership.

At Morris, we recently announced that we’re moving to a much greater degree of separation. How we got there is quite a story, with a number of developments that might help other media companies see their own paths forward.

It began back in 2011, at a time when we were working to develop an aggressive plan to turn the company from contraction to growth. One of the keys, obviously, had to be driving tremendous growth in digital sales.

To see where we were, we asked Borrell Associates to aggregate our markets in a chart showing our five-year digital sales history, compared to the growth of total digital sales in those markets. And we asked them to extrapolate it forward five years with forecasts of both metrics. (For the future line of Morris sales, they simply applied the same trend they were forecasting for U.S. newspapers as a whole.)

The resulting chart, at right, was sobering. It forced us to acknowledge that we hadn’t been getting the job done in digital sales with our current approach, and that we weren’t likely to see anything better going forward.

The forecast showed that there would be plenty of digital spending in our markets, but we wouldn’t be getting our share of it. To get our company to sustainability as print revenues declined, we needed a much larger share of that spending.

We had to change.

For starters, we knew the impetus for digital needed to come from within MPG, not from outside. So we began absorbing elements of MDW into MPG, and MPG’s top management took on the responsibility of evangelizing digital. At the same time, Mark Lane, VP of Sales, went to work to set up a stronger sales platform across the company by implementing key performance indicators, standards of performance, a better CRM system and a comp structure that would create stronger incentives to sell digital.

But that wasn’t enough. By early 2012, the top management, led by Executive Vice President Derek May, was convinced that we also needed to add digital-only sales forces that wouldn’t be restrained by print. We were seeing some successes outside Morris markets with our digital-only sales startup, called Morris Digital Solutions. Through the MDS experience, we could see how different the sales opportunities looked when the digital sellers weren’t responsible for core newspaper products and services.

At the same time but for different reasons, we were also looking for digital partners who would enable us to consolidate our fragmented set of digital products and services into a more coherent suite of solutions with a cleaner workflow. We wanted to be able to concentrate more on selling and less on the back end of the process.

Those two separate lines — separate sales force and coherent solution set — converged serendipitously when we began talking with LocalEdge, a Hearst-owned telephone book company. The conversation started on the subject of white-labeling its comprehensive set of digital services. But the dialog changed when we learned that they were interested in closing down or handing over their all-digital sales offices in our Augusta, GA, and Jacksonville, FL, to a partner like us.

It took months, and there were many steps along the way, but the result was our launch of Main Street Digital and the announcement we made in September. As of Nov. 1, the Augusta and Jacksonville LocalEdge operations became the first two offices of Main Street Digital.

But Main Street’s strategy isn’t just a rebranding of LocalEdge. There’s a lot more to it, as I’ll explain in Part II.


Posted on November 20, 2012, in Advertising, Disruption and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great to see Morris continue to lead the newspaper industry on the digital front. Newspapers really need to look at it like this: Depending on what it is, a digital product can be very different from print. They act differently, they are designed for a different purpose (in most cases), and they have to be sold differently. No one will will win, not the advertiser, not the company, not the consumer, if newspaper companies continue to try to bundle together packages and move money around. Looking forward to part 2.
    Warren Webster
    President and Co-Founder


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