In Defense of Giving Away Free Magazines
Among magazine-media pundits, there’s been a sort of unannounced contest to see who can find the most ridiculously low-priced subscription offer.
I found the winner – for now, at least – the other day in The Wall Street Journal: an ad touting a $1 annual (10 issues) subscription to Entrepreneur magazine. That’s 10 cents a copy. I believe the previous Punditstakes winner was a $5 two-year subscription.
The unwritten rules of Media Punditry say I’m now supposed to launch into a rant about how such bargain-basement offers undercut newsstand sales and reflect overinflated ratebases. But since my anonymity gives me protection from the Punditry Police, I’ll deviate from that well-worn path and ask an impertinent question that might shock my pontificating brethren and sistren:
Why not just give the copies away? It wouldn’t require an expensive advertising campaign. And it’s not as if that $1 price will come close to the cost of printing and mailing the magazines.
Let me first state that Entrepreneur might actually know what it’s doing. Perhaps its data show that such $1 subscribers have a high renewal rate, or end up buying the title’s books or attending its events. (Kudos for the multi-faceted revenue stream.) And perhaps what it earns from those $1 subscribers dwarfs what it makes from newsstand sales.
But I think it comes down to brainwashing, the same brainwashing that afflicts most of the consumer-magazine industry.
Those of us who’ve been in the business awhile have been taught that giving away free copies is a shameful act that will cause hair to grow on our palms (or something like that). Potential advertisers, we’ve been told, demand that we show “wantedness” – that our readers actually want our magazines and will therefore read them. And paying for a magazine is the only sure sign of wantedness. Never mind the low-ball subscription prices as long as the “Average Subscription Price Analyzed” on the circulation audit is acceptable.
Here are four reasons that the old advice about paid versus free copies no longer applies:
1. Advertisers Are Comfortable With Free Media
On a recent flight to New York, I pulled out the complimentary copy of Hemispheres magazine from the seatback pocket and managed to find a few articles mixed in with all the ads and airline promotions. When I arrived, I bought a copy of the Sunday New York Times, which included a free copy of the Times’ magazine that seemed to have no trouble attracting ads for its erudite, high-end audience.
Outside a subway station, someone handed me a copy of Time Out New York, which switched to free distribution two years ago. Let’s just say it had far more ads than did the copy I bought of a more famous New York-based weekly magazine that omitted “Out New York” from its name.
When I returned home and visited a doctor’s office, the waiting room had several copies of WebMD magazine, which had so many pharma ads it might have to be regulated by the FDA.
Oh, and you might have heard of two free web platforms, Google and Facebook, that seem to be attracting a few ad dollars these days.
If advertisers care so much about whether our readers paid for their copies, then why are they spending most of their ad dollars on free media?
2. Advertisers Demand Precise Targeting
Advertisers have always wanted to target their ads to the right audiences, but their options were limited in the days before programmatic ads, search engines, and niche websites. Except for the nichiest of titles, magazines’ subscriber lists no longer look especially targeted when compared to many of advertisers’ digital options.
Free magazines can be successful by targeting readership of interest to particular advertisers – such as air travelers, people thinking about their health, tourists, and prospective home buyers.
Advertisers’ traditional resistance to free copies arose out of a concern that the copies will be dumped on people who don’t want them and therefore won’t see the ads. (And, given what some publishers have done to meet their ratebases, that skepticism was well founded.) But I see growing acceptance and even excitement among advertisers when paid titles supplement their circulation with highly relevant free distribution.
Complimentary copies can target industry VIPs, the store managers of a retail chain, gym rats, parents of young children (in pediatricians’ waiting rooms), affluent parents of teens (in orthodontists’ waiting rooms), CEOs, financial advisors, association members – the list is nearly endless.
For potential Entrepreneur advertisers, I’d guess that attendees at a small-business fair, members of an online community for business owners, Chamber of Commerce members, and people who download a relevant white paper would be far more attractive than $1 subscribers. And it wouldn’t take an expensive advertising campaign to acquire them.
3. Our Magazines Need the Exposure
Perhaps there was a time when a large percentage of Wall Street Journal readers were familiar with Entrepreneur, but not anymore. Non-subscribers don’t encounter our products – even well-known titles – anywhere near as much as they used to. They are far less likely to see or sample magazines – or God forbid, buy them – in stores than before the “newsstand” (magazine retail) system went into its decade-long death spiral.
Even hair salons and doctors’ waiting rooms seem to have fewer non-health titles than they did a decade ago. And yet such “public-place” copies typically have multiple readers per copy, making them an efficient way to expose your magazine to new readers (especially if you mail to different locations each month).
The only thing that I’m certain is wrong with the Entrepreneur campaign is that it offers no way to see what the product is actually like. How hard would it be to provide free online access to a back issue or perhaps a downloadable “best of” collection from the magazine?
Do we really expect people to pay for a magazine they’ve never seen?
4. Our Brands Need the Boost
I’ve lost track of all the digital-native publishers that now produce a print magazine. Even Digiday, whose beat is digital publishing, took the retro route by starting a quarterly title last year.
They didn’t do it for the money; most of the new-media magazines are built on a modest scale. These magazines have a higher calling – to provide credibility and cache to their brands, enabling the parent websites to attract more search-engine traffic and more premium advertising.
Traditional magazine publishers can learn from these digital upstarts – that having a respected magazine is a significant competitive advantage on the overcrowded Wild, Wild Web. And that means that getting more people to experience a magazine doesn’t just boost the magazine, it benefits the entire brand as well.