Media Forum: Do bulks benefit advertisers?

Are complimentary copies a legitimate marketing tactic, Alasdair Reid wonders.

Bulks are back. They've been out of fashion for a while, but just take a look at the latest figures for The Daily Telegraph - because it was The Telegraph that first took a holier-than-thou attitude towards the practice of giving large number of copies away each day.

But the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, covering January 2005, reveal the paper handed out an average of 52,208 bulks a day. This was the highest absolute bulk figure at the quality end of the market but it was by no means the biggest bulk giveaway proportionate to paid-for sales.

For instance, The Guardian shifted 25,642 freebies a day, The Times 34,514 and The Independent almost equalled that in raw number terms; however, its 34,221 bulks actually represent the greatest pro rata effort when you set it alongside its 257,100 newsstand sale.

And the phenomenon is not just confined to the clever end of the marketplace.

On average, the Daily Mail gave away a weighty 95,442 copies per day in January - not a cost-free exercise, you would think.

In theory, giving away free copies is a powerful marketing device - get someone to try out your superior product and you may have them hooked for life. And, in the bad old days, bulks delivered a double benefit to publishers, because the bulk figures contributed to the total headline circulation figure on which an ad rate base was calculated.

In these more enlightened and transparent days, the bulk figure is broken out for all to see, so the cost goes more directly on to the bottom line and, consequently, profligate bulk campaigns have been out of fashion.

Publishers have been spending the money they have saved on more conventional marketing and advertising campaigns.

No longer, apparently. Should advertisers be concerned? Dave King, the executive director of the Telegraph Group, hopes not. He says transparency is the key issue here. "Everyone is aware of bulks," he says. "They know how many there are and where they are going. In our case that is first class and business class (on flights) and that is an environment where we know the paper will be welcomed and will be well read. It is a captive market. That is high-quality sampling and if you can achieve that, then I don't think anyone has any problem with that."

Alison Brolls, the global marketing and media manager at Nokia, agrees that trial is an important way of attempting to resuscitate sales and, despite innovations such as the compact format, the long-term circulation prognosis is not exactly encouraging.

She states: "Qualities and mid-market titles on airlines and in hotels makes sense. But where it goes wrong is when you have poorly targeted bulks. For instance, a couple of years ago, I recall seeing copies of the Daily Mail in dump bins by a Happy Eater off the M11."

Now, she concedes, papers are being a little bit more careful in where their bulks are being distributed. Courtesy of greater ABC transparency, advertisers and their agencies have become sharper and can identify the right sort of bulks versus the wrong sort. But Brolls adds: "What papers are perhaps missing out on is sampling in younger demographic groups. Qualities have witnessed acute loss in young readers. What are they doing about this?"

Mark Gallagher, the press director of Manning Gottlieb OMD, agrees with that point - and, after all, business travellers tend to have the newspaper habit already. He says: "There was a period when publishers decided to spend less on bulks and channel the money they saved into brand advertising campaigns. Perhaps they haven't seen enough of a return from that. They may argue bulks are a more direct way of introducing people to a newspaper. As long as we know the figures, we are able to factor that in to our considerations."

Ian Tournes, the Starcom Mediavest press director, points out that the most successful newspaper launch in recent memory, Metro, exists entirely on bulks. Where paid-for titles are concerned, he continues to believe in the value of bulks as a marketing exercise and most buyers, he says, have the nous to strip them out of headline figures when negotiating, if, indeed, that suits their purpose.

He concludes: "They can be a legitimate sampling exercise, depending on how and when they are distributed. Airlines are good as they reach a captive audience. However, it is questionable if giving away a paper with a pot of paint at B&Q holds the same value."

YES - Dave King, executive director, Telegraph Group

"I think people may have had legitimate worries in the past when they couldn't be sure where they were going. This is an issue where the pendulum swings back and forth. It's in everyone's interest for us to find a happy medium."

NO - Alison Brolls, global marketing and media manager, Nokia

"Most bulks will never be read with the same involvement or quality as paid-for copies. The real magic lies in converting these sorts of trialling methods into full-price newsstand sales or subscribers."

NO - Mark Gallagher, press director, Manning Gottlieb OMD

"I'm not sure bulks represent a good ROI. We look at ABC certificates in minute detail and our interest is always on the impact that various promotional devices have on underlying newsstand sales."

YES - Ian Tournes, press director, Starcom Mediavest

"Buyers are more interested in cleaning up overseas sales, with these being broken out into sales and bulks and with returns being taken into account. This is the issue that needs addressing."