BoSacks Interview: Andrew Clurman, President & COO of Active Interest Media

By Bob Sacks on March 18, 2014

Andrew Clurman is President & Chief Operating Officer of Active Interest Media which has five distinct publishing groups and publishes some of the country's leading consumer enthusiast magazines, including Yoga Journal, Backpacker, Vegetarian Times, Yachts International, Sail, Power & Motoryacht, Black Belt, American Cowboy, Spin to Win Rodeo, Practical Horseman, Dressage Today, Log Home Living, Old House Journal, Country's Best Cabins and many more. Andrew is a survivor of the publishing wars and has worked for and with large companies and smaller publishing houses. These experiences give Andrew a broad and informed perspective on our industry.


BoSacks: Watching our industry in the throes of on-going disruption and observing how some companies react and adapt while others remain static and decline is an invaluable exercise. In defining a roadmap for successful publishing, what are some key attributes you are using as successful information distributor in the 21st century?

Andrew Clurman: Today's operative words at AIM are diversification and proliferation.   We are continually finding seams within the verticals we're in of unfilled audience interests and needs.   With more ways than ever before at our disposal to serve those interests in the form of print, multi-media, live events, education, and services, the opportunities seem limitless.   Building real businesses in areas that may be unfamiliar though adjacent to what we've traditionally done takes a commitment to taking risks and redefining ourselves constantly.   Magazine publisher, film producer, email marketer, digital merchandiser, community leader, insurance salesman, adjunct professor, tow truck driver, audience developer, revenue arbitrager, and dock worker, are just a few of the hundreds of job descriptions we have at AIM - few of which existed in our company when we started 10 years ago.  

 BoSacks: What are some of the new revenue opportunities you hope to take hold of over the next several years?

Andrew Clurman: The fastest growing part of our business has been our events business that now drives over 50% of AIM's contribution.   We are introducing new events in untapped markets such as the first ever boat show in Panama City, Panama this summer as well as a number of new Yoga events throughout North America.   Additionally, we also think we can grow our existing events by enhancing them with digital extensions to allow greater participation.   For example, we conduct fifteen "Log Home Universities" around the country where couples spend a day learning all there is to know about designing and building their log home.   We've limited the cities we go to only because our teaching staff can only travel so many weekends. By creating a distance learning version of these events we think we can dramatically expand their reach. The appetite of our audience for in-depth information on horses, boats, homes, healthy living, and outdoor skills and destinations gives us many ways to grow.

 BoSacks: Many professionals perceive that the current publishing dilemma revolves around the battle between paper vs. digital substrates. I think that narrow viewpoint has distracted many professionals and isn't truly at the heart of the issue. Do have a comment on that battle from a special interest publisher's perspective?

Andrew Clurman: In some ways, we see special interest print as the new vinyl.   The combination of our readers who say "give me digital but don't take my print," and a new breed of print aesthetes who are nostalgic for great print the way music collectors love vinyl records shows us print is as strong as ever with our audience.   Serving those print lovers successfully however, requires that all print is not created equally or generically.   Increasingly we see print buyers/readers opting for and paying premium prices for premium print; witness the boom in high-priced SIP's on newsstands over the past couple of years.   With that in mind we have to be careful about cutting corners on editorial and production values. Print also serves another role in that our brands need to remain strong as the nexus for our broader relationship with our audiences.   I have yet to see a digital only conversion or start-up of a digital magazine brand without a print analog thrive.   Towards that end, we're investing on parallel paths in our event, services, and digital platforms while increasing our spending on magazine content and promotion. Ultimately we've seen our special interest audiences quadruple or quintuple since we've followed a print + web + event + mobile + social strategy with no diminution in print interest.

 BoSacks: How do you intend to continually deliver the increasingly higher expectations of your readers? What controls are in place for you to understand the changes in your reader's habits and interests?

 Andrew Clurman: Since we started AIM ten years ago we have used research as our secret weapon.   Our research director has invented a host of reader/customer insight tools that we use to monitor satisfaction and interest in everything from our magazine covers to the price of beer at our boat shows(they like lower prices).   Some of these are based on our existing audiences while others are observational of trends in the more general populations we serve.   What's exciting and challenging is to figure out how to marry what's possible in modern world of behavioral tracking and other big data with the tools we have to make good decisions about product changes and development.

 BoSacks: It is clear that mobile as a communication tool is on the rise and will be a dominant communication platform and at least a part of every publisher's revenue stream. Are you investing in mobile?

 Andrew Clurman: Does being a special interest publisher help or hurt in a mobile environment?   Yes, and yes.   We have invested early in experimenting with mobile platforms both pre and post tablet.   Pre-tablet, the mobile app space was dominated by games, and service, while content apps were limited to news and sports.   At that time we produced a number of one-off apps for Backpacker GPS trails, Yoga poses, and boat show navigation; all useful but no breakthroughs in terms of audience or revenue.   Post tablet, we've been focused on creating multi-media enhanced versions of our print editions and adding digital only e-books and SIP's.   Our audiences have shown a willingness to pay up for these products which are growing to a meaningful portion of our overall rate bases.   I hear this is not necessarily the case in every category particularly in the broader magazine market which tells me mobile is a good thing for special interest publishers.

 BoSacks: Recently there has been lots of publicity over new technologies that "enhance" the reading experience. (augmented reality) What technologies do you think have longevity and are useful to you and your readers?

 Andrew Clurman: I still have an old "Q Cat" in my desk drawer and remember our first "fax on demand" newsletter.   Those and other products like them were great attempts to force fit a technology to solve a problem. What's exciting about all that's possible now is the extent to which we can proliferate our content and activate our audience using technology that has already become part of their daily routines.   Now, we can add simple features to our content and enable social sharing, e-commerce, archiving, multi-media exploration that creates much more engagement than we've ever seen. We don't spend a lot of time trying to manage the literal bridge from print to digital as virtually all of our audiences have smart phones and tablets.   I will say the QR code and its descendants from companies like Digimarc have had staying power and could lead to a universal method of porting print to digital.

 BoSacks: Can you discuss the cost and the effort that your company must now go through to be competitive in the new world order of publishing?

 Andrew Clurman: AIM's strategy is to buy leading legacy media brands that can be maintained while growing events, digital and services.   To do this we need to have the subject matter experts on all these fronts.   The best and brightest print, digital, events, and service people that are knowledgeable in and committed to our categories is the most important requirement of success.   We occasionally bring in people with more general expertise to support initiatives that are AIM- wide but find that success in one market does not easily translate to another.   As a result, we focus on giving our group leadership and teams the resources they need to build their business without over-centralizing product development and management.   On paper, this sometimes does not look like the most efficient way to organize but we think it's key to allowing people to move quickly and deliberately in the interests of their businesses.  

 BoSacks: What is the biggest challenge Active Interest Media is facing right now? How are you planning to address it?

 Andrew Clurman: Our biggest challenge of the moment is figuring out where to put our time, money, and energy.   While generally a high-class problem, we have more ideas and opportunities in front of us than we can reasonably attack. To create more order around those decisions we have invested time in to creating a Value Creation Plan for AIM that documents a course for the company over the next few years.   Working with our leadership team we've identified a number of specific initiatives that will drive the company to the next threshold we're aspiring to.

 BoSacks: As part of your strategy for staying ahead, do you attend any trade shows or conventions. If so why? Would you recommend any of these to other publishers?

 Andrew Clurman: Aside from the thirty some-odd we produce a year I always attend the I-Mag Conference and AMC.   While they are the tried and true publishing industry gatherings, there are precious few opportunities to compare notes with your industry peers these days and I'm always encouraged by the innovations I learn about.   Additionally I go to CES every other year to see what new gadgets are on the horizon.

 BoSacks: If you could give a young person entering our business one piece of advice, what would it be?

 Andrew Clurman: My daughter is graduating from Emerson this May with a major in Experimental Media; I did not know you could major in Experimental Media.     What I've told her is that she needs to master as many aspects of gathering, editing, producing, designing, mobilizing, and monetizing content as possible.   I have also told her that this is a great time to be in the media business as the lines blur between job responsibilities there are more opportunities to learn and grow faster than ever in the history of the industry.

By Bob Sacks| March 18, 2014
Categories:  Print|Industry News|Opinion

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Bob Sacks

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