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From pixels to pages: Print media's comeback in the outdoor industry

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After watching the rush toward digital, print reiterates its place in the world.

The mission of Adventure Journal has always been to step beyond “the stoke” and dive into the spiritual, emotional, intellectual core of what it means to be adventurous, says Steve Casimiro, its editor, but after seven years of experimenting, he’s found the limits for what you can ask of readers online.

Where the web has fallen short is where he had aimed to be most ambitious, with long features that demand time and attention—writing he only half-jokingly describes as the kind of stories that can change lives. That’s where readers seem to drift away when they’re reading in a digital environment interrupted by alerts, dings, vibrations and hyperlinks to all the Internet’s rabbit holes. That’s why he’s building off Adventure Journal’s online audience to launch Adventure Journal Quarterly, a print publication to be released in April 2016.

“What I want from Adventure Journal Quarterly is that it's something that sustains you and stays with you for a long time, and I feel like that’s…
“What I want from Adventure Journal Quarterly is that it’s something that sustains you and stays with you for a long time, and I feel like that’s best served and maybe only achieved in print,” Adventure Journal editor Steve Casimiro says.

While the trend has been to give readers everything online that’s available in print, there will not be a digital version of Adventure Journal Quarterly. “We want to sort of take a stand and say, this is what it’s designed to be,” Casimiro said.

Subscriptions in the first weeks after the announcement surpassed expectations and continue to grow, and ad space is sold out. The business model works as long as readers shoulder some of the cost of generating the content, hence the $60 price tag.

There’s a ready market for his approach, Casimiro argues, as people tire of staring at screens and crave a different option. As evidence, he points to the recent boom in quarterlies, including the launch of Kinfolk and Alpine Modern, which largely follow a route mapped by the decades-old Surfer’s Journal. Outdoor Retailer magazine also just saw a rebirth in print, and Gear Patrol is launching a print magazine—a long time ambition, its founders admitted to Politico in 2014. There’s also the now four-issue-old Range magazine, sponsored by lifestyle brands Cordura, Poler Outdoor Stuff, Toad & Co. and Struktur for the creative- and adventure-minded reader. Any notion that the world is going all digital, all the time for everything from media to shopping is further refuted by online retail giant launching a brick and mortar bookstore in Seattle in 2015.

The pendulum swings back toward print

While print reaffirms its place in the publishing world, brands agree that the strategy for reaching customers that seems to work best for them is D) All of the above. Digital provides quantifiable returns on the investment, traceable leads to sales and unprecedented opportunities for dialogue with consumers. But when it comes to making an impression and staying present in the outdoor sports community, well-targeted print ads still have a place in the marketing portfolio.

“People are now more interested in running the conversation beyond digital, whereas the last few years that’s all that it was,” says Greg Williams, media director for Backbone Media. “It’s very challenging with how fragmented and how crowded the digital ecosystem is to break through and build the brand.”

In any medium, effective ads share the same qualities: they’re not fragmented or busy, he says: “It’s not invasive. It’s not blinking. It’s part of somebody’s experience, in print and online.” All it needs to be, he adds, is “relevant and adjacent to great content, whatever that content may be.”

“There’s been a push for digital, but it’s like it’s gone too fast. It’s been too much,” says Julie Quinn, marketing manager for Vasque, which advertised in the first run of Adventure Journal Quarterly.

“I think there’s a value to being able to see [an ad] for longer than three seconds. … But you can’t argue with the analytics of digital,” she says. “I don’t think print is dead. I think it maybe needs to regroup a bit.”

The notion that print magazines are dying may stem from conflating the decline in newspapers with an overall decline in print publications, said Dennis Lewon, editor of Backpacker Magazine*. Niche magazines, including those in outdoors sports, are reporting an increase in readership and web traffic, according to The Association of Magazine Media. Overall, the audience is expanding and was up by 4 percent in November 2015, according to the association.

Graphic courtesy of the Association of Magazine Media.
Graphic courtesy of the Association of Magazine Media.

“The growth in digital media is great because our audience is growing and we’re talking to new readers in ways that they want,” Lewon said, pointing to the magazine’s 300,000 Facebook fans, many of whom are not subscribers or regular visitors to Backpacker’s website, and digital subscribers who read monthly issues on tablets and iPhones. “We don’t see it undermining print.”

Backpacker Magazine has more than 313,000 followers on Facebook.

At the beginning of 2015, Backpacker committed to minimum book sizes and increased the quality of its cover stock, Lewon added, “so that our print readers know and are very confident that print is a premium product that they will continue to get high value for. So we see print as an important part of our brand that readers will continue to pay for and appreciate, and we’re committed to keeping it at the high value end product.”

Print stays strong because it’s a fundamentally different experience from reading online, he said, and advertisers are catching on. “We’ve seen advertisers who had moved away from print coming back to print because they see the value and saw some of the ramifications of not being in print,” he said.

Outdoor Adventure Media, producers of locally focused, free magazines like Elevation Outdoors, Blue Ridge Outdoors and Utah Adventure Journal distributed through gear shops, climbing gyms and other places outdoor aficionados are likely to spend their time, is having as strong a year for print as they’ve ever seen, says owner Blake DeMaso.

“I did see, several years ago, a rush towards digital,” he said. “People took a lot of money out of other things they were doing, whether it be print or TV, and spent a lot more in digital advertising. I’ve definitely seen that even back out.”

The analytics digital promised look alluring, but the actual numbers tied to click-through rates have been abysmal. Advertising Age reported in 2014 the average click-through rate on display ads at a “laughably low” 0.1 percent.

That rate can bring advertisers back to that goal of just hoping to be seen and recognized in the company of good content.

Where the Outdoor Adventure Media model hasn’t yet worked is with the Mountain Gazette, the beloved decades-old print publication that went online-only in 2012, just a couple years after DeMaso’s company acquired the title. DeMaso attributes the magazine’s troubles breaking even financially to a distribution area that stretched from New Mexico to Washington and fragmented advertisers—there was little incentive to advertise a gear shop in Moab in a publication that would be read in Jackson Hole.


But online-only isn’t the right fit for the Mountain Gazette reader, who likes to spend time where they may not have mobile service or the Internet, or at least to hunker down over the magazine in a dark bar with a beer. Bottom line, he says: “Mountain Gazette will likely reappear in print. What form that will take, I’m not sure.”

Research conducted for the Association of Magazine Media, a magazine advocacy group, that analyzed 100 ad effectiveness studies found that print advertising did more to increase brand favorability and purchase intent than other media, and that using print ads in combination with digital options produced the best results. In October, the Association even announced a print magazine sales guarantee to demonstrate that audiences aren’t waning and that print ads provide advertisers with a memorable connection to consumers that translates to sales.

Marketers divide to conquer

Brands often report a near 50/50 split for their advertising budget between digital and print. The metrics, flexibility and ability to dialogue with customers through digital media are compelling, but there’s something about the presence of print that often seems worth the investment. The narrowing gap between costs to advertise digitally or advertise in print has changed the conversation, too.

“I don’t believe it’s a black and white situation where everybody is supposed to steer all their efforts in one direction… I think the successful brands in our area are managing all channels,” says Niclas Bornling, VP of marketing for Black Diamond Equipment. “Print advertising by itself—that’s a losing strategy.”

While their focus is on digital, where they can dialogue with consumers, Black Diamond still takes out print ads, he says, in part to support publications and the stories they share.

Among the draws for digital is the ability to target consumers with ads for products they’re shopping for at that moment, using consumers’ Internet search history to target them with relevant ads.

“You get more bang for your buck with a digital ad,” says Jeremy Dodge, marketing manager for Mountainsmith. Print ad buys work to increase awareness and exposure, but when it comes to driving sales, he sees digital as a more results-driven approach.

“[Online] I can target people who have high propensity to buy online and have searched for a tent in the last 30 days,” he says. So Mountainsmith has gone in with digital marketing tools like paying to be among the top search results on when someone enters a term like “backpack.” Through the 2014 Christmas shopping season, he says, the company managed to secure the lowest possible bid for that spot because there simply wasn’t any other competition for it.

La Sportiva has moved toward a digital-focused advertising strategy that deploys content marketing, social media and email campaigns, depending on the situation, says Jonathan Degenhardt, marketing director for La Sportiva.

“We have been shifting toward more digital advertising steadily for the last five years, and we’re going to continue to shift that way,” he says. “But we’ll take a look at the right opportunities [for print ads] when they make sense for the brand.”

Those print ads would likely feature iconic pieces in their line, and fit as a small portion of a broader advertising strategy. Of the new print magazines launching, he says, “There are people who like reading the newspaper, and you can’t say that that’s invalid or an obsolete way to do it if that individual wants to do it. So I applaud their decision. Time will tell how the market makes room for it.”

There is, in short, a sense that print still provides a connection, an intimacy and a luxuriousness of experience not achieved on any screen. We’re still hungry for stories that put a finger on, as Casimiro says, “the deeper rhythms of adventure” and communicate that experience in a way that lingers, fueling the desire for that next walk into the woods.

*Backpacker Magazine and SNEWS are both owned by Active Interest Media