How National Geographic Is Dominating Social Media as an Historic Magazine

Zach Brooke
Key Takeaways

What? While many print-first publishers struggle to use social media, National Geographic is dominating multiple channels.

So what? Using rich visual assets, the brand has leveraged Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook to give viewers unique experiences.

Now what? Publishers that embrace omni-channel distribution give themselves the opportunity to monetize content across an ever-growing list of platforms.

​Already dominating Instagram, the iconic brand has conquered Facebook Watch with a deft pounce

Eight hundred million people access Instagram each month. Almost 11% of them, 86 million, follow National Geographic. Only 13 other accounts have a higher share of the app’s audience, and no other media outlet can claim a spot among the top 25 accounts as of February 2018.

In some respects, Instagram is tailormade to feature work from the 130-year-old photojournalistic publication, which routinely includes breathtaking nature photos. National Geographic’s most popular image of 2017, depicting an indigenous Amazonian Awá child balancing a pet monkey on his head, earned nearly 2 million likes.

The brand notched similar triumph last year with its Snapchat Discover page. National Geographic’s senior director of Snapchat, Stephanie Atlas, told Marketing Dive that the brand gained 1 million subscribers per month for three consecutive months by using Discover. The brand’s Snapchat Discover page has also increased the amount of daily active users fourfold and doubled its completion rate, a measure of users who view an entire series of snaps that comprise a Snapchat Discover story.

“We’re fortunate that we have access to the entire National Geographic archive—with thousands upon thousands of images and stories,” says Kate Coughlin, senior director of audience development for National Geographic Partners. “Most of the photographs we share come from our photographers as they’re in the field and on assignment. We’ve done something we think no other brand has done, in that we’ve given our photographers access to Instagram to share their photos and stories in real time.”

The photography network and access to vast content archives propels what is otherwise a bare-bones social media operation. “The [social media] team is fairly small when compared to other media companies, with 10 people working across all of our platforms and all accounts. Everyone on the team wears multiple hats, acting as creators, content distributors, community managers and analysts,” Coughlin says.

Nat Geo’s online success leaves the brand well-positioned in 2018 while many news outlets continue to struggle to successfully execute a visually driven social media strategy. Yet Coughlin’s colleagues weren’t content limiting their online presence to an expanding Snapchat profile and one killer Instagram account. Given the totality of the society’s assets, which includes an entire broadcast channel, the company took on an even greater social media goal.


“On a tactical level, we’re looking closely at engagement, conversation and conversion; National Geographic is unique in that we’re not just one business focused on driving digital-only metrics, but we also have a number of other business lines that we partner with including television, consumer products, our magazine, events and our nonprofit National Geographic Society,” Coughlin says. “We aren’t just looking to have hundreds of millions of followers so that we can have a one-way conversation with them. While we have a social following of 420 million people across all channels, translating to more than 7.9 billion content engagements every month, through digital and social media, we’ve been able to turn that footprint and that reverence to relevance by having dialogues with people from every corner of the world.”

Coughlin says “Safari Live” and Nat Geo’s recent expansion to Facebook Watch best highlight audience engagement for the brand.


“Safari Live” is a no-frills stream of unfettered wild animals in action. The original format was a show broadcast on the cable channel Nat Geo Wild in 2015. The show later performed well online, where it quickly gained an audience on YouTube.

“‘Safari Live’ has traditionally been broadcast live twice daily on YouTube, giving global audiences a passenger seat on safari to get up close and personal with some of the world’s most interesting and predacious species,” Coughlin says.

“It’s an interactive experience, too. As our expert safari guides navigate audiences through Kenya’s iconic Maasai Mara and South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, viewers are invited to communicate and ask questions in real time on Twitter using #safarilive.”

The live format of the program offered limited viewer access, however, so “Safari Live” was evolved into an on-demand, cross-platform product. The show has enjoyed a partnership with Facebook Live, but Coughlin says the opportunity was ripe when Facebook invited Nat Geo to be part of the alpha launch of Facebook Watch, a digital TV-like service that showcases some regular streaming series alongside “Facebook Original” shows.

The revamped “Safari Live” experience launched on Facebook Watch on August 2, 2017. By expanding to Facebook Watch, “Safari Live” is still live twice daily on Nat Geo Wild, Facebook Live, YouTube, Twitter and, but can be viewed on demand by anyone on Facebook Watch and by subscribers on YouTube and the brand’s website. Facebook Watch has become a hub for prerecorded content and highlights of the best safari footage.


From August 2017 to January 2018, an average “Safari Live” livestream had 140,000 viewers on Facebook Watch, and 260,000 users had become followers of the program on Facebook. 

“This revamp of strategy has provided audiences a direct line to the cast, the animals and one another—all while democratizing some of our most engaging content,” Coughlin says. Since launch, “Safari Live” has been viewed 294 million times, and Nat Geo’s Facebook Watch followers are growing at a rapid pace: From December 2017 to January 2018, Coughlin says followers increased 67%.

The duration of the livestream, as well as the amount of people watching, varies widely with each episode, given the unpredictability of the animals’ activity in nature. A wildebeest giving birth earned more than 10 million views in three days, and a cheetah hunting and devouring its prey garnered nearly 1 million views during its live broadcast. The show itself produced a bona fide social media darling, Scarface the lion.

“‘Safari Live’ led to two fans meeting in the Facebook Watch comments section, then in real life and ultimately getting married,” Coughlin says. “It has helped pacify peoples’ post-traumatic stress disorder and more. These are the stories that show that the product has power and is making a real impact for our audiences.”

Lofty altruism aside, the results have given the sales team ammunition as it looks to bring ads into the experience.  

“We’ve spent a lot of time rethinking our distribution and engagement strategy from something that started out as a broadcast-first initiative ... to something that lives across all the platforms,” Jonathan Hunt, Nat Geo’s senior vice president of audience development and digital strategy, told AdAge in January. “Now we’re focusing on figuring out the monetization strategy.”

Coughlin reflects that tentative optimism, but she’s quick to circle back to the brand value that got the company there.

“As social media evolves, our strategies will, too,” Coughlin says. “There is a continuous effort to see where we can improve across platforms, and ‘Safari Live’ isn’t the anomaly. … We’ve had incredible successes with our immersive 360-degree storytelling, taking our audience underwater with sharks and into volcanic eruptions, but we’ve barely scratched the surface. Our ultimate goal is to share experiences with our users that they can’t get anywhere else, and video is a fantastic way to transport them. Above all else, our main goal is to take people to places, to give them new experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to have; to really think of the yellow National Geographic border as a portal.”

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Zach Brooke
Zach is a staff writer for the AMA's publications. He can be reached at