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Bulks – what are they good for?

Legitimate sampling exercise or cynical attempt to massage ABC figures? Few subjects are better placed to get media buyers hot under the collar than bulks. Ray Snoddy looks at how publishers employ this contentious device.

By Ray Snoddy

Mention the word ‘bulks’ to veteran media commentator Harold Lind and he is instantly reminded of a 1950s science fiction classic, The Space Merchants by Kombluth and Pohl.

Set in an advertising agency of the future, millions of copies of publications were unceremoniously dumped in outer space.

"For space, read hotels or airline owners. There was certainly an element of that in the past (with bulks) as publishers tried to prevent their circulation falling below a magic number," says Lind.

Things have improved since the ABC began auditing bulks, or multiple sales as they are now more respectably called, and Lind no longer equates bulks with dumping newspapers in outer space.

"In so far as the ABC works, and I think it doesn’t work too badly, you at least now have a very clear view that primary circulation is X and that something between 10% and 100% is secondary circulation through one kind of deal or another, and advertisers can judge accordingly," says Lind.

The view from the normally acerbic commentator that things have at least improved in the world of bulks marks a transformation of the species from being a form of dodgy dealing at the end of the month to artificially boost sales, to, if not quite total respectability then at least acceptance.

Almost everyone will admit to abuses in the past - although normally they happened at someone else’s newspaper.

Now any airline traveller interested in newspapers can see the eagerness with which passengers pick up their complimentary copies and read them thoroughly while trapped without the normal distractions.

A similar principle applies with free newspapers on the London Underground.

Carefully used, bulks can not only aspire to the status of almost normal circulation of a title, while also being a significant marketing device through sampling.

Good bulks ...

Guy Zitter, commercial director of Associated Newspapers, who ships around 110,000 bulk copies of the Daily Mail every day is an articulate exponent of the advantages – and perils – of bulk sales.

"I think that bulks can fall into two categories, good ones and bad ones. My view is that the airline bulks are generally very good. It gets me to an excellent audience. It gets trials," says Zitter.

He is keen to emphasise the fact that bulks do not mean "frees". The discounts may be heavy, but BA still pays Associated 5p a copy for their papers.

The Daily Mail executive is also convinced about the sampling power of bulks on scheduled flights, although, in common with other newspaper executives, the evidence that they convert into new loyal sales seems to be personal and anecdotal.

Zitter talks of flying down to Spain and chatting to a fellow traveller who has now become a regular reader of the Mail after picking up copies on flights.

... bad bulks

As for bad bulks, Zitter uses two measures – one based on proportion of full-priced sales and the other on the destination of the bulks.

Naturally, the Associated executive thinks that around the 100,000 copies, out of overall sales of 2.3 million, is as perfect a proportion as makes no difference.

"I think you’ve got to say that the Telegraph’s 100,000 out of a sale of 877,000 is pushing the boat out a bit as a proportion of its sale. The Guardian’s 5% and the 8% of the Times is no big deal," says Zitter.

The paper with the highest proportion of bulks is the Independent, with 42,000 out of a total of 241,000.

"If you are using bulks too much to manipulate your headline sales figure, then I think the Telegraph and the Independent would be the two at the top of your warning light list," adds Zitter.

Both the Telegraph and the Independent are however on planes and in airport lounges with the Daily Mail, but then they boost circulation with what Zitter regards as "bad bulks" – distribution in hotels.

"If you come steaming out of your hotel room and have a pretty busy day ahead, are you really going to spend half an hour reading a newspaper you didn’t ask for," says Zitter.

Where the copies go

The latest ABC figures (March) show Daily Mail multiple sales to airlines topping 81,000 with 8,000 going to hotels and 16,700 to leisure centres. The Daily Telegraph sent an identical number to airlines, but 16,000 to hotels, 2,000 to trains and none to leisure centres. Multiple sales by the Independent include 4,300 to airlines, a hefty 34,600 to hotels and 600 to the railways.

The Times has around 48,600 multiple sales copies - 19,000 to airlines, 13,000 to hotels and 14,700 to trains.

In March, the Financial Times shifted 36,000 bulks out of a total circulation of 448,000. The majority - 23,000 - went to airlines with the rest in hotels, trains and leisure centres.

Multiple sales at the popular end of the market are tiny because of the economic dependence on cover price rather than advertising, and at Express Newspapers, Richard Desmond banned bulks in 2005.

At the Daily Telegraph, sales director Steve McLaughlin sees his bulk policy as an important marketing and sampling exercise, particularly for a paper that has changed so much in the past two years. He is also unapologetic about his proportion of multiple copies.

"We have no ideal percentage in mind. You have to find a figure you are comfortable with from a cost point of view and look at the areas you want to distribute in and try and cover them," says McLaughlin.

"If you look at our bulks as a percentage of our sale, it’s slightly more than some people and quite a lot less than others, such as the Independent," the Telegraph executive adds.

One of his main preoccupations with bulks is persuading potential new readers that the Telegraph is no longer "an old-fashioned Tory newspaper" while encouraging casual readers to buy it more often.

"If you look at the breakdown of our bulks, most of them are on planes and we think that the best place these days for us to give our readers a minimum of an hour with the paper uninterrupted is probably on a plane," McLaughlin explains.

By trying to recruit new readers and bring occasional readers "up the scale a bit", he believes bulks are a valuable weapon in the battle "to prolong print as long as we can".

At the Guardian, managing director Tim Brooks says he uses bulks as a marketing exercise to put copies of his paper into the hands of people he hopes can be converted into full price paying.

"You have a core of people who usually buy your newspaper. But then there is surrounding that core a penumbra of people who quite like your newspaper, or don’t mind it, and when they are reminded that it is actually quite good, that it has that funny columnist or excellent reporter, will buy it again," says Brooks who is not sniffy about hotel bulks. It may be the smaller category compared with airlines but the Guardian executive believes that, almost by definition, people who stay in hotels are the upscale sort you want to reach - educated, affluent. Brooks also subscribes to the Good Bulks - Bad Bulks theory.

Multiple copies as part of a marketing strategy equates to good bulks.

"The second category which we do not play in involves desperately stuffing your ABC figure to try to fool the people who buy advertising in your newspaper. The most spectacular player in that game is the Telegraph group. I think the Sunday Telegraph has the lowest proportion of full price sales of any newspaper. We put all our efforts into boosting our full sale price," insists Brooks.

Over the sea

There are bulks, of course, and then there are overseas sales where, in most cases, a gross distribution figure is reported.

The Financial Times is an international newspaper and sells three quarters of its circulation outside the UK.

But other UK papers report quite substantial overseas sales. The Daily Mail in March was on 97,000, the Daily Telegraph sold 45,000, the Guardian 40,000, and the Times 25,000.

But it is the 53,000 overseas sales claimed by the Independent that has raised most eyebrows.

Media commentator Roy Greenslade has said that it stretches the imagination to breaking point that the Independent - and the Independent on Sunday with 41,000 foreign sales – do so well abroad when so few people in the UK care to buy them.

Pass the salt

What do the advertisers make of all these bulk and overseas sales?

The answer, according to Mark Gallagher of advertising agency OMD, is, after scrutinising the numbers in the ABC returns carefully, to take then with a large pinch of salt.

"What we do is make subjective opinions in terms of good bulks versus bad bulks. For instance, bulks on an airline in terms of a sampling exercise are pretty good. However, hotel rooms where busy executives are getting up and going to meetings, I don’t necessarily rate them," says Gallagher, who adds an extra pinch of salt for most overseas sales.

He is most critical, however, of what he sees as "dubious practices" designed to increase sales such as last summer’s WH Smith promotion where you could buy a Times or Independent for 70 or 80p and get a bottle of water worth £1.40 free of charge.

"What everyone was doing was buying the paper, getting the water and leaving the paper there. I’ve seen it happening. I’ve done it myself and yet it goes down as a full-rate sale. That for me is more important in terms of how those figures are manipulated than bulks", says the OMD newspaper specialist.

Perhaps the newspaper industry should in future concentrate more on the magazine concept of "actively purchased copies" - although there is little sign of that happening anytime soon.