How National Geographic excels at social media

Jaime Netzer

National Geographic is an institution: when we think exploration of the natural world, we think of them. But it’s no accident that National Geographic holds such a revered place in our world: As a brand, they’ve spent almost 130 years evolving while also staying true to their deep roots. In 1906, when National Geographic published their first wildlife photographs, several board members resigned in protest, so distraught were they that the serious science journal had become a “picture book.” But National Geographic weathered that storm, and they’ve weathered many other changes in media and consumer appetites since.

Rachel Webber, head of digital at National Geographic, shared this story at Spredfast’s (now Khoros) Smart Social Summit before explaining the brand’s more recent challenge: How to make National Geographic relevant for audiences today — audiences that are increasingly found on social media. The answer, Webber said, is wrapped up in an Instagram story.

“I love that Instagram story for so many reasons,” Webber said. “It’s impossible not to feel connected to what Charlie is experiencing, and I love it even more because Charlie made it himself.” Webber explained that Charlie Hamilton James and more than 100 other National Geographic photographers hold the “key to their Instagram castle,” of more than eighty million followers. National Geographic photographers are some of the most incredible visual storytellers on the planet, so it makes sense to let them take the reins and tell their stories themselves.

“That platform-intentional storytelling and leaning into our DNA is how we think about everything that we do at National Geographic,” Webber explained. This new strategy is not without challenges and evolutions: a photographer’s skills don’t necessarily seamlessly translate to Stories (Instagram or Snapchat), but the social media team guides photographers with questions they should answer and tips about how to showcase themselves, writes Marketing Dive, which helps ensure that the photographers are “vehicles for the story, not the main attraction.”

National Geographic’s full social media strategy involves three key pillars. Below, we outline each pillar and explain how brands in every industry can learn from them — and shift their social media strategy accordingly.

Learn more successful social media strategies with our Social Media Pocket Guide.

1. Transforming the yellow border into a portal

The iconic yellow border that rings every National Geographic magazine cover has been repurposed as a symbol in the digital age: the border, explained Webber, symbolizes how the brand transports people to new experiences and helps them understand the world around them and their place in it. “Our brand becomes our product principles,” Webber said: Everything is about driving exploration with new technology and doing what was unimaginable — even two years ago — and finding new ways to connect with audiences. National Geographic has always not only surfaced new ways to connect with audiences, but pushed the boundaries of that connection.

The takeaway for brands: Lean into where you’ve already established brand presence and credibility — but think creatively and be flexible with your social media strategy, too.

2. Shifting conversations with audiences from a monologue to a dialogue

We all know by now that with the advent of social media, brands have shifted from communicating in a monologue to a dialogue: it’s not enough to speak at audiences anymore (even with ad campaigns), and National Geographic understands this intuitively. “We work to facilitate discussion and create a space for people to participate so that they can learn from each other and be inspired by each other,” explains Webber.

“Your Shot,” in which amateur photographers interact with professional National Geographic photographers, is a great example of the company’s emphasis on audience dialogue:

“Now we have a robust creator community sharing hundreds of photos a month,” Webber said, adding that the social media team sparks conversation and learning with hashtag challenges. “We see a community congregating here because our audience gets to interact with National Geographic experts,” Webber said.

The takeaway for brands: Your audience can help your brand grow and evolve — include them when it makes sense to based on your brand’s values and goals.

3. Meeting users’ wants and needs

National Geographic’s goal with their social media program is to get really good at meeting users' wants and needs “because,” Webber explained, “otherwise, nothing is going to work.” In order to meet users’ needs, National Geographic begins by understanding their audiences: “We have 350 million followers across social media platforms, 25 million people who spend time with us on our website every month — over 60% of which is on mobile — 6.4 billion content engagements across platforms.” Understanding what each subgroup and demographic is looking for when they interact with National Geographic is key.

The takeaway for brands: Understand the particulars of your audiences so that you can give them what they want (Intelligence makes this easy).

Editor’s note: Curious about how Khoros social media software can help you understand the nuances of your audiences? In choosing Khoros, the world's biggest companies partner with the best social media software to meet their social media marketing and social care goals, as well as know their audiences better. Request a demo today.

National Geographic’s social media strategy in action:

Safari Live

An excellent example of these three pillars at work is National Geographic’s Safari Live program. Safari Live takes millions of people with them (virtually) on safari using Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and their website twice a day. The community of viewers is so passionate that sometimes they’ll notice and point out an animal before the guides, making the video a portal to something they never would have otherwise experienced. National Geographic is also creating a dialogue with their audience, and with the level of engagement they receive, they’re clearly meeting users’ wants and needs.

The Year of the Bird

This year, in honor of the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — a milestone in bird protection — National Geographic, along with over 100 other organizations, are joining together to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.”

The campaign will include ways audiences can help birds each month as well as storytelling and research that hits all three pillars of National Geographic’s social media strategy: It drives exploration of bird species and habitats in line with the brand’s values, it creates a dialogue with #BirdYourWorld, and it meets users' desire for conservation and activism.

Established, traditional brands can sometimes get a reputation for stodginess, or even an unwillingness to change. But as we’ve seen with National Geographic, that assessment often misses the mark. National Geographic has jumped into its social media strategy with both feet and is unafraid of experimenting, changing, and growing. In the age of social media, evolution is inevitable, but if you’re smart, you can pivot into a new world of content, and even meet brand new audiences.

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