Free Circulation: a new frontier in an online-first world

Earlier this year, ABC figures showed that the free magazines sector was bucking the wider print trend. A Rihanna-clad NME was relaunched for free in September, in what Editor Mike Williams called a ‘no brainer’ move that rocketed the Publication’s circulation from 15,000 to 300,000. But this was certainly a bold move for the 63 year old title. Media commentator, David Hepworth, said “I don’t think there’s any coming back from this. It either works or that’s the end.”

And maybe that is a good approach for print to take. In the online world, we’re forever being fed sound-bites like ‘adapt or die’, ‘fail quickly’, and ‘experiment with different platforms’. If the print platform is to prove its worth in a digital-first world then it too would do well to adopt this model. We can quite easily assess the commercial viability of losing 15,000 subscriptions vs. gaining 285,000 sets of eyeballs, but the acid test will be do audiences pick up the print on a regular basis?

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I took to the BBC earlier this year to talk Go Set a Watchman, the celebrated follow-up to Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird. “People are picking up the print copies of this publication”, I argued, as “it represents the opportunity to own a little piece of history” and I think to a lesser extent the same is also applicable here. 

Like NME, the first copy of Coach presents us with a little tiny piece of history: a brand new title from a major magazine publisher that is instantly hitting the streets rather than the newsstands. It’s exciting. And it’s free. Dennis is investing £3m in the new title and putting its editorial faith in Ed Needham, a former editor of FHM, Maxim and Rolling Stone. Whether these titles retain their circulations when the novelty wears off and familiarity breeds contempt, remains to be seen. 

But perhaps I am being too cynical. In a recent piece for Media Week Tim Slee, founder and chief executive of Square Up Media, reminded us that the company launched its first free title, Square Mile, a decade ago. And it continues to enjoy relationships with brands such as Rolex, British Airways, Virgin Holidays, Apple, and many others who have embraced the free print revolution.

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Time Out Digital Ltd’s Time Out magazine also of course remains a flagship of the free circulation market. When it first became a free publication in October 2012 it received an ABC circulation of over 305,000 copies per week, which was the largest distribution in the history of the brand and a strategy that increased revenue by 80 per cent. 

So there are success stories to be had. But what we need to be clear about here is that the free market is not a model through which the industry can ‘save print’. It is unique, niche, alternative, and far from propping up a 300 year old industry, this represents an altogether more modern incarnation of print that puts a physical item into the hands of people living in an online world. Just like experimentation with Snapchat, Periscope, and Instagram, publishers would do well to treat the free circulation model as a new frontier to be tried and tested.    

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