7 Things We Learned From the No. 1 Brand on Social at SMWLA
National Geographic’s Adam Quinn and Amanda Waas took to the SMWLA stage to describe the keys to be a thumb-stopping storytelling leader.
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“It’s been estimated that we scroll through in a given day, between apps, social media, texts, articles, the equivalent of the height of the Statue of Liberty in content. That’s 305 feet every day.” National Geographic’s Vice President of Digital, Adam Quinn, opened with this bit of powerful information before diving into how the company leverages the tools of digital media to continue to take its 130-year-old brand into the future as the leader of social four years running.
Here are a few fundamental insights from Quinn and VP of Client Solutions for Digital/Social, Amanda Waas, on how to achieve thumb-stopping storytelling content:
1. Ignite the Explorer in All People
“It’s storytelling coupled with amazing imagery that has the ability to stop people in their tracks,” explained Quinn when describing how the company ensures that its value proposition of helping us understand the world and our role in it is met every day.
In other words, it’s much more than people consuming the content Nat Geo puts out, but how the stories are strategically elevated to inspire action, driving its audience to take their own stories and go out into the world to feed their curiosity, creativity, and fulfill their desire to connect with other communities around them. In this vein, the brand prides itself on celebrating the simple notion that each and every person on the planet is an explorer who believes they have the power to make a difference. “Having this planet and the life on it as our canvas we then have this underlying authenticity that’s a part of Nat Geo and our brand,” he added, an authenticity that elicits genuine emotion from its followers, which then become the ultimate driver for engagement.
2. Invest in the storytelling and storytellers
Quinn explained that at its core, Nat Geo is really two companies that function in harmony: Nat Geo Partners, the outward facing consumer-media brand including all of its publishing content, social channels, linear tv channel, and the digital site, and then Nat Geo Society, which continues to fund more than 500 grants per year to explore the earth and space.
What’s particularly notable about this arrangement is that 27 percent of every dollar generated by National Geographic is reinvested in the nonprofit National Geographic Society. This money then goes directly back to supporting the research, science, conversation, and exploration which serve as the foundation for the stories we ee on social. “What we’re really creating is this virtuous circle that becomes a catalyst for change,” Quinn articulated.
This circle, can also be explained in a simple value equation the brand uses, which is content + scale + purpose = National Geographic. It is by applying this formula that the company effectively reaches 760 million consumers every month. On Instagram alone, Nat Geo currently boasts a whopping 88.5 million followers, earning it the title as the number one non-celebrity followed brand (one spot below Kendall Jenner).
3. Lead with the visuals
In describing Nat Geo’s visual strategy, Quinn stated, “it really allows our scientists, our conversations, our explorers, the opportunity to show what they’re seeing wherever they are.” To exemplify this, he tossed up a photo taken in South Georgia Island deep in the southern Atlantic Ocean of approximately 300,000 penguins gathered together.
What makes the brand unique is their process of taking the best photographers, giving them the freedom to go out and capture the things they’re seeing in their expeditions of the planet, and then engaging the audience in the storytelling process with the story behind the image. In other words, a key element to being thumb-stopping is putting the storytellers in the driver’s seat of the CMS. There’s no curation or blocking, instead, the company finds success by providing direct access to the consumer and creating a competitive environment based on photographers’ raw passion and talent.
4. Be flexible and adaptive
Unsurprisingly, no brand is perfect and even if you’re a leader in the space you will have moments of humility that provide you with important learning opportunities for improvement. A good example of this for Nat Geo was its initial stab at going to market with Snapchat.
Four years ago the company began as a charter discover channel on the app, with the company attempting with its original content to fit in with the younger generations that dominate the platform. The issue? As Quinn explained, “it wasn’t really on brand for us. It wasn’t the right type of content,” however he went on to describe that the company over the course of the past year has formed a better understanding of how Snapchat works and the type of content expected from the brand. As a result, the Nat Geo now focuses on first-party storytelling. As an example, he showed clips of a Snapchat story from photographer Erin Trieb who documented the evacuation of her mom and three dogs during Hurricane Harvey.
Finally, For Nat Geo being flexible also means pushing boundaries where it makes sense. A recent case of this was seen in March, where the company worked with Will Smith in the first ever Facebook Live from the international space station.
5. Encourage people to engage in a dialogue with Nat Geo
For Nat Geo, an important ingredient to producing breakthrough content is fueling dialogues between itself and audience members. As Quinn discussed, this boils down to creating different communities for its most avid followers. These include Chasing Genius, Open Explorer, Dream It, Do It, and Your Shot.
For reference, Chasing Genius is centered around the concept of innovation, specifically the idea that transformational ideas can come from anywhere and anyone. The Chasing Genius community currently boasts 2.9k user submissions and drives 3.2MM social conversations. Open Explorer, launched just two months ago, is a site that offers the opportunity to follow expeditions in real-time as the data is being documented, so audiences can follow the journey start to finish. Dream it, Do it. is a travel community built around Nat Geo Traveler. “Incidentally, Nat Geo Traveler is the most followed travel brand within the travel category of social media,” Quinn claimed. Finally, Your Shot is Nat Geo’s travel community based on the opportunity for amateur photographers to be part of the brand’s social posts, or get featured in Nat Geo magazine.
6. Lean into purpose
Using social as a force for good is core to who Nat Geo truly is, motivating not only those who work for the company, but above all, it inspires its global community of followers to take action in helping ensure the world we live in is healthy and sustainable.
As an example, the company launched its Planet or Plastics initiative this past May, a multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste that goes into our oceans every year. The company’s magazine included startling images including the cover that featured the image of a plastic image in the ocean that simultaneously represented the tip of an iceberg as well as another in which a seahorse was depicted gripping a cue tip with its tail. Aside from the magazine, the company worked with Zooey Deschanel who took over the brand’s Instagram story for a day.
Even more recently, Nat Geo celebrated World Oceans Day with Adidas. The two partnered on an Instagram story, leveraging Adidas’ purpose-driven initiative to harvest plastic from the ocean and make shoes with the upcycled material. “It was a really nice way to have Nat Geo be leading the way in talking about this issue but also recognizing a brand that is committed to solving for it.” The story garnered 30,000 likes within 30 minutes of being posted.
7. Turn scale & strategy into success with a diversified social presence
As Waas outlined, there are four key ways Nat Geo is able to create successful social campaigns: social shows, Instagram takeovers, and custom storytelling. Further, “The Moment” allows Nat Geo to capitalize on key moments in time such as World Water Day or International Women’s Day by teaming up with like-minded brands to make a statement and an impact on that given day. Stella Artois, Microsoft, Nature Valley, and Land O’ Lakes are just a few examples.
“We don’t do this just on one account on one platform. We are able to provide a diversified social strategy for all our partners because we have a diversified social presence,” Waas clarified. Stated differently, every platform has multiple accounts that are tailored to different subjects like travel, adventure, and animals which are then utilized across the overall social presence to create appropriate social plans that benefit both Nat Geo and their partners. For instance, Nat Geo has 38 existing Facebook accounts.
Summarizing Nat Geo’s approach to the business of social, Quinn added, there are three things that must be considered and in balance: productization, monetization, and optimization. It is through this approach the brand’s social partnerships are able to be natural, seamless, and mutually beneficial.
After touching base via a Facetime Live call with Erika Bergman, a submarine pilot who gave a brief tour of the Stingray 500 she’s currently using to explore the ocean, Quinn closed with the simple calls to action, “Explore. Go further.”
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