Commuters Supplement - How to nail the lucrative rail audience

A captive environment and long dwell time on platforms make rail users an attractive target for advertisers. But what is the best way to reach these affluent consumers, asks Caitlin Fitzsimmons.

It's the end of another day at the office and it's time to catch the train home. You leave the office and as you walk down the high street, vendors thrust copies of the free evening newspapers into your outstretched hands.

Entering the station, you pause to check the indicator boards and catch the Sky News update and a few ads on the giant Transvision screen.

On the way to the platform, you accept a free sample of washing detergent from the promotions booth and glimpse posters on the walls and ticket barriers.

As you stand waiting for the train, you read the long copy on the billboard opposite and flick through your paper.

You board the train, wishing you had your laptop to use the free wireless internet sponsored by one of the advertisers, but instead turn on your MP3 player and sit back to listen to the podcast you downloaded earlier.

This is a journey made by hundreds of thousands of people every single day, whether in London, Manchester or Middlesbrough. Affluent and educated, the audience is a highly desirable target for advertisers and there are myriad ways to reach it.

Jon Slatkin, chief executive of Titan Outdoor, says the company has recently invested in research to find out more about the rail audience. "They tend to be upper-middle class and a slightly older audience - not old, but a lot of what we used to call yuppies," he says.

Desirable audience

Three out of four rail passengers are ABC1 and one in three people passing through a Titan station is in the AB social class, according to Arkenford, the research modelling agency that built Titan's rail cover and frequency system.

Titan's own research, from Other Lines 2007, suggests 62% of the rail audience pass through a station at least once a week, while 41% commute five to seven days a week. Commuters account for 62% of the rail audience and business travellers another 15%, while 31% left full-time education after the age of 21.

Even in London, where rail competes with other forms of public transport such as buses and the Underground, a total of 472,000 people travel to central London by train every morning, according to Titan's research. That accounts for 42% of people working in London and 69% of London residents - the highest of all travel modes.

Between them, Titan Outdoor and CBS Outdoor are responsible for the majority of the advertising on Britain's rail network, which includes sites at stations, along railtracks and on trains. Titan holds the prized Network Rail contract, covering the nation's biggest stations from Manchester Piccadilly to London Waterloo, while the advertising at smaller stations is managed individually by train operating companies.

Jason Cotterrell, commercial director at CBS Outdoor, says that rail advertising is attractive for advertisers because it enables them to reach consumers in a particular frame of mind, coupled with the bonuses of the visual impact of large-format posters and long dwell times. "The national rail audience is highly affluent with a frequency of exposure to advertising campaigns that is hard to obtain from other advertising channels," he adds.

"Bring into the mix the captive environment that stations benefit from, and the long dwell time at stations - on average seven minutes on a platform and 13 minutes on a concourse - and an advertiser ends up with an effective way to deliver a powerful communication."

The advertising opportunities on the UK's rail network include all the standard formats - such as six-sheets, billboards, floor media, ticket barriers and panels above the windows on trains - and investment in the estate means they are frequently framed, backlit and scrolling.

Experiential growth

Titan's Slatkin says the company's experiential and sampling promotions division, which now covers the London Underground as well as Network Rail stations, is a growing part of the business. Unlike on the London Underground and on buses, small-format digital is not yet available in rail stations, but soon could be. Titan is developing a digital six-sheet product and plans to roll it out by the end of the year, mainly in Network Rail stations, while CBS Outdoor's Cotterrell hopes to bring the digital formats currently in the Tube to national rail stations in the "very near future".

Five years ago, Titan was one of the pioneers of digital outdoor in the UK, with its Transvision network of giant screens displaying news, sport, weather and advertising next to the indicator boards. There are now 18 Transvision screens at 17 stations across the UK, and last year Titan refreshed the programming with a switch in providers from the BBC to BSkyB.

The Transvision screens are Bluetooth compatible, offering consumers the ability to interact with the posters using their mobile phones. As with all digital formats, the copy can be changed remotely. Brewing company InBev has used this to great effect, running a campaign for Beck's beer on Transvision that appeared only between 5pm and midnight.

On-train packages are also becoming more interesting. In 2005, Screen FX launched Train FX, an audiovisual screen showing entertainment, rail updates and advertising at the front and rear of carriages. Train FX has operated on the Central Network in the West Midlands since 2005, but Screen FX is in negotiations to extend this to other networks, particularly in the South East.

All GNER trains running from London to Scotland via Newcastle, Leeds and York are equipped with a WiFi network to allow travellers to access the internet with their laptops free-of-charge, and CBS Outdoor is currently offering this as a sponsorship opportunity. Meanwhile, The Cloud, Britain's largest WiFi network, offers paid wireless internet services in train stations, along with other public places such as airports, hotels, business centres and coffee shops.

Free explosion

Probably the biggest recent change in rail advertising has been the explosion of the free newspapers - a market that didn't exist a few years ago and now dominates the newspaper business. Chris White-Smith, managing director of Newsquest Media Sales, says the London market is nearing saturation point, particularly in the afternoon. "In London we're almost overly bombarded with free newspapers ... and I think the recycling issue is a significant barrier to growth," he says. "If there is an opportunity for growth, it's probably outside the main urban conurbations."

In the morning, Associated Newspapers' Metro is dominant, with a daily distribution of more than one million per day in 18 cities including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. Metro, which has customised editions in different cities, is read by a young "urbanite" audience - 74% aged 15-44 and 64% ABC1 - as they travel to work each morning. The newspaper holds exclusive rights in the morning to the distribution bins in Network Rail stations, making it one of the core media opportunities to reach an office-bound commuter audience.

However, since Metro is only delivered in urban centres, Newsquest's White-Smith believes there is scope for the paper to expand to mid-size commuter hubs outside London, such as his local station in Godalming, Surrey.

For a more targeted audience, business paper City AM is distributed by street vendors within the City of London, Canary Wharf and the West End, and is also available on first-class train carriages.

The newspaper has recently expanded to stations outside London to the South West (such as Mortlake and Richmond), and is now gearing up to launch regional editions.

In the afternoon, the market is more fragmented. News International's thelondonpaper holds the Network Rail contract in the afternoon but is only distributed in London's zones one and two, head-to-head with Associated's London Lite. Both papers are also distributed by hand vendors.

Outside London, many regional newspapers have launched free editions. The Guardian Media Group's Manchester Evening News is now free at rail stations in the city centre, while Newsquest has launched Argus Lite with hand distribution outside rail stations in Brighton and Hove.

Most recently, The Banbury Guardian and The Bicester Review have launched a free weekly newspaper, The Commuter, targeted at rail passengers in North Oxfordshire. With a distribution of 5,000, the paper will be distributed free at the rail stations in Bicester and Banbury.

Newspapers are also embracing new technology, producing electronic updates to serve commuters on the homebound journey. For example, City AM has a "City PM" podcast, which subscribers can download onto their MP3 players at work and listen to on the way home, while The Daily Telegraph has Telegraph PM, an electronic evening edition that readers can download and print.

As train operating companies look for new revenue growth and media owners woo new audiences, the opportunities for rail advertising will only continue to grow.