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What’s stopping you launching a free title?

Publishers launch things. That’s what they do! Launches are the beating heart of the industry. Ten years ago, launches were mainly print, whilst now they are as likely to be digital, but either way, launches are still the lifeblood of publishing and publishers should be seriously looking at the free sector for their next one, Sally Summerhayes tells James Evelegh.

By James Evelegh

Why not launch a free title? ‘Free’ is a growth area and it hasn’t peaked yet, whereas the paid-for market is in long term decline. There are gaps in the free market now for new entrants and publishers should be alive to the possibilities,” says Sally Summerhayes, sales and marketing director of hand distribution experts, The Network.

The market

The London free distribution market is obviously the biggest, and commuters into the capital have become accustomed to distributors in their brightly coloured uniforms handing out copies of the Evening Standard and Metro (daily), Time Out (Tues), Stylist (Wed), ShortList (Thurs) and Sport (Fri).

In terms of gaps, Monday is an obvious one, but the other days are not off limits. The launch doesn’t need to be a full distribution mass-market affair; there are lots of opportunities for highly targeted neighbourhood distribution and, outside London, there are even more opportunities since the regional markets are much less crowded. Indeed, The Network is having lots of conversations with regional newspaper publishers as they experiment with new hybrid distribution models.

What is holding publishers back?

So, what is holding back the established consumer magazine publishers? Fear of cannibalising their paid-for titles? Perhaps, though such fears are surely misplaced. Publishers need to shake off a defensive mindset and be proactive in all markets where they can make a profit. Perhaps it’s because the market is dominated by high quality players? The existing players are certainly strong, but such a timid outlook from what is usually a fiercely competitive sector, is surprising. Or, lastly, lack of familiarity with the free distribution model? Most consumer magazine publishers have newstrade, subscriptions and digital marketing expertise, but perhaps not so much with free distribution, which is still a relatively new sector.

Whatever it is, publishers need to engage with the free distribution market, or risk missing opportunities, and an extremely good first step is to invite Sally round to bat some ideas around. Indeed, this should be one of the first calls you make in the planning stages, right at the start of the project, because The Network can contribute essential intelligence and advice early in the planning process, says Sally.


The Network’s pedigree

The Network has been a major player in the area of field marketing since 1990. Initially focusing on the retail and travel sector, the company helped launch Metro in the regions in 2000, and has been a market leader in the hand distribution of newspapers and magazines ever since. Clients include Metro, the Evening Standard, Time Out and Sport. The company provides a wide range of field marketing services, including mass sampling and retail compliance auditing, but their core offering is hand distribution.

The Network builds long term relationships with publishers, who expect high standards and quick turnaround times. During the London free newspaper wars of 2006, Associated Newspapers gave The Network just 24 hours notice of the launch of LondonLite, their answer (some might say spoiler) to News International’s TheLondonPaper. The Network’s ability to work at speed helped ensure that Associated’s offering was first on the streets.

The most visible manifestation of their work is the legion of distributors in their bright branded uniforms that stand at the exit of stations handing out copies to the morning commuters.

The physical act of donning a red jacket and handing someone a copy is simple enough, though a great deal of organisation goes on behind the scenes to ensure a successful, tightly controlled, ABC audited distribution, day in day out. The Network has to recruit and maintain a large pool of distributors, and to constantly replenish that pool, because, inevitably with minimum-wage street distributors, churn is high. All distributors, whether they work 24 hours or 24 weeks are background checked for eligibility to work in the UK, added to payroll for national insurance and pension contributions. Everything is done properly. They are trained up, supervised by team leaders and their performance spot checked by mystery shoppers to ensure they are standing where they should be and visible and vocal. If they are not saying “Free Time Out” loud and clear, they will be missed, however bright their jackets!

The Network runs a tightly controlled and professional distribution operation, which is critical not only for the all important ABC figure, but also for the publisher’s peace of mind!

So much more than people management

Handing out the copies is only part of the story. The company’s success is built on data. Everything is recorded: number of copies supplied to each location, number of copies left over plus sporadic half hour checks to make sure shift timings are correct. All the data, along with photographic evidence, is recorded via their GPS enabled Network Online Reporting App (NORA) and fed into the system for ABC reporting and performance monitoring. The huge volumes of historical data allows The Network’s analysts to slice and dice the data any which way, comparing day to day, period to period, location to location and it is this depth of knowledge and experience which allows The Network to give such well-informed advice to publishers.

“Our expertise in the free distribution sector is second to none,” she says.

The Network has the knowledge to know the dynamics of each major UK city and where the opportunities lie, the demographic profile of the commuters at each distribution point, what works and what doesn’t; in short, they have got it all sorted!

Yes, any publisher can get the footfall figures at each London station from Transport for London, but that won’t give them the critical distribution intelligence. It is only by marrying the TfL figures with the actual distribution data that any real sense can be made of the opportunities and realistic plans set. “We know”, says Sally, “that whatever the TfL figures might tell you, that you’re not going to shift 10,000 copies at Chancery Lane tube!”

The Network has this knowledge and, says Sally, wants to share it with prospective publishing partners as early in the planning process as possible.

How to launch a free hand-distribution title

So, putting this expertise to the test, I ask Sally: what advice would she give to a publisher considering launching a free hand-distribution title?

1. Do your sums.

“Work out how many copies you need to distribute to satisfy the advertisers. This is the start point and everything else works back from there.”

2. Produce a quality editorial product, with eye-catching covers.

“Just because it’s free, people expect good quality; they won’t just take it.”

3. Set realistic expectations and control costs tightly.

“Beware any distributor who promises the earth. Be realistic about your likely initial distribution. Make intelligent assumptions, launch and then build.”

4. Choose the right distribution partner.

“You’re obviously not going to be handing out the copies yourself, so you need to get the right distribution partner (like The Network!) on board as early as possible, to ensure that there is a highly visible, properly managed team, with robust ABC compliant reporting systems in place, to distribute your title. Don’t underestimate the complexity of the operation. Don’t assume anyone can distribute your title; the supplier needs to have the infrastructure and experience to get it right.”

5. Devise a well thought through distribution plan which will achieve the numbers you need.

“This will be done in close consultation with your distributor. Identify your target market and then build a distribution plan focusing on the right day, time of day and locations. Make sure your copies are delivered on time to the various distribution points. Having your distributors there, but the copies not, won’t get you very far. The Network, which is owned by Menzies Distribution, can offer a full end-to-end logistical package.”

6. Publicise your launch.

“Give your free publication the best possible chance of success by giving it as much advance publicity as possible, though all the normal channels, particularly social media.”

7. Love your distributors.

“However well managed they are, distributors are only human; so on a damp cold February morning, a pat on the back and thanks from a member of your team as they pass through the station won’t go amiss!”

8. Review, review, review.

“The hard work doesn’t stop once you’ve launched. You need to be constantly reviewing and fine tuning all aspects of distribution. Your Network account manager will sit down with you for a line by line analysis after every distribution. Variances will be analysed, areas of under-performance reviewed and remedial action taken in time for the next distribution.”

Tick all the above boxes and you’ve got the makings of a highly successful free publication! But it’s a lot to get your head around and you should seek expert help early.

Call us in

“So… if you want to evaluate free publication, call us in. We can come to your office, sign an NDA and then give you the benefit of our considerable market knowledge, which will help you make an informed decision. If you decide not to go ahead for the time being, then no harm done, but if you do proceed, then our input can really help accelerate the planning process and improve your chances of subsequent success,” says The Network’s Sally Summerhayes.


The Network

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20 Belmont Terrace

London W4 5UG

0208 7424342