Publishers: You Can't Grow Revenue Without Improving Sales Operations

Business is booming for online media companies, but agencies and advertisers can tell that we are straining to keep up with the growth. We can't maintain our growth trajectory unless we find ways to improve our client relationships through effective sales and finance support, and leverage good operational practices that allow us to save time in our end-to-end workflow.

After 10 years of laying the groundwork and surviving adversity (anyone else remember 2002?), online ad operations have moved to center stage. Media companies of all sizes have decided to stake their future on the online advertising business, and startups have turned to online advertising as a reliable revenue source.

This sounds great, right? The catch is that growth is not just a matter of adding headcount. There aren't enough skilled people out there to fill all of the open positions in our industry today, let alone after another year of growth. And even if we could fill the positions, there is no guarantee that they will be able to hold things together. Consider the volume of phone, email and verbal conversations that happen across countries, states and time zones today, and imagine that doubling or tripling in the next 18-24 months.

Advertisers feel your pain. Since we work closely with both buyers and sellers, we asked some of our agency and advertiser customers how they choose sites for their media plan. Surprisingly, one of their top five issues is operational -- they can tell that our sales and ad ops teams aren't talking to each other. The symptoms of this disconnect are everywhere: lack of clarity on inventory, creative specs that change late in the game, and failure to support optimization and basic oversight of campaigns. Advertisers want confidence that a media seller has its operational act together, so that it won't take too many resources to handle. Oh, and they want it all fast: a 2005 Web Ad.Vantage study found that media buyers' No. 1 source of frustration with online media reps was "not meeting my deadlines in a timely fashion."

Four lessons can be drawn from this insight:

Sales is the key to the kingdom. Every campaign you traffic starts in sales. They are your biggest lever on revenue growth. If your ad ops process doesn't start until the contract is signed, you are effectively building a store with only a stockroom and no display area. Ad placements, creative specs, and targeting options are valueless without a solid pre-sales process. Commercialize your capabilities effectively by creating standardized products (each backed by a clear value proposition) that the sales team can take to market consistently. A focused, well-supported sales team can spend less time on internal issues and more time improving client relationships.

Define your end-to-end workflow. You can only grow as fast as the slowest part of your business -- sales, ad ops, or finance. A scalable process needs to be an end-to-end solution with a seamless workflow that keeps all teams coordinated and up-to-date on critical information. To evaluate your current process, ask yourself some basic questions:

  • How does my sales team learn about available inventory?
  • Is my pre-sales workflow consistent from deal to deal?
  • How do we handle change orders, billing adjustments, and make-goods?

    Answer these questions well, and you can be confident that your new clients will have the same good experience as your current clients.

    Focus on automation. Can you think of any successful technology industry that requires repeated manual data entry? Imagine a major shipper without automatic delivery tracking. It just wouldn't work. Online advertising still struggles here, as agency RFPs have to be manually retyped into sales systems, and signed insertion orders have to be manually retyped again into ad management systems. It is no surprise that we lose so much time finding and fixing common errors. It is time to place a premium on systems that can automatically create ad server objects like orders and ads (including all targeting, constraints, and goals) from the line items in an insertion order. Start asking your vendors how they are planning to automate your RFP process. Reducing the burden of data entry saves you time, so you can focus on campaign optimizations and client relationships.

    Integration can be your competitive advantage. Every new system you add to your infrastructure increases complexity. If these systems come from separate vendors, the problem is compounded; how do they share data?

    Do they even use the same list of advertisers or content hierarchy? Your clients want a seamless experience. The better your systems are integrated, the more seamlessly they can work together, freeing your time from vendor management to focus on client management.

    We can do this. Advertisers are ready to buy. Our agency and advertisers clients have told us that they plan to continue shifting their ad dollars out of other channels into online. The next move is ours. If we can put end-to-end processes in place from pre-sales through to finance, and free ourselves from the burden of manual data entry, then we can improve our client relationships at the same time we are growing our bottom line. It doesn't get much better than that.

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