How National Geographic Builds Social Media Trust During the Facebook Apocalypse

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Thanks to “fake news,” bots, and political polarization online, trust in social media is at an all-time low. But social platforms still offer a powerful way to connect with audiences and donors.

Sixty-eight percent of Americans regularly use social media (Pew Research Center, 2018) and 31% of online donors now say that social media is the communication tool that most often inspires them to give, surpassing email for the first time (Global Trends in Giving Report, 2018).

A PMDMC 2018 session entitled “Building Brand Trust and Engagement in the Facebook Apocalypse” explored how one superstar brand, National Geographic, has built and maintained its social media effectiveness in an era of social media mistrust.

National Geographic has been the #1 non-celebrity brand on social media for four years running.

NatGeo Social stats

Kate Coughlin, NatGeo’s senior director of audience development and community, outlined the rigorous way in which the organization evaluates content to make sure it’s right for the National Geographic brand, right now.

They ask themselves:

  • How can we keep our audience at the forefront?
  • What does the audience expect from our brand?
  • How can we hold our own on this social media platform (next to a celebrity workout or a kitten video)?

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As is often the case in public media, National Geographic is a brand with several facets. Their content includes the magazine and website, plus television, travel, children’s materials, photography, and events. It’s a challenge to maintain a cohesive, brand-led editorial voice across multiple products and platforms.

Coughlin says that NatGeo used to have “tons of content on beat topics and one-off initiatives.” Each platform was treated as a separate product and their approach to headlines and video was “clickbait-y.”

The organization now focuses on its “DNA” as a unifying principle.

NatGeo goals and strategy

A core piece of this approach is to push each social activation and piece of content through a rigorous ideation and pitch process to ensure it’s being created with the audience in mind first and foremost, and that it makes sense for the brand.

NatGeo Daily Content

For each idea, they’re asking:

  1. Why us?
  2. Why now?
  3. Will it perform?
  4. What’s our unique editorial and visual take?

This process is designed to produce content that is:

  • Timely. There’s a reason to tell the story now.
  • Likely to perform. Data exists to indicate that this will resonate with the NatGeo audience on the platform that’s selected.
  • Uniquely presented. There’s a reason that NatGeo’s editorial and visual take is right for this story.

The stunning series, Masters of Flight, is an example of content that went through this process. Photographer Anand Varma captured spectacular hummingbird images for the magazine and worked with NatGeo’s digital team to create an immersive visual experience that exemplifies the unique storytelling that the organization feels is emblematic of its brand.

Safari Live allows viewers to participate in a live safari via Facebook. It's an example of Facebook content uniquely suited to  that platform. The series has garnered passionate fans who have taken selfies of themselves watching the expeditions, and ask for updates on the safari guides. Coughlin says she even heard that a couple that met on Safari Live recently got married (now that's brand tribe).

NatGeo Instagram

Visual storytelling is one of National Geographic's core principles, so it's not surprising that Instagram is a powerful platform for them. When photographers are on assignment for a series, it's been very effective for them to post to Instagram along the way.

National Geographic hosted the first-ever Instagram Live from the International Space Station this year between actor Will Smith, who also hosts their One Strange Rock documentary series about the planet Earth, and NASA astronaut Drew Feustel.

NatGeo Behind the Shot

Special “Behind the Shot” episodes are created for Facebook Watch to reveal the process behind some of National Geographic’s explorers.

Coughlin points out that while many of these examples required high-production investment (um, broadcasting from space), effective engagement on social media doesn’t have to be expensive. The simple act of allowing an audience to accompany a photographer on a journey or see something special behind the scenes can be tremendously effective to capture and engage your audience.

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