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#SMWLDN: How To Use National Geographic's Storytelling Philosophy In Your Marketing

Sep 16, 2016 1:57:34 PM

National Geographic Logo Social Media Interview Review Week London Case Study SMWLDN Storytelling digital marketing

" True brand connection is now more important than ever as we navigate the world."
Nadine Heggie, VP Global Partnerships, National Geographic Society

Good storytelling is how people will care about your brand. It connects with us on a human level that even the most cynical marketing hack is susceptible to (even if they won’t admit it). The National Geographic reaches 730 million consumers every month, and drives over 1.6 billion actions on social media. This success stems from a consistent social media strategy that illuminates some of the world’s most fascinating stories.

Nadine Heggie, VP Global Partnerships at National Geographic, delivered a visually stunning talk of this year’s Social Media Week London and revealed several key tenets of their social media strategy. Even if you don’t have 100 of the world’s best photographers on hand, these tips will still add narratives to your strategy that connect.

Nadine Heggie National Geographic Social Media Twitter Strategy SMWLDN Talk Interview Nadine Heggie, National Geographic

Invest In The Whole Storytelling Process

National Geographic don’t just pay great photographers to get good photos, they actively fund larger projects and ensure that they’re also developing the next generation of storytellers alongside this investment.

Not every brand will be able to do something on this scale. What they can do is consider the stories that can be told throughout their activities and investments. Also, a focus on mentoring & training creative staff will deliver results in the longer run as they learn to speak your brand’s language and craft a strong brand.

Heggie: "We invest 27% of our profits back into science, exploration, and education. This cycle of philanthropy allows us fund new assignments and it enables us to invest in the storytelling and the storytellers. At National Geographic, we make sure people have space and time to create the stories, and embed new talent with seasoned professionals to ensure they get the best development."

Find The Set-up That Works For You

There are very few brands who can organise their Instagram team exactly like National Geographic, and that’s fine. What’s important is they’ve thought first about what they want out of the channel, and the best way to deliver it. If it turns out that a less conventional social media management method would suit one of your channels, give it a go.

Heggie: “Instead of a traditional social media manager, our Instagram profile is run by the photographers, over 100 of them. They self-regulate, give each other around 2 hours between posts, and curate images directly from their assignments, their travels and their lives. And it’s working. The photographers deliver stunning content that is truly aligned with the subjects authentic to National Geographic and consumers have been hugely receptive of this organic and authentic publishing model. Our hero account alone has close to 59M follower and it gives us hope that crowds following celebrities also care about science and exploration.

Photo by Corey Arnold @arni_coraldo Congaree National Park in South Carolina preserves the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the US. We spotted no less the 12 snakes including a pair of water moccasins hanging on branches over the river on this journey down Cedar Creek with a group of "alternative spring breakers" from the University of Virginia this past April. These students choose to volunteer labor and a bit of leisure in a National Park over the party atmosphere of the usual spring break destinations. Story goes online Sept 13! Follow my yearlong journey in Americas National Parks at @arni_coraldo #congaree #nps100 #southcarolina #canoeing #cypress #swamp #roadtrip #findyourpark @congareenps #photooftheday #instabeauty #natgeo #springbreak

A photo posted by National Geographic (@natgeo) on

Understand Your Audience’s Desires On Each Channel

Knowing what an audience wants from a channel is more than simply image size, and average video length. It requires a nuanced understanding on the type of people who use those channels, what they’re there for, and what profiles are successful in each niche. (If you need a hand with that, we wrote a free guide to show you how to uncover these insights.)

Heggie: "We look at where, when, and how the consumers want our content. When we have this knowledge, we meet them there and deliver content appropriate for those channels. For example, we found that a more irreverent tone works on Snapchat than Instagram. Understanding these differences will guide how you tell stories on each channel."

What Stories Can Only You Tell?

A key point when we interviewed Porsche was their focus on producing content around their audience’s passion points, and how that couldn’t be done by anyone else. National Geographic have found a similar approach has lead to their most popular content, and it’s something every brand needs to be regularly thinking about.

Heggie "As each channel is unique, we need to be flexible and adaptive to stay open to storytelling possibilities. Our results are best when we make it authentic to our brand, and deliver narratives that audiences can find nowhere else.

Theme Your Narrative

Identify some key themes, messages, or causes you want your audience to stop, think about, and rally behind. Actively focus all channels on them for a set period of time to draw people’s full attention to them.

Heggie "There's a lot of noise competing for attention. So when something really matters we get our teams to focus on one topic for a moment, such as Big Cats Week, World Ocean Day, or other issues. We also look to work with deeply connected commercial partners, like-minded brands who care about the same things that we do. This level of focus on one message allows the storytelling to make a real impact.

Did It Work?

To highlight how such storytelling practices translate into real life activity, award-winning documentary photographer Robin Hammond gave his own account of what this approach has lead to. Hammond’s Where Love Is Illegal project documents stories of LGBT people in countries where their sexuality can lead to abuse, persecution, or even death. By using the type of storytelling strategy detailed above, he managed to build something that went beyond photos to create a mass movement of people who believed in the cause.

"We spent time building up a large, caring audience who all believed in our message. Across the world, this project collected a diverse mix of narratives from people to ensure the silenced were heard, and the hidden were seen. But it wasn't just about getting a lot of likes, or driving discussion, it also caused action. When 4 men were arrested in Nigeria for being gay, within hours we were able to mobilise this audience to raise funds for bail and for legal representation. Soon afterwards, they walked free."
Robin Hammond, Freelance Photographer

Crafting nuanced, engaging brand stories is not something that is easy for everyone, but it is possible. What challenges have you had in trying to tell your brand’s story, and how did you solve them?

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