To college students, the clear plastic bags handed out at 35 campuses across Canada in late 2015 represented some free samples suitable for a midnight snack or a load of laundry. But for the Toronto Star, the sample packs represent crucial inroads into two difficult-to-reach segments: young adults and consumer packaged goods (CPG) advertisers. 

“We were looking for a way to target the Millennial audience and monetise it,” says Julie Murtha, director of audience development and innovation at the Toronto Star. 

Toronto Star distributed these campus survival kids at more than 35 colleges when school started.
Toronto Star distributed these campus survival kids at more than 35 colleges when school started.

Consumer marketing managers at the Star came up with the idea of creating the sample packs, in part, to leverage the newspaper’s existing distribution relationships on college campuses. Along with better reaching a Millennial crowd that doesn’t gravitate to traditional newspapers, the sample packs — dubbed “campus survival kits” — provided an opportunity to win business from CPG manufacturers, which typically are not large newspaper advertisers. 

“Every marketer out there is looking for a way to target Millennials,” Murtha says. “Instead of being that mass-market newspaper, we can hit that demographic at a time when they are making their buying decisions.” 

For the past three years, the sample packs have been distributed at Toronto-area universities. In 2015, the programme expanded to 35 schools nationwide, with 200,000 packs distributed during orientation week for incoming students. 

The packs are handed out by “brand ambassadors” at kiosks during special orientation events at each campus. Each pack contains about 10 items, ranging from granola bars and coupons, to coconut water and promotional items from banks and fast-food restaurants. In late 2015, Uber included a coupon good for C$20 off an initial ride with the ride-sharing service. 

“We want the pack to be substantial enough so everyone’s getting a good value,” Murtha says. “Some brands want exclusivity or want to own the pack, so we’re trying to find a balance between a brand that dominates and brands that want to be associated with other good brands.” 

The Star’s sales representatives often work with CPG companies to identify the right product to include. “Giving them a coupon or postcard won’t work,” Murtha says. “You’ve got to give students something they’re going to keep or going to consume.” 

CPG companies are also “a slow sale,” according to Murtha: “The big brands have a lot of layers. You’re not going to get a decision in the first three weeks.”

The packs are branded with the “campus survival kit” moniker; the Star’s role is minimised in packaging, Murtha says: “Talking to advertisers, we’re leveraging our reputation as the Toronto Star, but when we’re distributing the pack, we want to build the Campus Survival Kit brand, not the Toronto Star brand, because it doesn’t necessarily resonate with the audience.” 

Advertisers value the turnkey distribution opportunity and the cost-savings that come from being included as part of a larger sample pack, according to Murtha. However, one key challenge has been to measure response. “It was difficult to measure, especially compared to digital channels,” Murtha says.

The Star partnered with a company called BrandSpark, which used postcards in the packs to encourage students to provide feedback on the Web site for a chance to win a laptop. Murtha says that Millennials are particularly willing to give feedback — “if they feel like they are being listened to.” 

As distribution ramped up in late 2015, a second challenge involved scale. Only the largest brands, Murtha says, can support 200,000 samples. Other advertisers want to target specific campuses, and together these variables can cause logistical challenges that need to be weighed against the added complexity of assembling and distributing the sample packs.

However, the initiative has been profitable from the beginning, according to Murtha. “It’s a good way to generate revenue with an audience we’re not currently targeting,” she says. “If a brand wants to target the Millennials, it’s another product we’ve been able to sell.” 

This is one of 14 case studies featured in INMA’s strategic report “Revenue Diversification Beyond Traditional Print and Digital,” released in December 2015.