Why Monocle shuns social media in favour of going swimming with its readers

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

As media strategies go, declaring “we do no social media whatsoever” is about as unorthodox as, say, taking your readers for staff-accompanied swimming in the waters of Lake Zurich.

But both these approaches are part of the business model at Monocle. The London-based global affairs magazine and radio brand has never been afraid of defying the media orthodoxy during an 11-year history in which it has cleverly danced around the fallout from the digital revolution.

Last month it hosted its fourth annual Quality of Life conference, limiting capacity to 150 and setting ticket prices at a whopping €1500. The international movers and shakers who bought them included 43 delegates who flew into Switzerland from the United States.

The event concluded, following a farewell breakfast, with Monocle editor Andrew Tuck leading around 30 guests down to the shoreline. “We said to people when they were coming to the conference, pack your swimming trunks, there will be an opportunity to go swimming,” he says. One of Quality of Life’s speakers, Dr Andreas Ritter, had earlier given a presentation on the lake’s “top bathing spots”.

Monocle is a serious title. It specialises in current affairs, business and politics, alongside lifestyle. Its Zurich conference included a “gritty” discussion on architecture’s role in protecting urban quality of life in the face of terrorism. “We don’t want to be surrounded by barricades and concrete blocks,” says Tuck. There was also a “real ding-dong” debate over whether driverless cars will ever happen, with the deputy mayor of Paris, Jean-Louis Missika, arguing fervently that they will, in the face of denials by transport commentator Christian Wolmar.

Bringing together readers in such a forum that endorses “the value of conversation and the need to have face-to-face contact” is powerful, Tuck believes, in a world dominated by electronic communication. “If you’re on a backlit screen for the entirety of your day then at the end of the day you want human interaction; you want to see a rock concert – or go to a cocktail bar and watch someone make cocktails, or a coffee shop where you know where the beans come from. They are two sides of the equation and Monocle is on one side of that equation; we try and be a tactile, rich experience.”

Swerving social

By contrast, there are no brand advantages for Monocle in promoting content on social media, Tuck believes, regardless of the furious activity in such spaces by other media businesses. “We can see no potential at all to compete in any arena where we are up against either Facebook or Google and that’s the majority of the digital space,” he says.

In a speech at The Bookseller’s Marketing and Publicity conference last month, Tuck made the claim that readers who arrive on Monocle content via social channels are “promiscuous” and “don’t deliver anything to our bottom line”. As a consequence, he claimed, “we do no social media whatsoever”.

This is a slight exaggeration. Monocle does have an Instagram account with 16,400 followers but it has yet to upload a post. “I look to see how many people are hashtagging Monocle on Instagram and it’s hundreds every day,” says Tuck, “whether that’s someone in a cafe taking a picture of their bun and coffee or someone who has bought the new issue.” This “word-of-mouth marketing” is “more authentic and connecting than me taking a picture of a bun – that’s vacuous and valueless”.

Since Canadian entrepreneur Tyler Brûlé founded the title in 2007 (Tuck was there from the start), Monocle has closely followed the evolution of media. Its Zurich conference hosted a debate on “Media: Old & New”, featuring the Swiss investigative site Republik. It frequently visits publishers around the world to share best practice and remains convinced that social media marketing is not an efficient use of resources. “We go and meet companies who say they have five people in their Snapchat team, and we ask them how much that delivers. They say ‘nothing’ but they claim it’s the only way to reach a young audience who in 10 years' time will be part of their mission. [Monocle is] not in the luxury world of having five people who generate no income for the business.”

Silicon Valley is currently facing a “techlash” over intrusions of privacy but a news media brand that prides itself on trend-spotting and futurism can ill-afford to be seen as a digital naysayer. Monocle might be a tactile pleasure that promises five types of paper in a single edition, but Tuck denies that the business is based on physical product.

“We have 2 million people every month who either download or listen to our radio station which is only available as a digital brand,” he says. “When people say ‘You don’t do that much in digital’ we tell them to go and look at our website where we have got 500 films and slideshows, there’s updated content every day and it’s the only place you can take out a Monocle subscription. It’s also a vital source of e-commerce [selling clothes, books, perfumes and accessories] which has grown at record rates this year.”

'A brand people experience'

He contrasts Monocle’s extensive website to that of other magazines which claim to be multi-platform publications but whose online offering turns out to be “the most perfunctory outing, where you can’t search the archive and it’s nothing more than a holding page”.

In 2018, he says, much of the internet-era media terminology that was being used only five years ago is being jettisoned. “Those phrases have disappeared; new media, old media, analogue and digital media. It’s all just media now from the oldest companies to the most inventive.”

Monocle has an audited sale of 83,000 and has steadily increased its subscription base to 20,000. Its circulation has risen slowly since its inception. It still relies on display advertising and loyal clients include Prada, Rolex, Thai Airways and Knoll furniture. UBS and Swiss Air were the sponsors in Zurich and Gucci supported Monocle’s seasonal newspaper, The Summer Weekly.

Not all of its readers can afford €1500 for a day of talks and a dip in Lake Zurich but Tuck points out that Monocle has a full calendar of events around the world, including some where you can “rock up for free”.

It has hosted “pop-ups” to showcase the Monocle name in Italy’s Alpine resort of Merano, at Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford department store and at the Frankfurt book fair. Every Christmas, Midori House becomes a Christmas market hosted with some of Monocle’s favourite partner brands. Last year, 2,500 readers turned up to browse and talk with the editorial team.

When it held the Zurich event it invited all delegates to come and see the Monocle staff inside its Midori House headquarters in London’s Marylebone. “That following weekend a lot of people who were over [in Europe] from the US or Indonesia or India or the UAE came to Monocle to see the business and we showed them how the radio works and they came into our world. We try to be an open brand,” Tuck says. “All of these things are touchpoints of allowing you to be a brand that people can experience and get involved with, other than in a a digital sphere.”

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