Outside Magazine Begins Ascent On A New Summit: Digital

Even with the best audience targeting, it can be tough for advertisers to find adventurous consumers in need of bear spray for their next hike or specialized biking, hiking or skiing gear for weekend treks.

Because it serves as an online watering hole for outdoor enthusiasts, Outside magazine enjoys steady growth in its digital business even as it eschews programmatic.

Over the past five years, Outside’s digital revenue grew from just 5% to almost 30% of the overall pie.

“Print is still the mother ship,” said Scott Parmelee, CRO and EVP at Outside, but cross-platform sales are boosting digital revenue.

Advertisers who work with Outside include large gear companies, such as REI, The North Face, Columbia and Patagonia, but also brands with niche products –the aforementioned bear spray or mosquito-repellant lamps.

Sixty percent of its advertisers are endemic. The other 40% include advertisers on local tourism boards who want to find nature-focused travelers, as well as craft beer and auto advertisers.

Outside attracted 120 direct advertisers last year, giving it a sell-through rate exceeding 80%. With a strong advertising base, Outside can afford to be picky in how it embraces technology like programmatic.

Outside would rather leave inventory unsold than offer it programmatically, making it one of the few publishers left to take such a stance. And it firmly protects its data, making sure no one can target its audience of outdoor enthusiasts across the open web.

“There is value in programmatic, but we try not to adhere to every ad tech trend,” digital sales director Cecelia Magnani said. “You have to come to us to buy our audience. There are no ad networks and no private exchanges.”

And that’s not for ad tech’s lack of trying. Parmelee said he fields 30 calls a week from tech partners wanting to work with the publisher.

Though Outside encounters more advertisers that prefer to execute deals programmatically, it’s sticking to its direct-only strategy for now. It does use a viewability vendor, Moat, and analytics provider Chartbeat for some of its branded content initiatives.

On the digital content side, however, Outside is more open to experimentation. Only 30% of its online readers subscribe to the magazine. Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP, YouTube and other platforms distribute Outside content to new audiences.

And while the magazine subscribers skew male and older, it’s attracting more women and younger readers online. To further capitalize on this demographic diversity, Outside expanded coverage of gear for women and launched a dating column called “Tough Love” that focuses on romance in the outdoors.

Outside has found success online by publishing stories no one else is telling, or telling with an outdoor enthusiast’s point of view. That includes stories about surviving in the wilderness, the best kind of carbon bike or how to provide input for President Trump’s proposal to review 27 national monuments. And it’s publishing a lot of content – more than 250 videos and stories in a recent month.

“Every story we do, we want to add value and do something different than what you’re going to find elsewhere on the web,” said digital editorial director Scott Rosenfield. “We don’t want to be chasing ideas that The New York Times, Washington Post, Men’s Journal, Gear Patrol or any sites are going to chase.”

Outside is also giving readers – and advertisers – more options for consuming content. Besides adding videos, Outside is building up a strong newsletter list, which it also sells to advertisers. And a podcast launched six months ago has been successfully monetized.

“We are trying to smartly and cautiously diversify the revenue,” Magnani said.

Outside only wants to sell in a way that reflects that value, a mindset that also helped it when publishers first began selling digital ads.

“Some of my peers that have jumped on programmatic made an even bigger mistake: When print was strong and vital they were using the digital side as added value,” Parmelee recalled. “We came right out of the chute with premium CPMs.”

As many publishers move to branded content initiatives, Outside feels it has an edge. With branded content now 12% of its business, Outside is averaging nine minutes of engagement for that content, which it think reflects the quality-driven approach it’s taken.

“Everyone is trying to position themselves as great storytellers with unbelievable content,” Parmelee said. “That’s been our game from the beginning.”

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