How 130 year old National Geographic became the top social media brand


As we scroll through our social media accounts—whether it be Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, or another platform—there are certain things that capture our attention and cause us to pause for a few seconds and other posts that we just pass right on by. What makes the difference between the content we stop on, and the content we don't?

According to Carolanne Mangles, Digital Marketing Executive and Editor at Smart Insights, the difference is found in powerful visuals and great storytelling. Some businesses place an image in front of you and expect you to know what it is and why it is there. Other groups, like National Geographic and Humans of New York, tell us specifically why we should stop, read, and engage. It is these three components that make all the difference.

National Geographic has an impressive 81.7 million followers on Instagram and a combined global following of 350 million across all of their social platforms. They are the the most popular brand on Instagram and the biggest brand on social media. But the impressive part is that they are able to convert these subscribers of free social content into paid subscribers of their print content. National Geographic has found the “sweet spot” of visual marketing through the use of  powerful visuals and great storytelling. Hence, their followers on social media stop scrolling, read and engage with the content, and then choose to purchase other content.

National Geographic is known for their unique, stunning, high quality photographs, but not every great image taken by their photographers is posted to their social accounts. If a great visual image was all that people cared about, the National Geographic’s largest following would be on Pinterest, where users have the perfect platform for creating visual boards. Instead, the images National Geographic chooses to share have a "wow" factor. The “wow” being an element that makes us stop and wonder where it was taken, who or what is in it, and what the story is behind it. That is why NatGeo's largest following is on Instagram, where users are privy to a long description or a short story accompanying each post.

There is a consistency in the type of photographs National Geographic posts that their followers have come to expect. I believe that the reason their images repeatedly hit the mark is because their visual content regularly falls into one or more of these four categories:  

it is interesting.

It is unusual.

It is shocking.

It is emotional.

National Geographic's visual content constantly falls into one or more of these categories.

Most of us are captivated by things that we might never get to experience, see, or do ourselves. If we see a post about something we find interesting, we tend to want to know more. The same can be said about content that we find strange or foreign. When we find ourselves asking the question “what is this,” we are more likely to pause and investigate. Shocking content does not have to make our jaws drop, it could simply be a photograph of the last animal of its kind or of the tallest mountain in the world. An image that conjures up an emotional reaction can also cause us to pause—whether it reminds us of a historic event, an experience we relate to personally, or because it is relevant and happening to other people in the world today.

Sometimes, even if the photograph were to be removed, the written explanation posted alongside the image itself is enough to paint its own picture. NatGeo's captions are rich in detail with the descriptions of the subject of the image, the reason why the photographer or journalist is at a certain location, why the event or setting is important, and a description of the surroundings or environment. Although important,  it is not just the image and the caption that are compelling.

National Geographic is also an expert at crafting the "hook"—the first few words of the text before the "more" button. Those words make us want to click for "more." When we talk NatGeo's content having a "wow" factor, we are talking about their whole package - the way their visuals, hook, and story consistently come together in a way that is so engaging that their followers are compelled to respond.

Another unique aspect to National Geographic's content is that images and written copy are credited to specific people. We all long for personal interactions, and this approach helps NatGeo's marketing feel less corporate and more personal. More than 100 photographers have earned the right to post directly to National Geographic's Instagram from their on-site locations. Sometimes a photographer's skill set does not always translate into producing perfect Instagram or Snapchat Stories. Fortunately, NatGeo's social team will help these photographers by suggesting questions they can answer in the posts and/or providing tips to showcase themselves in a way that helps them to be a vehicle for the story, but not the main attraction. National Geographic's posts are then, therefore, not the voices of their editors, but the voices of the photographers themselves - telling us what things looked like to them, felt like, and smelled like in real time.

The reason why we pause when scrolling is because the image grabs our attention, the hook draws us in, and the story provides us with information that we want to know about. The story is made personally relevant to us by virtue of it being a firsthand account from the source, not a sales pitch from a marketing department. We want to engage because we feel as though we are interacting with a real person. A person who shares our same fears, hopes, and dreams and is on the frontlines for the sole purpose of bringing interesting and important information right to our doorsteps. We pause for an organization's content because the person who posted  feels like they are our friend.