Personality, charity help drive participation on niche media websites

Steve Outing, online media expert and co-founder of Boulder-based Enthusiast Group, created five niche online communities devoted to adventure sports. Now he is selling the publishing platform behind them.

The Enthusiast Group’s sites,,,,, and, fuse grassroots media with social networking. Each site is led by an “enthusiast-in-chief”, a pro or semipro athlete who acts as the community leader and chief blogger. Members post the majority of content on the sites – tales of their latest ascent plus picture proof, homemade videos, gear reviews, trail reviews, and events coverage. And more than a few of them have met up in person to climb, bike, run, and ride together.

The success of the sites has led Outing to refocus his company’s efforts on offering the platform to other publishers who understand the value of “conversational media” and “conversational marketing”. OJR spoke with Outing on the phone last week, and an edited transcript follows.

OJR: What have you been working on?

Steve Outing: Well, I’ve been doing various consulting projects and research. I spent four years at the Poynter Institute, working on the EyeTrack project. And about a year and a half ago, I started the Enthusiast Group, based here in Boulder, Colorado.

OJR: What’s the idea behind the Enthusiast Group’s websites?

Outing: To create a way for folks passionate about sports to share their experiences and find new friends who share the same passion. We gave people a platform where they can talk about climbing, post photographs, and videos.  Recently we added other features like trail mapping.  Anyone who had gone out on a climb could contribute a map and write a review of it. It becomes a community resource.  

The sites started out very much as “citizen journalism” – though I prefer to use the term “grassroots media” – and quickly grew into social networking for climbers to find other folks they can go climbing with.

OJR: Which of the websites have caught on the most and why?   

Outing: Definitely The climbing site’s Enthusiast-in-Chief is Katie Brown. She’s in her mid-20s now, but when she was a teenager, she was a world champion climber. That made a big difference. We gave her a camera and she shoots some of her climbs. She also gets into the discussion forums and comments on our users’ photos. People really like the idea of being able to interact with this person who was perceived as untouchable. Here was an online venue where they could.  

I really think it’s important to have a personality at the center. He or she needs to be perceived as running the charge, and it certainly helps if that person has celebrity power.  

OJR: How did you manage to snag Katie for the site?

Outing: She happened to be living in Boulder and writing a column for the local paper. I was calling around and got referred to her.

OJR: How much time per week do the Enthusiasts-in-Chief spend working on their sites?

Outing: Probably five to ten hours.  

OJR: How does the site content break down in terms of content generated by you and generated by the community?

Outing: Early on we’d be doing quite a bit of content. As it grows, you get more and more from the community. Right now on, it’s probably two percent Katie and 98 percent community. Some of the newer sites might be 50/50.  

OJR: In a sustainable ad-supported online publishing model, where you automate ads and have reader-generated content, how much of that content would ultimately need to come from the audience vs. from you? 

Outing: I’d say 90/10, or maybe 95/5.  

OJR: Wow. That’s quite a high level of audience participation. How do you get there? 

Outing: For us, certainly the Enthusiast-in-Chief had a lot to do with getting these things going. We’ll seed with questions; then when people post things, we’ll dive in and make comments. I’m a mountain biker myself, so I participated heavily in the biking site.  Early on, it was going out to your friends, telling them about it, trying to get them to participate. We’ve come a long way.

One thing we tried that worked fairly well was partnering with the Access Fund, a nonprofit group working to keep climbing areas open. They put a note in their newsletters: “Every time you post something on, the site will donate $5 to the Access Fund, up to a total of $1,000.” We got great feedback on being good guys and for supporting an organization we all care about. 

It’s really important to tap other organizations with large lists of members, to hook in and leverage the giant sites like Facebook and Flickr. We built a Facebook application called “Run Time!” where you and your friends can log and compare your runs. The application primarily exposed Facebook users to our site. You can record ten runs without logging in. Then have to create an account with our running site. It drives traffic back to the site.  

When someone posts a photo to our site, there’s a checkbox for posting the photo to our Flickr site.

We also use incentives and compensation. We haven’t paid people for submitting content, but we do lots of contests, hooking up with sponsors and giving away prizes for “Post of the Week,” “Member of the Month,” and ad hoc contests. We’ve also toyed around with awarding “points.” On our climbing site, our top contributor has accumulated several thousand points. Getting lots of points signifies that you are a bit of an expert. While we don’t award anything for the points, people still care about them and get competitive about it. Lots of websites have figured out that awarding “levels” (Gold member, Silver, Bronze, or some such scheme) is effective.

The thing you want to avoid is the appearance of accepting user content and making money from it without giving back. What your site’s users are contributing to the community and your site is valuable, so make sure you figure out ways to acknowledge that.

OJR: OK, with so much audience participation, how do you ensure quality control? Have you ever had to deal with incidents of vandalism?

Outing: I’ll tell ya, I expected to have to be policing all the time. It’s been surprising – very few people have tried to mess things up. 

OJR: How many times have you had to delete something?

Outing: Just a handful. It’s pretty remarkable. Our audience is so narrow and focused.  If they’re hanging out on our site, it’s because they care about climbing. 

That said, we certainly have controls in place. Our biggest problem is comment spam, and that’s taken care of with a spam filter. We made a conscious decision from the beginning not to tolerate any abuse on our site. Every once in a while, something will slip through, and we have a community manager who keeps track of it. People can also alert us if something is wrong. I can think of one instance where the community actually commended us for kicking someone out. 

Another thing I worried about was someone posting copyrighted material. We’ve had a couple of instances. Sometimes we can tell if something looks too professional. We also rely on our readers to let us know.

On photos, we debated if we should freely allow people to post directly to the site or if we should moderate. Last year, we got about 3,500 climbing photos. That makes about nine to ten a day. Again, it has not become a problem. You can always pull the switch down the road. 

OJR: So in addition to running the sites, you recently began marketing and selling your platform. In the long term, which part of the business is more viable?

Outing: We’re moving away from the self-publishing model as the sites weren’t generating enough advertising to sustain the company long-term. We simply didn’t have the right partners. If we were able to leverage the readership base of media companies or REI or Black Diamond, I think that they could really take off in a big way.   

So we shifted our strategy and developed a strong publishing platform: sites that are built around participation: audio and video sharing that can be provided to other publishers.  

As for the long term, it’s really too early to tell. Everyone understands that social media is a mega-trend that they need to get into, but they haven’t quite figured out how to incorporate it into their strategy. I’m fairly optimistic.

OJR: Are there other companies offering similar services as the Enthusiast Group? What distinguishes the Enthusiast Group?

Outing: In the social networking space, it’s pretty competitive. There are a lot of companies that offer social networks in a box. Ning is probably the most well known – they even offer a free version of their software with ads. Then there are a whole bunch of companies like us that offer a more serious platform. 

What makes us different is that, with my media background, we try to offer full range of services: both the technology (the platform), as well as consulting services and community management (getting people to participate). 

Marketers are starting to realize is that using these sorts of platforms or approaches is about getting into a conversation with your readers, as well as providing a venue for your customers to talk to each other. In a lot of ways, it allows the customer to market for you. 

OJR: In your opinion, who out there is doing that the best right now?

Outing: In the media world, USA Today has done quite a bit to open up to readers to get in the conversation. I feel like the magazine business is further behind. Any niche publishers should have a strong online community where the readers are talking to each other. It’s a great way to get a conversation going online and understand what your readers want. 

In terms of other media, I think it could be really interesting for radio to get involved in social networking. Sports talk radio – there’s a great opportunity to add an online community where they could capture the voices of those people who are too shy to call in.  

OJR: Do you foresee big major media deciding to get into niche topic media?

Outing: Certainly with the specialty magazines, it feels like a no-brainer that they would get strong online communities. There’s a huge opportunity to provide niche networking tools for their networks – the type of stuff we’re doing. 

OJR: Do you have any other advice for publishers getting into the enthusiast space?  

Outing: A smart thing to do is to recognize that if you’re covering a geographic area or dealing with a niche topic, there is already a bunch of bloggers producing stuff, so you can bring them in. For example, on our running site, a user can add the URL or RSS link of his blog on running. So we have feeds from enthusiasts-in-chief, users, and external bloggers who want the extra traffic.  

You don’t want to be too much of an island. You want to reach out to other things. We’ve been trying to encourage people to stop being passive listeners and readers. I look at my teenager and all the media she interacts with is participative. Her generation is not one to be passively reading magazines. It’s all about trading content. 

About Jean Yung

Hi there, I am a Master's student in Print Journalism at USC Annenberg.

After seven sublimely bone-chilling, atom-stopping years in Chicago (as an undergrad at the University of Chicago and a business consultant for Deloitte), I can truly appreciate LA's tedious sunshine!


  1. I love the idea about using the charitable contribution to drive submissions to the website. I’ve used contests in the past to do the same ($100 to the best post in a given month), but I think this idea would hit stronger for a certain element in an enthusiast audience.

    Just so you know when you see me steal it, Steve. 😉

  2. Jeff Shrewsbury says:

    One thing this piece misses is that it doesn’t really dissect the actual business model for these types of ventures — and how they can possibly sustain themselves.

    Sure, it’s exciting to be able to build a platform that enables discussion on niche topics and to find niche markets, of which there are tons, but in a crowded, competitive space such as the online media world, I just don’t see how these types of ventures can pay the bills.

    When it comes right down to it, isn’t this just a really fancy blog? Maybe I’m missing it, but where’s the revenue really going to come from? It’s not gonna be from the content. It’s not gonna be from click-thru advertising or affinity links. The only possibility might be in the development and distribution of the platform, but then it’s not a media story anymore, it’s a software story.

    The dead website file is full of failed niche media sites. What makes this one any different?

  3. I don’t know… there are many failed niche websites, but many others have made immense amounts of money for their owners. (Just as there are many failures balancing successes in magazines, TV shows, book publishing, etc.)

    One key, I think, is diversifying income: on-site display advertising, both from networks such as BlogAds and AdSense as well as from direct sales, commission revenue, e-mail sponsorships, classified ads (which still work in highly targetted audiences)… and, yes, selling or renting out the “printing press,” too. (As Outing is doing.)

    You can make money using just one of the sources above. (And, yes, I know that from personal experience.) But life is much less stressful when you craft a plan that brings in cash from multiple streams.

    Where niche sites fail is when they use an old-media, newsroom-centric production model. Online niche publishing rarely can provide enough revenue to pay those production and management costs. Creating a large number of reader-generated pages with decent quality content is essential.

  4. “Now he is selling the publishing platform behind them.”

    Sounds to me like he’s selling the model and the consulting (which is clearly demonstrated via the sites linked above), but — unless I’m mistaken — I’d say that “the platform” these sites are built on is available for free.