AFAR's Anni Cuccinello: let the data tell you if your ideas were right

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With so much negative coverage of publishing, we at Bibblio are shining a spotlight on the many vertical publishers that are thriving. Welcome to the "Vertical Heroes" series of interviews.

Travel has always held a special place in the publishing world, with businesses and individuals alike sharing their experiences and recommendations for leaving their environs and exploring. We caught up with AFAR's Director of Audience Development Anni Cuccinello to find out how this leading experiential travel company is making an impact in this space. Experiential travel, for those unfamiliar, is a form of tourism where you actively immerse yourself in the place you're visiting, meaningfully engaging with the culture, rather than spending a cursory hour in the Old Town before retreating to the hotel pool.

Founded in the United States in 2009, the magazine began life in print format but now has digital versions alongside, with a depth and style that has global appeal. The company also operates a non-profit foundation providing scholarships for educational journeys for students.

Anni spoke to Bibblio CEO Mads Holmen about listening to your data, optimizing for search and building loyalty.

Anni Cuccinello, Director of Audience Development at AFAR
Anni Cuccinello, Director of Audience Development at AFAR

Mads: Hi Anni. Let's begin with you telling us about AFAR's direction and audience.

Anni: We believe in the power of travel as a force for good, fueled by a strong mission to inspire, guide, and enable people to have deeper, richer, and more fulfilling experiences. Our readers are avid travelers, seeking to truly experience a destination by connecting with its people and immersing in its culture, not just explore its most popular sights.

M: What different types of content are you offering these avid travelers?

A: Our editorial team offers inspirational and actionable content for every stage of travel planning – from pieces meant to inspire a reader’s next trip to tactical guides that ensure travelers have all of the information they need once their feet are on the ground in their destination.

M: How big is this team and what size of audience are you helping?

A: We have over 60 employees who are mostly split between our NYC and San Francisco offices. In terms of audience, we see 1.3 million unique visitors per month on and a circulation of over 1.2 million with our print magazine, AFAR. 

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M: You’ve grown impressively - what has been the secret sauce?

A: AFAR just celebrated its 10th anniversary and in that time we’ve developed a loyal following of the world’s best travelers who see us as an indispensable resource for experiential travel. Yet there are many people who are just finding out about us. In the past two years we’ve doubled our digital audience.

Focusing on optimizing our content for search has been a significant part of that success, but we have also seen large gains from social and Flipboard. Our newsletter audience has always been a major traffic driver and we are constantly testing what our audience responds to. We’ve launched two new newsletters in the past year with the goal of showcasing our editorial point of view a bit more than our daily content round up allows. We brought on a new digital editorial director in 2019 who has been fantastic at pinpointing new types of content that resonate across all of these channels.

M: How do you prioritize attracting new audiences vs. engaging existing users deeper?

A: It’s definitely not an either/or. Attracting new audiences is critical, but if they aren’t enjoying their experience once they land on our site, the churn would be too much to keep up with. And as a brand that isn’t necessarily known by all, we must ensure that they understand how AFAR stands out from the average travel publication – that we focus on helping readers plan trips that let them understand the heart of a destination and have experiences that stay with them for life.

The home page
The home page

M: How are you retaining your audiences?

A: We speak to readers differently depending on how they’ve arrived on our site. We promote our award-winning newsletters as well as our incredibly inspiring social accounts to keep readers engaged with our brand even when they aren’t on our site. We also encourage word of mouth sharing of our brand – there is no better way to build loyalty than to have our readers share why they love us. That starts with a commitment to quality journalism and a unique point of view.

M: Define what SEO means to you these days. Are we talking keywords, page speed, engagement?

A: Certainly all of that, but also content length, inclusion of long-tail search terms, backlinks and more. It’s a more competitive space than ever – the rise of zero-click searches (where a user never leaves a Google-owned property) has gotten so high that even the US Congress is inquiring about it. Trying to beat Google at their own game is hard, so we always consider competition level when prioritizing content. And EVERY piece is optimized for SEO – our editorial team has been wonderful about embracing that as part of their daily workflow and it has paid off. Our search traffic increased 70% last year.

M: What’s your social media strategy, and how important is it for you to be present on those platforms?

A: We have a lean social team, but we still managed to double our social traffic in 2019, even when facing challenging algorithm changes. Our social editor works closely with our editorial team to help with social-friendly content and also optimize headlines for social shares. We also prioritize where the team’s time is spent based on the strongest ROI for us. Instagram, as you can imagine, is huge for us as a travel brand. We spend a lot of time on photo curation and writing captions that are enjoyable to read but also offer smart insights for readers, and we often hear from them about how much they enjoy that.

Spell-binding locations feature on AFAR's Instagram account
Spell-binding locations feature on AFAR's Instagram account

M: Do you work together with other publications in your vertical?

A: Absolutely. A major part of our success on social has been cross-sharing content with brands that share our values and approach to travel. We’ve seen so much success from it, we’ve started doing more cross-sharing with our newsletter audience. I also think sharing content from other outlets helps show readers we aren’t landing in their inbox just to get them to click on our content. Our newsletters serve as a resource for all the news avid travelers need.

M: Would you describe your business as data-driven? 

A: Nearly every meeting or conversation we have about our growth strategy has some sort of metric attached to it. We develop hypotheses and let the data speak as to whether our ideas were right or not.

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M: Could you shed a bit of light on your revenue model?

A: Our revenue mostly comes from advertisers who want to align themselves with our growing brand, but also from sponsored content and affiliate revenue.

M: What's the best thing you're bringing into 2020?

A: AFAR has had affiliate revenue deals for a long time, but 2019 was a year of constant experimentation on this front. We tested new types of affiliate content and partnered with new networks to help identify types of products that our readers are most interested in. We are really excited to take our learnings from last year, where we experienced +270% YoY growth in revenue, and apply them to our content plan for 2020.

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Web users have enjoyed free access to content for years, which has meant some digital publishers are having a tough time of it. To make money they either put up a paywall or rely on ads and clickbait. Google and Facebook offer easy ways to share content, but these referrals are fickle, hard to monetize, and dependent on algorithms that can change in a heartbeat.

In this ecosystem, quality journalism cannot thrive, replaced instead by sensationalist content and filter-bubbled fake news. The experience for users is jumbled and distracting, putting customer loyalty at serious risk.

Help is at hand

Bibblio's discovery platform lets publishers increase engagement, build loyalty and improve how they monetize. Our AI understands the context of each content item, recommending it at the right place and time, recirculating the publisher's content and personalizing their audience's experiences across any touchpoint.

Using either light-touch self-serve tools or running deeper integrations with support from Bibblio's engineers, these successful publishers have found smarter ways to deliver value through their sites, gain a better understanding of their audience and return their focus to quality editorial.

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