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How National Geographic uses Instagram to stay relevant

The women who run Nat Geo’s magazine, digital team and TV networks talk with Kara Swisher on the latest Recode Decode.

Nat Geo’s Rachel Webber, Susan Goldberg and Courteney Monroe
Nat Geo’s Rachel Webber, Susan Goldberg and Courteney Monroe
Tony Powell / courtesy National Geographic

When National Geographic started publishing photographs in the early 1900s, two of the National Geographic Society’s board members resigned in disgust, saying the magazine was dumbing itself down by becoming more visual.

It’s hard to imagine those snobby board members would be happy about today’s Nat Geo, which has nearly 89 million followers on Instagram, making it the most popular non-celebrity on the platform (its closest rival, Nike, has 78 million followers). On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, three of the 130-year-old company’s executives explained how it’s adapting to modern media habits.

“The way I think about it is, I compete with anybody that is capturing somebody’s attention, other than National Geographic,” said Courteney Monroe, the CEO of Nat Geo’s TV arm, National Geographic Global Networks. “I compete with Netflix, I compete with Hulu, I compete with the traditional television networks, I compete with Fortnite! I compete with anybody who’s taking a consumer’s time away from watching National Geographic content.”

Monroe, along with digital boss Rachel Webber and magazine editor Susan Goldberg, said Nat Geo has thrived online in part because it thinks about how each of its stories can “work” on Instagram, TV and all its other platforms from the start — avoiding a common media trap of making content first and only thinking about social later.

“We never just produce a magazine story, ever,” Goldberg said. “Now, we’ve got cross-departmental teams and cross-functional teams meeting to create the content from the beginning that will make sense and will tell the story the most effectively across platforms.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, the trio explained how digital and traditional media intersected this June, when Nat Geo ran a big cover story about plastics.

“We started out with a story and that strong photojournalism, sending writers and photographers all over the world, taking images like nobody has ever seen before,” Goldberg said. “But then there became a great social campaign.”

“We set out to ask people to take a pledge,” Webber explained. “We gave them all the facts and figures. Plastics is an issue that, unlike climate change — there’s very clear, specific action that you can take to reduce your own single-use plastic use. We have almost 40,000 pledges that we’ve gotten from our audiences across platforms. At this point, we’re at probably 600 million impressions across the campaign with all of our content.”

They said that even though the competition has gotten tougher in today’s media climate, Nat Geo has a unique differentiator: It’s a joint venture between 21st Century Fox and the still-operating National Geographic Society, which remains a mission-driven nonprofit. The company has leaned into that mission, of “advocating for a sustainable planet,” which resonates with younger audiences.

“A lot of people want to run screaming from the room when you put the words ‘climate change’ together,” Goldberg said. “They don’t want to hear about it. But what we can do is pull people into the stories with our visual storytelling, our incredibly unique approach. There’s a lot of power in that.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • On Too Embarrassed to Ask, also hosted by Kara Swisher, we answer the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

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