Visual Storytelling Is The Essence Of Social

The best brands are storytellers, not sellers


In the transition from print media to digital, there have been a number of high-profile casualties. Print circulation is way down, publishers are struggling to find ways to monetize and, arguably, the quality of what is being published has dipped in favor of garnering clicks. Throughout the difficult transition period, it has been remarkably easy to neglect the positives of digital media in the face of some admittedly fundamental negatives. The upsides are there if you look for them, though; publishers can now better interact with their audiences, they can access reach unlike anything before social, and they can harness multimedia.

One publisher that has very successfully managed the switch from print to digital (while retaining its print business) is National Geographic. The magazine's wildly successful social channels have bolstered its print business since the industry began to transition, and it stands alone in terms of popularity among digital publishers. The organization's ethos is that digital publishing should do more than just grow reach and engage audiences. Speaking at the Digital Strategy Innovation Summit in London in October, the magazine's Global Brand Director, Stephen Murphy, outlined how the company saw their digital channels: 'at National Geographic, we try to go one step further; we try to actually inspire action.'

Essentially, National Geographic took stock of what it had that other publishers didn't - a wealth of beautiful high-resolution photographs of nature, and an audience that passionately cares about its subject matter, to name two. These valuable resources point not only to visual storytelling as a viable digital marketing strategy, but also to its audience's willingness to engage with content outside of the brand's core product. National Geographic's social media accounts are not simply vessels through which the publisher can sell its magazines, rather it is used to promote individuals doing good work in areas like photography and conservation, as well as engaging audiences with the natural world more generally.

The publisher's Instagram is a series of diverse, high-quality photos and videos of landscapes and animals, each with extensive captions from the photographers describing the images. The results have been overwhelmingly successful. With 82.7 million followers, it is by far the most followed brand on Instagram - Nike sits in second with 75.1 million and Victoria's Secret takes bronze with 57.5 million.

National Geographic likes to describe its success 'not by the reach, or the net worth, or even the geography, but a mindset.' This is an approach that only works when storytelling is fundamental to the brand strategy. Facts, figures, and product specifications may be good for selling, but inspiring action or an emotional connection to a brand can only be achieved through storytelling.

The brand's success is intimately tied to it being part of the National Geographic Society - the largest not-for-profit science organization in the world. With 27% of the media company's proceeds going to the wider Society, the magazine connects with audiences on a level deeper than that of a purely corporate venture. What this means is that National Geographic creates its social strategy by linking it to wider causes and initiatives. On days like World Water Day, World Ocean Day, International Women's Day, World Food Day, for example, its posts will be related. One of its most successful campaigns focused on the environment, 'The People Vs Climate Change' - all of National Geographic's social channels posted content around conservationism and the place of human beings in nature. 'These are massive, cause-based social takeovers, and we look at the biggest subjects in the world, so in this case climate change.' These important, topical campaigns generate strong engagement and display National Geographic's masterful understanding of multi-channel publishing.

Visual storytelling doesn't necessarily need to mean long-form content or extended videos. It can be this, but any digital marketing campaigns that incorporate multimedia and narrative to promote the brand message come under this umbrella. In fact, any marketing that isn't strictly advertising could be considered storytelling. National Geographic posts visual content across its different social channels, but each is tailored to the channel on which it sits, and this is in part the secret to the magazine's digital success.

National Geographic's presence on the likes of Facebook and Instagram means that when the former is looking to launch a new product, the magazine is one of the first users they talk to. 'In terms of technology, we were one of the first to do a Facebook Live [broadcast], most recently from Everest, and in 2015 we were one of the first publishers to crank out daily content on Snapchat Discover. Recently, this year up to June, over a three month period we added three million subscribers to our Snapchat, based on a new strategy focused on a more streamlined design.' Essentially, National Geographic has a keen eye for the mediums on which it could be successful and is expert at tailoring its output to that medium. Throughout this process, though, it is entirely unafraid to throw itself into new technology and is often something of a pioneer as a result.

Not every brand has the wealth of beautiful and fascinating content available to National Geographic at their disposal, nor do many have such universal messages that will resonate across the world. What they can learn from the magazine's success, though, is that a willingness to embrace new technology, coupled with the intelligence to tailor content accordingly, will show positive results. The magazine has remained successful because it has embraced technology rather than seeing digital transformation as an ugly necessity - other brands should take note of this approach. 

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