BoSacks Interview with Maria Rodale, CEO of Rodale Inc.

By Bob Sacks on May 04, 2015
Maria Rodale, is a fascinating member of the publishing community. She is the CEO and Chairman of Rodale, Inc., which makes the claim to be the world's largest independent publisher of health, wellness, and environmental content, and the largest independent book publisher in the United States. Who am I to disagree? In fact, I love the world's largest claim, as I claim to publish the world's oldest eNewsletter. Maria is a third generation publisher whose grandfather J.I. Rodale founded the company in 1930. She is a lifelong advocate of organic farming and gardening. She is the author of five books. And she graciously agreed to my interviewing her.


Bosacks: Maria, thanks for taking the time for this interview. Let me say that I find your company incredibly refreshing. For an 85 year old company your approach to media is so 21st century. Your team seems to capitalize and thrive as a multi-platform media company, where many others just can't seem to make the grade.  What do you attribute that to? Can you share what you are doing right, and is it repeatable by others with a different set of niche titles?


Maria: Hi Bo, thank you for saying that, and thanks for asking. The secret is that we are so passionate about what we do in the healthy living space, and about what our customers are doing, so we are right there in it with them, embracing new media and new methods and exploring new ideas. We don't try to acquire companies to fill in our gaps in knowledge, we hire great people who bring us great skills, and we look to make sure that those people are just as passionate as we are.


BoSacks: Have you seen a shift in who your readers are over time? Do different substrates deliver different readers?


Maria: Our readership is shifting every single day. Whether it is because we are expanding globally to launch editions in new countries, or because we are creating new brands and products that reach different demographics, the makeup of our readership is always expanding and evolving and will continue to into the future. For example, we launched Rodale's Organic Life to tap into consumers' growing interest in healthy, organic living by offering a stylish guide to living naturally in the modern world- that was about reaching a broader group of readers and advertisers.  Meanwhile, with our new Runner's World produced website Zelle, we wanted to create a resource and community by women runners for women runners.


With this constantly evolving landscape, I encourage everyone to get out their offices and get to know our customers, engage with them on social media, and experience the world through their eyes and hearts as much as possible. That way we can keep up with our current audience, and identify opportunities to engage new readers.


BoSacks Many media companies are often hesitant to adopt mobile advertising strategies, because they claim they either cannot make money or do not know how to make money using the platform. Do you have any insights or advice?


Maria: We are all still trying to figure it out...but my main advice comes as a user -- don't annoy people. Help them instead. Make yourself and your advertising useful. Or at least make it highly entertaining.


BoSacks: It seems to me your titles are timeless. I do not see that there would be too many changes in your reader's habits and needs over time? Is that true? What controls are in place for you to understand the changes in your reader's rolls and habits?


Maria: Our titles may be timeless, but our readers and their needs radically change over time. For example, when Organic Gardening launched in 1942, the only way to get organic food was to grow it yourself. Now, with the launch of Rodale's Organic Life this spring, we are living in a marketplace where organic has become much more available and accessible- so our magazine content is not just about growing food, it's about how you live your whole life.


We constantly monitor subscription results, renewal results, and sales results to see what's working and what's not working and adapt as quickly as possible. And of course the consumer migration to the world of digital content has necessitated constant, agile adjustments- so I encourage our team to push the envelope all the time, to test new strategies. To keep their fingers on the pulse by reading, traveling, going food shopping and understanding the societal trends that shape who we are all becoming.


BoSacks: What is your company's biggest growth area? And, what areas will you be focusing your strength and efforts on 2016 and beyond? 


Maria: We are focused on creating new experiences for our audiences through events, new brands, and products. We are excited by our new projects like Rodale's Organic Life, and we are continuing to expand our e-commerce efforts through Rodale's and other channels. We recently launched Rodale U, a new digital offering that features an immersive learning experience for consumers through paid online courses. We brought The Transformation Challenge, an annual offering from Prevention, to the Rodale U platform, and in just 8 days we saw sign-ups far exceed our expectations. We've got a lot of things going on and it's always interesting and fun to see what works and what doesn't. Either way, we always learn.


BoSacks: How do you see the continued revenue challenges evolving in a digital information society?


Maria: I believe we need to value our content and not give it away for free. I also believe we need to continue to develop and diversify revenue generation beyond advertising- e-commerce, more events, product experiences that bring our content to life (like Rodale U).


BoSacks: A few months ago you wrote a great article titled Maria Rodale's 10 Ideas That Could Rock the Magazine World. Number two on the list is a subject near and dear to my heart. You suggested that magazines should learn to apply frictionless customer service for print products. Here you made reference to the all too common delay of 8 weeks for delivery of a new print subscription. Maria, I couldn't agree more. In the 21st century it is an anathema not to have near instant completion of a purchase. Have you solved this problem and if so how?


Maria: Ha! We haven't solved it yet but it is high on our priority list and it should be high on everyone's priority list. As my kids would say, it's "cray, cray" (CRAZY!)


BoSacks: In the same article Maria Rodale's 10 Ideas That Could Rock the Magazine World, you wrote that It's not the love of print that's gone - it's the business model that's broken. Again I agree with you 100%. Can you elaborate on this theme?


Maria: I love the way our Organic Life Editor in Chief James Oseland says it the best -- print is like slow media, just like slow food is to fast food. Consuming print media provides a relaxing, deeply meaningful and utterly delicious experience. It's the time away from the daily screen that we all need and crave. And as for the business model, it's as I mentioned earlier in the interview: we cannot depend solely on advertising to generate revenue, and we must create useful, engaging products and experiences that our customers are willing to pay for.


BoSacks: How have you and your staff adjusted to the change in technologies and processes?  Who does what, and have the roles and responsibilities changed?


Maria: Like everything, it's a constant process and there is always more to be done. We are still working through a long to-do list, creating new roles and adapting the teams accordingly. What's great is that we have some awesome long time employees and great new ones as well, all working together in "real time" to scrum their way through that big long list.


In the short time that he has been here, our president Scott Schulman has launched a number of digital properties, from to Rodale U. And last year we brought in Beth Buehler to lead digital functions across all brands as our SVP of Digital Operations + Strategy. She and her team are responsible for identifying new ways to drive traffic and distribution, developing partnerships to monetize content within the digital space, and for building future digital growth strategies for the company.


BoSacks: How do you intend to continually deliver to the increasingly higher expectations of your readers?


Maria: That is the creative challenge and pleasure that keeps us all engaged in what we are doing. I always say if we are having fun, then our readers and customers will have fun too. And we should always strive to be useful, helpful and welcoming.


BoSacks: What is the biggest challenge for Rodale Inc. to conquer in the near future?


Maria: We currently have an incredible energy and momentum going. I want to make sure we keep it going and translate that into strong growth.


BoSacks: As a third generation publisher, if you could start your operation over again from the start, what would you change or what mistakes would you prefer to have avoided?


Maria: Oh, we've all made our share of mistakes, but they have been essential to our learning. I don't believe in regrets or looking back and trying to do things over in your head. I believe in looking ahead with excitement. I'm really proud of what we have accomplished over three generations. As a friend of mine said "if you love what you do, there is no such thing as failure."


BoSacks: Thank you for this interview.

 Thank YOU!

By Bob Sacks| May 04, 2015
Categories:  Opinion

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Bob Sacks

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