I’ve spent most of my entire career in the media industry (if it came down to it, I could still probably print a Saturday edition off an old Goss Community press). I love the smell of ink and I don’t think there’s a better profession in the world than telling the stories of our lives.

As a longtime publisher and sales director, the business of sustainability is always what kept me up at night. I didn’t worry about telling stories or hiring good people or delivering an exceptional product; I worried about doing all of those things for the next 100 years in a world changing faster than news media were adapting, particularly on the digital sales side.

I left the day-to-day publishing world in January 2022. For the past 18 months, I’ve been working with local media as well as companies that do a lot of business with local media. One thing is absolutely clear: We should still be hyper-focused on sustainability.

Despite everything we know as media leaders, we’re still failing to make the credible customer connections that our digital agency competitors are making. It’s not that we don’t offer the digital products and solutions that our competitors do; it’s that we don’t offer the investment in expertise and depth that they do. Legacy media companies have all of the tools and technology. What we lack is the ability to use them.

I recently invested in a fairly large digital advertising program for a small, independent grocery chain. I interviewed six companies before deciding where to place the investment — three local media companies (radio, print, broadcast) and three standalone digital agencies.

Things digital agencies asked me during our discovery call:

  • What is your brand promise? What are your brand attributes? Describe your brand voice. When a customer walks away from an experience with your brand, what do you want them to say about it?
  • What are your campaign goals? One year from now, what does success look and feel like? What has to be true one year from now that isn’t true today in order to know you are winning?
  • What market research have you already done that you can share with us? What market research do you wish you had with which we might be able to help?
  • What problem could solve for you that would make doing business with us worth every penny?

Things that local media asked me during our discovery call:

  • Do you have an idea of how much you might want to spend on marketing?
  • Are you interested in learning about our upcoming holiday specials and promotions or are you more interested in long-term advertising solutions?
  • I’m not familiar with your business, so can you bring me up to speed on what you do and your target market?

The experience left me begging my favorite industry colleagues to be more in tune with the difference between their local media operations and their agency competitors. Having the tools in the belt is only half the battle. Knowing how to use them is when the magic happens. Gone are the days of picking up the phone and taking the order. Customers want a marketing solution that is perfect for them, not a rate card with a list of options that are one-size-fits-all. Marketing in 2023 is one-size-fits-one. Customers need and want a marketing consultant who understands what levers to pull and dials to turn to achieve marketing goals and meet business needs.

We know this. But as an industry we aren’t solving our own problem. We invest in marketing agencies to help us with brand promises and catchy in-house agency titles and relationships with reputable third-party programmatic providers. What we struggle to invest in is depth on the bench, best-in-class technology and cream-of-the-crop users of that technology. We want scale and volume, but we aren’t willing to go all in for it.

Keys to competing

  • It’s not about you. Start by listening. Humans have an inherent need and desire to be heard and to be understood. Get to know a customer’s business better than anybody else. Use good data and market research to identify potential business opportunities and to uncover possible challenges that the target customer is facing. Small businesses are fighting for every dollar they make and the decision makers are almost always wearing multiple hats. In the consultative world, you need to give before you take; when a prospective customer believes you are invested in their success, you will begin to build the foundation of a trusting relationship.
  • Differentiate yourself by being a “partner.” Do the work. Ok, now it’s about you. Your sellers aren’t the only people calling on your customer; they’re one of thousands who can sell the same products and services all within a similar price range. Demonstrating an ability to really hear what a customer says and translate that to a proposal that helps the customer breathe a sigh of relief. Following a discovery call with a rate sheet and a bulleted list of upcoming holiday promotions might be the right answer, but it’s likely not. Don’t make the customer build their own proposal.

Local media have never been more necessary nor more important. In addition to consumer revenue and philanthropy, a key to sustaining local journalism for the next 100 years is holding tight to business we have a right to win — connecting our businesses with their customers.