EPISODE 124: Scott Oser Provides Insights that Will Help Trade Associations and Membership Organizations Drive Substantial Revenue Thru Print, Mail, Events and Sponsorships
SCOTT’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Your heart really has to be in it. If you’re really not into it, if your heart does not believe in your product, does not believe that your audience is going to receive value from what you’re selling whether it be a product or a service, it is going to be very difficult and they’re going to see right through you.”
Scott Oser is the president of Scott Oser Associates.
Prior to starting Scott Oser Associates he worked for National Geographic, Science Magazine and the AARP.
Find Scott on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: How did you first get into sales as a career?
Scott Oser: I’m actually not a professionally trained sales guy. I was doing membership and marketing for associations and as my career grew I went from a couple of smaller associations and ended up at AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science which is Science Magazine. AAAS as much as they wanted to be a individual membership organization was actually much more of a magazine so I was doing consumer marketing, circulation, whatever you want to call it. At that point I got to work very closely with the editors, very closely with the sales guys because it was all about reaching the circulation numbers.
From there I had the good luck to be able to go work at National Geographic. I did not work on National Geographic magazine, I was not out on the Tundra taking pictures of animals, I again did more circulation and consumer marketing stuff. This was probably 17, 18 years ago before the bubble burst when ad sales were crazy high, therefore what we focused on was rate base. Many of my goals were set more from the sales side than from the consumer marketing side so I worked very closely again with the editor, with the publisher and I worked very closely with the salespeople. I would go on a lot of their sales pitches to ad agencies and clients and things like that.
From there I went to AARP and I became their first – and I say probably only – circulation director. Again, worked very closely with the salespeople, with the publisher, with the editor on both the AARP bulletin and AARP magazine. That did not last very long because of some issues that were going on with the structure of the department and they didn’t really have a structure set up that they knew what to do with the circulation director. It all ended very positively, it just was not a good fit for the organization. When I went out on my own which I was not looking to go out and form Scott Oser Associates, my very first client was business development. One thing led to another and from doing business development like partnerships and sponsorships and exhibits and ad sales I’ve picked up more and more clients where I’m doing all of those, some of those or one of those.
Fred Diamond: What first got you, what was the trigger? Was it what the customer needed? Again, you went to work for yourself, you had to figure it out. Did someone just say, “This is what we need” and as an independent starting out you just took whatever gig you could find and it led to sales?
Scott Oser: It wasn’t as bad as what you said [laughs] but it was pretty close. I was married, two kids, no gig in sight, wanted something that I could have control of and that I could own and those were the opportunities that arose. It turns out I was good at it.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things you learned from some of those first few sales jobs?
Scott Oser: The key thing that I learned wasn’t a new learning, it was more of reinforcing what I already knew from working with. I really do say I got very lucky working at AARP and National Geographic and Science and working with some of the most successful ad sales people around, working in areas and organizations that were very sophisticated in the way that they did their sale. I learned a lot from them and then it was really reinforced in those couple of jobs that the key to sales – especially in the association space and especially when I’m selling either an event or selling an ad or whether it be online, print, digital, it doesn’t really matter – is to really understand the audience.
That’s the first thing because if you don’t understand the audience and you don’t understand what value you can provide to the advertiser or the purchaser, whichever you want to call it, you’re never going to have any luck.
Fred Diamond: When you say the audience you mean whoever the association is serving?
Scott Oser: Exactly, the end consumer if you want to call it that, yes.
Fred Diamond: How did you learn that? What are some of the things that you discovered quickly to understand that was really the main thing that you needed to know?
Scott Oser: The way that I learned that was working in those first couple of organizations that I worked with. They were my client reaching out to their potential client, to their prospects and pitching things without in-depth knowledge of the audience. Pretty much always the #1 question they would ask was, “Who am I going to reach?” How many, who, what, how, those kind of things. It became very obvious that they wanted to know the audience and I think one of the nuances to that is – and this is something that some associations are very good at and some are not – they’re not always great at understanding that it’s the audience of their publication, if it’s an ad sale. It’s the audience of their annual meeting if it’s sponsorship or exhibits. It’s not just, “Our membership is comprised of this.”
Fred Diamond: Interesting, you helped them understand the various audiences they needed to reach, the personas, how you needed to reach them, messaging, those types of things to get the most value out of the investment they were making.
Scott Oser: Exactly.
Fred Diamond: Scott, what are you specifically an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Scott Oser: This may sound generic, but I would say that my expertise is in knowing how to present the offer and knowing how to present the audience, and then also knowing the timing. I came up with a buzz phrase years ago that I pitch to all of my clients and I say my sales technique is aggressive but respectful. When I worked in associations which I did for about 10 years as a staff member, I was fortunate when I was at AAAS and National Geographic to oversee big budgets.
They were at that point in time – this will date me a little bit – mostly direct mail. Every printer in the world was calling me, every letter shop in the world was calling me and they would call and call. If I were to say to them I’m not interested they would still continue to call so I took those lessons and said, “If I’m going to sell, how do I get people to know that I respect them? How do I get the prospects to know that I understand them but then not give them too much leeway?” An example could be that if I’m selling an ad and a deadline’s coming up and I reach out to somebody and I’ve already gotten in front of them enough so that they understand who the audience is, they understand who the value is, they understand the offer that’s on the table but they say, “I need three weeks, my budget’s not going to be set for three weeks.”
I may not give them a full three weeks, but I’m also not going to call them the next day. That’s what I’ve become very good at is knowing that timing, knowing about how often to get in front of people and do it in a way so that my message gets heard.
Fred Diamond: Scott, a lot of the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe might be coming from technology or packaged goods or services or financial services. Not all of them or not many of them are familiar with the challenges that face trade associations and membership organizations. Can you take a minute or so to give us an understanding of what some of the challenges are that face associations and member organizations?
Scott Oser: I think in the grand scheme of things – this obviously will then funnel down to the types of sales that I do and the level of success with the type of sales that I do – there is a theory out there right now that membership is dying. That either younger people aren’t joining or that organizations aren’t joining any longer, that member associations don’t have value any longer. I don’t think that’s true, but because of that it’s always a struggle for associations to prove their relevancy to their audiences.
The reason that’s important for me to know as a salesperson is that if it’s their magazine that I’m trying to sell or their digital assets, whatever it might be, I’m trying to sell those to an industry partner, somebody who provides the industry. I’m doing that and their audience starts shrinking, then I’ve got a problem. Let’s just use a low example: if it goes from 500 members to all of the sudden 400 members, the audience, the readership of the magazine goes from 500 people to 400 people, I’ve got to then explain that to the advertisers and that’s not an easy thing to do. I think that the biggest challenge right now that associations are facing is truly its relevance, it’s engaging their members in a way because they know that their members understand the relevance and the value to them. That’s the biggest thing.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career.
Scott Oser: Maybe I go against the tide, I don’t really feel like I have one individual sales mentor. I still stay in touch with some of the salespeople that I know from National Geographic and from AARP which I bounce ideas off of all the time, I think they are very valuable. I look to some of the more mainstream podcasts, I look to some of the people who put out regular videos, the Michael Hyatts, the Lisa Saseviches of the world, those guys. I still read a lot within the trades of advertising, of magazine, so circulation.
I read Folio and there’s always sales tips in there. I read Trade Show Executive and there’s always sales tips in there and then all of the newsletters and things that they provide. Even though I still have some people that I keep in contact with, it’s really a lot more of self-help type work that I do to stay up on top of things because things are changing so much even though I think many of the underlying principles in sales are still the same, things are changing all the time. We all know that we get 9 million emails a day and there is a newsletter or a podcast for absolutely everything, so when I can do that on my own time and absorb it more easily, that works better for me.
Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges that you see facing sales leaders today?
Scott Oser: I think the two biggest challenges right now are competition, and let me put it this way, maybe I’ll do just one A and one B. I think competition is the biggest challenge, I think competition within your sector, other companies that are doing the same as you are or better than you are, or cheaper than you are or more effectively than you are. I think that is really crucial right now, that’s popping up everywhere and I think the other thing is competition for mind share.
As I was saying, we all get 9 million emails, we don’t just get 9 million emails, we’ve got TV commercials, we’ve got people calling us, we’ve got text messages, there’s so much noise out there that actually getting through to people in their “busy lives”. I know we are all busy, I think we have ways of making ourselves overly busy if that makes any sense. Regardless of whether we’re doing it to ourselves or it’s reality that we truly are busy 25 hours a day, the challenge still exists that we as salespeople need to get into that time. We need to give people a reason to talk to us and fit us into that schedule so that way they can hear our message and see why it’s valuable to buy from us or at least learn about what we’re offering.
Fred Diamond: Take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of.
Scott Oser: I would say it was my second client that I’ve ever had that I still work with today. That’s 12 years now that we’ve been together. I’m going to keep this short and sweet, but it’s a magazine that goes to a very niche audience. They came to me through a referral which was great and basically they said, “We’ve got this magazine, it goes to a niche audience, it’s not a lot of people in the industry but it’s the key people in the industry. We’ve never sold ads before, help us sell ads.”
We put together a media kit, we put together the pricing, we put together a prospect list and it’s still going today. It’s monthly and we have 400 subscribers, it has never gone up, it’s never gone down. It’s always been at 400 subscribers. Ad revenues started off very well, they went up, they plateaued a little bit and now they’re going up again which is fantastic. The reason I think this is such a success is #1 it started from scratch, #2 it’s a small circulation publication and it has some big competitors with a much larger circulation but it still makes a lot of money, and #3 it was a collaboration between me in the client.
As an outsourced sales rep, so to speak even though I always portray myself as part of the team when I get on there, the reality of that is different depending on client.
Fred Diamond: We’re talking today with Scott Oser, he’s given us a lot of ideas. Again, he’s a sales leader, he’s an expert on trade associations, memberships, understanding what they need to do to stay relevant, to provide more value to their customers, to continue to sell things to support the organization and its mission. Described himself as being aggressive but respectful, he also didn’t start in sales but then when he went to work for himself at Scott Oser Associates he began to offer his services and selling to probably dozens if not hundreds of associations by this point, I presume.
Scott Oser: There are lot of them, yes.
Fred Diamond: As a matter of fact, we’ve actually interviewed a couple people in the past, Christopher Ware was one of our previous episodes at the NAIOP. He strongly recommended that we talk to Scott and Scott’s definitely given us some great insights. Scott, before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, although you didn’t start out in sales you’ve obviously had a lot of success and you’ve helped a lot of associations and membership organizations be successful. Starting with Scott Oser Associates when you made that move, did you ever question sales being your focus? Was there ever a moment where you said to yourself or thought to yourself, “This is too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Scott Oser: Yes, of course. I would be really surprised if any salesperson said that they had not done that unless they had the dream product with the dream audience and then you’re not really a sales guy anyways, you’re kind of an order taker. That would be fantastic.
Fred Diamond: Good for you for having that job.
Scott Oser: Exactly, fantastic, kudos to you. I do question it, I have questioned it. Often times, the reason I question it is just because I am at the whim of the client and I have to trust my client. If my client says to me, “This is the right audience for this product” until I get into it and try to sell it, there’s no way for me to know. Often times, I am putting myself out there and putting my reputation on the line reaching out to people who may not know what the product is, who may not know what the audience is and honestly may not even be the right fit. That does get frustrating, reaching out to people over and over and trying to get them to talk to me and just getting no response. You have to have a thick skin as a salesperson but if I were to say anything, the biggest negative to doing sales is just that no.
Fred Diamond: Scott, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Scott Oser: I could give a number of these but since you asked me what the most important thing is, I think the most important thing is that you have to truly believe in the benefit of what you’re offering. I know some people who are able to sell a product or service just because that’s what they’re hired to do, but I know that I have to truly believe that as I’m reaching out to folks it will benefit them. If it doesn’t, I’m just selling to sell and I’m forcing a product that they may or may not need down their throat. As a human being, I don’t feel that that’s the right thing to do.
Fred Diamond: Interestingly in a lot of the podcasts passion comes up of something but you really can’t have the passion if you don’t truly believe in what you’re bringing to marketplace and the value that’s providing your customers. Eventually you’re going to be found out so that’s a great point. What are some of the things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Scott Oser: I do things personally and I do things professionally. I’m not going to rehash what I do professionally, I think I went through that already. Unfortunately in the association world itself there are not a lot of sessions like ASAE annual meetings and at the other association focused event on sales. They just don’t do it, so I do a lot of that on my own as I mentioned but personally I try to exercise, eat right. This is sort of cliché, but exercise, eat right, spend time with friends, make real true connections in life because I think that’s important. You need your mind sharp, you need to have good relationships and I also believe that as a sales person the personal relationships I have and the way I develop those can definitely teach me some things about the way I want to sell and the way I should be selling.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Scott Oser: The biggest thing I’m working on right now is trying to figure out how to work with prospects – and even prospects of purchase in the past, former buyers or current buyers – to figure out the best way to get them to have real conversations with me about their goals and objectives. We may talk about this a little bit more later but I think that the key thing right now that I try to do in my sales efforts is form real relationships with people. This goes back to what I was saying before about knowing the audience.
In addition to knowing the audience, you also need to understand the purchaser. You need to understand the advertiser in my world, the advertiser, the exhibitor, the sponsor, the prospective member. You need to understand what they’re trying to accomplish and it’s tying all this together in the busy world that we are. Even though I know that will be effective, ultimately they probably know that will be effective, finding the time and the way and the method to get those conversations to actually take place is something that I am really trying to figure out right now.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about that for a second. One of the major themes that we hear from the Sales Game Changer podcasts from the experts that we talk to is the fact that it’s harder than ever to provide true unique value to your customer. The customer is demanding it, you mentioned one of the big challenges is competition and also being able to speak to them. You need to come to the customer ahead of the curve with some solutions to help them achieve what they’re trying to achieve.
At the same time, there’s so many demands or so much noise. People’s times are getting shorter, we talked about some of the challenges facing the people you serve, the membership associations and organizations so what are some of the things that you’ve done? That’s a real noble thing to get deeper with your customer, truly understand what they’re going through, what’s in it for them, why are they even talking to you as a sales professional. Share with us some of the things you’ve been trying to do to move the bar further to the right, or the needle further to the right in that regard.
Scott Oser: With existing or past purchasers, current purchasers, I’ve tried very hard to have regular communication with them. If it’s an exhibit purchase, if it’s an advertising purchase, I always try to reach out to them on a regular basis to see how things are going, to see what they’re trying to achieve, to make sure everything’s OK. Really to just form a relationship with me so there’s a level of trust there so when it comes the next time for them to purchase or to buy, then they’re already predisposed to trust me and predisposed to want to talk to me. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve done this a number of times for a number of different ad sales clients where even if they’re not placing an ad or let’s say it’s a 12 month magazine, they’ve bought all 12 months.
I will still reach out to them a number of times during the year just to say, “I know you’re there, I know your advertising, thank you, you’re awesome. How are things going? How are the ads working?” That does a couple of things, one, selfishly it lets me know how things are working so then when it comes time for them to renew I know what the likelihood is but it also just cements that relationship. It makes it so that when I reach out to them a few months before to just talk, “Have your goals changed? Do you want to do more, do you want to do less? Do you want to increase size?” That can be size, booth size, it could be ad size, it could be all of those different things. Then I have formed a relationship with them and most importantly I have hopefully proven to them that they are more than just a dollar, they’re more than just an order that I can get. I actually want their relationship, I value their success, not just their money.
Fred Diamond: Scott, you’ve really given us some great insights, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have spoken to you today. Sales is hard, we’ve talked about a lot of the challenges over the course of this conversation. People don’t return your calls, they don’t return your emails. Why have you continued? Again, when you created Scott Oser Associates you then became in the sales world after not being in that space, if you will. What is it about sales now as a career that has kept you going?
Scott Oser: I think it’s a couple of things. One is I do enjoy a challenge. If I had no successes at all, I will be honest and say that I probably would still not be doing it.
Fred Diamond: Well, 13 years, you’re still going strong.
Scott Oser: Right, so that’s the other side of that. I enjoy a challenge but I also enjoy the feeling of success. I’ve run a marathon and I felt like I was going to die but I did it, I’ve biked 100 miles, I fortunately did not feel like I was going to die and I did it so I’m always looking for things to push myself. I know that’s not a great analogy but those successes make me feel really good and I know that I don’t get to always determine success when I work with my clients. They determine what those sales budgets are, I hopefully get to have some input but often times – and this is one of the unique things about associations, is that they are very closely run by boards.
The boards often times have a lot of input into budgets, into what sales level should be and they’re not always based on reality. That’s not good or bad or indifferent, that’s just the reality of the situation. Often times the budget is set, I don’t necessarily have any control over that. If I reach that goal, I feel great. Often times if I don’t but I know that I’ve put in the best effort that I can and have been able to succeed in some way then that still makes me feel good as well. It’s really setting up that challenge and knocking it down, that’s why I’ve stayed in it.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great answer. A lot of the Sales Game Changers we’ve interviewed are driven people, they want to keep having success, they want to push the bar a little bit further out and see how far they can go with the achievement.
Scott Oser: Just one more thing, Fred. There’s also another part of the reason that I’ve done it and this may sound silly. I sell a lot of print and print is dead, we’ve heard it. There’s a weird part of me that loves proving that print is not dead. That may be a tangent to the whole thing, but print can work and I think that being able to sell ads in print and show not just my clients, but also show the advertisers that it is still a very viable vehicle for them.
For whatever reason, maybe because I started at Science Magazine which was obviously a magazine and then worked at National Geographic which again was a magazine and at AARP I worked on the magazine. I don’t think it’s an age thing for me, for whatever reason I have this affinity and in some ways it bothers me when people keep saying, “Print is dead” and I’m like, “Look at your ad revenues. Is that telling you that print is dead?”
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe today?
Scott Oser: I think the key thing is that you need to believe that you want to do sales. If you’re going to be in sales, your heart really has to be in it. I know that might sound relatively generic but I think in order to succeed in sales, because you are reaching out to people, you are forming relationships with people and unless you are a fantastic actor – which there are some of us that are – it comes through when you’re trying to sell. If you’re really not into it, if your heart does not believe in your product, does not believe that your audience is going to receive value from what you’re selling whether it be a product or a service, it is going to be very difficult and they’re going to see right through you.