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Active Interest Media: Poster child for magazine brand diversification

Headquartered in Boulder, CO, Active Interest Media (AIM) is a leading pioneer in magazine brand diversification. Specializing in niche leisure verticals with a passionate, dedicated following, the publisher reaches over 40 million consumers globally using a mix of print magazines, websites, events, ecommerce, film, and video.

Critics might argue that enthusiast magazines have always attracted the more passionate and focused reader, and diversifying into new areas like events is easier than it would otherwise be for more generalist titles.

That might be so, but AIM is prolific, continually finding new seams within its niche verticals to further fulfill audience interests and needs whilst simultaneously generating new revenue streams. With titles such as Yoga Journal, Backpacker, SKI, Clean Eating, Anglers Journal, Yachts International, Practical Horseman, EQUUS, etc, the publisher’s strategy is to move quickly, fail fast (if necessary) and act decisively.

An oft-quoted example of its diversification is its Equestrian Motor Plan that provides 24-hour, nationwide roadside assistance to safeguard equestrian enthusiasts who travel with a horse in a trailer. Niche? Certainly, but as one commentator remarked, “What other publishing house is selling products that far afield? None that I am aware of.”

The company’s five divisions – the Equine Network, Home Group, Healthy Living Group, Marine Group, and Outdoor Group – also manage a portfolio of B2B platforms, online universities, and retail events that further strengthen the publisher’s burgeoning revenue streams.

I’d say to smaller publishers ‘trust that you know your market, because the things that have been most successful for us have come as a result of being most engaged with enthusiasts in our space and understanding their needs.’

Jonathan Dorn, Chief Innovation Officer, AIM, speaking at DIS 2019

Which brings us to 2019 and AIM’s recent salvaging of 14 titles from the F+W bankruptcy, including Writer’s Digest, Popular Woodworking and Horticulture. This week, Bo Sacks, President of Precision Media Group, spoke to AIM’s President & CEO, Andy Clurman to discuss the $1.6 million acquisition as well as the company’s overall strategic approach to publishing and revenue diversification.

BoSacks – What are some key attributes for a successful publisher in the 21st century and how will you apply those to the F&W titles.

Andy Clurman – Very aggressively building and buying other complementary revenue streams and businesses. The F&W brands we purchased already have great diversity of products and services to their audiences that include online education, competitions, conferences, seminars, and digital archives.

What we can bring is investment and urgency to nascent ideas that were put on the back-burner through the parent company’s bankruptcy process.

BoSacks – As you restart the F&W titles from the start, what would you change or what mistakes would you prefer to avoid?

Andy Clurman – Fortunately there was no perceivable interruption in service to the F&W brands’ audience. We bought a number of titles out of another bankruptcy (Robert Kennedy Publishing in Canada) where they suspended publication for two months. In that instance, we had major rebuilding to do with subscribers, advertisers, and newsstand distribution.  While this is a much better situation, we won’t assume that the status quo is sustainable without bringing resources to our new brands AIM can provide.

BoSacks – What do you see as the biggest challenge in the F&W revitalization program. How are you meeting these challenges?

Andy Clurman – The biggest challenges have been the timeline on which we need to integrate these brands to the AIM platform coupled with the fact that their parent company is shutting down at the end of July. To address this, we have a multi-disciplinary integration team that is operating off a detailed checklist to transfer all services and vendors on a much-accelerated path. We are also partnering with some of the other buyers of F&W brands to collaborate on production, ad operations, tech, and real estate. 

BoSacks – Can you discuss the process and the effort that your company must now go through to bring F&W competitive in the new world order of publishing?

Andy Clurman – The big attraction of the brands we bought is not just a rich legacy that in some cases extends over 100 years but the innovations they’ve already or have contemplated launching. All of these brands were positive contributors to their previous company that was scuttled by the weight of its overhead platform and a number of onerous contracts.

BoSacks  – What is AIM’s biggest growth area? Does that coincide with the F&W titles?

Andy Clurman – Our fastest growing areas that now represent almost half our revenues are events and membership. Writer’s Digest has a long-standing successful events business while we think there’s opportunity in woodworking and collectibles. Extending memberships to these brands is also a logical next step for us.

BoSacks – How do you intend to continue to deliver the increasingly higher expectations and needs of your readers?

Andy Clurman – This year was a major turn for us where in almost every case we are reducing print frequencies, increasing book-sizes and production values of magazines while significantly increasing the multi-media content we’re publishing across every brand platform. Six months in to the year we’ve seen our digital audiences grow dramatically with broad acceptance of our “less is more” print frequency schedule.

BoSacks Were there any mistakes that you made that you turned into success?

Andy Clurman – Our first attempt at marketing services had limited traction when we went out offering a la carte content creation, video production, and lead gen embedded within our brand groups. The second time around we staffed and launched an AIM level marketing services team under the Catapult Creative Labs brand that works hand-in-hand with our brand teams.  As of this writing, we’re now ranked among the top 10 marketing agencies in revenue.

This interview is re-published with kind permission of Bo Sacks, Founder of the World’s Oldest Publishing Enewsletter.

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