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Episode 119: What The Influx Of New Outdoor Participants During COVID Means For Marketing (minisode)

COVID-19 had an interesting impact on outdoor recreation: it led many people to take up outdoor activities for the first time. Outdoor Industry Association released the 2021 Special Report: The New Outdoor Participant diving into the data about these first-time outdoorists. Iris chats about these findings and what they mean for industry marketers for the coming years. If you're curious about engaging these brand new outdoor customers and turning them into lifelong adventurers, listen in!

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Episode Transcript

Hello, outdoor industry friends! Welcome to another episode of the Outside By Design podcast. I’m Iris, I’m on the creative team here at WHEELIE. And on this minisode I am going to be discussing the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2021 special report on The New Outdoor Participant and its implications for outdoor industry marketing in the coming years. So without further ado, let’s get into it!

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Now, if you aren’t familiar with this report, I have linked it in the show notes. It’s a free report commissioned by Outdoor Industry Association and NAXION to study the influx of first-time outdoor recreationalists that arose in the COVID-19 era. These are people who turned to outdoor activities for the first time (or returned to these activities after a long hiatus) during 2020. This data provides a deeper understanding of this previously untapped consumer group and insights on how brands can engage these customers beyond the pandemic. I’ll be covering the major points here, but check out the link in the show notes if you want to do a deeper dive into all the data that they found.

To start off, let’s talk about demographics. When compared to the existing outdoor participant base studied in 2019, these new participants are younger (with an average age of 45 vs. 54), more likely to be female, slightly more ethnically diverse than the previous 71% white group, more likely to live in urban areas, and in a slightly lower income bracket. For marketers, this means it’s going to be even more important than ever to be inclusive in your marketing. The outdoor industry has long relied on the white, middle-aged, male mountain-town resident as their primary consumer, but the growing outdoor recreation market continues to trend away from that majority. So, pay diverse creators, include women in your marketing, portray urban recreationalists in your content, and diversify your team. A commitment to diversifying your customer base and bringing more folks into outdoor sports is going to pay off in the long run both for your business and for the industry as a whole.

Now, why did these people turn to outdoor activities (or return to long-lost activities) during the pandemic? This study found that for many, a focus on health, fresh air during lockdown, and a desire to get away from their increased screen time sent them outdoors to find new passions. This study found that these new participants reported spending time with friends and family was their favorite non-outdoor activity, and mid-pandemic that was hard to access - so solo outdoor activities became a type of solace. This means that as we progress into a world where in-person social time becomes more standard again, positioning outdoor activities as a chance to hang out with friends can keep these new adventurers from giving up their new activities for more social time like going out to restaurants and bars.

Next, barriers to entry were a big focus of the study. Researchers found that activities with low cost and less required gear up front were popular with the new participants: activities like walking, running, cycling, bird watching, fishing, wildlife viewing, and camping. Accessibility and amount of free time were key factors to whether or not participation occurred, as was access to information about where to go, how to participate, and who to participate with. If you’re advertising an outdoor activity with a larger barrier to entry (say, climbing or scuba diving), you can still attract new, curious customers - but you’re going to have to make your content beginner-friendly. Work on providing helpful information about where to go on your website and social media. Host beginner meet-ups or how-to sessions when it’s safe to do so. And if you can, position those starter activities that they’re already engaged in as stepping stones toward more involved activities - for example, daily walks can become runs, those runs become entering races, and a racer becomes interested in ultramarathons or triathlons. Being open to beginners and not gate-keepy about access to new outdoor activities will allow your brand to engage these new participants into outdoorists for life.

Another key finding was that at least a quarter of these new participants reported they won’t continue their new outdoor activities in post-pandemic life. The study provides a few suggestions for brands to help retain these recreationalists in the coming years. First, they recommend encouraging close-to-home recreation opportunities. Many of these new users are restricted by urban settings, time, and access - so if your brand portrays adventure as requiring daring mountain climbs or other epic, multi-day adventures, you might not find success in engaging these new participants. Instead, use your marketing to show that outdoor adventure can look like a bike ride around a city park or visiting your local climbing gym. Show these users they are included in your brand’s audience and they may stick around to work up to those bigger adventures.

Another recommendation from OIA was to position outdoor recreation in new ways. They found that these new users are seeking social interaction, mental health boosts, and an escape from screens - none of which is very surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention for the last year. So high up on any outdoor marketer’s list will be connecting outdoor recreation with these intrinsic needs. If your hiking boot or rafting trip is portrayed as helping people get out of the house, reduce their screen time, and find some joy in their stressful lives, it’s going to do well with this group of participants. People are craving an escape and vacation, so domestic travel and destination adventures are about to get a big boost in 2021.

We also want to think about the shifts that have occured in work life during the pandemic to spur this growth. The report didn’t talk about this very much, but a good chunk of the population has shifted to working from home, allowing for an exodus from cities toward more rural areas. If you’re a resident of a mountain town, you’ve no doubt noticed this. Because of these moves, many people who had little outdoor access are now finding themselves in the middle of a natural paradise and are dipping their toes into the outdoor recreation sphere. The big question is, will these participants shift back toward city life post-pandemic? And if they do, will they remain outdoor adventurers? The industry they experience when they do try out new activities will be the deciding factor - will it be a welcoming space with resources for new users or an exclusive group where only those who shred the hardest are celebrated?

In all, the biggest marketing opportunities when it comes to this new consumer group are going to be removing perceived barriers to entry, marketing to diverse groups that haven’t been previously reached by the outdoor industry, and encouraging small entry activities that build into more active, outdoor lifestyles. By no means does the outdoor industry need to water down adventures or stop portraying stoke - but it will take some shifts in your marketing strategies if you want to engage and retain these new, potential customers. If outdoor brands provide a welcoming face and encourage access, these neighborhood walkers can become mountain explorers in no time - and they’ll bring their friends and families, too.

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Thank you so much for listening to Outside By Design. This podcast is produced by WHEELIE, a creative agency for people who thrive outside. You can find show notes, transcripts, and more by visiting or finding us on social media @wheeliecreative.

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With that, thanks for being here!


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