Putting your free paper where advertisers want it

January 2, 2013

By Bob Bobber

As newspapers search for new revenue sources or the ability to expand existing ones, many have begun producing new products or niche products that require free distribution. Whether they are real estate guides, entertainment weeklies, employment tabloids, health and fitness sections, etc., they all require good, effective distribution to be successful. Although this sounds easy, it can be more challenging than one thinks when you begin to start from scratch to get thousands of a brand new product delivered to customers who didn’t ask for or even know it exists. I thought if might be helpful to throw our a few suggestions to setting up a free distribution delivery from scratch.
• Decide on a realistic number to put out. Advertisers that generally drive these vehicles will want as many as possible because it makes their job easier to sell. Keep in mind that potential advertisers will notice if you are putting 200 employment guides at the local sub shop and 180 of them sit there for two weeks. Generally you are not going average more than 25 per stop even after you are established. Obviously some stops will do better and vice versa,
• How many stops are you going to have? If you average 25 per stop, do the math. If your distribution number is 5,000 then you need 200 stops. The market will eventually decide how many stops you need, but it’s a good rule of thumb to start with.
• How many stops per carrier? Doing free distribution is not much different than paid except for collections. The distance between stops should determine the number of stops a carrier does. I like my carriers to go between 3 and 4 hours. Fifty or sixty stops is a lot in one day. Once a carrier goes beyond that, you are pushing his or her quality of delivery and his or her safety. Boredom causes accidents.
• What kind of stops are good? Look for places where people are looking for something to read and/or will easily see your publication. Sounds simple but not always. Libraries are a obvious must. They love free products. Coffee shops, waiting rooms and gyms are always good, but you may also want to look for “billboard” locations where people are not necessarily going to take the papers but will see them prominently and it helps to begin to build your brand.
When first getting started, I like to use bank lobbies, which will generally allow you to put a half dozen papers on customer service tables. Another favorite location of mine is post offices. Some, not all, post offices will let you put papers on the post office box counters in the post office box area. Convenience stores are nice but you are not going to get a good location because owners or managers are not going to take up prime space with a non-revenue product. Finally, look out for the places other free publications are distributed. It’s just like Burger King locating across the street from McDonalds.
• Should I use racks or boxes? Because this is a free distribution product it is sometimes hard to justify too much expense on racks or boxes. I do think, however, that you should invest in a handful of boxes to place around the market for “billboards” and wire racks are often a requirement for some locations. If you keep your racks filled there is no need to pay extra for an ID plate. Your publication serves that purpose.
Some grocery stores and other retailers have free publication racks that are operated by an outside contractor. You pay for a spot on the rack. The fee is generally monthly and runs $20 or $30. These are usually pretty good locations but it can get expensive if you aren’t moving a lot of papers. I suggest that you only use these if you are weekly and can move at least 50 or more papers an edition.
• Pick up your returns. Nothing will get you kicked out of a stop faster than not picking up your returns in a timely fashion and keeping your racks clean and neat. Don’t stack up this week’s edition on top of last week’s.
• Keep your competition out of your rack. Unfortunately there are numerous free products out there that will use your wire rack or box if you let them. Usually a friendly call will stop it and if it doesn’t then throwing out their papers will discourage it. You might even talk to the store owner although it is generally best to keep them out of your feuds. You need to be a low maintenance convenience for their customers and asking them to solve your problem should be a last resort.
• Remember you are a guest. You are not making a store owner any revenue so you hope that they are letting you in their location as an added benefit for their customers. In most cases you need them more than they need you. Be polite and accommodating.
• Track your in’s and out’s. Your distribution can vary greatly from week to week so periodic audits and tracking of returns will help you balance your distribution just like the paid product. Unfortunately, because it is a free product, there is tendency to not pay attention to the returns but once you get a good idea of what stops move papers and which ones don’t, your returns percentage should be in the single digits on a regular basis.
Free products are part of most circulation operations these days and niche or target market products are on the rise. © Robert Bobber 2013

Bob Bobber is a newspaper consultant specializing in circulation sales, training and public speaking. You may contact him at rjbobber@bellsouth.net.

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