Why 140 photographers have free rein on National Geographic's 90m follower Instagram

National Geographic's Instagram account

Not long ago, National Geographic could have conceivably been described as a very traditional media brand. A global magazine that shined a lens on the most amazing aspects of the world – with a bright yellow front cover border and mind-blowing photography – it became one of the most recognizable printed products in existence.

So, for it to be named the most engaged social media brand for four years consecutively, according to Shareablee, could come as a surprise to many. However, the strategy behind building the digital product has led it to continued success, doubling its social revenue in the last year alone.

Instagram is where National Geographic has achieved incredible success in accumulating 90 million followers. It is the most followed non-celebrity brand on the platform, yet its page is curated not by staff within the offices of the publication, but by 140 photographers in the field.

Speaking to The Drum about the 130-year-old brand’s digital strategy growth is Jonathan Hunt, its senior vice president of digital content and audience development. A former Vox Media executive, he now leads National Geographic's digital editorial and video strategies, alongside its virtual reality and 360 elements, and audience growth through third party social and online platforms.

“It’s a crazy concept and potentially a security risk but at the same time it’s part of the secret sauce that makes it so successful,” says Hunt, explaining the thinking behind the access offered to the Instagram account.

“What you don’t want is this over-filtered Instagram experience. The magic of the Instagram channel is the fact that you have raw access to a photographer while they are in the field – in a baby elephant orphanage or climbing Mount Everest or 20,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. It must be real-time and tell the story of what is happening at that very moment.”

The account started out as a project where the publication’s photographic community was able to offer a local audience instant access to its work. It has since produced the first Instagram Live from space between the Will Smith (on terra firma) and astronaut Drew Feustel, who was aboard the International Space Station.

“We work closely with [photographers] to ensure there is no overlapping posts and to ensure the best practices are adhered to," says Hunt. "Sometimes they do interesting activations – for example in March we had Emma Watson curate our Instagram channel for the entire day. We asked our photographic community to identify amazing National Geographic photographers and we showcased their photographs on International Women’s Day."

He adds that aside from these special activations, the platform is completely owned by the photographers for the most part.

“They are all adults and are professional ... and they also have their own individual Instagram accounts, so we trust them to use their best judgments. Obviously occasionally, things pop up that we don’t really agree with, but 95% of the time it’s pretty good."

Hunt says that as the brand's Instagram audience and strategy has evolved, so has its approach to how it works with clients. "Not only are sponsors aligning with a highly-visual, purpose-driven brand on a platform where visuals and having a purpose are top currency, they’re also aligning with some of the world’s best storytellers in our photographers and hitting an audience of 90 million people. It’s become a big focus of our digital commercialization approach.

“We also have a lot of great learnings from the editorial side that apply to branded content such as the things that we know that resonate with audiences and the things that don’t: the best platforms to be on, the best way of telling stories or the best photographers or explorers that we know our readers want to hear more or see more from.

"Those are the learnings of best practices that we use whenever we are producing things, which are the same as I would expect from my editorial team daily, so there is never anything we would publish that we would be scared to publish natively and openly.”

The digital content strategy is centered around five verticals: culture and exploration, science and innovation, travel, animals, and environment, which has resulted in National Geographic being followed by 435 million people in total.

“We have so much IP and brand reverence to transact on - so how do we turn that into relevance?" says Hunt. "Whenever we ask people what National Geographic means to them they will say the magazine or the animals or indigenous tribes. A lot of people will associate with its approach to visual storytelling and photography and that’s been a big part of being able to grow on platforms that are so visually centric like Facebook and Instagram and even to an extent Twitter and Snapchat."

As a platform, National Geographic is innovating to allow its audience to experience content in different ways, with the digital editorial team made up of writers, editors and digital video teams who create 2D video, vertical video, virtual reality and augmented reality experiences, as well as the distribution of digital photography.

The audience development team (also led by Hunt) is then responsible for the distribution of that content across all of its social platforms, which he explains as being about the creation of "a dialogue more than a monologue".

Video strategy is another commercial opportunity; for instance, National Geographic has launched a sponsored video series called Behind the Shot alongside BMW, which lives primarily on Facebook Watch.

Another digital audience growth opportunity was the creation of Facebook group called Women of Impact, which has reached 40,000 members in two months. It is focused on elevating the profile and the stories of its female content contributors and community members.

Reddit has also been adopted this year as a platform for audience growth, with the aim of giving the brand’s superfans direct access to explorers, scientists, photographers, as well as content. One of our most successful activations was an Ask Me Anything session with Bob Ballard, who discovered the sunken Titanic shipwreck.

From a world-leading magazine to a media powerhouse, National Geographic has become a brand of the future. But it still has the world and beyond to explore for its attentive audience, even after all this time.

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