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The Advertising Sales Process . . . in a Nutshell

By Cheryl Woodard, Updated March 2008 [PRINT VERSION]

It's a different job selling ads to General Motors or Nike than to your local coffee bar or movie theatre. And it's easier to sell ads for a well-known publication than for a startup, nonprofit, or small independent magazine. Still, we can generalize about the selling process, and if you follow the process I'm describing here, it will serve you equally well in every ad sales situation.

Step One: Develop a Prospects Database

You can rent mailing lists, comb through competitive publications, or use the yellow pages to find companies who are trying to sell something to your audience. Do your homework and find out who makes the buying decisions for each advertiser. Big companies generally use advertising agencies to help them decide where to run their ads, and to create their ads for them. Smaller companies generally make those decisions for themselves. There are reference books in any good business library that will tell you which advertising agency handles which advertisers. While you're doing this research, study where the advertiser is already running their ads and what kind of customers they seem to be trying to reach. You can save a lot of money and trouble if you carefully research the prospects before you try to approach them.

Step Two: Set Prices/Make a Plan

Start by collecting the advertising media kits from every significant competitor. You can usually find this information on their websites. By considering the other publications and websites in your niche, you can determine how much to charge for ads in yours. There is a chapter in my startups book about how to set ad prices to strengthen your place among competitors. Reading that book will save you lots of confusion. Use our advertising rate card tool to help with this. And our business plan kit has instructions for gathering information about competitors.

Step Three: Make Contact

Now write to the decision-makers at each company to introduce yourself. Include something about your publication, enough to make them interested in learning more. For example, include a sample issue - or a few sample pages if your first issue is not yet printed - and a brief letter describing your circulation and readership. Ask for a face-to-face or telephone interview to discuss their advertising needs.

Follow-up that initial contact with a telephone call. The purpose of this call is just to get an appointment for a more detailed discussion, but you should also take time to learn as much as you can about their advertising goals and plans. What kind of customer are they trying to reach? What media are they already using?

When you've got a date for an appointment, send a complete media kit. Include information that responds to the needs that each prospect has expressed to you on the telephone. For example, if they're concerned about reaching women, provide information showing how your publication appeals to a female audience.

Step Four: Prepare a Proposal

Call or meet with them after they've had plenty of time to review your media kit. This is another fact-finding meeting. You want to learn everything about their advertising goals: targeted customers, budget, expected results from advertising, and so on. After this meeting or telephone interview, you will create a detailed advertising proposal for each prospect recommending a certain size of ad and frequency, based on what they've told you about their budget and needs. Your proposal will also include the price to them based on your rate card and any special offer you are willing to make to them (one free ad if they buy three for example, or a special first-time discount). If you've been listening to them well, and if your publication really does address their needs, then your proposal will be acceptable to them.

Step Five: Close the Sale

Close the sale by having the advertiser submit an insertion order specifying what size of ad they're buying and for which issues of your publication, and at what price. You can't bill them for the ad until it has been published in your magazine, so help them to supply their advertising materials on time and in the format you need for reproduction in your publication.

As you can see, it takes lots of time and effort to sell one ad to each advertiser. Publishers commonly spend six months or a year trying before they can get an advertiser to buy. You should find someone with ad sales experience to help you. And better still, find someone already familiar with the advertisers in your market, someone who might already have personal contacts with them because in the end, personal relationships are what you want to develop.

Read more details about selling ads - from setting prices to hiring sales reps - in my books, for startups: Starting and Running a Successful Newsletter or Magazine, and for nonprofit organization:Every Nonprofits Guide to Publishing. You can find both in a library or retail bookstore, or order them right now from


My consulting group helps publishers launch, run and grow newsletters, websites and magazines. If you have questions about selling ads, or if you're having trouble selling enough of them, e-mail us. Tell us about your situation and we'll give you a proposal showing exactly how we can help you.

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