Why free magazines fail and what the lessons are for content marketers

Raconteur and Coach have both folded despite being popular with readers – so what’s gone wrong with free?

The closure of one free, premium-minded magazine could be carelessness. The closure of two within a few weeks looks distinctly like a trend.

Raconteur launched in March, promising to provide ‘a global review of current affairs’. It had a smart website and, crucially, a print version that was given away at selected locations in London.

Both physical and digital versions will close by the end of the year with the failure being squarely attributed to a lack of advertising revenue.

Coach magazine has also shut-up shop after failing to make sufficient profit. The brand was created by Dennis Publishing (at a reported cost of £3m) in October 2015 but the 14 December issue will be the last. It will continue in digital form and its health and wellbeing content will move from male-centric to unisex.

Publishers of both titles told Press Gazette that a dramatic downturn in advertising revenue in the past 18 months had led to the closures.

So, why don’t advertisers like free magazines and what can content marketers learn from these failed endeavours?

Free feels cheap

Raconteur Media is best known for producing the business supplements in The Times and that side of the company is continuing.

It may be that they could not attract the right advertisers to the more consumer-focused articles in its new venture. Perhaps advertisers were happy to appear in a free supplement with a paid-for newspaper but felt differently about buying space in a publication that costs nothing.

Raconteur and Coach produced good journalism aimed at affluent consumers, but if you have a limited budget for print advertising you may want to spend it on a premium men’s glossy or business title. There is a point at which a product becomes so cheap that it loses a perception of quality. Would you buy a burger for 50p, however good it tasted? Maybe free is just too cheap.

Content used for marketing is traditionally free, just like these failed magazines. This can make it feel disposable and lacking in value, however good it is.

Fake it till you make it

A useful test when assessing the quality and true value of the content you are producing is to ask: ‘who would pay for this?’ And while demanding cash for content may be unachievable, putting obstacles other than price around your content may be effective in creating a perception of value.

Which are you more likely to read and value: a blog post, a downloadable PDF or a report that you have to request via a form? The first is the most accessible but the last carries the greatest authority, even if the information within is identical.

Online forms are one way to add to the perception of value. Types of membership, authorisation or access time-delay are others – though there’s always the risk that your lead will just walk away. That’s why it’s crucial to be clear about the purpose of your content and its audience.

A diverse approach is the safest so you can meet the needs of different people without letting any get away.

Quality costs

Asking people to pay for marketing content is hard but not impossible, especially when the marketing is by association rather than some unsubtle soft sell. The best content marketing is essentially hands-free sponsorship of truly useful information. Create that, ensure it is market leading, and people will be willing to pay.

An excellent example is Adobe’s Summit. This two-day conference is a great act of self-promotion for which attendees are asked to pay £1,145. With top-level speakers and the very latest information and insight, it’s a price that people are willing to pay.

Print is not dead, just re-calibrating

The success of magazines like The Week (£3.30) and Cosmopolitan (£1) shows that there is still a demand for print, and that pricing needs to match the market.

But the failures of Coach and Raconteur demonstrate that you have to deliver something special to advertisers otherwise they will stay with the measurable certainties of digital. Such failures should also make marketers ensure they are presenting material in a way that creates a (justifiable) perception of quality.

A market for print remains, just make sure consumer and creator are on the same page.

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