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Why Outside went ‘all in’ on subscription bundles

Outside magazine occupies a special place in publisher folklore. Indeed, it’s not often a magazine becomes the key element of a story itself, let alone spawn a handful of literary best-sellers and a Hollywood blockbuster starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley and Josh Brolin. 

The story, a tragic one, involved one of Outside’s journalists, Jon Krakauer, chronicling an expedition to Everest in May 1996 which led to the loss of five lives amidst some of the most ferocious weather conditions ever recorded on the mountain. Subsequently, Krakauer received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the story led to a complete reevaluation of climbing and its commercialization. (Editor’s note: Krakauer’s writing is a stunning tour de force and a seminal work within mountaineering literature).

Fast forward 24 years and the title is in a fight of its own despite having 530,000 print subscribers. Purchased earlier this year by entrepreneur Robin Thurston’s Pocket Outdoor Media, after years of steady decline and unpaid bills, Outside is now aiming to restore its decaying fortunes by pivoting from a 70% ad-based model to a 70% subscription-based model over a three-year time frame. 

In the process, Thurston has re-branded Pocket Outdoor Media and will use the Outside (Interactive Inc.) name as the umbrella title for his entire portfolio of media brands which include other active lifestyle publications such as Backpacker, Ski Mag, Trail Runner, Yoga Journal, Climbing, Triathlete, Peloton, and 12 other lifestyle titles. Based in Colorado, the company now has 475 employees.

Subscription bundles

Pivoting to subscriptions isn’t necessarily unusual for a publisher beset by a challenging ad environment, but it’s the way that Outside magazine is addressing the problem that is unique. Upon taking a holistic view of his media business, Thurston realized that many active lifestyle enthusiasts were getting multiple subscriptions sent to their homes and participating in as many as three or four different activities.

Speaking to The Seattle Times earlier this month, he said, “I felt like there was an opportunity to bring it all together under a single umbrella and really unify the experience for the consumer.” 

His solution? A multi-pronged subscription bundle priced at $99 which Thurston views as a “full-service experience for the active lifestyle enthusiast”. Called Outside+, the bundle is a full multimedia immersion, and includes unlimited access to digital content from all 20 of Outside’s active lifestyle brands; a single sign-on across each title; personalized feed of gear recommendations, how-to’s, training regimen, recipes; access to premium content from Outside TV & Outside Online; Zoom Q&As with professional athletes and Olympians; and premium access to navigation, offline maps, and route planning from Gaia GPS. 

When you combine the services like Gaia GPS, and the discounts to events, and you add in video-on-demand courses and all of the premium content, I felt like this was an offering for consumers that truly could be a foundation for their active lifestyle world.

Robin Thurston, CEO, Outside Interactive Inc. speaking to The Seattle Times

Outside itself will remain as a print title but Thurston sees which way the winds are blowing, telling The Seattle Times, “I do not believe print is dead, I just believe it’s changing, and for the companies that don’t evolve, I believe they’re going to be in trouble.”

To that end, Outside will sunset all its standalone print subscriptions from its portfolio, including Outside magazine over time, and will instead focus on its premium bundle, Outside+. Single-issue magazines will continue to be sold at newsstands but the clear priority for Outside is to become a fully immersive, experiential lifestyle platform.

Print is not dead – but it is changing, and a hybrid model is key to survival.

Robin Thurston, CEO, Outside Interactive Inc. speaking to The Seattle Times

Over email, Thurston told WNIP, “By combining print journalism with experiences, events, commerce, utilities, and community into a single ecosystem, Outside is the first and only company to compile a complete, actionable view of the active lifestyle customer.” 

Early signs look promising

Early results look promising, not least from an upselling angle – approximately 40% of new Outside subscribers opt for the $99 Outside+ bundle versus a $49-per-year print-and-digital subscription to individual Outside titles. Whilst this has a danger of cannibalizing revenue from readers who opted for 3 or 4 Outside titles, Thurston feels the pivot will pay dividends in the long run.

“None of our current magazine subscribers are paying $49 for their print-only subscription. In fact, many of them are paying between $20-$40/yr at most for print only, which is why our $49 print + digital bundle is such a good deal,” Thurston told WNIP. “And for the small percentage of our database that are currently subscribed to 3+ of our current titles, none are paying more than $99 for the three print-only subscriptions. We are not worried about the current bundles ($49 and $99), specifically the $99 bundle, cannibalizing our business. We have provided more value in each offering at the current price points.”

As for the future, Thurston wants to renew his focus on attracting younger people within the Outside+ umbrella. This will include developing feature films, documentaries, as well as short-form content on TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, the latter platform already boasting one million Outside followers.

Thurston subsequently hopes Outside’s entire portfolio of brands will be profitable within twelve months, and having received $180M in VC funds since 2019, a public offering in 2024 will more than recoup all the investment funneled into it. Time will tell, but commercial aspects aside, the keen cyclist adds, “I have one primary goal – to help the world become a more active place.” He might already be on his way to achieving that.