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Free magazines, not cheap media

October 10, 2007 10:00 by


To be a publisher in Dubai is to accept certain incontrovertible truths. Readers won’t pay to read your magazine; you will have to pay distributors to give it away; you will have to deny your magazine is free because advertisers think free means down market. And no one will really know how many copies you, and your competitors, are giving away.

This is called business.

There is also a belief that Middle East publishers look to other, more mature markets for inspiration. So it is with interest that publishers will be looking at a new start-up from the UK that works off a free distribution model.

Codenamed Alpha One, the plan is to launch the UK’s first general-interest weekly given away free to men. Half a million copies will be distributed each week, every Thursday, by hand, from key commuter points across the country. The idea is to bypass crowded news stands and go straight to the consumer, competing against the traditional paid-for titles. The company boasts serious industry heavyweights at senior level and has secured $15m of funding.

For consumers under the age of 45 the power of free media is extraordinary,” says Mike Soutar, the venture’s brainchild. “Survey after survey shows younger consumers value free media as much as paid for, and expect the same quality both online and in print.” He says news stands are inefficient and wasteful.

Local publishers could argue they have been using this model for years. Consumers won’t pay for what they know they can get for free, and news stands are not the best means to market. ITP and Motivate pay big money to own the point of purchase in the UAE’s major supermarkets for their leading consumer titles. But this cost won’t be recouped in sales, it does more to boost their profile – and spoil the competition.

While commuter hotspots may be harder to find, targeted distribution is still possible. Advertising weekly Campaign claimed 35,000 copies a week, mostly direct to Dubai Media City addresses. Impulse, a shopping monthly, claimed 50,000 a month, via neighborhood distribution.

The fact both are now out of business shouldn’t harm the reasoning: if you know your target market, it’s possible to go direct. Distributors are now working harder to get to readers, and popular distribution points (such as Dubai Media City) are demanding fees and quality controls.

What is interesting about the UK star-up is it aims for a higher standard than typical free sheets. Production quality will be as per paid–for titles, and advertisers and agencies are on board “because we are offering a very valuable audience,'” says Soutar. It is celebrating being free, rather than fudging it. It is not pretending to be a paid-for title.

That could be the difference. Should Alpha One work it will provoke a rash of imitators in other categories – motors, women’s lifestyle, DIY, music, etc. It will also give credibility to the ‘magazines are free’ concept.

“Cartier won’t advertise in a free paper because it’s bad for its image,” says one media sales director, of today’s local media. Alpha One may help reinvent free; if so, Middle East publishers should start reworking their sales pitch.

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