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‘Let’s see what they need now’; talking to audience gave these two leaders direction

“We’re looking to see how our creativity and ideas, and how we reach audiences can be a driver of revenue,” said Denise Burrell-Stinson, head of WP Creative Team in the Creative Group at The Washington Post. “When that’s done well, it’s a good marriage of business and creativity. We used to think that they have to live very separately… I’ve found that as absolutely not true. Everyone can embrace [those two attributes].”

I love seeing “ideas,” “creativity” and “revenue” in the same sentence. Burrell-Stinson (pictured), who will be a keynote speaker at our AM&P Network Associations Council Reset, Reinvent, Revenue 2021 virtual event June 16-17, laughed a bit when reciting her title—that’s a lot of “creativity.” But she made a lot of sense when crediting much of their success to listening to readers.

“One of the things we learned at the Post in 2020 is that there’s still an appetite for marketing content,” she said. “But it had to be done a specific way. One of the ways that we were able to get through that time and 2020 was by being in constant conversation with our audience. ‘What’s the best way to reach you? What’s the type of messaging that you want to know about? What do you believe has value?’

“They were like, ‘You know what, we still want to know about brands, but only if they’re helping people. We want to know that the brands that you’re working with have a POV on social justice.’ They want gender equity and racial parity all the way across the organization.”

That was huge for the Post to hear. Similarly, I remember interviewing Kevin Turpin, president of the National Journal, on his organization’s turnaround a couple years ago. He didn’t go quite as far as Burrell-Stinson—a lot has changed in society in two years—but he did want his staff to listen more.

“One thing we launched was a presentation center,” Turpin said, explaining that by talking to their customers they discovered that’s what they needed help with. “They were being asked to explain Washington in more detail. They knew the content but needed a workable format. We’re actually very good at that. Take what happened in midterm elections and create a 40-page sllde deck out of it. We’re still doing that for board meetings of Fortune 500 companies.

“When businesses are trying to recreate themselves and change, they spend too much time inside, in strategy meetings, batting around ideas that they think will work,” Turpin added. “We don’t spend enough time going around. How are [our customers’] jobs changing? What are they thinking about? What are they investing in this year? This will give you solutions.”

While “going around” means something totally different in 2021 than 2019, those customer conversations have become even more paramount. It’s also important for everyone who interacts with customers to share what they’re hearing, from customer service to podcast hosts to receptionists, if there still is one.

“No one should ever feel that their sphere of influence is too small to make change,” Burrell-Stinson said. “If you’re working for a platform, a content creator, a digital magazine, the everyday results of your job are a contribution that ladders up to what the overall goals are.” As a fact checker early on in her career, she knew she was making a big contribution to the publication.

“During the early stages of the pandemic, “I was one of those people showing up and asking, ‘What is my job right now?’ I can’t sit here selling,” she said. “I really wanted to know that I felt right about what my job was.” Fortunately, the Post felt the same. “Let’s talk to our audience and see what they need right now.”

“We did this deep, intentional engaging of the audience. ‘Tell us what it is you need to know. Tell us what’s helpful. Tell us what’s respectful. Tell us what empowers you.’ And they did. And when we listened to the audience, we had our North Star. They told us what was going to work. When we had that information, we were actually able to take it to brands and say we’ve heard from this audience, they’re vocal, they’re smart and let’s do more than just market to them. Let’s really engage them on their terms.”

At our BIMS event in December, Turpin also emphasized those points. “We had a really deep dedication to getting to know our audience as best we could,” he said. “Knowing what their top challenges are, how those challenges are changing? ‘What are the new things that are getting into your budget that wasn’t there five years ago? How are you managing the office differently?’

“We spent a year with our customers, asking them a set of questions over and over. The most important one was, ‘What keeps you effective?’”

‘How Has Your Job Changed?’ May Be the Right Lead-in for 2021 Sales Conversations

“A lot of times, media salespeople feel like they don’t want to talk about their clients,” top sales consultant Ryan Dohrn wrote late last year in Editor & Publisher. “But you have to. In the land of COVID, stranger danger is real. People are more likely to buy from you if you’ve helped other people be successful.” And you ask the right questions.

Of course, Dohrn does not want salespeople to violate any trusts. But he does want them to “scream from the mountaintops” how much they love their clients. “Don’t be afraid. Tell them how much you love your customers and how much they love you, and that they’re going to love working with you, as well.”

If ever there was a time to show some love, it’s now. I remember interviewing Kevin Turpin, president of the National Journal, a couple years ago. He didn’t go quite as far as Dohrn, but he did want his staff to get closer to their customers.

“When businesses are trying to recreate themselves and change, they spend too much time inside, in strategy meetings, batting around ideas that they think will work. We don’t spend enough time going around. How are [our customers’] jobs changing? What are they thinking about? What are they investing in this year? This will give you solutions.”

While “going around” means something totally different in February 2021—phone, Zoom, social media, Slack—the idea of asking important questions of your customers has become even more paramount. I recall another sales consultant who liked to visit her customers’ ofices and observe their desks—that would tell what projects they were working on. While that can’t happen now, of course, a Zoom call can allow you to ask.

“’What keeps you up at night?’ just isn’t good enough anymore,” Dohrn went on. “Your questions simply have to be better. One of your main questions that makes me nuts and that I hear in my ad sales training is this: ‘Tell me more about your business.’ C’mon, you’re better than that… And then, ‘What’s your budget?’ You can do better than that. Those are three questions we do need to ask, but maybe ask them in a more vibrant kind of way.”

It’s interesting that Dohrn brings up training. While 70% of sales leaders report they have outlined a clear sales process for sales reps to follow, they are not confident that sales reps consistently (or ever) follow the process with prospects. And almost 90% of salespeople report they have no formal sales coaching program. So it’s all a bit muddled right now.

Here are some ways I’ve come across lately to surmount these issues:

Get everyone together in the same (virtual) room. Try to bridge these disconnects. Where are the sales calls falling short? Where might more training help most?

Have more conversations with your customers. Pick up the phone. “How are you?” should still be the lead question. “Any summer vacation plans?” It’s a great time to be human and lead with empathy and understanding. And then transition. “What do you need the most help with?” “What are your pain points?”

Share those conversations with colleagues. Anecdotal information from the conversations/emails your staff is having with your customers should be shared—by everyone.

Learn from your audience. Sales teams everywhere are dealing with cancelled or pivoted events. What are your subscribers saying? Will they buy into virtual events? Are they looking forward to hybrid events? Can sponsored webinars fill the gap?

Get back to your core products. Innovation is good but we also want to get back to what we do well. What go-to product do you have now that you can tune or adjust to solve your audience’s current challenges?

Look at something new. Your events have gone away. But maybe that opens the door to more sponsored webinars, which may have a greater profit margin anyway. Get in information-gathering mode and find out what your audience needs.

Tailor information that is out there to your industry. What can we do now to positively impact the people we serve? It’s all about vaccinations these days. How can you take that information and tailor to your industry?

Explore your archives. It’s a great time to dig into your files. What do you have that can be recycled and refreshed—maybe a white paper that focused on crisis communications or selling in a downturn.