Before the internet, if you can remember that far back, there was a time when the discovery of unique outdoor experiences was word-of-mouth, or warehoused in myriad guidebooks: Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Falcon Guides, and the like.
Now, roughly twenty years since the IPO of Netscape and the founding of Google, the amount of accessible information that exists online about where to go outdoors is staggering. Today, depending on where you are, a quick Google keyword search, like “Outdoor Experiences Near Me”, can yield about 200 million indexed page results in less than a second. “Hiking in the USA” can yield about 80 million. There’s a ton of information out there.
Whether or not it’s all quality information is a different story—and it’s one that we’ll get to in a bit—but one thing is certain: in the last two decades, there has been a dramatic rise in online outdoor discovery platforms.
This piece will chart that rise, from the early days of the dot-com bubble to the new mobile age. In it, we hope to address some of the following questions:
- How has the online outdoor discovery landscape evolved over the last two decades?
- What do the phases of this evolution look like?
- Who have been the key players blazing the, well, um, trail?
- What future changes to the landscape should we expect in years to come?
Here’s our abbreviated take on the history of how we get outdoors.
The Trends – Why Has There Been a Rise?
As we see it, there are two fundamental market trends that have contributed to the growth of online outdoor discovery.
The first is the changing landscape of media, catalyzed by the duopoly of Facebook and Google. These platforms have reduced the costs of distributing content to billions of people to virtually nothing. In so doing, they’ve enabled the proliferation of media to an insatiable audience. We highly recommend this excellent article, from analyst Ben Thompson, on media’s Great Unbundling.
The second contributing trend is that Millennials are spending more money on experiences than products. In general, they’re far more interested in brand interactions that add value to their lives, rather than promotional incentives to buy
This generational preference, coupled with the rise of Facebook and Google, has spurred an explosion of online content that enables and inspires experiences—especially those that brands perceive as the conduits to their products.
In fact, if you take a deeper look at the $887B in consumer spending driven by the outdoor recreation economy, you’ll notice that $702.3B (approximately 80%) of this economy is trip and travel-related expenditures, versus $184.5B in gear and apparel sales. The development of outdoor discovery online is a direct result of the consumer shift toward experiences, combined with a maturing (and mobile) internet.
The Birth of Experience-Based Platforms
There are many different types of experience-based platforms out there. A surface-level observation yields the following:
- Location-Based Apps like Yelp, Foursquare, Facebook, and Google Trips delivering in-market, on-the-go experiences at the touch of a button
- Online Travel Agencies like TripAdvisor, Expedia, and Kayak expanding into experiential offerings with “Things to Do” categories and “City Guides”
- Tour Booking SaaS Platforms like Free Harbor and Peek selling experiential-based software
- Fitness Tracking Apps like Strava and MapMyRun offering GPS-powered, locally-curated routes to explore
- Tour Operator Aggregators like Funtavo and TourRadar connecting users with tour groups that match their activity and location-based interests
- Outdoor Gear-Focused Platforms like Gear Junkie, Gear Patrol, Active Junky, and The Clymb focusing heavily on gear recommendations and product reviews but occasionally supplementing this information with experience-based inspiration
- Adventure Travel Publications like Adventure Journal, AFAR, Condé Nast Traveler, Nat Geo, Matador Network, and Lonely Planet offering in-depth coverage of travel across the globe
- Traditional Outdoor-Oriented Publications like Outside, Backpacker, Trail Runner, and the slew of publications under The Enthusiast Network—like Bike Mag, Powder Mag, Surfer Mag, etc.—turning to the web to provide journalistic dives into outdoor sports and experiences
- Social Networks for the Outdoors like Bold Betties, Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Gociety, and Meetup.com breaking down social barriers to outdoor recreation and connecting people through shared adventures
- Photo-Sharing Apps both specific to the outdoors (like Yonder) as well as more general apps with communities (like Instagram) organized by outdoor-related hashtags
And then, of course, there are what we’d call outdoor discovery platforms, disseminating information and distributing it in the form of trusted, easy-to-use digital content. Here are some of the leading players (in no particular order):
- Adventure Projects Inc.
- Outdoor Project
- The Outbound Collective
- Atlanta Trails & Asheville Trails
- Weekend Sherpa
The Eras of Online Outdoor Discovery At a Glance
Three key phases have defined this evolving landscape.
- Era 1.0 was all about getting information online, embracing new technologies, and making the shift from historically print-oriented guidebook information to digital.
- Era 2.0 saw early entrepreneurs beginning to use the web for its strengths. This opened the door for mapping technologies, photo galleries, uploading and sharing, community-building, increasingly sophisticated online publishing, and monetizing strategies beyond banner ads and pay-per-click.
- Era 3.0 has dealt with decluttering and curating the best online information to deliver an experience that inspires, informs, and ultimately adds value.
Era 1.0: Embracing New Technology 1995 – 2003
Dial-up connections were slow. Web features that we view as commonplace today, like high-resolution maps and images, did not exist. And the idea of uploading and organizing web data into ‘web pages’ was a concept that was just catching on.
However, there were some visionary companies that, early on, recognized the potential of the internet and the business opportunity at hand. Here are a few:
GORP—1995. Banner Ads & Custom Website Hosting.
GORP (Great Outdoor Recreation Pages) was one of the first big players. They basically did it all, offering thousands of pages of global content about things to do outdoors. By 1996, GORP was the largest, most-trafficked website dedicated to outdoor recreation and adventure travel, and Fodor’s labeled it as “undoubtedly the best source of outdoor information on the Web”. GORP went on to be acquired by Away.com (now Orbitz) in 2002 for an undisclosed fee.
Trails.com—1999. Guidebook Goes to the Web.
Launched in 1999, Trails.com specialized in pay-per-view pro trail guides and topo maps. Many of its articles still dominate search results, due in part to nearly two decades online. The company was acquired by Demand Media in 2006 and spun off to LoveToKnow in 2016.
SummitPost—2001. An Open Invitation.
The goal of SummitPost was to create a crowdsourced site that would house the best mountaineering information. It was a lofty vision, and a slow build at first. By 2005, with the help of a passionate membership and thousands of expertly-written user-generated reviews, this goal was (arguably) realized. Today, it remains one of the go-to mountaineering sites on the web. For a much more in-depth and fascinating read about SP’s history, written by one of its early staff members and documenting the site’s rise in a 3 volume series, check out their story.
More early innovators:
- GreatOutdoors.com—Launched in 1995, GreatOutdoors was an early leader. It is still around today, now owned by online retailer Altrec.com. It was, and is, a great database, but design-wise looks like it hasn’t been touched since 1995.
- MountainZone.com—Launched in 1996, MountainZone was another early bird in the space, offering over 40,000 pages of mountain sports content. It was acquired by Quokka Sports in 2000 and is still around today.
- 14ers.com—Launched in 2000, 14ers was another early member of the crowdsourced model, offering an incredibly detailed warehouse of regional beta for hiking and mountaineering in the high peaks of Colorado.
In sum, the era from 1995-2003 was a period defined by a handful of early pioneers probing and testing the waters of the web, learning new technologies, and experimenting with various strategies for uploading content. Ultimately, this era laid the groundwork for what would become, as we’ll see, a very busy—almost too busy—space in the decade to come.
Era 2.0: New Media Hits Its Stride, Confusion Follows 2003 – 2010
If Era 1.0 was defined by the exploration of new technologies and the laying of a groundwork from which online discovery could bloom, Era 2.0 almost certainly dealt with an increased understanding of the space and a mad dash towards capitalizing on its growth.
In the decade immediately following the turn of the millennium, internet access rose dramatically. Computers became faster; broadband connections, cheaper; technologies, better; internet users, savvier. According to Internet Live Stats, in the year 2000, roughly 43% of the United States population had access to the internet. By 2010, this figure had surged to just over 70%.
With this came the inevitable and complementary rise of more websites. Platforms like WordPress, launched in 2003 and currently powering a mind-boggling 25% of sites worldwide, totally reoriented the digital publishing playing field; suddenly, nearly anyone with a computer and a middle-school education had the means to publish content onto the web.
Some big names appeared during this era, including: Facebook (2004), Flickr (2004), YouTube (2005), and Google Maps (2005). All would go on to play huge and tangentially-related roles in online outdoor discovery in the years to follow. Millions of other smaller websites were created in this time period as well. In 2003, 40 million websites existed; by 2010, there were 206 million.
Within the outdoor world, this growth was plenty evident. Major media publications, like Outside Magazine and Backpacker Magazine, adopted online publishing strategies. Big-box gear and apparel brands launched e-commerce sites containing primitive experience-based reviews. Specialty outdoor retailers did the same. A number of new, increasingly-sophisticated crowdsourcing sites came along as well. Here are some of the bigger names from this era:
EveryTrail—2005. Geo-Tagged, User-Generated Trail Data.
Powered by GlobalMotion Media, Inc., EveryTrail capitalized on newly-improved mapping technologies to offer geo-tagged content. Users could upload hiking routes with interactive maps, photo galleries, and written descriptions. EveryTrail was eventually acquired by TripAdvisor in 2011, and then sold to AllTrails in 2016.
MountainProject—2005. Sophisticated Crowdsourcing.
MountainProject was launched in 2005 with the goal of taking climbing beta ‘beyond the guidebook’ through moderated, user-submitted route descriptions. Along the way, a number of other complementary sport-specific projects were created: Hiking Project, Mountain Bike Project, Powder Project, and Trail Run Project. In January, 2015, all of these projects consolidated under the Adventure Projects, Inc. umbrella, which was acquired by REI in June of that year.
AllTrails—2010. Free Browsing with Advanced Paid Options.
AllTrails was founded in 2010 and is still one of the major players today, offering a large database of crowdsourced trail maps and photos from their community of roughly 4 million users. Free users can browse available trail options, but for descriptions or detail, an upgrade to AllTrails Pro is required. In 2016, AllTrails acquired EveryTrail to add to their database..
It’s not just these broad, nationally-scoped sites that got involved. There was also a dramatic rise in regionally-focused (like Modern Hiker-2006), city-focused (like Atlanta Trails-2011) and sport-specific platforms.
Much of the content produced during this era was excellent. But the sheer quantity and diversity of it became overwhelming. With so much data, how do you actually find the right information?
From a broader perspective than just the outdoors, this type of question drove the astronomical growth of a search engine called Google, which today processes over 3.5 billion searches every day and whose original mission statement was to “organize the world’s information.” But it also became the question on everybody’s minds, as we entered the third phase.
Era 3.0: Mobile Internet is King 2011 – 2017
Era 2.0 left in its wake a mess of websites and questionable information. Much of this was high quality, informed and written by knowledgeable experts. But it’s also true that a lot of bad articles appeared during this time—and in many cases, even if the content itself wasn’t necessarily bad, it was tied up on ugly, outdated, nearly-unnavigable websites.
These navigation issues were especially prevalent on mobile devices, critical in an era where mobile users dominate. On RootsRated.com, for example, about 65% of our total traffic since 2014 has been mobile traffic.
Many of the new wave of discovery platforms within Era 3.0 seemed to recognize how crowded and convoluted the space had become. Their missions and visions, from the outset, have been designed to sift through this sea of outdated, inaccurate, and fragmented content.
Their means for doing so have varied in some ways, but their shared goals of solving the same fundamental problem are visibly evident. Let’s take a look at the “About Us” pages on some of the leading players today, including RootsRated.com.
Despite differing business models, language about the messy proliferation of outdoor content on the web is consistent. Each site seeks to provide expert advice on one singular, trusted platform.
From Modern Hiker (2006): How many times have you stared at a map or guidebook to find a new trail to explore, browsed through dozens of web pages of varying quality only to come up with more questions than answers, or tried to wade through user reviews to figure out whether a hike was worth the drive to the trailhead?
From Outdoor Project (2013): Outdoor Project was created in 2013 to address an increasingly chaotic and time-consuming chore: planning outdoor adventures. The phenomenal efforts of talented storytellers and outdoor experts were real, but outdoor enthusiasts looking to tap into those incredible stories were forced to wade through a discouraging number of resources to find information and inspiration for their next adventure.
From The Outbound Collective (2012): The Outbound was born out of frustration. We all love the outdoors. Unfortunately, existing resources for discovering and exploring new outdoor activities and locations made it a pain to find amazing new places. We decided we could do better.
From Hipcamp (2013): We don’t think finding a campsite should be such a time-consuming, convoluted and confusing process, which is why we started Hipcamp. We are committed to making getting outside fun and easy, as simple as selecting what, when and where you want your camping experience to be.
- Business Model:
- Bookings revenue (Working with private landowners to unlock new places to camp)
From RootsRated.com (2012): RootsRated is a media platform that connects users with the best outdoor experiences, hand-picked by local outdoor retailers and their networks of local experts. We are NOT another website full of crowdsourced trail reviews.
- Business Model:
- Content Marketing Software as a Service
The list goes on, but each company’s mission remains remarkably consistent despite overlapping business models. A cynic might surmise that these platforms are merely adding to the clutter. We, at RootsRated Media, disagree; we firmly believe that many fully deliver on their promises.
After all, many of them are one-stop-shops offering invaluable outdoor discovery resources, complete with sleek web designs, equally sleek mobile layouts, networks of expert content creators, and impressive entrepreneurial teams with grand visions and driven employees.
At the end of the day, all of these platforms are businesses. Like all businesses, they are faced with the myriad daily challenges of monetizing, staying afloat, and, ideally, thriving. The fact that they’re operating in a demanding online publishing space makes the equation even trickier.
“Today, I think the real challenge we’ve all faced is that it’s relatively easy to become a community/publishing-focused platform, particularly as millennials are so eager to share their stories…but, much more challenging is to maintain that authenticity and evolve into an enduring and profitable business enterprise.”
- Tyson Gillard, CEO, Outdoor Project
So, what’s next for outdoor discovery? How can platforms react to a digital environment that, for the foreseeable future, will continue to be dominated by Facebook and Google and will continue to encounter the subsequent undercutting of ad revenue for publishers? How can they make money while continuing to deliver value to the end consumer?
Evolving Business Models
There doesn’t appear to be one catch-all solution that will solve all the problems facing publishers today. In this excellent article from idio highlighting the future of publishing models, the authors have suggested a framework that breaks down revenue drivers into four separate categories:
- Audience Revenue Drivers: Native Advertising, Affiliate/CPA, Sponsored Content
- Content Revenue Drivers: Custom Publishing, Syndication, Paid Content/Subscriptions
- Data Revenue Drivers: Lead Generation, Renting User Database, Market Research, Advertising Data
- Brand Revenue Drivers: Products, Events, Services, Licensing
As we’ve seen throughout the history of this landscape, platforms have adopted and experimented in a multi-pronged, almost mix-and-match kind of way. From the paid content model of AllTrails, to the affiliate acquisition model of Adventure Projects, to the native advertising of The Outbound Collective and Outdoor Project, many appear to be experimenting with a number of revenue streams to find a formula that works.
At Matcha, our path has taken similar twists and turns. We started as a publishing company creating sponsored content. We launched a mobile app product. We hosted road tours and pint night events. We experimented with custom publishing, syndication, subscriptions, and so on. Today, Matcha develops content marketing software that helps small and mid-size teams leverage content to improve customer experience and drive sales.
In the next five years, we expect to see fast and furious changes to the shared landscapes of business strategy and technology. The tools, tactics, and trends will continue to evolve rapidly. As they do, outdoor discovery platforms will inevitably evolve along with them.
What won’t change, however, is the fundamental importance of outdoor recreation nor the power of storytelling. Ultimately, we feel that the rise of these platforms is a positive development. Our reasoning is twofold:
First, we believe in the democratization of outdoor recreation—that everyone should have equal access to get outside, and that our society will be better off for it.
Second, we believe in the platforms themselves, and in the entrepreneurs and marketers powering them. We think what these companies are doing to navigate the volatile, sometimes turbulent seas of online publishing, to ultimately deliver valuable and accessible information about outdoor recreation, is a worthy cause.
Written by Ry Glover for Matcha in partnership with RootsRated.