Like any good trip, Afar Media began with an idea. While traveling together in India (a good place for enlightenment), founders Greg Sullivan and Joe Diaz decided to form a media company built on a shared passion for travel that goes beyond guidebook checklists and tourist haunts. They believed so strongly in the concept, they weren’t going to let a little thing like a historic economic downturn derail them. Thus Afar magazine was born, launched in the summer of 2009.
First came the accolades—attention from the likes of Martha Stewart and high-profile advertisers like Sotheby’s and Crystal Cruises. Then, only a year into publication, Afar snagged the Best Travel Magazine award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation, which praised the magazine’s high-quality editorial and design.
But the Great Recession has felled many a fine magazine, making the upstart periodical’s next act—strong, consistent gains in audience and ad sales, as well as brand extensions into events and social media—all the more impressive. Subscriptions for the first half of 2011 were up 55 percent compared to the same period in 2010. The September/October 2011 issue is the largest in the company’s history, with 60.16 ad pages (up from 23 the year before) and a Publisher’s Information Bureau (PIB)-reported revenue gain of 334 percent. Going into its third full year, the company can boast a number of new, first-time advertisers and plans to increase its output from six to seven issues in 2012.
Afar Media achieved all this by launching with a strong, focused mission and building its brand in a way that got audiences and advertisers excited. It also did it by, ironically, not seeing itself as a magazine publisher. “I think, first and foremost, we are not a publishing company. We are a travel brand that has media attached,” says Afar’s executive vice president and publisher, Ellen Asmodeo-Giglio, whose own publishing credentials include helming Travel + Leisure and launching The Wall Street Journal‘s lifestyle magazine WSJ. “We are a media company at the end of the day, but it is definitely broader. [Publishing] just happens to be one of our vehicles and the one which is making the most money right now.”
It’s Not Who You Know …
Though the print magazine has been critical so far to Afar Media’s success, so too has been its unique social media platform and website. Afar.com has transcended the simple offering of magazine content online to become a community-building resource for travelers. Profiled in The New York Times in August, Afar.com is a sophisticated, fluid networking site that uses what the company calls an “implicit social algorithm” to provide highly customized information and social connections for users.
Derek Butcher, Afar’s CTO and Chief Architect, explains the algorithm by contrasting it with social media platforms, such as Facebook, in which a user, rather than the system, facilitates connections. While most social applications work by leveraging existing friends or followers, Afar recognized that, in travel, your friends are not always your best resource.
“They may not travel the same way you do or have not been where you want to go,” Butcher says. “We kind of have this motto: It’s not who you know, it’s who you need to know.”
Based on a quiz taken when a member first registers, and subsequent activity on the site, a proprietary algorithm discerns a user’s “travel personality” and matches him or her with people who have similar travel tastes and knowledge of a particular destination. “So we are building a social graph on the fly, implicitly, based on the context of [a user’s] question and search, and also how they like to travel,” Butcher says.