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?