For a listings magazine like Time Out, going free seems like a no-brainer, writes Jo Blake, head of print and radio investment, Arena Media.
For the best part of five decades, Time Out has been the listings magazine of choice for the capital’s cinema goers, music lovers, families and art enthusiasts.
Now, its London edition has joined a swelling market of free titles, increasing its reach from 55,000 to over 300,000 overnight.
This is a significant move. A well-respected, firmly established title with a great brand is now free and we, the consumer, don’t need to give them anything in return, not even our personal data.
Interestingly, this development isn’t about decline, saving an ailing title or a last hurrah for a magazine that’s had its day.
According to Time out’s editor in chief, Tim Arthur, who has denied claims of falling sales, the title is "still a profitable magazine" and the move is "driven by opportunity".
Free newspapers and magazines were a niche market until relatively recently. When Metro launched in 1999, the free marketplace consisted of Miss London type magazines and free regional newspapers, both of which had very little interest in the quality of their editorial content.
Metro really changed perceptions of the free title. Its digested news format, coupled with its reach, showed what can be achieved in the free space, bringing in younger readers with a quality product and giving advertisers the demographics they crave.
The free business model has also proved successful with the Standard, which now distributes over 700,000 copies per day. Editorially its stance is one of positivity towards London and Londoners, a must read for the journey home and a champion of good causes.
Launching a free women’s magazine brings its own challenges. High end advertisers like to be associated with high end content and a free magazine doesn’t, on the surface, seem to carry that weight.
However, Stylist, for instance, has also challenged perceptions of free magazines. It has always been confident and innovative - its augmented reality issue, glossy covers and guest editors - usually the preserve of monthly glossy titles – are all firmly established as part of the Stylist brand.
For a listings magazine like Time Out, going free seems like a no-brainer - it’s a great brand, trusted and established, and offers something different to other weekly free titles.
The larger circulation feels like it will really benefit Londoners out of towners and tourists alike. It has unrivalled links with entertainment providers in the capital and offers a real insight into what’s going on.
Crucially, it’s witnessed the winners and losers in the free arena and knows the pitfalls and the opportunities.
What the best free papers and magazines have understood well is the synergy between offline and online.
All content publishers need a mult-channel, seamless service, but free titles seem to do it particularly well.
The latest offering from Shortlist Media is a case in point. It has launched a smart, useful iPad edition of Mr Hyde, which is, in turn, the online version of its free magazine. This joined up thinking benefits each platform - with each pushing users to the others - a virtuous circle.
For the traditional, larger publishers of paid for titles, there are many challenges. Free titles’ content is good, usually comparable, and sometimes, better than their paid for rivals. They have the advantage of scale and they are hungry.
They are eating into rivals’ revenues and, being weekly or daily, have the advantage of frequency, which brands and advertisers love.
The timing of Time Out’s free status is smart - they have seen the benefits to other magazines and newspapers, and they fully understand that comprehensive entertainment listings are increasingly available and free online.
Loss of revenue from cover pricing is difficult, but the advantages of scale and demographics will lure advertisers.
As long as the content remains high quality, Time Out can easily become the hottest ticket in town.