Bulks: the language around free distribution needs to change

It's time to change the image of "bulks", writes Duncan Chater, the group revenue officer at Hearst Magazines UK.

This week sees the latest round of magazine ABC results, and it doesn’t take a genius to predict a slew of headlines raising the deathknell for print.


Which really irritates me, because while it might be true for some sectors, it definitely isn’t true for all.

Here at Hearst, we believe print still has the power to reach, influence and engage consumers and to write it off prematurely, is shortsighted as well as naive.

We live in an age typified by digital transformation, and like any media business worth its salt, we have worked hard to innovate, stay relevant and target new audiences. It’s been obvious to us for years that the old ways of getting content out there aren’t enough.

In the battle for eyeballs, hearts and minds, no one can sit back and expect audiences to come to them. We needed to try new things, and shake things up a bit, which we’ve been doing across all platforms.

This includes taking a new proactive approach to getting magazines such as Cosmopolitan into the hands of young women. It has seen us take the magazine directly to where our target audiences are spending their time, whether that’s at music festivals, cinemas, shopping centres, or in the office at work. And we’ve called this "dynamic distribution".

Dynamic distribution is not "bulks" – which is how it sometimes gets described by our competitors and by media commentators. "Bulks" is a pretty grim word and conjures up sad images of unwanted free copies.

Whereas our copies are wanted. Research shows 20% of those consumers reached by dynamically distributed copies of Cosmopolitan, were new readers. So we’ve brought new women into the magazine, as well as lapsed readers.

This has helped Cosmopolitan increase its circulation by over 59% to become the highest circulating women’s glossy magazine, thus maximising reach for advertisers.

Our research also looked at engagement levels and, among 900 readers who either picked up Cosmopolitan via a dynamic distribution channel, on the newsstand or through a subscription, engagement levels were the same, and everyone, no matter how they received the magazine, read between 70%-80% of its content.

Cosmopolitan isn’t the only brand to benefit from this new approach. We’ve since extended the strategy to other titles, partnering Elle with fashion and beauty brands such as Lookfantastic.com and Space NK, and Harper’s Bazaar with organisations such as the V&A and the Royal Academy of Arts, as well as events with Historic Royal Palaces.

In other words, going where the audience is. Both brands have reaped the benefits and have engaged a whole new raft of readers.

The Cosmopolitan research results aren’t a one off. A second study of more than a thousand people also found high engagement levels for both Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar – 91% of people surveyed who’d got a copy of either magazine said they read it, 82% said they would read it again and more than one in four said they kept it or gave it to a friend.

We are still working our way through the results for Elle but early indications show similar findings.

So, rather than sad, unwanted, "bulks" we are investing our marketing budget in a targeted approach to distribution. We’re finding the right audience for each brand, and building loyalty. Ultimately, we’re breathing life into the sector and securing the future of print. So less of "the death of print" this week please. 

Duncan Chater is the group revenue officer at Hearst Magazines UK.

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