National Geographic’s Grand Digital Adventure

How a Long-standing Print Publication Is Taking Social Media by Storm

Quick! What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words National Geographic? Page after page of breathtaking photographs? Comprehensive travelogues? Full-color foldout maps of remote corners of the globe? The trademark citrus-yellow border and spine?

I’m guessing that for a lot of you, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram didn’t immediately pop into your head. But they should have. Because while National Geographic has earned a place of prominence in the pantheon of periodicals, this 129-year-old legacy brand now finds itself the king of the jungle in the digital age. As you’re about to find out, this revered, reliable source is anything but musty and old-fashioned.

A Look Back

“Dear Sir,” the letter read, “You are invited to be present at a meeting … for the purpose of considering the advisability of organizing a society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.” And so it began. The 33 men who showed up at Washington, DC’s Cosmos Club on the appointed evening, in January 1888, determined that it was indeed advisable to organize a geographical society, along the lines of other learned bodies of the day (think the Smithsonian Institution).

With 30 million Instagram followers, National Geographic excels at the engagement game.

Calling itself the National Geographic Society, this new organization wasted no time in publishing its first journal, which came out two months later. But what it produced for those charter members was a far cry from the eye-catching, award-winning glossy magazine National Geographic would eventually become. “Between its conservative brown covers, there were no photographs—only studious articles that discussed such topics as ‘Geographical Methods in Geological Investigation’ and ‘The Great Storm of March 11­–14, 1888,’” Cengage Learning reported.

Photo by @daviddoubilet An ocean swell reveals the hidden world of a healthy and robust Opal Reef on the Great BarrierReef off Port Douglas in Queensland Australia. As you read this the Great Barrier Reef is experiencing back to back years of unprecedented coral bleaching. This process happens when warmer than normal water stresses living coral polyps causing them to lose their symbiotic algae and turn white. After a bleaching event some corals can recover and others will die and become algae covered. We will be returning to the Great Barrier in May for @natgeo to visually explore the impacts of climate change on coral reef systems and to revisit this very site to document the changes in the reef system in a warming sea. #ocean #greatbarrierreef #beauty #australia #climatechange for #moreocean follow @daviddoubilet

A post shared by National Geographic (@natgeo) on

We have Alexander Graham Bell to thank for broadening the reach of the magazine and sprucing up its appearance. As president of the society at the turn of the 20th century, Bell wanted to appeal to a wider range of readers, not just the scientific community the journal currently served. The man best known for inventing a device that revolutionized verbal communication believed that a visually stimulating magazine was the best vehicle for conveying the society’s theme: The World and All That Is in It.

Under Bell’s watch, editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor increased readership by introducing first-person travel narratives à la Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast. And, in what WIRED called a “game-changing decision,” the young editor gave photographs a place of prominence, albeit initially not by design. “Surprisingly, National Geographic’s hallmark photojournalism began as a desperate attempt to fill 11 pages of the January 1905 issue before it went to press,” WIRED wrote.

A Legacy Brand Branches Out

Evocative photos, captivating travelogues, and tales of epic adventure and discovery became hallmarks of the monthly magazine, and over its 129-year run it has carved a niche for itself as a trusted source for in-depth travel, exploration, wildlife, conservation, and scientific reporting and photojournalism. With a worldwide circulation of 3.3 million in 2016 (down from a peak of 10.9 million in the 1980s) and published in 38 languages and distributed to 171 countries, the well-established and beloved print publication might have been tempted to rest on its laurels. But in the true spirit of exploration it extols, the National Geographic Society has blazed a few (digital) trails of its own in the past decade or so.

A Natural Progression

“Why are island birds losing their ability to fly?” the tweet asks. In an eye-catching photo accompanying it, a white-beaked, green-tufted kakapo appears to be tiptoeing (tipclawing?) its way toward the camera. Click on the link and you’re taken to National Geographic’s website, where more avian photos await, along with a detailed story explaining the flightless-bird phenomenon.

Or up pops a video of a man swimming sans wetsuit in the icy sea between a pair of imposing glaciers, and we’re duly intrigued to watch the full clip to find out just what this intrepid soul is up to. Spoiler: The former Adventurer of the Year was swimming through the environmentally threatened waters of Antarctica to raise awareness for three marine-protected areas.

Welcome to @NatGeo on Twitter, where science is cool and nature fascinates, and where, among a multitude of other topics (and perfectly timed for all you winter warriors out there), you’ll find tweets on the most unusual ski slopes in the world and recommendations for the best down jackets for outdoor adventures. Many are accompanied by vivid photos, and more often than not, links direct readers to full-length stories on National Geographic’s website.

Pay a visit to National Geographic’s Facebook page, and you’ll discover much the same thing—attractive preview photos or videos with thumbnails that draw you in and make you want to learn more. We can satisfy our curiosity by reading an Instant Article on our mobile device or, if we’re using a computer, we can click on a link to related content on the publisher’s website. A post that proclaimed “Get ready to see an amazing eclipse, a comet encounter, close planetary pairings, and more celestial wonders in 2017” appeared with a set of time-lapse photos of a total eclipse of the sun. I defy all you stargazers (and anyone else, for that matter) not to click on the link to check out what this new year has in store celestially. Which, as Aaron Taube pointed out on Contently, is exactly what the publisher had in mind: “The goal is to make the audience curious about science, and with titles like ‘Why Flashy Male Birds Aren’t What They Seem’ and ‘How Not to Get Attacked by a Bear,’ the Facebook posts do a great job of generating interest.”

Welcome to @NatGeo on Twitter, where science is cool and nature fascinates.

And then there’s what many consider the pièce de résistance, National Geographic’s Instagram feed, which showcases the work of 110 staff photographers and freelancers stationed around the world who are given free rein to share images from the assignments they shoot, as well as photos of unusual natural wonders they encounter in their everyday lives. The accompanying captions are mini narratives that give readers a glimpse into the photographers’ inspiration and techniques.

Photo by @FransLanting The outcome of king penguin love is one fluffy chick, which takes a year to mature. This one has survived the long cold winter when parents go far offshore and hardly ever come back to feed their offspring. It’s an ordeal for young king penguins and a thick brown downy coat helps them with survival. When whalers first reached South Georgia, they were amazed by these penguin chicks, and thought they were a different species than their parents. This young king penguin has only a month or so to go before it can take its first plunge into the frigid waters surrounding South Georgia, near Antarctica. The seas there are brimming with krill which sustains spectacular numbers of penguins, other seabirds, and marine mammals. This is truly one of the great wildlife sanctuaries on the planet. Follow me @FransLanting for more stories about South Georgia Island and the king penguins who live there. @thephotosociety @natgeotravel @natgeocreative #Penguin #Fluffy #Happy #Wildlife #WildlifePhotography #Nature #ocean #antarctica

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With 30 million Instagram followers, National Geographic excels at the engagement game. “They build a sense of community with National Geographic‘s Instagram followers, who see photos coming from talented individuals rather than a generic corporate account. As a result, users end up researching and following personal accounts for the photographers, maximizing the brand’s Instagram reach and leading to further engagement,” Taube wrote.

King of Content

This level of Instagram success has rocketed National Geographic to the top of the social media stratosphere, accounting for 62 percent of all followers of the top 10 magazine accounts. (A Shareablee report for September 2015 that monitored all social media activity showed National Geographic far outdistancing the Bleacher Report and several BuzzFeed properties, among others.) On Twitter and Facebook, National Geographic occupies the top spot in this publication group, and on Pinterest, it ranks sixth. This is quite an impressive showing for a relative newcomer to digital, and it should come as no surprise that these rankings are directly related to the publication’s exceptional content. But in order for the respected print publication to establish a solid social media footprint, it had to temper the desire to educate—using its wealth of detailed, scholarly information—with the push to entertain, employing easily understood content and its trademark jaw-dropping images. In a blog he wrote for the Aloft Group, Brayden Rudert summed up the balancing act: “Ultimately, they [National Geographic] had to find the perfect combination of educational material to maintain their professional relevance while also providing quick and efficient content to entertain consumers less interested in the science and more intrigued by the Earth’s visual beauty and opportunity for adventure.”

Then there’s what many consider the pièce de résistance, National Geographic’s Instagram feed, which showcases the work of 110 staff photographers and freelancers stationed around the world.

In a blog titled “How National Geographic Drives Giant Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram Engagement,” Lucy Hitz spotlighted a 2014 Instagram post that exemplifies National Geographic’s social media finesse and also honors its outdoor-authority heritage. The post, which garnered 40,000 likes in a single day, featured a photo of a Hawaiian surfer hauling a 50-pound boulder across the ocean floor as part of her training regimen. (You read that right—50 pounds, under water!) With its well-executed photography, intriguing subject matter, and human vs. nature dynamic, the post epitomized the National Geographic brand. “It’s the perfect post,” Hitz wrote. She gave it high marks for its succinct but compelling description of what the photo was all about, “making the post a mini magazine story.” What’s more, discovery was optimized, with tags for the photographer, the reporter, the woman in the photo, and National Geographic itself.

Playing to Its Strengths

With an eye to nabbing a younger audience, National Geographic uses Snapchat to provide interactive content like quizzes (inviting the audience to become a part of the brand), along with photos and videos. And Pinterest helps the brand cater to fans’ passions, like photography, wildlife, travel, or environmental issues.

Across all digital media, National Geographic masterfully engages audiences by delivering timely, relatable, and relevant content while staying true to its hallmarks: exploration and storytelling. Let’s face it—this well-preserved 129-year-old has come a long way. It’s done what many other publishers have failed to do. Namely, National Geographic has become as dominant online as it is in print. The Aloft Group’s Rudert put it best: “Plain and simple, National Geographic is creating killer content, and people just can’t seem to get enough [of] it.”

Photos/embeds: Shutterstock/Instagram

Marcia Kirlin

Marcia Kirlin

There’s a good chance you’ll find copy editor Marcia Kirlin with her nose in a book, preferably one with paper pages you turn the old-school way—and are occasionally even dog-eared. Gasp!

Meet Marcia Kirlin