Commentary

Say No To The Tablet: 'Monocle' Chose Radio Station, Paywall, Instead

Picture this: an independent print magazine that survived the digital disruption of the media industry, has a paywall for its online content and a robust 24-hour radio station on its site.

With a unique business model of newsstands sales, subscriptions, e-commerce and brick-and-mortar cafes and shops, global affairs and lifestyle magazine Monocle has stuck to its traditional magazine media business, and celebrated its 10th anniversary with its March 2017 issue.

To coincide with the milestone, Monocle debuted a design overhaul and new sections, as well as a collection of shoppable products made in collaboration with international brands.

Tyler Brule, the pub’s founder and editor in chief, says the secret to its resilience  is his commitment to the print product and the company’s diverse portfolio.

Brule, who is based in London and has worked at numerous publications including The Financial Times, The Guardian and Vanity Fair, has a romantic — and perhaps nostalgic — view of  print. “It’s a tactile experience,” he said, “it’s not just eyes fixed on ink on a page. It’s an experience of touching and making something memorable and very personal, with a sense of value behind that.”

Brule is staunchly protective of the Monocle brand. He does not believe in jumping on every new platform or adopting the latest technology.

When the iPad launched about seven years ago, Brule pondered joining publishers racing to get tablet editions of their magazines on the new device. But, “we had to ask ourselves the question: is this the right thing for us to do? Will readers be happy if you put a PDF on the tablet? … Do you have a business plan to support that?”

Brule decided to forgo the iPad. Now, years later, magazine publishers are struggling to produce a successful tablet edition that can turn a profit.

Instead, Monocle went in a completely different direction. Rather than chase after the new platform, it went back in time — to radio. The company launched two radio shows and a 24-hour radio station on its site.

“We thought about the media landscape, and [both] radio and magazines are very personal. You use your imagination, not filling in all the blanks like video does,” Brule said.

Radio and podcasts are now a “core piece of what we look to deliver everyday,” he said, and are the “digital engine” for Monocle, likely fueled by the recent explosion of popularity of podcasts.

Monocle does have a visually pleasing Web site, as well as banner ads, but they do not make up the core business, which is mainly from newsstand sales and subscriptions. Most of the stories online are protected by a paywall.

Restricting access to stories for subscriber eyes only has helped Monocle attract its primarily premium brand partners. “It’s important to create an environment for your advertisers and readers with a degree of exclusivity, that it’s a paid environment… It’s not a traffic play for us, it’s a quality play for a quality audience,” he said.

“We are not trying to say, ‘look, we have millions of people looking at our magazine.’ We have tens of thousands,” he continued. “But our brand partners can do the calculations: if people are paying over $150 for [an annual] Monocle subscription, they probably have money to buy our blazers, our cars.”

Brule said this is much more valuable than “massive reach.”

This strategy has worked fairly well. Though the magazine had a “tough” beginning of 2016, with around a 1,000 dip in newsstands sales, things started to grow again in September, likely due to the clamor around Brexit and the U.S. elections.

Brule said the pub is back up to about 80,000 sales, and print advertising saw an 18% growth last year.

Sales for the March 2017 issue are up over 25%. To coincide with its 10th anniversary, Monocle redesigned its print product and added a dedicated fashion section, which also adds opportunities for more luxury advertisers.

The company has a book publishing business as well (Monocle is putting out as many books as it does magazines each year), shops, events and cafes in Tokyo and London. Another is poised to open in Germany.

And since he believes that part of the problem for print’s lack of growth is that magazine retail shops are “not particularly nice,” he is currently experimenting with Kioskafes, which are already up and running in London. He describes them as spots where readers can “get nice drinks and nice things to read, in a beautiful environment.”

“I would like to see that become a business of scale,” he said, with the potential to franchise it in the future.

E-commerce is another part of Monocle’s business. To commemorate the magazine’s 10 years running, the brand partnered with 10 designers to create a special collection of products, ranging from pens to cardigans. The items are on sale online, as well as in Monocle’s shops across Europe.

Still, having your core business rely on newsstands and subscriptions means you need to have a loyal consumer base. So how has Monocle engaged with its readers?

For the team at Monocle, social media means “being surrounded by great people, in person, with a glass of wine,” Brule said. Monocle hosts about 60 to 80 social events a year. “We go out in the field and meet people… it really works. People are so happy to meet their favorite editors, and they bring along a friend and you gain a couple subscriptions. You can meet advertisers face-to-face,” he said. “That’s a key defining thing that we’ve done differently.”

Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, “are not our friends,” Brule said. You won’t see a little bird or a blue “F” anywhere on Monocle’s site.

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