When more is less

Writing about Patch last week got me thinking again about one of the perennial challenges that online sales managers face: Finding the right balance between simplicity and complexity in designing your sales plan.

When I was publisher of the Monitor, we worked with an outside sales consultant on a couple of occasions. Before bringing him in the first time, we had spent more than a year trying to build up the online sales expertise of our print salesreps. We held regular sessions on everything from what CPM means to innovative uses of rich-media advertising. We recast and streamlined our online rate structure, and we built in lots of flexibility to meet what we thought would be the key needs of our advertisers.

And we got basically nowhere.

Enter Mike Blinder. He came in, spent a couple of hours talking with us about what we were doing, pulled a simple sales package out his kit, sent a sales consultant to work the market with our salesreps, and in one week we sold more online advertising than we had the previous year.

There are many components to putting together a successful sales drive. But, for us, one of the most important lessons learned from working with Blinder was that simplicity sells. Limit choices, strip out the complexity, reduce the pitch to the core value proposition.

Any toddler parent knows this. Offer a three-year-old whatever he or she wants from the the cereal aisle, and you’ll be there forever. Or at least until you lose patience and leave with a screaming child. Give the kid a choice between Cheerios and Wheaties, though, and you’re done in a flash.

Psychologists and behavioral economists working on decision theory have explored the paradox that having more choices can lead to a worse decisions – or the failure to make any decision. (See the academic work of Sheena Iyengar or the popular work of Barry Schwartz.) And smart advertising sales managers always have tried to make complex print offerings understandable.

But for some reason when it comes to online advertising we have to learn this lesson over and over again. Maybe it’s the pace of change, maybe it’s the inherent complexity of the underlying technologies. Whatever the reason, we seem inexorably pulled into the whirlpool of choices and complexities whenever we try to go to market with online advertising opportunities.

At the Monitor, all of our efforts to be responsive and flexible just led to confused salesreps and unresponsive customers. (At least they didn’t tantrum.) But when we presented advertisers with a tightly designed package for only one ad size and a set number of impressions, they bit. We had moved the discussion away from CPMs and sizes and all the other details of online campaign design to a simple choice: Is this advertising opportunity going to work for you?

In Patch’s regionalized structure, with one or two dozen salesreps serving clusters of a dozen or so sites, I see an chance for them to finesse at least some of the problems of complexity.

First, they can do away with all of the complications that come from trying to combine print and online. That’s a huge benefit.

Also, their salesreps will be able to specialize. That makes it easier for the reps to hone their pitch, and it keeps sales calls focused on one or two opportunities. And, of course, with AOL corporate support they can tap a tier of national advertisers that would be beyond the reach of most small, standalone sites.

For the rest of us, who don’t necessarily have a national sales team or even regional clusters that would support specialized sales teams, it still may be possible to develop a layered sales strategy that provides some of the benefits of specialization.

Some approaches:

  • Pick a set of core ad services, like online display ads and maybe a business blog or PR wire service, whittle each down to the simplest possible proposition, and drive those as the foundation.
  • Introduce scarcity and focus with “limited time” offers and sales efforts. These can be simple refinements of the core ad services.
  • Use self-service portals, outside specialists and blitzes strategically to sell other ad services. For example, you might turn to an outside team to hit the market for a business directory and then handle residual interest through a self-service window. Or you might gear your team up for a one- or twice-a-year blitz.

And now, I think, I can leave aside my minor obsession with Patch…