The Power of Recommendation-Based Selling

How to use social proof and data analytics to better engage advertisers and increase ad sales.

By Ryan Dohrn

How to use social proof and data analytics to better engage advertisers and increase ad sales.

During my 30 years in the media business, I save seen sales strategies shift after every major financial crisis. It happened in 1991, 2001, 2007, and now, after the COVID-19 pandemic. As a sales and revenue strategy coach to over 50 media companies, I hear this common question in each shakeup: How can we evolve our sales strategies to meet the changing demands and preferences of advertisers? One strategy that has gained significant traction in 2023, post-pandemic, is recommendation-based selling. This approach involves sellers recommending products to potential advertisers based on what others have bought from the publisher in the past. It leverages the power of social proof and data analytics to guide purchasing decisions, ultimately fostering trust and enhancing customer satisfaction.   

The Foundation of Recommendation-Based Selling

This approach to selling capitalizes on the fundamental psychological principle of social proof. That is, advertisers tend to rely on the opinions and actions of other advertisers to guide their own behavior. When advertisers see that others have had positive experiences with a print ad, marketing service, or event sponsorship, they are more likely to trust your recommendation to make a similar investment.

This strategy is an extension of traditional word-of-mouth marketing, wherein satisfied customers share their experiences with others, influencing their purchasing choices. In the media sales world, publishers have never deeply embraced recommendation-based selling because they felt the need to create custom marketing solutions for each client. The old sales plan was to meet with an advertiser and ask about their goals. Then, the media rep leaves the meeting to go create a proposal. This recreate-the-wheel strategy lengthens the sales time needed to close deals, and there is no proof that you create larger ad buys this way. So, rather than coming back with, “Here is our media options buffet,” a media rep using recommendation-based selling would say, “In preparation for our meeting, we looked at what advertisers in your category have done to be successful, and here are the marketing options we recommend.” The rep goes into the initial sales call with ideas and recommendations ready to go.

The Role of Data Analytics and Success Stories

At the heart of recommendation-based selling lies the robust application of data analytics and storytelling. Media companies should collect  and analyze vast amounts of customer data to identify patterns and trends in purchasing behavior. Publishers can pull this data from their CRM, their media audits, or from advertising intelligence companies like MediaRadar. Data can include total spend by advertiser category, print vs. digital spend by category/advertiser, or even total share of voice within a certain advertiser category or inside the pages of your publication. By utilizing this data effectively, media companies can make informed and statistically evident recommendations to potential advertisers.

You do not need sophisticated algorithms to predict what marketing services might interest a particular advertiser. Simply take into account factors such as service similarities, advertiser demographics, and popular choices  among similar advertisers. Then share examples of other advertisers that have had success by utilizing the recommended marketing options. Publishers need simply to look at past marketing scenarios of success. For example, “Each year, John Deere is one of our dominant advertisers. They have a goal of 400 quality sales per quarter. They buy our marketing solutions like webinars, custom content, website retargeting, and event sponsorships. If lead gen is a focus for you, we would leverage what we have learned from John Deere to recommend the following three marketing solutions for you.” In this example, the sales professional remains within ethical boundaries by only talking about an advertiser’s past spending habits, which are public information, and not about future spending plans. Ask yourself this question, “What have other advertisers in this category done to be successful?” Instead of creating a sales package, create marketing success recommendations.

Enhancing Customer Experience

One of the primary benefits of this targeted sales approach is its potential to enhance the overall advertiser experience. By presenting advertisers with tested, best-case recommendations, media companies demonstrate an understanding of their advertisers’ preferences and needs. This approach can significantly increase advertiser satisfaction and build loyalty.

Moreover, providing relevant recommendations saves advertisers the time and effort they would otherwise spend navigating and interpreting an extensive list of marketing solutions. It simplifies the decision-making process and boosts the likelihood of a successful partnership and closed sale. Buying habit experts at UpSellit report that “70% of shoppers who encounter high quality product recommendations are more likely to convert than those who don’t. Furthermore, 59% of customers believe that personalization based on previous interactions is critical to retaining their business.”

Trust and Credibility

Recommendation-based selling fosters trust and credibility between the seller and the advertiser. When a potential advertiser sees that others have made successful ad purchases from the same publisher, it instills confidence in the quality and reliability of the products or services offered.

Customer reviews and ratings play a crucial role in this process. Positive reviews act as powerful endorsements, giving prospective advertisers the assurance they need to move forward with a partnership. The collective wisdom of a community of buyers (advertisers) significantly influences the trustworthiness of the seller. Consider asking your satisfied advertisers for testimonial comments about their experience working with you and the material success of their marketing spends. Ask for permission to share those comments with prospective advertisers and then do so in a targeted fashion.

Driving Sales and Revenue

Effective implementation of this approach can drive substantial sales and revenue growth. Why? Because when advertisers are directed towards services, they are likely to spend more than when they choose marketing options on their own. A study by the personalization experts at Monetate found that “engaging with product recommendations can lead to a 70% increase in purchase rates.” Advertisers feel a sense of satisfaction, knowing they are not alone in their decision-making process, leading to higher retention rates and repeat partnerships.

Additionally, by showcasing popular and frequently purchased services, media companies can more easily and effectively upsell and cross-sell complementary offerings as well as push the idea of buying long-term media schedules. This maximizes the value of each transaction, further boosting the bottom line.

Overcoming Challenges

While recommendation-based selling offers immense potential, it is not without challenges. One major concern is ensuring data privacy and security. As media companies collect and analyze advertiser data, it is essential to handle it responsibly and in compliance with relevant regulations to maintain trust. Data privacy platform Osano provides a helpful list of laws and regulations in “Data Privacy Laws: What You Need to Know in 2023” . If sales executives focus on sharing general information from past media buys, they will always stay within ethical boundaries. For example, “While I cannot tell you what Company ABC will do next year, I can share that last year they did these five things and saw a significant increase in leads and market share.” Or, “An advertiser like Company XYZ spends around $25k to $30k with us. They do these six things. If you want to compete with them, here is what we would recommend.” Always speak positively about advertisers and what they have done, and only give specifics if an advertiser has granted permission to share them.

By embracing recommendation-based selling, media companies can create a win-win situation, providing advertisers with valuable and relevant recommendations while driving growth and success for their enterprise. Ultimately, success in recommendation-based selling lies in understanding the needs and desires of the advertisers and leveraging data-driven insights to exceed their expectations.

Ryan Dohrn is owner of Niche Media Events and founder of media sales training firm Brain Swell Media. Ryan sells media every day and has trained over 30,000 ad sales reps in seven countries. He is a graduate of the Cornell Executive Leadership Program, and his career includes leadership roles at Disney/ABC TV, Morris Publishing, PennWell Publishing, and The NY Times Company. Connect via