One venerable publication is battling dwindling print advertising revenue using a radical approach: by getting rid of the need to attract advertisers in the first place.
Prevention, a magazine that covers health and wellness, recently announced that its print version is going totally ad-free starting in July.
“If we were going to continue with advertising, I could never see a future where we would be profitable,” Maria Rodale, chairwoman and chief executive of the magazine’s publishing company, told The New York Times about the move.
Several factors informed this decision, according to Rodale. For one, Prevention is physically smaller than most magazines, which means that its ad space is also smaller—something that many advertisers don’t like. Also, its main demographic, women over 40, is not the typical target audience for advertisers, many of whom are instead obsessed with millennials.
The move is risky because ad revenue is traditionally an important part of a magazine’s revenue mix. Prevention will lose about $12 million in print ad revenue per year—a loss that the company plans to offset by doubling its subscription price and increasing the cost of a single copy from $3.99 to $4.99. (The magazine is also launching a new section on its site for ad-free magazine content to boost value for subscribers.) The company expects to save money by decreasing its circulation, further reducing the size of the magazine and cutting ad sales jobs.
Increasing revenue in a changing media landscape
Prevention’s decision is emblematic of the disruption taking place in the media business. As people increasingly choose to consume content online, long-established media companies need to supplement traditional revenue streams with new ways of monetizing content.
The emergence of tech-savvy, online media companies like Buzzfeed, Upworthy and Vice isn’t helping, either. A 2015 study by the professional network PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the value of magazine advertising will essentially be flat through 2019.
While this isn’t the first time that a magazine has purposely dropped print ads—titles like Cook’s Illustrated and Consumer Reports have been operating without ads for some time now—Prevention’s move is interesting because it’s the first time a major publication is going ad-free.
Some experts have expressed doubts that Prevention’s big move will pay off. “It’s hard to understand why one would give up the revenue from 700 pages of advertising,” media industry consultant Peter Kreisky told The Wall Street Journal.
Another expert, marketing professor Ela Veresiu, told Marketing magazine that Prevention’s move is unlikely to work unless it considers adding sponsored branded content to its revenue mix.
As it moves to an ad-free revenue model, Prevention will, more than ever, need to engage with its readers for feedback. While its subscribers might appreciate ad-free content, some of them might balk at the price increase. And as the magazine relies more on consumer-generated revenue, meeting reader wants and driving loyalty will be critical. Audience intelligence will help the company determine if readers are receptive to the changes and ensure that the magazine is keeping subscribers happy.
Audience engagement will be critical in the company’s long-term profitability as well. As disruption continues in the media industry, repeatedly increasing price may not be sustainable for the magazine. To remain relevant, it needs to uncover fresh, more innovative ways of generating money. Finding those new revenue streams will require a deeper understanding of evolving consumer attitudes, motivations and behaviors—something the company can only get by engaging directly with its readers.
For now, the company’s other titles (including Runner’s World, Rodale’s Organic Life and Men’s Health) will remain ad-supported. But while all eyes will be on Prevention as it navigates this unchartered territory, the company is confident that it’s doing the right thing.
"We know our readers will pay a premium price for the product," Rodale said.