Three Principles We Used To Build Nat Geo’s Social Media Footprint Of 90+ Million Fans

Robert Michael Murray
10 min readNov 24, 2014

It’s been a few months since I left National Geographic and during this time I’ve been heads-down launching a new startup (well, actually more than one). So it was a wonderful surprise to read on <re/code> that Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp is using National Geographic as a guide for turning the publisher into a “digital powerhouse” and that part of that blueprint is the success National Geographic has had in social media. We’re using many of the same concepts I implemented at National Geographic at my new company, Matchfire Co., so I thought I would take a moment and share a few of the principles behind the Society’s success in social media.

When I joined National Geographic in the summer of 2009, I became one of the first social media executives at a major nonprofit and media company. While it’s now commonplace to have dedicated executives and teams focused on social media, at that time it was still something novel at most organizations. But unlike many, the leadership at National Geographic had the foresight to see social media’s potential for the organization and that they needed to hire someone to lead the effort.

At that time National Geographic was already on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms. In fact, they saw some initial success and were able to grow their main brand accounts to more than 500,000 fans, followers, and subscribers. Unfortunately the platforms were seen simply as another channel to broadcast product offerings and to promote advertising partners. So I worked to change what we were doing and turned our efforts to building a social media ecosystem focused on “experiences and relationships [with fans].”

We kicked our efforts off in early 2010 and since that time National Geographic’s social media footprint has soared to more than 90 million fans, followers, and subscribers across the major social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Google+—outpacing many its peers. That footprint has driven hundreds of millions of people to National Geographic stories and projects, as well as billions of social media impressions and mentions for the brand (exact numbers confidential).

Here are three, of the roughly eight principles, we used to guide our efforts in achieving these results (most are obvious, but how you apply them to your particular audience and organization is the critical part of the equation):

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1. It’s All About Storytelling

This may seem obvious, especially coming from an organization that is known for its leadership in visual storytelling. And I realize “storytelling” has become an industry buzzword. But organizations—whether they are a nonprofit or commercial business—are (re)discovering the power of one of humankind’s most ancient forms of communication.

Yet despite all of this attention, most people lose sight of the core reasons stories, and storytelling, matter. Stories fuel our imagination, they solidify our common bonds, and they inspire us to greater heights. Ultimately they bind us together as human beings.

“In the end, storytelling comes down to two things: connection and engagement. Whether it’s a shaman relaying his vision around a sacred fire, a tribal elder handing down his people’s oral history, or a marketer pushing his or her newest line extension or service, it all comes down to these two fundamental elements.” – Ryan D. Mathews, What’s Your Story?

So when you’re thinking about your social media strategies, consider the role stories and storytelling will play when forging connections and building engagement with and among your audience.

The 10 Functions of Storytelling, Ryan D. Mathews What’s Your Story?

Stories are meaningful. They have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and in order to instill values and beliefs (see side bar for more).

Stories are empowering. They give voice to the voiceless—both in terms of individuals and communities—and as a society enable us to shine a light on the critical issues of the day.

Stories are sociable. They make us accessible to one another; by sharing stories with one another we can better empathize, connect with others, and understand the world around us.

Stories are enjoyable. They sit us in front of our televisions or local theatre, glue our eyes to our phones and laptops, draw us around the campfire or to the couches of a nearby coffee shop to enjoy the company of others.

Everyone of us wants our stories to be heard. Therefore it’s critical to see stories as more than just content; more than just inventory that you push through or post to your social channels. By knowing the how and why stories resonate with others, you’ll have a better understanding of how best to tell your stories. And to know the ways in which you can engage your audience and empower them to share and tell their own stories.

2. Enable Others To Create Value

People desire a purpose. They seek to be involved, to make a difference, and to create or find meaning in their lives. As a result, one of the biggest mistakes still made by many companies is they continue to use social media to broadcast “content.” Simply chasing likes, shares, and comments. What they fail to realize is that not only are the platforms changing, but so are the ways in which people are utilizing social media.

“The secret of social media is that it’s not about you, your product, or your story. It’s about how you can add value to the communities that happen to include you. If you want to make a positive impact, forget about what you can get out of social media, and start thinking about what you can contribute. Not surprisingly, the more value you create for your community, the more value they will create for you.” — Tim O’Reilly, Twitter Boot Camp 2009

We realized this at National Geographic and you can see it in the way we approached user-generated content. We saw it more as co-creation. That our efforts should be collaborative and meaningful, not exploitive. An example of this was how we enabled our audience to join a real-world expedition to find the lost tomb of Gengis Khan by examining satellite images which assisted the expedition’s team in a noninvasive survey of the region.

What we ultimately understood was that we could create greater value by enabling others to create value.

As a result, we took this principle and applied it to how we built collaborative storytelling into our reimagined photo community, Your Shot. Your Shot has welcomed nearly half a million members from 195 countries around the world enabling them to share their stories not only through their images, but also in the behind-the-lens tales of the photograph. Another unique way this is done is through by co-creating stories.

Your Shot offers community members the opportunity to “go on assignment” with National Geographic. Assignments are posted by National Geographic photographers and photo editors and members submit photos for inclusion in the story. During the first part of the process photo editors guide and interact with community members similar to how they engage the magazine’s photographers while they are in the field; providing feedback on selects and suggestions on areas for further exploration.

Recent collaborative stories told together as a community and published by National Geographic Your Shot.

Once the submission period is closed, the photographers and photo editors review the photos and select the ones that best contribute to the story being told. They then take the selected photos and weave it into a narrative and even add editor’s notes to some of them sharing what they liked most about that particular member’s photo. The finished product is then published as a collaborative story told together as a community.

These stories push members of the community to explore the world around them, expand their skills and understanding of visual storytelling, and enable them to contribute to important stories. In fact, the current assignment is to “tell the true stories of the people who experience hunger and those who are working to solve the problem” as part of National Geographic’s Future of Food series and in partnership with Feeding America. The assignment is being edited by National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths and acclaimed chef Mario Batali.

Ultimately our members are able to create value for themselves. So instead of a photo community that simply accumulates a stockpile of photos, Your Shot enables its members to not only share and contribute to the stories that matter most to them, but to also improve their craft by interacting with and receiving feedback from National Geographic experts and other industry luminaries. While National Geographic is able to share these stories with the world and offer premium services to the community generating direct and indirect value which overall supports the organization’s nonprofit mission.

3. Know Your Data Inside Out

Above, I wrote that social media is all about storytelling, and one component of that reality is understanding that every storyteller will always believe his or her story is the one, the one everyone wants and needs to read. On the other hand the audience may not see or even react to the story as though its the one. In fact, they may never even see it within social media.

So one function a social media team plays is negotiating this disconnect to determine what works for both the storyteller and the audience. This often means making decisions on what stories are shared with which audiences or platforms and at other times it means working with editorial or marketing teams to identify content opportunities while staying true to your organization’s vision and goals.

In order to do this properly you need insights. But with all of the disparate and siloed systems (e.g., analytic platforms, social media listening and analytic tools, content management systems, social media management systems, etc.) it is easy to become overwhelmed and paralyzed by the data. However it is critical to know your data inside out in order to understand what is and isn’t working, why, and with whom.

The challenge in media, then, is not to generate data, but to integrate multiple data flows — new digital data along with more traditional sources of information — into their operations. Media companies must seize the opportunities this new data presents — or watch their pure digital competitors extend their lead in consumer intimacy.” – Bain Brief, “Why everyone in media needs an analytics upgrade”

At National Geographic we realized this challenge and worked hard to get insights that mattered, and most importantly, were actionableversus the vanity metrics many worship. Our social media insights manager worked tirelessly to tag our social media posts and to aggregate multiple data sources to provide us a more complete picture of what was happening, both from the perspective of the audience and our brand.

This meant moving beyond likes, shares and comments, as well as visits and page views to a more comprehensive view. We looked across our channels to determine awareness of our brand and content and would then look at the traffic driven to our stories and the attention spent by visitors on each story. Finally, we looked at how our audience engaged the stories both on our site and on social media platforms while measuring the influence of those engaging our stories, and ultimately our brand.

One of our Matchfire Co. companies, Storily, is building a next generation analytics platform designed for storytellers. It provides a 360° view for stories; a unified dashboard that combines channels, awareness, traffic, attention, engagement, influence, and value into actionable insights for publishers / media companies.

Since we captured this data over time we knew how various topics would perform and were able to use predictive analytics against new types of content to forecast their performance. And by providing insights along with clear definitions of data and impact, each role (e.g., content creators, editors, advertising managers, executives, etc.) within our organization became more informed to make actionable decisions in their work.

But in all honestly, this work was—and is—not easy. It’s time-consuming and requires aggregating and normalizing data across multiple sources, as well as defining direct and indirect value and assigning them to various measured outcomes. The complexity of this work is one of the reasons that one of our Matchfire companies, Storily, is building the next generation analytics platform designed specifically for storytellers in order to provide a 360° view for stories. Think for publishers.

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At times social media can feel as chaotic as the platforms at Churchgate Railway Station in Mumbai, but as the header photograph of this piece shows, when you step back and watch, over time you can see how things flow. So having perspective is key, with it you can see the patterns behind how things work and then make more informed and better decisions. This is the underlying subtext of the principles presented here.

If you understand how and why things work the way they do your tactics will be much more effective. These are just a few of the principles we used to guide our work, but my hope in sharing them is that they may provide you with some inspiration in the ways you use social media. Finally, thank you to my incredible team, and so many others at National Geographic, for making all of our social media successes possible.

Here are six action items you can use to jumpstart your organization’s social media efforts: 1 / empower people to tell stories; 2 / create action-based experiences; 3 / build authentic relationships; 4 / leverage the community; 5 / get out of your comfort zone; and 6 / embrace failure, learn fast.




Robert Michael Murray

4+ Billion People Engaged ⁂ Strategic Innovator, Thinker, & Storyteller ⁂ Elevating Brands & Handcrafting Experiences People Love ⁂ And I Came to Get Down