London Lite may be dead, but free distribution has a big future

Farewell then, London Lite.

In a column in this month's print edition, I argue that the freesheet's demise doesn't signal the end of large-scale free distribution. More likely, it's the end of the beginning.

Journalists look down their noses at freesheets for all kinds of reasons. In particular, we tend to think of paid circulation and free circulation as polar opposites.

Buying a newspaper involves a considered choice. It's a transaction that involves brand loyalty, something advertisers are keen to piggyback upon. Affinity is implicit in the deal: readers of paid-for newspapers are typically regarded as self-selecting demographic communities.

By contrast, freesheet distribution looks like a classic case of interruption marketing. Street vendors shove copies under the noses of consumers, apparently indiscriminately. It's easy for advertisers – and the rest of us – to believe that freesheet readers are less engaged, and therefore less valuable.

Increasingly, though, I wonder about this. Recently, I talked to an editor -- on a paid-for title -- who argued the merits of free distribution. He had this to say about the circulation of one London freesheet:

They know how many copies each of their distributors is likely to hand out on a given day, at a given time, on a given street corner. They know that putting their distributors in certain locations at certain times of the day will maximise their distribution. They're getting very close to a situation in which they physically hand a copy of the magazine to everyone who wants one.

His point was that freesheet distribution is more efficient than paid-for distribution.

It may also be just as effective. Last month, Frederic Filloux, a former Liberation journalist who now works as a consultant for Schibsted, had this to say about the launch of 20 Minutes, the Parisian freesheet:

We had detailed sets of data showing, who, where, at what time of the day, people where passing by 800 points of the greater Paris; we picked the spots – entrances of subway or commuter train stations, high density street corners –  that were of the highest interest to us.

Note that mention of 'who". The science of free distribution isn't just about numbers. It's about the demographics of footfall, too.

For example: shortly after launching 20 Minutes in 2002, Filloux's researchers noticed that the paper's circulation was skewed towards male readers.

They quickly discovered the reason for the skew: women tend to turn up at train stations later than men in the mornings (because they have to take the kids to school or nursery). Keeping the distribution bins stocked with copies for half-an-hour longer in the mornings solved the problem.

Filloux continues:

After a while, our distribution and marketing team were able to pinpoint exactly where a certain category of people would show up. That proved to be of great value to advertisers; when they wanted to target a particular segment for a commercial operation, such as distributing samples of their product, the yield we delivered was unprecedented.

When editors and publishers insist they've achieved 'unprecedented'results on behalf of advertisers, it's worth being wary.

But still: the distribution system that Filloux describes is far from random. Arguably, there's just as much intelligence operating behind the scenes here as there is in the ancient and venerable business of newsstand distribution. Perhaps more.

It's easy enough to deride the content of freesheets. But it's harder to deride the distribution mechanism, which secures both reach (and if Filloux is to be believed) desirable demographics. Advertisers lust after both.

Free distribution has a big future ahead of it. If the Evening Standard succeeds in replacing £12m or so in lost circulation revenue with additional advertising revenue, that future could arrive sooner rather than later.

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