Not so Frozen in Time – National Geographic

National Geographic’s mission has allowed them to survive death-by-print, and to become king of Instagram.

Some of my earliest memories of my parents’ bookshelf were the rows of yellow – the edge of stacks of National Geographic magazines, all lined with the iconic yellow border that has come to define the brand. While the image of print magazine stacks collecting dust might foreshadow a digital loser, over the last two decades National Geographic has transformed into a clear digital winner.

The National Geographic Society was founded in 1888 with a mission to “increase and diffuse geographic knowledge”. Though the subscription-purchased yellow-lined printed journal was the NGS’s primary offering for many decades, their loyalty to their mission has always been greater than their loyalty to any specific product.

National Geographic has embraced technology and digital tools so successfully that they were named the most effective publisher in social media in 2014 (according to social media analytics company Shareablee). To put their digital growth in perspective: National Geographic had 6.5 million Instagram followers at the time of that analysis one year ago, and have over 31 million followers today (for further context, the most popular current Instagram account has only a few more million followers at 45 million followers – obviously, Kim Kardashian).

National Geographic’s digital footprint and experimentation extends far beyond a single platform: they were a lead partner in Facebook’s “Instant Articles” venture, have a loyal Twitter following (10.4 million and counting) that engages with funny and educational tweets, and has been on a cutting edge of new video techniques, using drones and sensors to film wildlife.

All of this success wasn’t always a given – subscription revenue from their printed journals fell from $284 million in 1999 to $211 in 2009, and internally the company operated in a very siloed fashion. Why has National Geographic been so successful at riding the digital wave, when so many other legacy print publications have failed?

I have two main hypotheses:

  • National Geographic’s founding and mission pre-dated printed journals, so their DNA is more adaptable to changing with the times and less anchored on the history of a physical product. With a guiding mission to “diffuse geographic knowledge”, new platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat look like opportunities to expand your reach, rather than threats.
  • The non-profit nature of National Geographic allowed them to experiment with new technology without fears of cannibalization of their existing business, and well before there was a clear path to monetization on the various new platforms. National Geographic creates value by publishing and curating high-quality content: for a non-profit with a mission, value capture is not measured solely in revenue dollars, but rather the reach of the organization. Of course by having been more open to technological change early on, NGS is now in a position to reap the financial reward in form of royalties for photography use, and increased traffic to their main website.

The next big challenge for National Geographic might still lay ahead – just a few days ago, Fox purchased a majority stake in NGS for $725 million, taking the company away from its non-profit roots and heavily boosting its already Emmy-winning TV presence. Will Murdoch allow NGS to stay true to its mission? Will NGS keep its digital edge and affinity for experimentation under the scrutiny of a for-profit organization?







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Student comments on Not so Frozen in Time – National Geographic

  1. Great context on National Geographic and I think it’s been a winner for while. But I’m curious if you think Murdoch will have a positive or negative impact on its future and how? By the way Murdoch doesn’t believe in global warming or climate change, contrary to part of the National Geographic’s mission.

    1. News of the merger is still very recent, but Murdoch has publicly stated *so far* that he doesn’t intend to mess with or interfere with the editorial content of NGS – in theory, Fox’s extensive resources could help spread NGS content even further, but of course that’s still to be seen…

  2. I almost feel that a service like NatGeo is better suited for the digitized world than the print world — their abilities to carry out their mission is made vastly easier (and cheaper) through digital media. As technology develops, their products (ie photographs) can be even further enhanced — thereby adding more value to its products.

  3. Great post about an absolutely up-to-date news item (I was reading the Guardian’s tech editor opinion on the Fox deal only earlier today…). I absolutely agree with you that this is shocking news (excuse the bad pun) so anyone who loves the NGS brand. My only source of hope is how Fox has dealt with the WSJ acquisition. Rather than changing the WSJ into Fox News, the corporation looked to learn what it could from the newly acquired business and apply it to the goliath organization as a whole. Lets hope the flow of change goes mostly from NGS to Fox, and we don’t see photos of Trump in the jungle any time soon.

  4. I’m saddened by the news that Fox/Murdoch now has majority stake in NatGeo. That aside, I’m a subscriber to NatGeo’s Instagram account (highly recommended, by the way) and I love the daily dose of beautiful photography accompanied by a short story. I think a huge contributor to their digital success is the fact that they are willing to “give” their content away for free while figuring out other monetization models such as royalties, which allows their brand to stay fresh and relevant in their audiences minds.

    1. I agree with this comment. I really enjoy NatGeo’s instagram account and they also do a great job promoting their photographers via Instagram (several of which I now independently follow). I can’t help but feeling a little like Nat Geo “sold out” on their mission by selling a majority position to Fox since it seems so unaligned with their mission; however, like many acquisitions most users will likely not notice or care (unless they start posting pictures that deny the existence of global warming etc.). I’m curious to see how this partnership manifests – thanks for a great post!

  5. It’s really interesting to see that the non-profit nature of the company allowed them to experiment – the common perception is that non-profits are slower to move and adapt than for-profits because they don’t face the same market pressures. In this case, that turned out to be a blessing, but I also wonder whether that is a translatable lesson to other non-profits. The brand power of National Geographic probably played a large role in making the transition effective and tangible to consumers – I’m a big fan!

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