Q&A with Ryan Dohrn, Founder, Brain Swell Media, Tulsa

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SIPA: You've been doing this a while.
RYAN DOHRN: Yes, this is my 25th year in the media business. I started building websites back 'in 97—in the equestrian marketplace, working with Morris communications. I launched the first sites for all their magazines. Forbes recognized us as Best of the Web for our creation and management of the award-winning Web portal HorseCity.com that grew to over 200,000 active members. 

What is Brain Swell Media?
At Brain Swell Media, we do sales training and coaching with a focus on media and technology companies. We have created over 75 corporate training programs and have taught over 3,000 business professionals to date. I also have a site called 360 Ad Sales that has a blog and more strategy tips.

Do you have a sales philosophy?
Every company has to have their way of selling media. Pfizer has a way of selling products. With most media companies, every salesperson does it differently. I try to streamline the process so it's a lot more collaborative. You should have a playbook to follow and always accentuate the positives. If everyone is going their own way, it's not productive. 

Is that where your book, Selling Backwards, comes in?
Yes, it says that you should start with whoever your customer is. If you're looking for sponsors or to sell ads, then it would be the advertiser. It's the person or company that you're creating products for. So you're looking outward rather than inward. Most media companies create products while looking in their own bubble. Better to ask, "What is it you need from us?" A car cannot be designed just for you, but a product can be. It's important that a sales process be customized for your audience. Every business and every circumstance are different. 

And SIPA members sell to that niche.
Yes, SIPA members have an advantage—they have a lockdown core audience and access to a large subscriber base. They should be well-positioned to sell that access. The other fallacy is that subscribers don't want to receive anything from a publisher besides content. They like special offers and information on new products and innovations. 

Anything else?
An audience wants to know, "Where am I going to make money?" Making money from external sponsors and advertisers is a huge relationship game. It's important to establish a revenue model beyond subscriptions and be specific in your planning. Being random costs you time, energy and money. Prospecting is a dying skillset, and it is so valuable to sales success.  

You also recommend sponsored content?
Yes. It's a revenue stream publishers need to look at. There are good ways to ethically present content from our advertisers that is beneficial. Everything we do should have a reader benefit to it. If no reader benefit, no go. 

Do you have any advice on pricing?
So many things are completely over or underpriced. Being a low-price leader is not a path for success in publishing. Are you asking people to sponsor webinars or reports? Companies will pay a premium for access to your subscribers/membership—as long as the price point is right. It's kind of like the Goldilocks Principle where you have to find the price that's not too hard, not too soft but feels just right. 

Any parting words?
I find very few publishers actually willing to invest in a strategy for the future. The future is really quite open as far as revenue perspectives, so you have to be open.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…