On the trail with a new generation of outdoor adventurers: An Oregon Business report on “microinfluencers,” the commercialization of the outdoors and the refashioning of outdoor brands as guardians of the natural environment.
Photos by Caleb Diehl
Deep inside Crack in the Ground, a 2-mile volcanic fissure in Central Oregon, Andy Best is marching over snow and ice. He carries a carbon-fiber tripod and a backpack full of photography gear. His LED headlamp plays against the wavy basalt walls, casting elongated shadows.
For Best, an adventure filmmaker who works on editorial and commercial projects, this is an average Monday morning. In pursuit of the perfect shot, the 32-year-old has horsepacked into the Canadian Rockies, ridden a Jeep through raging Icelandic rivers and fended off more than one grizzly bear (also in Canada).
A longtime nomadic freelancer, Best is adept at meeting the pictorial needs of his clients. (Today’s shoot is for several companies, among them rugged hard-drive manufacturer LaCie.) But he is still finding his footing navigating a different kind of terrain: ongoing disruption in the outdoor gear advertising business.
In 2010, the dawn of Instagram, Best’s business started to evolve from selling strictly photographic expertise to marketing something more intangible: influence. His clients began to value him not only for his awe-inspiring images but also for his 600,000 social media followers.
Andy Best and his “mobile office,” a Toyota Tacoma with rooftop solar panels
Then, around a year ago, Best’s career was buffeted by yet another set of web-marketing trends. The outdoor industry shifted to more cost-effective “microinfluencers,” people who have fewer followers than the big-name athletes or filmmakers. The change was propelled in part by the realization that anybody can buy 50,000 robotic followers with a click, as a recent New York Times investigation revealed.
Despite having fewer followers, microinfluencers command similar engagement rates. And engagement, measured in clicks and retweets, is the holy grail for companies locked in fierce competition and eager to reach consumers swamped with social media messaging.
“The microinfluencer world continues to be where the sweet spot is trending,” says Nate Wyeth, who manages influencer marketing for Visit Bend. “We’re not really looking at follower counts at all but at engagement rate.”
Pro snowboarder Austin Smith, an athlete for The North Face
This new strategy has thrust outdoor professionals like Best into a brave new world. Race times, epic tricks and breathtaking shots don’t sell as much gear. In fact, athletes and companies say, they can alienate the everyday consumer. Going pro doesn’t mean what it used to.
“Brands are kind of teetering on athletes,” says Bend-based pro snowboarder Austin Smith, whose sponsors include heavy hitters like The North Face and Smith Optics. He senses from conversations with other pros that influencers have taken some work from athletes. “It’s a cheaper alternative for these social influencers, but no one really knows what a social influencer is yet. It’s a weird world right now.”
How Instagram Changed the Outdoor Professional
Best was one of the first people to make money from Instagram. When the social network debuted, he was courting Nike, hoping to shoot video for their marketing department. He found Nike hiring managers on LinkedIn, then stalked their Instagram accounts. He liked one photo from everyone on the marketing team every day, for two weeks.
It was a successful strategy. Best landed contracts with Nike, then Under Armour, Adidas and Columbia Sportswear. He and his partner brands promoted his work through Instagram. He gained 12,000 followers at the beginning of 2013, equivalent to millions today. By September he had 30,000; in November, 60,000; at year’s end, 100,000.
As companies grasped the power of social, Best landed a contract for a Toyota commercial that explicitly labeled him an influencer. (Some brands prefer the term “ambassador” over influencer. Whatever you call them, these freelancers leverage large social followings to sell an outdoor product, usually by integrating it into their lifestyle.)
A post from Andy Best’s Instagram feed
Best found the new moniker unnerving. “I was like, ‘What is that? I’m a filmmaker,’” he says. “When my name started becoming more of the brand, and people wanted to be associated [with my name], that was weird to me.”
Suddenly, Best had his own platform. He didn’t need a magazine or other gatekeeper to publish his photos. The same Internet-driven decentralization that rocked the media industry had come to outdoor-gear marketing.
Filmmaker Andy Best on his life as an artist and content creator
In this new influencer landscape, outdoor professionals adapt or die. Best doesn’t just film; he lets companies film him in lifestyle shoots. Smith doesn’t just do the gnarliest tricks; he also throws some 360s (one full midair rotation). Ultrarunner and exercise scientist Stephanie Howe Violett doesn’t just post races on Instagram; she includes more off-trail exploits like cooking and university lectures.
“People think their race results are going to get them sponsored,” says Violett, an athlete sponsored by The North Face and Clif Bar. “You have to have some good results early on, but then after that, I feel like if I didn’t even race, it wouldn’t matter. They want people who are well-spoken, who photograph well and have other skills — writing, photography or art.”
Climbers on Mt. St. Helens
On top of technical skills, says KEEN Footwear chief marketing officer Tyler LaMotte, athletes now must develop the artistic talent to document themselves, and have the personality to engage with communities and consumers. One of KEEN’s athletes, Ari DeLashmutt, recently traversed the longest slackline across a river in China. But the story he produced for KEEN ended up centering on his community service in the region.
“They’re as much ambassadors as they are content creators,” LaMotte says. “We look at the messaging they’re engaged in beyond their sports.”
The New Pro Athlete
For the sake of journalism, I arose at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning and drove to the Marble Mountain sno-park, on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens. Under the stars flashed the man-made constellations of climbers’ headlamps. In a wood-paneled Ford Club Wagon, freelance writer Alexandra Lev and her husband, Brad, Salt Lake City transplants, tended to their two huskies. Next door, their friends piled out of a Sprinter van.
“Brands are kind of teetering on athletes. It’s a cheaper alternative for these social influencers, but no one really knows what a social influencer is yet. It’s a weird world right now.” — Austin Smith
Vans and huskies play well on Lev’s Instagram account, which draws some 7,000 followers. She sells that exposure to companies for $50 to $75 per post. Her biggest partners include online retailer Backcountry.com and ski manufacturer Coalition Snow.
So-called microinfluencers like Lev represent the new outdoor professional: those with less intimidating resumes. Smith has snowboarded for his entire life; Lev, a lifelong skier, only took up mountaineering in earnest after moving to the Pacific Northwest. Best, by contrast, graduated film school; Wyeth minored in photography.
One of Wyeth’s Instagram posts
Besides a genuine gear obsession and photogenic dogs, microinfluencers offer creative talent and gig-economy business sense. Lev keeps lists on her phone of top-performing hashtags. Wyeth, an outdoor-brand influencer himself in addition to a marketing guru, networks at trade shows like Outdoor Retailer.
Most brands allow influencers to promote competitors, as long as the products are in separate verticals.
But outdoor companies are crammed with similar products — after all, there are only so many unique technical features you can cram into a tent. Wyeth adheres to his own noncompete agreement, never partnering with two brands catering to the same market. Best sometimes throws a glove over the name of a rival company when he shoots.
The popular winter climbing route up Mt. St. Helens
Back on Mt. St. Helens, a legion of weekend warriors marched up the icy slope, digging in ice axes and crampons. They followed a boulder-studded ridge resembling the tail of a dragon. The hundreds of mountaineers, all in high spirits, toted every possible conveyance for sliding down the hardpack: skis, snowboards, splitboards, snowshoes. It looked so quotidian. They could have been trudging to the MAX station.
The crowd was evidence of the exploding outdoor-recreation economy. Outdoor recreation generates $16.4 billion in consumer spending annually in Oregon ($887 billion nationwide) and employs more people than computer technology, construction or finance. Columbia Sportswear reported $2.47 billion in 2017 revenue, a 4% increase over 2016. REI weighed in at $2.5 billion, a 5.5% increase from the previous year.
A climber on Smith Rock
Urban recreationalists, those with 9-to-5 jobs and dreams of technical outdoor feats, have become a major revenue driver as niche outdoor sports go mainstream.
According to a 2015 study by the Outdoor Industry Association, the “urban athlete” and the “athleisurist” make up the largest segments of the consumer market for gear. A smaller piece of the pie goes to the “achiever,” the Everest climber. Private equity firms are starting to invest in indoor climbing, for many the new soccer practice or squash court, with 43 gyms built last year. Sport climbing will make its Olympic debut in the 2020 Tokyo games.
Microinfluencers channel this mainstreaming of outdoor adventure sports. “Brands are trying to bridge that gap with a social influencer who might not be a great skier but can get down the mountain and take some cool photos,” says Smith. “He can only do a 360 [a full rotation], and the consumer can do a 180 [half rotation], so it’s a lot more relatable.”
Brand Sherpas: Illustration by Joan McGuire
Building an Influencer Campaign
At Hydro Flask’s headquarters in Bend, a group of sweat-stained runners streams into the office. The Three Sisters gleam through the garage door. Yet the company-wide stoke meter (an actual gauge scrawled on a chalkboard) sits at a lukewarm 11 out of 20, due to the lackluster snowpack on Mt. Bachelor.
In his office, Lucas Alberg, the mastermind of Hydro Flask’s influencer marketing program, sifts through Instagram feeds of the company’s influencers (he prefers the term “ambassadors”; it sounds less insidious). He flags posts that don’t align with the Hydro Flask aesthetic — bright colors, relaxing scenes, other specifications in the company brand book.
Hydro Flask ambassadors aren’t scaling a sheer cliff against a stormy sky (that’s more North Face). They’re chilling in the tent afterward, knocking back a microbrew from their vacuum-sealed bottles.
Wyeth promoting Hydro Flask on his account
Alberg’s job is to manage the company image while letting influencers naturally express themselves. “We don’t want to force it,” Alberg says. “You want it to be very authentic to them and how they use it. If they don’t position the logo out, that’s fine. If they want to put stickers on the bottles, that’s fine. That stuff resonates with the consumer more.”
Most outdoor brands build their influencer campaigns around a three-tiered human pyramid. At the top are one or two sponsored athletes and professional filmmakers. Down a level sit less than 1,000 middle-of-the-road influencers, those with somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 followers. The foundation is supported by as many as 30,000 microinfluencers, with as few as 1,000 followers each. All appear prominently on company websites, even those of small retailers like Next Adventure, along with their “stories.”
The ambassador webpages of KEEN Footwear and local gear store Next Adventure.
The rule of thumb for many years has been to pay influencers a dollar amount equal to 1% of their follower count per contracted post. Best, with his some 600,000 followers, could charge $6,000 per post. Compare that to a full-page color spread in Outside Magazine, which runs $101,750.
New Hydro Flask colors signed by the company’s ambassadors
Microinfluencers offer even more bang for the buck. They stay in the game for free gear and often get better engagement rates than the pros. They’re so effective, Wyeth says, that Visit Bend shifted its rate structure to 10% of engagement rate, not follower count.
Demand for hyper-local coverage is another reason microinfluencers are so popular. Wyeth chooses Portland-based accounts for Visit Bend. Andy Traylor and Corie Townsend, both 29, ambassadors for local outdoor gear retailer Next Adventure, work as a fish biologist and copywriter for various companies. They bag local peaks on the weekends.
“Some of our stuff is relatable because we’re doing things in local venues,” Traylor says. “We’re not flying to Alaska or Patagonia.”
Treeline, Goal Zero, Cairn, Eddie Bauer
Cairn, Hydroflask, Goal Zero
Skier, Mountaineer, Climber, Freelance Writer
Coalition Snow, Backcountry.com
Skier, Mountaineer, Climber, Fish Biologist
Next Adventure, Kind Bar
Skier, Mountaineer, Climber, Nike Golf content writer
Next Adventure, Kind Bar
The North Face
The Hunt for Authenticity
Gazing across an endless plain of rabbitbrush and juniper, Best diagrams the Crack in the Ground shoot from his mobile office, a white Toyota Tacoma with rooftop solar panels and drawers meticulously packed with gear. He lays out his notebook with storyboard sketches.
He’s planning a three-point move, a first for him. The camera will slide forward and rotate as it captures the stars and moon filtering through the crack. To shoot every minuscule point of light, Best cranks the ISO to 6400, opens his aperture to F-stop 2.8 (the max on many lenses) and takes 20-second long exposures. If all goes well, he might add the time-lapse to a branded story for LaCie’s website.
Best composes a drone shot of Crack-in-the-Ground.
Spend a couple of days with Best and a lot of the conversation sounds straight out of a gear commercial: He credits his camera’s longevity to Goal Zero batteries. He asks if I’ve tried anything by Cairn and praises Eddie Bauer’s First Ascent line for taking the brand in a more adventurous direction.
Having worked as a professional sea kayak and backpacking guide, I can say Best’s devotion to his brands is genuine. Outdoor professionals can’t go five minutes without riffing on a piece of gear. It’s our way of talking shop, proving to other outdoor professionals that we know what we’re talking about, that we’re prepared for any situation.
Plus, outdoor gear saves lives. It keeps you from freezing in an ice cave and arrests your fall from a 60-foot cliff.
I was reminded of the danger lurking behind many a glamorous Instagram shot while climbing Mt. St. Helens in the snow with Lev. As we were hiking, a woman lost balance on her skis. She flew between the boulders, slid hundreds of feet and came to rest in a windswept bowl. Minutes later, a second climber plummeted down the ice. He was not so lucky — he barreled through the boulders and needed medical help.
Mt. St. Helens poses hazards for unprepared climbers.
For safety and other reasons, most influencers connect with a brand and its gear before they approach companies for work. “Prior to working with them, I always had a Hydro Flask wherever I went,” says Wyeth, of his three years contracting with the company as an ambassador. “It’s something I would use regardless of whether I’m paid to use it. I’m a gear junkie like a lot of Oregonians.”
The love between gearheads and brands runs true, yet much of outdoor-influencer marketing is staged. At outdoor-industry trade shows and events, brands sponsor what Alberg calls “summer camps for adults.” Instead of archery and crafts, groups of influencers move between kombucha tastings and guided hikes. Then everyone goes home and Instagrams the same photo.
Even without those contrived adventures, the outdoor Instagram world breeds imitation, so much so that parody accounts are springing up everywhere.
Smith’s girlfriend runs @youdidnotsleepthere, the popular Instagram account that reposts infinite variations of one classic shot: photos of tents pitched on razor-sharp cliff edges and other improbable locations. Best himself was a featured subject, although he contends he did work in the tent during the day. He took the joke in stride, saying he loves the account for its spot-on satire of social media posturing.
How the Dirtbag Went Extinct
Once, a college-aged Traylor drove a Toyota Tercel up the mountain and hiked in duct-taped Carhartts. He was the sort of budget-conscious wanderer outdoor professionals affectionately call a “dirtbag.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, rock climbing and mountaineering were considered counterculture activities. Consider, for example, Jim Bridwell, a legendary climber who passed away in February. Bridwell helmed the “stonemasters,” a gang of climbers who conquered Yosemite’s most challenging routes — on psychedelics.
Andy Traylor and Corie Townsend, ambassadors for local retailer Next Adventure
The stonemasters were a dying breed.
In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act, a law that created a new public-lands designation, “untrammeled by man.” The law strictly prohibited humans from tampering with wilderness and gave rise to “Leave No Trace” ethics. Outdoor brands happily backed this set of standards. If backpackers couldn’t chop down a tree to build a lean-to, they had to purchase a nylon tent. If they couldn’t gather wood for a fire, they had to buy a fuel stove.
An emphasis on self-reliance gave way to reliance on new products. “Marking the gulf separating the antimodernist woodsman and the modern backpacker,” writes historian James Morton Turner, “the well-equipped backpack had become a showcase for advanced consumer technology.”
Climbers bouldering near Smith Rock
Today Traylor stuffs his backpack, courtesy of sponsor Hyperlite, with advanced consumer technology, funded by a $1,000 credit from Next Adventure (good for his contract of a year or more). There’s no such thing anymore, he says, as a dirtbag — except on social media, where images that sell outdoor gear evoke the counterculture lifestyle. Lev’s van, for example, nods to a vintage, off-the-grid lifestyle on Instagram. So does Best’s Tacoma and his Treeline rooftop tent.
“There is this huge misconception that people can just quit their jobs and live in a van and travel around,” Wyeth says. “In reality, people are being paid a lot to live this lifestyle by corporations.”
Many of the influencers I spoke to recognize this apparent disconnect and grapple with some of the ethical conundrums around the influencer job description, writ large.
Since making his first film at 12 years old, Best has dedicated himself to the craft of capturing light. But 20 years later, the high school students who send him emails want to be influencers, not filmmakers. “You want to work on your craft. You want a following by what you create,” he says. “The influencer title, I think, devalued what I create.”
Lev’s van and huskies do well on her Instagram account.
The issue is not black and white. Getting on the payroll of gear companies, outdoor influencers say, allows nature lovers to contribute to a larger environmental mission.
Amid clashes with the Trump administration over public lands, outdoor companies increasingly style themselves as guardians of wilderness.
KEEN poured thousands into protecting Eastern Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands and its Live Monumental campaign to preserve public lands. Patagonia recently launched a website that helps people find and participate in nearby environmental campaigns. The Outdoor Retailer trade show pulled out of Salt Lake City this year to protest President Trump’s proposal to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument. Patagonia ran its first-ever TV ad last year, featuring founder Yvon Chouinard defending public lands.
“Part of me hates the corporate part, people trying to make cash from the outdoors, which is supposed to be a sort of spiritual place,” Traylor says. “Then there’s the environmentalist side of me, which sees all these attacks on public lands. That part of me really likes to see the involvement from brands.”
Alexandra Lev works with brands like Backcountry.com and Coalition Snow.
Influencers can be instrumental in getting consumers to sign petitions and support corporate-backed conservation movements. “Just as we’re marching on the state capitol in SLC during Outdoor Retailer,” LaMotte says, “they’re right in lockstep with us, sharing with their social networks, rallying right next to us.”
Today’s outdoor influence peddlers don’t separate themselves from civilization; they embrace it, with gig-economy business acumen and a low-key lifestyle that resonates with urban recreationalists. They seek out symbiotic relationships with brands that share their values. They climb the peaks, which sells the gear, which funds the public-lands campaigns, which protects more peaks for them to climb.
“Part of me hates the corporate part, people trying to make cash from the outdoors, which is supposed to be a sort of spiritual place. Then there’s the environmentalist side of me, which sees all these attacks on public lands. That part of me really likes to see the involvement from brands.” — Andy Traylor
As in nature, competition reigns and evolution is key to survival. The decline of expertise has created a fragile ecosystem for brands, ambassadors and wilderness areas. Professional athletes and photographers bid for attention alongside overnight Instagram celebrities, and behind the veil of analytics and marketing jargon, neither companies nor influencers know exactly what they’re after.
“It’s the Wild West,” says Wyeth. “Nothing is standardized at all.”
Best sets up for a night timelapse inside Crack-in-the-Ground.
Inside Crack in the Ground, Best gazes skyward. He studies the interplay of evening sun over the basalt with the eye of a lifelong professional. “I just love light,” he says. If he can’t pause and appreciate moments like these, what’s the point?
“There are a lot of people addicted to the likes, the comments, the attention,” Best says. “They get sucked up in a vortex of that, and chase and chase and chase to keep those endorphins flowing. Do they ask at night what it means? Because I do.”
A version of this article appears in the April 2018 issue of Oregon Business.
This article has been amended to reflect the following clarification and correction: Corie Townsend works as a contract writer for a variety of companies, including Nike Golf. Townsend and Traylor receive $1,000 from Next Adventure for the duration of their contracts, which last at least a year. The original article stated they received $1,000 in a monthly credit.