The practice is commonly defended by publishers, claiming it is a legitimate marketing exercise, aimed at encouraging new readers to try their products. Yet many, including some of the biggest practitioners, admit, privately, that the conversion rate to regular purchase is tiny. It would require a significant conversion rate to justify the huge cost of distributing these gifts – some can cost up to £1 – to every news-stand purchaser, be they new or regular readers.
The truth is that some publishers have become addicted to cover mounts, and the temporary spike they give to their ABCs, but find it difficult to wean themselves off the drug, fearing the hit to their next set of figures and the resulting loss of ad revenue.
Yet it seems some brave souls are attempting to do just that. Last week's consumer magazine ABCs were notable for the increase in the subscription component of the figures.
In the first six months of this year, subs were up 7.9%, with 6.74 million people now buying a magazine through subscription.
The significance of this is that free gifts are not usually included with subscription copies. Publishers can use the savings to offset the cost of marketing subscriptions. And the benefit to advertisers is that subscriptions iron out the peaks and troughs in a magazine's monthly sales – a bane of media planners – and provide more brand loyal readers to target.
There is also evidence that newspaper publishers are starting to see the light. The Mail On Sunday has announced an £8m investment in a new supplement targeting male readers. This editorial enhancement is expected to be joined by others from rival publishers this autumn.
The initiatives, adding real reader value, have been welcomed by media buyers who hope that it marks a trend of product investment that moves away from free CDs and DVDs.
Whether this represents a brave, enlightened strategy or whether publishers have merely exhausted the options for recycling the same golden oldies in their music compilations, a la 20 Greatest Love Songs, '70s Grooves, or Summer Soul, is a moot point.
Nevertheless, this commitment to real reader value is welcome.
This article was first published on Media Week