National Geographic: It’s Not Pretty Pictures That Keep Our 350MM Social Fans Around



How far would you go to master social? National Geographic went as far as Mars—but it’s the authentic storytelling that counts.

National Geographic is one of the top 15 brands on Instagram, embedded among mostly celebrities and seated just one spot behind hip hop artist Nicki Minaj. They might seem like the odd duck of the group, but in reality, they’re the coolest kid on the block.

Beyond Instagram, their social footprint is astronomical. Altogether, Nat Geo commands a social audience of 350 million people. In fact, it’s the No. 1 brand in social by this count. For those who understand the company’s mission, this might not come as much as a surprise. By its very purpose, the brand is at the forefront of some of the most innovative and inspiring stories on the planet—and beyond.

At SMWLA, Nat Geo executives shared their blueprint for becoming one of the preeminent case studies when it comes to organic social media success. Surprisingly, they attribute their explosive growth to the power of its collective community to storytellers, and not just the face-value nature of their beautiful visual content.

For Nat Geo, it’s not just about their story, but rather what their story means to the people who embrace it. According to Claudia Malley, EVP of Partner Solutions at National Geographic, 27 percent of business revenue goes toward the National Geographic Society, a nonprofit committed to using exploration and storytelling to change the world. In this vein, curiosity and a passion for expedition is at the heart of each piece of content they share.

Here’s what we learned at National Geographic’s main stage conversation at SMWLA.

Great storytelling doesn’t mean you’re always telling the story

Malley says Nat Geo gives its network of photographers and videographers the “keys to the kingdom” on Instagram. Not only are their embedded photographers around the world creating powerful content, but they are also empowered to share the stories behind the images, their images, so that the broader community can gain a more complete picture.

Photo by @amivitale for @natgeo. Mary Lengees, one of the first female elephant keepers at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary (@r.e.s.c.u.e) in Northern Kenya, caresses Suyian, the first resident. Suyian was rescued in September 2016 when she was just four weeks old. Follow all of us, @r.e.s.c.u.e, nearby @sararacamp and @amivitale to support and learn more about these initiatives. Read more about Reteti in my @NatGeo story: @nrt_kenya @lewa_wildlife @kenyawildlifeservice @tusk_org @sandiegozoo @conservationorg @natgeocreative @thephotosociety @nature_africa #elephants #saveelephants #retetielephants #ecotourism #stoppoaching #kenya #northernkenya #magicalkenya #whyilovekenya #africa #everydayafrica #photojournalism #amivitale

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This approach ties into curiosity theme that permeates everything Nat Geo produces across social—an important takeaway for brands wanting to emulate this success. When allowing your community to tell your story on your behalf, it’s important to maintain a consistent tone of voice so that no matter who is telling the story, it still rings true for your brand.

Unlock the power of ‘wow’

Malley admits that Nat Geo has a plethora of amazing stories to share, but she reiterated that all brands have the potential to produce their own content that moves and inspires. She advises marketers to explore ways to elevate what makes your brand uniquely compelling, and if that’s outside of your abilities, find a partner who knows how.

To hone in on what kinds of content and conversations are striking a chord with your audience, look to the history of your activities in social. “Sometimes you can learn more from the things that don’t do as well,” she said.

Sometimes, the “wow” comes from how the content is delivered, and not just the content itself. National Geographic VP of Digital Adam Quinn demonstrated this point by sharing a live video of two climbers as they were about to reach the summit of Everest. While capturing images and video from Everest is interesting in and of itself, the live nature of the content was able to capture the climbers’ excitement and sheer exhaustion like nothing else. Their unscripted, candid reactions brought the content to a completely new level that would not have be achievable through a traditionally recorded video piece.

Find your focus

The social landscape is constantly proliferating. For that reason, while it’s important to become a master of the current platforms and optimize your content accordingly, marketers must be relentless in their testing of what’s new and what’s next. At Nat Geo, the goal is to perfect each platform, while at the same time bringing new tech and innovation into the flow on an ongoing basis. If that sounds like a lot to muster, it is. Nat Geo produces 70+ pieces of social content per week for just one piece of programming (Safari Live).

Finding your focus will help priorities the activities and mission that will move the needle for your most important objectives. At Nat Geo, much of their focus is on finding ways to bring their immersive storytelling to the forefront, and continue to make their community bigger than their brand. Everything they do in social ladders back to their mission to build a network of world-class explorers, innovators and creators.

Looking ahead

So, where does the No. 1 brand in social go from here? After all, Nat Geo has already been to Mars, and they recently partnered with Nike to came within 25 seconds of achieving an unprecedented two-hour marathon time.

At SMWLA, Quinn revealed that Nat Geo is bringing a series of social shows across all of its platforms later this fall. Mark your calendars.

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