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Bills Sell Newspapers – ‘Exclusive’

With a growing trend towards casual purchase, our interaction with potential purchasers at the point of sale becomes ever more important. If we can grab their attention then the likelihood of sales is increased. Newsbills are, to varying degrees, part of most publishers’ operations. Roger Winfield assesses recent research in the North East which attempted to highlight and quantify the link between bills and sales.

By Roger Winfield

The regional newspaper industry is supported by a multi million pound industry that supplies point of sale material, promotions and services designed to assist the daily sales operation. A significant part of this surrounds the infrastructure for producing daily bills to promote content. Billboards, reproduction equipment, pre-printed bill sheets, in-door display units etc. It is a sizeable and creative industry and it all relies on the belief of newspapers in the value and effectiveness of this type of activity.

Behind the process, there is a fair degree of commitment on the part of publishers in maintaining this single but expensive method of promotion and it must be the target for cost justification at times of cut backs – when the squeeze on expenditure raises its ugly head. So, the results of a piece of research in the North East at the back end of 2004 should be a relief for those who are questioning their value for money.

For the first time in the writer’s memory (46 years in the industry!), a genuine research project, carried out by an independent research company, to MRS standards, looked at the impact on sales of this process. It looked at six news retail outlets of various types, on different days of the week, when bills were displayed and then not displayed. Exit interviews were undertaken with people leaving the target shops, to establish whether the placing of newsbills had played any part in the purchasing decisions of the interviewees. The results proved to be far more meaningful than expected!

Key Research Findings

* More than half of people who noticed the bills read them, with 82% of these people being able to recall the wording.
* Nearly a quarter of them – 23% - had been influenced at some time to buy a newspaper after seeing a bill. This figure rises to 39% and 35% respectively, for the very attractive 16-24 and 25-34 year age groups and to 31% for socio economic group A.
* 40% of interviewees said that this happened at least once a week.
* When no bills were displayed, 11% of respondents said they would probably have bought a paper if the bill copy they were shown by the interviewer had actually been displayed. However, this response must be viewed with some caution, as it asked people to predict behaviour rather than state fact.
* Buyers had frequently seen bills on display elsewhere before making a purchase later in the day.

Effect on sales

The acid test for the exercise was the measure of sales performance on the days bills were displayed versus the days they were withheld. An average of 3.92% increase was recorded on the bill display days over the no display days, but in one city centre store, this figure rose to a 41.7% increase.

So, what types of bill appeal to people? Answer this question and all sorts of opportunities are created to target activity so that even better response rates are achieved.

* Maybe not surprisingly, males respond to sporting headlines, with this type of news impacting the 16-24 and 25-34 year olds more than any other type of content. People in socio economic group B also like sports news.
* Local news appeals to women more than men and to age groups 25-34, 35-44 and 55-64, with 45-54 year olds coming quite close.
* Socio economic groups C1 and C2 appear to be influenced by jobs supplements. (It is interesting to note that the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle promotes the number of jobs in the Thursday job section using the contents bill approach.)
* National news content has less influence than local news and sport, but it is the 24-35 and 55-64 year olds, with social group E who appear to respond the most to it.
* Bills promoting competitions, special offers etc influence the female, 35-44 year old, social group D population more than any of the other groups.

Enough, I can hear you say, these are statistics and you can make statistics say anything you want. Well, yes, the above statements are broad and only represent a small fraction of the population in the North East. But, not many years ago this area was used by companies to test market new products or services before roll out nationally. Although the manufacturing and general commercial infrastructure of the area has changed over the years, the people who live in the North East are still the same down-to-earth people they were in the good old days – only their jobs have changed!

What should be taken from this research is the general pointer that says bills do influence. After that, it requires some creativity on the part of the reader to determine what, if anything, they can do with it. The sales results at the chosen outlets alone should be sufficient food for thought and encouragement to review your own activity!

Do you use bills as a way of promoting your title? If not, isn’t it worth testing reaction across a selected number of outlets to gauge response and measure sales? If you do use bills, is there any opportunity to target different types to the various target audiences:– local news bills near schools to attract mums picking up the kids from school, sports bills near senior schools, colleges, and places of work where males are predominant, bills at sites of high exposure even though they are not at a point of sale – the later in the day reaction! The field for experimenting in this area is immense and could deliver a ‘bigger bang for your buck’ than you are currently getting!

The whole process of billing means many things to many people. However, it means the same to everyone in one respect. It is a relatively expensive exercise as a single entity in the promotional mix. Targeting is not easy, unless you know your patch and you have control of the distribution process for bills. Local news stories are easy to target because they are generally geographically located. But, how do the bills get to the targets and who puts them up?

Getting the bills displayed

If you have a specific method for hitting the right areas, like merchandisers or outlet names on bills, fine, but if not, the whole supply chain needs to understand where each bill type should be displayed. In my experience, it is folly to assume that every newsagent will put bills out just because you have sent them one, or that van drivers will put them up and in the right place. If you don’t already have a laid down procedure for targeting, it is certainly worth while developing one, and don’t forget to work on newsagents who don’t put up the bills you have sent to them. They should respond to data that shows the value to them in sales terms.

Despite all the effort that goes into delivered sales, the overall trend is to casual purchase. At the recent NS conference in Birmingham, Jim Chisholm talked about getting people onto the ladder and taking whatever steps possible to encourage existing buyers to buy one more copy a week; one more copy per week to existing buyers would have a big impact on average sales. Over the years, the opposite has been more evident, with regular buyers reducing their frequency with differences in sales on different days of the week widening. But with the younger age groups showing a greater inclination to purchase on the wording of a bill, it must be worth considering further research into what would motivate them and others to buy more regularly!

I found the whole research project very stimulating, but it is of no consequence to me in retirement! However, I do believe that it offers tremendous scope for every newspaper sales department to step up a gear or two. That said, I was very surprised to hear that fewer than a handful of newspapers sales managers / directors have picked up the phone to follow up on the press release that went out to the various industry media months ago!

Potential for sales growth

Is there scope to improve? A recent survey carried out across the regional sector, covering the majority of publishers, including all the big groups and a lot of the independents, showed that, on average, around 75% of all outlets supplied with papers were getting contents bills. The missing 25% will probably include the big players like the supermarkets and multiples, most of whom are notoriously difficult to persuade to display bills. However, if my information is correct, there are around 54,000 news retailing outlets in the UK currently. If 25% of these are not being billed, that gives 13,500 potential sites for possible action.

With a suggested potential of 23% of the shoppers at these outlets likely to be influenced to purchase on seeing a bill, the sales value of such a reaction would be well worth the effort. Remember the statistic from above – 3.92% increase in sales when a bill was displayed (41.7% in one town centre outlet).

Of course, like all surveys, not everyone was the same. Some publishers exceeded the 75% coverage, and by a tidy margin in a handful of cases, but others fell short of the figure. Individuals need to decide for themselves whether their coverage could be improved and whether they are prepared to make the investment in time and resource to get the improvements. In these days of generally declining annual sales, it has to be a major consideration. However, whatever the decision, it is clear from the North East research project that ‘Bills Sell Newspapers’!

For further information on this research project, contact Russell Borthwick. Tel: 0191 516 6235. Email: