Welcome back to our 2020 Digital Benchmark Report blog series, where we are exploring how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted third-party digital advertising sales for broadcasters. Analyzing the data from more than 5,000 campaigns that ran on our platform and performing a year-over-year analysis of 2020 versus 2019, we can identify relevant trends and, more importantly, what they mean for media organizations moving forward.
We kicked off the series by looking at digital advertising revenue in key verticals, or ad categories. Today, we’ll look at sales reps: How did the number of active sales reps change in 2020, how did the pandemic affect proposals per rep, and what can we learn from these trends?
Data point #1: Active sales reps drop in the spring, rebound by fall
No surprises here: When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the number of people actively selling digital advertising nosedived. Media companies were forced to let people go when advertisers stopped purchasing ads in response to COVID-19.
Reassuringly, however, the belt tightening reversed quickly. After bottoming out in April, the number of active sales reps rose steadily (with a brief blip in August) until October. After that, it went down again, but that movement mirrors activity in 2019, suggesting a general trend instead of a COVID-related trend. By December 2020, the number of active sales reps was almost equal to the same time in 2019.
Data point #2: Number of proposals decreases, then recovers quickly
The number of proposals showed a similar trajectory to active sales reps, both in total proposals and per salesperson. This reflects diminished advertiser interest during the early months of the pandemic as well as the fact that there were fewer reps available to create proposals.
Again, though, the numbers began to increase relatively quickly in early summer of 2020. Advertisers started to come back online, realizing they still needed to reach their target audience; in fact, they realized it was more important than ever to communicate how their business could continue to offer value as circumstances evolved. Once advertisers turned to digital channels to tell their story, sales reps responded. The number of proposals jumped in June and remained fairly steady through October. June’s numbers, in fact, were just barely below 2019 levels.
Takeaway #1: Prioritize training for new and returning sales reps
What can we take away from these insights?
The decrease of active sales reps and proposals in the spring of 2020 certainly isn’t surprising, but it does have implications. The second half of 2020 saw a clear influx of reps into the market. Based on general turnover trends, we can assume some experienced reps returned to previous positions, some took on roles at new organizations, and some started fresh in digital advertising sales as the job market remained uncertain.
In all three of these cases, training is critical. To carry momentum into 2021 and beyond, salespeople need to fully understand the products they are selling, maintain a strong grasp on industry advances and trends, and, perhaps most importantly, be able to apply both of those pieces to each advertiser’s objectives and budgets.
Local media sales representatives no longer simply sell spots. They now sell integrated campaigns and marketing solutions that combine digital with TV or radio to great effect. To be successful, reps must become holistic marketing experts, crafting campaigns for their advertisers that leverage the media types and tactics that will drive ROI for that business and that campaign.
How can sales teams meet that tall order? Training, training and more training. Training must be continuous, comprehensive and prioritized from the top down — especially in an environment rich with people who may be new to digital advertising in general, rusty from several months off or unfamiliar with a specific set of product offerings. (For more on training, including two key components to a successful training strategy, read Want to Boost Digital Sales? Why Training Is Key to Success.)
With consistent, quality training, we expect to see positive movement in 2021’s proposal data points. More training leads to more confident sales teams, which lead to more proposals, which result in more closed deals — always a good thing.
Takeaway #2: Proactively address seasonal variation
The second takeaway from our active sales rep and proposal data relates less to the differences between 2020 and 2019 and more to their similarities.
Both years, both data points started to fall in October. Pandemic or not, fewer sales reps were creating fewer proposals in November and December. The proposal numbers in 2019, a “normal” year, rose in the spring before decreasing in the summer and really falling off in the last months of the year. What’s going on here?
To some extent, seasonal variation is normal. Many advertisers purchase annual buys early in the year with shiny new budgets, which accounts for the spring boost. More people — reps and advertisers — are traveling or vacationing in the summer, which limits sales. And, of course, the holidays slow down business in November and December.
However, sales volumes shouldn’t be married to these trends. As a media organization, if you know that sales always dip in June and November, take steps to counteract those slumps. For example, start talking to advertisers about next year’s buy in October instead of January. Get in on budget conversations as they’re happening in the fall, so digital can drive the budget versus fitting into a budget that is already finalized. Take advantage of the quieter summer to meet with advertisers when other sales teams aren’t, using the time to tweak, optimize and upsell.
A steady roll of continuous sales will allow the organization to operate more effectively and will encourage sales reps to stay in consistent contact with their advertisers, further building those relationships. Some seasonal variation is inevitable, but it is possible to smooth out the graph.