Nonetheless, the research is a big deal because of the rapid growth of companies such as Niche, publisher of Gotham, Boston Common, Hamptons and more, and Modern Luxury, which has free magazines for the rich in cities from San Francisco to Atlanta.
Selling against a total audience
And the results of the study are all the more provocative because many publishers have been arguing more and more that free copies are often just as effective ad vehicles as paid copies -- a contention that helps publishers try to sell against their total audiences, including pass-along and public-place copies, instead of their smaller paid circulations.
So Monroe Mendelsohn Research conducted a pair of studies, one for Emmis Communications and a follow-up for nine titles including Texas Monthly, Boston Magazine and Philadelphia Magazine. Monroe Mendelsohn said both were designed to answer one question: "If a publisher distributes a free magazine -- even a very expensive-looking free magazine -- to prospective readers who have neither asked for it nor expressed an interest in it, will it be read and valued?"
Five thousand questionnaires with a $5 incentive to respond were mailed to a random sample of residents in target ZIP codes; Monroe Mendelsohn collected 1,448 completed responses.
The result? Respondents were significantly less likely to read free distribution publications than paid or requested ones. Nearly two out of three residents of the affluent areas surveyed were not even aware of the unrequested luxe books.
"The net of it is, people don't read them, so how can they value them?" said Bob Shullman, senior VP at Monroe Mendelsohn. "That to me is the end of the story."
Building on 'wantedness'
Susie Love, exec VP-director of sales and marketing, Emmis Publishing, said her company believes that paid circulation was important enough to be defended. "We really build on the 'wantedness' of our magazines and that people are willing to pay for it," she said. "When new magazines come into our market and make references to circulation that is controlled and they're infiltrating certain ZIP codes with high penetration and we all fight for ad dollars, we thought if we really believe that, let's prove it right or wrong."
Ms. Love said she was not criticizing waiting-room copies, which people often expect and want to read while stuck in a doctor's office or hair salon. "When I'm talking about non-paid magazines, I am not in any way talking about public-place copies," she said. "All of our magazines value public place. We're just talking about randomly mailing it out. When I go through my mailbox, if there are things I didn't want, I toss them."
Mr. Binn, CEO of Niche Media, pointed out that the research surveyed only one of his company's markets -- Boston -- and only one ZIP code within it. That said, he argued that it doesn't matter if relatively few people read the luxury magazines they receive unrequested.
Quality vs. quantity
"For us, it's not about the quantity of people we reach, it's about the quality of people we reach that makes Boston Common so valuable," he said. "One of our partnerships is with Net Jets, whose average customers' net worth exceeds $25 million. We do not believe these consumers, who are our readers, will fill out a reader survey for five dollars."
Mr. Binn even recruited an advertiser testimonial from Terri Eagle, president-CEO at jewelry company John Hardy. "Boston Common has proven to be very successful and fantastic for us," she said. "We advertise there because it works in reaching our customers and driving our luxury consumers in Boston."