Finding the right pieces to build a new future

Local media companies face an existential question: How can we build a sustainable and growing enterprise on the platform of a traditional media company? In a decade of intense effort, our industry has found no magic formula. In this guest post, Steve Gray, VP of Strategy & Innovation at Morris Communications in the USA, describes his company’s industry-leading work in sales organization, market share tracking, digital sales, recruitment sales, event ticketing and events themselves.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | February 9, 2017

At Morris Publishing Group, we believe it will take a diverse set of products and solutions, each contributing revenue to offset the steady declines in core products. We’re not alone – many other media companies are on this path, too.

We don’t have it all figured out. But the strong foothold we still enjoy in our communities enables us take a broader range of products and services to our local consumers and businesses.

For them, this is a time of new choices and solutions. It’s our job to discover which of these we can do best for them by providing sound local knowledge and exceptional customer care.

Over time, we expect our business units to become multi-media, multi-channel, multi-audience, multi-service enterprises. We may still be media companies, but we will be much more than news and advertising.

Here’s a look at a number of our current and emerging strategies.

Focus on market share

For us, the key sales metric is the number of active accounts. This has become the critical frame around all of our advertising and marketing solutions and tactics. And it’s a game-changer.

We woke up to this several years ago, when Derek May, now president of Morris Publishing Group, was publisher in one of our markets. Digging into the accounting system, he discovered that active accounts – in all our markets – had been in steady decline as far back as he could see.

In all likelihood, yours have, too.

Since then, we have built a set of metrics to keep this critical metric front-and-center across our sales teams. We set monthly and quarterly goals and track progress daily.

The results are exciting. We’ve proven that – when we keep the focus sharp and the feedback constant – we can reverse the steady decline. It requires adding new accounts – a weakness in our industry. We’ve proven, too, that revenues tend to move up along with customer count.

And when you start tracking market share, you discover abundance instead of scarcity. That is, in our markets – yours, too, almost certainly – more than 95 percent of local businesses are NOT our customers. There’s a lot of opportunity out there.

Digital, digital, digital

The future of advertising and marketing is digital. Oh, I’m sorry – maybe you already knew that.

We did, too. But over the last three years, we have been waking up to what it really means.

Three years ago, we began rebuilding our set of digital products and services. We outsourced some solutions, insourced others, replaced long-time vendors and platforms and upped our digital sales training drastically.

We also started a digital-only marketing agency. We plunged into sales of programmatic advertising on other people’s sites. We bulked up on digital marketing services (websites, search engine marketing, programmatic display and social media are our top sellers). Our product set is now competitive with anybody’s.

Then, last year, we woke up to another obvious fact: We didn’t have enough digital sales specialists.

We set out to go from 10 percent of our sales force to 40 percent by the end of 2017. In 2016, we got about halfway there.

We also began tracking our digital sales pipeline, with a goal of quadrupling the estimated sales in the pipeline in 2016. What’s getting measured is getting done.

As a direct result of all this, our digital revenues are booming in most categories. It’s not enough by itself to offset print declines, but it’s a big help.


Watching our revenues plunge as the employment sector moved to online recruiting, we decided to reinvent ourselves. In 2012, we did a study of the recruitment industry, leading to a basic rethink of our approach.

We hired an expert from the recruiting industry and consolidated our recruitment reps under her – some centralized, some remaining in-market. We shifted from inbound order-takers at each unit to a centrally managed “recruitment marketing agency” approach with an emphasis on outbound sales.

And we rebuilt our product set, shifting to much better and more complete digital solutions based on powered-up job postings distributed digitally in all the right places.

Print recruitment revenues are still plunging, but our digital sales results give us hope that we can carve out a meaningful niche.


Looking for non-advertising revenues, we signed on with a white-label event ticketing platform – – and created our own brand. We’re selling the platform to local events organizations, using it for our own events and offering it to events that ask us to be sponsors.

Many local organizations don’t yet sell tickets online, and they love our solution. Many that are using other providers are laying plans to switch to our platform. They like our user-friendly, turn-key solution, fair rates and the opportunity to get full access to the data generated by their ticket sales. It’s a surprisingly easy sale.

Revenue comes from a share of the ticketing fee.

At our first event, a summer arts festival, we boosted sales by an estimated 10,000 tickets.

Now we’re rolling out the solution in our other markets.


Like many local media companies, we stage a number of public and business-to-business events, and we sponsor many others. And, like many media companies, we believe this business can grow.

To see how, we attended the annual conference of the International Festival and Events Association in September. We came back convinced that there are three main opportunities for us:

  1. Getting much better at pricing and packaging sponsorships. There’s a sound methodology for this, and we’re leaving money on the table.
  2. Providing digital marketing services for other people’s events. And the events industry needs help to realize the huge opportunity in online ticket sales.
  3. New events that can be templated and reproduced in several of our markets.

The next step for us will be expert training for our events people by an outside sponsorship sales specialist.

Big Data

Big Data is coming to Main Street, and we’re determined to be the providers.

We’ve signed on with LEAP Media to use big-data marketing techniques to sell print subscriptions. They do this by acquiring extensive data on every household in the market, running our own subscriber lists against the whole, and identifying non-subscribers that share key characteristics with our existing customers.

Now we’re marketing the same service to local businesses. We’ll upload their customer data into the LEAP platform, identify the chief characteristics of their customers, and then generate a list of non-customer “look-alikes.” Then we propose the marketing programs to reach them effectively.

We’re doing the same thing with Facebook Lookalikes and generating excellent responses at very reasonable cost.

Predictive analytics

This slice of the Big Data pie is about predicting who is most likely to take a certain action, based on machine learning from the behaviors and characteristics of those who have already taken that action.

We’re researching possible applications in two verticals – real estate and auto sales. Who is most likely to list a home for sale or buy a car in the next 12 months? With predictive analytics, hyper-targeted marketing becomes possible, reducing costs and boosting results.

Our current plan is to develop reseller partnerships with predictive analytics companies in key verticals, and learn the sales skills required to take this solution to market. And we are watching to see if we need to develop our own in-house predictive analytics team.

Real estate

As we did with recruitment, we’re setting out to build a new set of solutions for real estate agents and brokers in a non-print world.

A key step was attending the recent National Association of Realtors (NAR) conference in November, along with more than 20,000 agents and brokers. We combed the expo booths, seeing what technologies and media solutions are being sold to this industry and what’s likely to come next.

We’re still developing a plan, but the right model appears to be a digital agency approach, providing tools and technologies to meet a variety of needs for agents and brokers.

The products and solutions are many, and most are familiar to us from our digital sales work. But the solutions we saw at NAR are tailored specifically to real estate in important ways. Our next step is to build out a suite of solutions and services we can take to our markets.


Even if all those initiatives work, we still believe that acquisitions will be needed to take us into new revenue streams. We’re constantly on the lookout for investments or acquisitions that can build internal capabilities, diversify our revenue streams or take us into adjacent businesses that will work in our markets.

Adding it all up, will we be able to offset the core declines and return to a pattern of growth? It’s too early to say. But we’re determined to keep searching for opportunities and adding capacities as rapidly as we can.

Steve Gray is Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at Morris Communications, Augusta, Georgia, USA, working with its newspaper and magazine groups on innovation and business strategies. Gray is a former managing publisher of The Christian Science Monitor in Boston and headed Newspaper Next, a three-year innovation project of the American Press Institute that worked to identify new opportunities, technologies and detailed business initiatives for the newspaper industry. He blogs on media innovation at This post was originally written for Tracking Transformation, an ongoing series of reports.

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