There may be no such thing as a free lunch and, by the same token, there's probably no such thing as free media - ultimately, somebody always pays.
But try telling that to a new generation of consumers who take it for granted that they don't have to pay for the media they consume. From free newspapers and magazines on public transport to free music streaming and video-on-demand on the web, the modern consumer can access a wealth of content without paying a penny.
According to research by thelondonpaper into this so-called "Generation Free" last year, media brands have to work harder to earn consumers' trust.
Terry Watkins, partner at TWResearch, which collaborated on the study, says: "Media owners no longer ‘own' their audience - they hold their attention only for as long as they remain relevant.
"Consumers have greater power and shift allegiance quickly. This cultural shift forces media owners to be more reactive, responsive and relevant, and then they face the ultimate challenge - to make their strategy pay."
William Higham, founder of consumer trend analyst Next Big Thing, who also worked with thelondonpaper on Generation Free, says free is not just about value, but also convenience. He reports: "One thing that came out of the focus groups was the fact that free newspapers are easy to pick up - you don't have to go into a newsagent."
Higham believes this desire will only increase in a recession, as consumers shy away from commitments and contracts. But he refutes the idea that the younger generation is disloyal to media brands. "They do feel loyalty in return for being given something," he says. "If a free newspaper gives consumers useful information, they feel grateful. The rule of thumb is: does it add value?"
So what does this mean for planners and advertisers wanting access to this potentially desirable, yet fickle, young audience? Media Week presents a guide to the dominant forms of free media and how best to use them to engage consumers.
Since the launch of Metro in 1999, followed by thelondonpaper and London Lite in 2006, free newspapers have become part of the daily routine for commuters in London and other major cities throughout the UK.
These titles have been joined by free business paper City AM and free magazines such as ShortList and Sport, which also target a young, urban and potentially lucrative demographic.
One commuter interviewed for thelondonpaper's research said: "Without thelondonpaper, you wouldn't know what to do. You'd just be staring at the floor. You'd get a bit nervous."
Readership of the free papers is booming. According to the National Readership Survey for 2008, London Lite's estimated readership jumped 37% year on year to 1,128,000, while thelondonpaper upped readership 27% year on year to 1,033,000. Both titles and Metro increased their volume of display advertising in the last quarter of 2008.
Emerson Bramwell, strategist at Havas media agency MPG, says targeting this market must take into account the fact that audiences are consuming media in shorter bursts or "snacking".
One MPG client, Freesat, has used this "little but often" approach in free papers to communicate its benefits package. The strategy included an advertorial in ShortList, written in the magazine's editorial style of Top 10s.
"We need to consider how free media is consumed," says Bramwell. "You don't necessarily look through all of YouTube or read Metro cover to cover. Advertisers should think about getting their information across in bite-sized chunks."
Major advertisers in thelondonpaper have included telecoms, entertainment, film, gaming and TV channel brands, says head of trading Naim Halloum. Some have run tactical campaigns against editorial. For example, Kylie Minogue's fragrance Kylie Minogue Couture was advertised alongside coverage of February's Brit Awards, which the singer presented.
Other brands target commuters looking for their evening entertainment - for example, ITV2 used the paper to promote its autumn schedule. Research by thelondonpaper found that 36% of those surveyed want to read lighthearted stories, news or gossip on their journey home. They are likely to be making plans for the evening or the days ahead and 28% see it as "me time".
But readers of free papers in the morning may be more focused on their career. Mediaedge:cia used Metro for its client, the Training and Development Agency, to target readers who might want to make a career switch to teaching, through an ad every Monday. Ian Edwards, strategy director, says: "Readers' relationships with free papers might not be so deep, but it's a matter of targeting people when they are in the right mindset. In this case, going to work on a Monday morning and possibly fed up with their job."
But how loyal are readers to "free" brands? TW Research's Watkins says the whole notion of loyalty has changed. "We've lost many newspaper tribes who wore their masthead loyalty as a badge of belief, behaviour and values - Guardian or Telegraph types are a dying breed. Readers use what they want from the paid-for papers to suit their needs, but seldom join an exclusive club."
Instead, he says, consumers know the value of their time and give it according to convenience, opportunism and timing. "Thelondonpaper is there when you need it, such as on the commute. The loyalty the paper creates might then stretch to other platforms or environments."
Only a few years ago, broadcasters were mired in worries about piracy of content from illegal peer-to-peer networks and the likes of YouTube. Stuart McDonald, head of advertising insight at thelondonpaper, says: "Three-quarters of the Generation Free group we looked at confessed to having downloaded music or film illegally for free."
But now virtually all the mainstream broadcasters have jumped on the free media bandwagon, from signing up to Freeview and Freesat to launching catch-up, video-on-demand services such as ITV.com, 4oD and the BBC iPlayer.
"TV has learned a lot from the issues the music industry has had to face," says David Brennan, research and strategy director at Thinkbox. "Luckily, the TV industry has a long legacy of offering free content in return for advertising."
Brennan says that, although download services offer shorter ad breaks, advertisers are willing to pay higher cost-per-thousands (CPMs) for a desirable audience and an uncluttered, highly interactive environment.
He also points out that research has shown that full-screen, immersive TV advertising can still work online. Advertisers who have used the space particularly well include Domino's Pizza, which extended its sponsorship of Britain's Got Talent onto ITV.com.
OMD UK, meanwhile, appealed to the YouTube generation with its "You make it, we play it" campaign for Doritos. Consumers were invited to create their own ads and then vote for the winning entry, with the ad aired online and on Channel 4. The campaign resulted in a 15% uplift in sales.
Sam d'Amato, associate strategy director at OMD UK, says: "We are guests in this audience's attention span. Give them something that is not useful, entertaining or interesting, and they will filter you out. Worse still, they will seed and propagate negative word-of-mouth about your brand. Get it right and they will discuss it, share it and create your media campaign for you."
But will Generation Free grow up believing they can access any broadcast content without paying a penny - or, indeed, a licence fee? Brennan believes not. He says that, for the BBC, giving the next generation access to its content should make it appreciate the value of what it offers, while the likes of Sky offer some content on Freeview that actually promotes its premium content. The concept of "freemium" is alive and well in broadcast.
The rise of free media would never have happened without social media, say commentators.
Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have driven an explosion in free content and applications, and not even kids are immune. Thanks to the likes of Disney's Club Penguin virtual world, "free" members can upgrade to paid memberships for a range of additional features.
Although the jury is still out on whether social media can remain free - Twitter founder Biz Stone last month announced plans to launch commercial products this year - there is no doubt it can deliver scale. So how should brands approach it?
"Social media is not just Facebook and MySpace; it's blogs, forums, music-sharing sites and anywhere there are groups of people," says Alex Miller, head of I-Level's social media division Jam.
"It's not so much planning by demographics as interest groups. Rather than reaching 24 to 30-year-olds, you might be trying to reach people who really love The Killers. Traditional planning tools are not so relevant for this audience. Instead, planners should think of it as the biggest, most honest focus group you can imagine."
For example, says Miller, Sony targeted influential book-club bloggers for the launch of its e-book tool, The Reader. Sony built relationships with the bloggers by giving them an early chance to use the product and the blog posts were read by 300,000 people and then picked up by mainstream media.
Meanwhile, Mediaedge:cia used Yahoo to create a community for the Department of Health's Tobacco Control campaign, where people wanting to give up smoking can click through from the Yahoo home page to join the Stop Smoking UK group.
"Brands are just starting to understand that social media is not about creating cheap impacts; it is about creating a destination for your audience," says MEC's strategy director, Ian Edwards.
While free gaming, news-sharing and photo-sharing sites also attract many users, one new area of the web that is quickly opening up to advertisers is free legal music sites. Obtaining music for free once meant downloading tracks illegally, but new legal music streaming sites such as Spotify, Pandora and Last.fm allow users to access millions of tracks free of charge.
Spotify works by paying record labels to host their music catalogues, and users can listen for free, hearing a 15-second ad every half an hour. For those prepared to pay, music without ads is available for a £9.99 subscription per month.
The world of mobile media is changing, according to Alexandre Mars, head of mobile at Publicis Groupe and chief executive of mobile marketing firm Phonevalley.
He says: "Six to nine months ago, the major players in mobile all decided to change their business models to free."
As well as mobile internet sites providing a wealth of content, services such as Blyk allow consumers to receive free calls in return for advertising. This model is starting to take off worldwide - Virgin Mobile USA recently launched SugarMama, a brand that offers free airtime in return for ads. Although reach for these services is still relatively small, response rates are high, says Mars.
For example, Lucozade ran a campaign offering people a free drink voucher, and 35% of the vouchers were redeemed by Blyk users, despite only 1% of the campaign's media spend being allocated to the channel.
"The results can be hugely rewarding," says Shaun Gregory, managing director of media at O2 and former chief executive at Blyk. "But it isn't easy for planners; the secret is to make sure you are targeting the correct audience. There are very different clusters within the free world - for example, those who are really passionate and active 24/7 versus freeloaders who just burn through their free allocation."
Meanwhile, some advertisers are starting to get into content provision themselves, according to David Fieldhouse, mobile manager at MediaCom. For example, Cancer Research hosted free mobile content, such as wallpapers and downloads, on its website.
Fieldhouse says: "The opportunity for advertisers is that mobile is a vast distribution channel. More people will be engaging with richer content as they get 3G handsets and brands can deliver relevant content for free."
I-Level uses MySpace
I-Level used the enthusiasm of MySpace's entertainment-loving audience to promote Trident chewing gum in a link-up with the MySpace Comedy launch.
The campaign, which ran from August to November, encouraged aspiring comics to send in clips of their comedy performances, which were designed to be passed around and shared by online consumers as content "snacks".
Fans voted for their favourites - and got the opportunity to win tickets to the final live show - by clicking on "spit" or "chew" buttons and the eventual winners of the contest won a comedy deal worth £250,000.
Up-and-coming comedian Gareth Mayer says: "I respect brands that do something like this. It shows they're thinking about the consumer and are willing to give something back."
In a second tie-up with MySpace, I-Level worked with Orange to promote its Orange Unlit tour - a series of impromptu gigs by up-and-coming bands played in followers' front rooms.
The aim of the campaign, which ran from July to October last year, was to bring to life Orange's "I Am/Together We Can Do More" message, which focuses on the idea that people are the sum of the relationships they have.
Cadbury hijacks free newspapers to boost Dairy Milk sales
Cadbury's heavyweight press campaign last May was a tactical move to take market share from its rival, Galaxy.
Cadbury's target audience was 21 to 29-year-old women and the aim was to promote the message that Cadbury makes just as smooth chocolate as Galaxy, with a glass-and-a-half of fresh milk in every bar.
Lead planner Sally Knight, investment manager at Starcom, says: "The problem was that women tended to choose Galaxy as a snack in the afternoon. We wanted to reposition Dairy Milk as the first-choice brand for young career women."
Starcom chose women's weekly magazines, free newspapers and The Sun and the Mirror for its two-week campaign, focusing on full-page ads in prominent positions.
For example, the agency used the outside back covers of Metro, London Lite and thelondonpaper, reasoning that free newspapers' back pages are highly visible when commuters leave the papers face-down on the Tube.
Starcom launched the campaign, which ran from 12 to 30 May, with a cover-wrap in Metro. It also engineered a "mini-hijack" of thelondonpaper on 28 May, taking over all the advertising space from the front cover to page nine.
Knight says free newspapers were a good fit because no other medium offers the hard-to-reach audience of young urbanite women.
"We needed to reach young women returning home from a day in the office, and this audience doesn't read paid-for papers. Even if someone only reads a free paper for five minutes, they will still see our advertising if we have a dominant positioning."
Sales figures for individual Cadbury brands are a closely guarded secret, but research conducted by thelondonpaper among its readers shows the campaign achieved an overall recall of 52%, rising to 58% among 18 to 34-year-olds.
Also, 66% of respondents agreed that the creative approach of the Dairy Milk campaign "sticks in the mind more than standard newspaper advertising" and 48% agreed the ad got Cadbury's values across.
Most importantly, 87% of all those who saw thelondonpaper ads got the message that Dairy Milk contains a glass-and-a-half of milk and 72% were convinced that Cadbury's chocolate is made with only fresh milk.
This article was first published on mediaweek.co.uk