Free Distribution is a Smashing Business Model for this UK Magazine

For Stylist Magazine’s editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski, their current success is based on a sound strategic decision made over a decade ago, when many magazine publishers were in an absolute panic.

Ten years ago, Smosarski says in an interview with Media Voices, the team at Shortlist Media (Stylist’s parent company) could already see that the old distribution model for fashion magazines had gone flat. So they asked themselves a powerful question.

“What happens if you produce a magazine that is a good as if not better than a paid-for magazine, but take it to our audience on their journey into work?”

The answer is a thriving free distribution fashion magazine, backed by a solid advertising model that distributes close to half a million copies around the London Tube system.

According to Smosarski, their success is based firmly on the idea that “not all print is created equal.”

By choosing to up their editorial strategy – at a time when so many magazines were firing their editorial teams – they transitioned into a solid business model that works.

There are many who pooh-pooh the idea of free distribution, asserting that “free” doesn’t mean that people are picking it up and reading it.

She rebuts “When was the last time you picked up something that you didn’t want to read?”

In fact, they are at the tipping point where they may not be printing enough copies to cover demand, as finding a copy on the train is a big highlight of many commuters’ trips.

She explains that, while they could certainly print more, “paper is incredibly expensive. We have a smart business model and are extremely efficient in printing and distribution, and getting it into people’s hands. There’s very little wastage.”

Smosarski also believes that there’s something about a print magazine that still drives interest, mentioning the public nature of print. That title you have folded under your arm or peeking out of your bag says something about you. It’s not like reading on your phone, where nobody can see what you’re reading.

The business model is so successful that they are looking at expansion into Paris and other European commuter cities.

Now here’s the rub. This kind of free content distribution model – support by advertising – sounds a lot like what publishers have been trying to do online. And it’s not the smashing business model there they hoped.

Why not? Because print ads are a welcome part of the user experience, where digital ads are clearly not. In other words, it works in print because of the very nature of print itself, and trying to translate that idea into digital is just not going to sit well with your readers.

That said, Stylist does have a solid social presence, aiming to remain relevant with their fan base. But the business model, Smosarski says, is clearly built on print.

Say what you like about the future of print publishing; when it comes to Shortlist Media and their Stylist Magazine, they’ve got this one figured out.