Media Forum: Are free titles the way forward?

Will more free magazines follow Sport into the men's market, Alasdair Reid asks.

At first glance, Monkey and Sport don't seem to have much in common. Except, obviously, for the fact that they're both targeted at a young male audience. And that both are distributed for free. Actually, come to think of it, we might be on to something here - because both have just reported highly encouraging audience figures.

Monkey, the web-only property launched by Dennis Publishing last November, has released a debut eABC figure of 209,612, making it, the publisher claims, the "fastest-growing men's magazine in the world".

This somewhat stretches the definition of magazine - a link to a Monkey website is e-mailed to a distribution list every Wednesday - but we know what they mean.

No such problems of definition exist for Sport, which has inky pages printed on review-quality news print. Launched last September, it is distributed at commuter locations (two-thirds of the total) between 7.00 and 9.30 on a Friday morning, and is also available at places such as gyms.

Its target market is men aged 18 to 40, and its average issue circulation during February was 321,893, according to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report. Last week, it also released details of a specially commissioned survey from YouGov, showing that 82 per cent of its readership lies with the ABC1 demographic. That, the publisher claims, is the highest ABC1 ratio of any men's magazine in the UK.

Both projects, in other words, are doing rather nicely. So, will we see more free products in this sector? After all, the men's market is hardly saturated. Though there are plenty of titles, both weekly and monthly, vast tracts of the male audience remain virgin territory where magazine (or magazine-owned website) consumption is concerned.

Yet, despite this fact, paid-for circulations of men's magazines have been looking fragile of late. So, is free the way to go? Steve Goodman, the managing director of print trading at Group M, points out that not all free magazines are world-beaters. He explains: "There are two important issues - quality of content and type of distribution method. If distribution is questionable, people will be making no real effort to pick a publication up, and if they have no real interest in it, then they might not open it up. Even if they do open it up, if the quality of the editorial isn't there, they won't spend much time reading it. It's not rocket science. Where both Sport and Monkey are concerned, I've been fairly impressed. So, yes, they show it can work. I think it might encourage others to try something similar."

And Greg Miall, the publishing director of Sport, points out that, from an advertising point of view, the primary duty of a media owner is to deliver an audience. He adds: "We ensure that we get the product into the hands of ABC1 20- to 45-year-olds - and we have a better percentage of ABC1s than, for instance, GQ. To succeed, you have to produce a magazine that people like, and we know that the people who take Sport are genuinely interested. People who have no interest in sports just don't pick it up."

It is then up to the publisher to give advertisers concrete numbers - the amount of time people spend reading it, for instance, and the percentage of the magazine's content they read. "To my mind, the whole issue of active purchase is overplayed. When it comes down to it, you're actually talking about less than the price of a beer," he says.

Chris Amor, the head of press at OMD UK, doesn't exactly agree with that sentiment. He says: "In general, you have to ask whether the audience really is committed to the product if they get it for free. Would they pay for it if it had a coverprice? Because magazines are different to other media. But, yes, I do think we'll see more of this, because the cost of print and distribution are continuing to fall, and if you can produce something cheaply and persuade even a small number of advertisers to get on board, then there's a business there."

Rob Munro-Hall, the managing director of FHM Worldwide, tends to agree with that - some of it, at least. He confesses that Sport interests him far more than Monkey. "I think publishers in many sectors will be looking at free distribution. What Sport has done is attractive to both readers and advertisers - and the question about whether the title has been actively purchased is less important than it might have been in the past. The feeling is that if the big newspaper groups can do it, then it must be valid," he concludes.

YES - Steve Goodman, MD, print trading, Group M

"Sport is a brilliant product and it has a distribution model that works. So far, publishers have been targeting the same sorts of audience with the same sorts of product. That's why fresh ideas like Sport have been so welcome."

YES - Greg Miall publishing director, Sport

"Clearly, the answer is 'yes'. As a media owner, you are trying to deliver an audience - and it's only in publishing that we expect people to seek out their publication from the thousands on the shelves and then queue up to pay for it."

MAYBE - Chris Amor, head of press, OMD UK

"Sometimes, with a free title, there's a status gap. But I do think we'll see a lot more free magazines targeting men, because there are enough people out there who can produce something on a shoestring."

YES - Rob Munro-Hall, managing director, FHM Worldwide

"What we've seen in the newspaper market has helped to validate free distribution. So I'd be surprised if we didn't see more people looking at this as a way of bringing new products to market."

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