Robin Thurston interview: Outside CEO explains subscription plans

CEO interview: How publishing company Outside plans to build the Disney+ of outdoor activities

Robin Thurston interview following launch of Outside+

Outside, the owner of VeloNews, Yoga Journal and Ski magazine, has in four years established itself as one of America’s largest digital journalism subscription businesses.

The media company, led by tech entrepreneur Robin Thurston, claims to have around 500,000 digital subscribers, as well as 1m more through its magazines.

But for Thurston, a co-founder and former CEO of exercise app company MapMyFitness, this is only the beginning. He believes that his company, taking inspiration from Disney, Amazon and Netflix, can hit between 5-10m subscribers in the next four years.

[This interview first featured in Press Gazette’s ‘Future of News – US’ newsletter. Click here to sign up and receive this content first.]

Press Gazette spoke to Thurston after his company this week announced the launch of Outside+, a subscription that gives customers access to online editorial content across all of the publisher’s websites.

The package also includes two print magazine subscriptions, usage of the Gaia GPS software that Outside owns, access to OutsideTV and virtual health and fitness courses. Outside+ replaces its Active Pass subscription, which was similar but did not include the same level of integration between brands or member exclusives.

Thurston says that, with Outside+, he wants to create “one unified platform. We have a single sign-on – you’re creating an Outside account, you can use that in every place on the platform.”

He believes the product will prove popular because many of Outside’s users will have, or will develop, an interest in multiple outdoor pursuits. Outside’s titles cover topics including travel, running, climbing, skiing, cycling, yoga, training and healthy eating.

“From our data, we know that we have households getting three of our magazines at home. And so we’re like: Wait a minute. Why wouldn’t we just offer them something more like Netflix or Amazon Prime or Disney in terms of unlimited access?”

Thurston adds: “I did not create this model. If you ask me, people like Amazon and others like Disney [did]. Even Disney now is adding perk benefits to Disney+ because they know you have to integrate the experience layer with the content layer…

“I think you’re going to see a lot more businesses that are what I would call fully integrated within their category – [i.e.] they bring everything from commerce to utility to experience to content together in a way that is hyper-personalised.”

How Outside used M&A to build a subscriber empire

Founded in 2017 and headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, Outside was formerly known as Pocket Outdoor Media.

Over the past four years, the company – which has been headed up by Thurston since 2019 when he joined from personal genomics startup Helix – has acquired a number of established magazines and media brands.

There is likely to be more to come. Thurston says: “We’ve done a lot of M&A in the last 12 months. I don’t know if we’ll do that much M&A in the next 12 months, but I think in the long run we will largely use M&A as a way to add value into the Outside+ ecosystem.”

In February this year, it bought Outside Integrated Media, the publisher of Outside magazine, and renamed itself.

Today, Thurston says that Outside has “500,000 people in what we would call our digital membership layer,” including Outside+ and direct subscriptions to online brands, as well as 1m paying magazine subscribers.

Many magazine publishers appear to have struggled so far to build large digital subscription businesses (Press Gazette’s 100k Club ranking is dominated by newspaper or news-focused companies).

[This interview first featured in Press Gazette’s ‘Future of News – US’ newsletter. Click here to sign up and receive this content first.]

Thurston believes that “a lot of magazine companies have made a fatal error” by making their print content available for free online.

“Consumers are savvy,” he says. “If you’re reading your magazine and you see it free three days later on the web, you go: Well, do I really need to subscribe to the magazine?

“So the first thing that we did, which I still think is different than many print magazine companies, is we said 100% of the content that’s in the magazine can never be free on the web. We can’t have it anywhere out there for you to get it if we want you to be a print plus digital customer.”

Thurston’s subscription growth plans – to hit 5-10m paying readers/users – sound ambitious. (The New York Times, with nearly 8m subscribers, is the only journalism company in the world to have reached these heights.)

But, pointing to the fact that Outside’s websites attract 200m unique visitors a year, he suggests the target is more than achievable.

“Our view is 5-10m people, of our unique audience, is actually relatively conservative,” he says. “We certainly think it’s very possible over the next three to four years to get to that level.”

Why advertising is still important for Outside

While much of Outside’s focus will be on these 5-10m would-be subscribers, the company’s non-paying audience will remain important.

As a rule, Thurston says that Outside aims to make around 60% of its online content freely available. This is partly to entice more readers who may become subscribers, but also for advertising purposes.

“We think in five years, advertising might only be 30% of the revenue,” he says. “But as we build a network this big, there have been lots of opportunities that have come to us to really leverage our audience into brands that want to be associated with [Outside]. And so we’re seeing bigger, larger, strategic advertising deals.”

[This interview first featured in Press Gazette’s ‘Future of News – US’ newsletter. Click here to sign up and receive this content first.]

Thurston believes the death of third-party cookies creates an opportunity for Outside because of its large readership and the first-party data it holds.

He says that Outside expects 90% of its users to be logged in to its system while reading content within three years, which would be a major boost to its ad-targeting capabilities.

Thurston says readers will be encouraged to log in so that they can personalise the content they see on Outside websites – e.g. by following certain topics and authors. Logging in also gives them the ability to comment on articles. Here, he once again takes inspiration from the tech industry.

“It’s just like Instagram – you can’t follow people if you aren’t logged in, right? You can look at photos but you can’t do anything.

“So I think our view is very similar. We’re going to add benefits that essentially attract people to want to synchronise and create an account… And we think we’ll be very successful in that as we add more and more things that are only for logged-in users.”

Although logged-in non-subscribers are important, Thurston makes clear that attracting paying readers will be the priority.

“Advertising will always be an important component and we certainly see it growing,” he says. “But I would say our focus and emphasis is on building a truly unique membership platform that really differentiates us in the market over the long run.”

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