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Behind the Scenes of National Geographic’s Killing Jesus Digital Strategy

March 16, 2015 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy
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For better or worse, history does have a way of repeating itself. In the case of National Geographic’s “Killing” documentary series—based upon Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s books Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy—creating a robust complementary digital experience is a strategy that has worked well in the past, and one National Geographic plans to repeat with the latest addition to the series: Killing Jesus.

The Killing Jesus microsite was created by the Emmy-winning team behind the network’s Live From Space digital experience, the Emmy-nominated team behind Killing Lincoln and the multi-Cannes-Lion-winning team behind Killing Kennedy. National Geographic learned a great deal from creating companion sites for its Kennedy and Lincoln projects—both positive and negative—which factored into the creation of the new site. Besides, as Matt Zymet, executive director of digital media and digital content for National Geographic points out “we don’t want to be a one trick pony.”

In every case, the digital strategy was part of the overall content and marketing planning from inception. “The idea with all of these is to build buzz ahead of time, extend the viewing experience, and create a long tail effect that generates traffic well after the show has aired,” says Zymet. However with the first two in the Killing series, they’d emphasized creating a synchronized second-screen experience during viewing, which they are not doing for Killing Jesus. While National Geographic has been successful with this type of experience for other programming, the sync experience didn’t work nearly as well for these deep historical documentaries, which people wanted to sit back and watch.threecrowns

That said, as with the earlier documentaries, there were ample opportunities to enhance the audience experience around the subject matter online. The Killing Jesus companion site is designed to give viewers an even deeper dive into the time of Jesus from three key perspectives, each symbolized by a different crown: a crown of thorns representing Jesus and his followers, a crown of laurels representing the Romans led by Pontius Pilate, and a headdress representing the Jewish high priests of the time. This allows visitors to explore every element of the story through each perspective. The site is broken into eight chapters, reflecting pivotal moments in the story of Jesus. Each chapter contains three or four key scenes that can be explored through the three different viewpoints.

Unlike the Kennedy and Lincoln sites, which Zymet points out had the luxury of access to archival photos and footage, the Jesus site required a bit of a rethink on the content approach. Like its predecessors, it includes information about making the film. But “short of building a time machine, we knew we couldn’t do the same thing here.” Besides, through his experience working on other sites for National Geographic programming, such as Brain Games and Live from Space, Zymet knows that a digital experience needs to be reflective of both the programming content, but also the experience that the given audience expects. For Killing Jesus, Zymet says they took a sort of “graphic novel approach” to produce something he thinks of as “The greatest story ever told, through the lens of Rashomon.”

It’s essential, says Zymet, to be authentic to your identity when creating digital experiences.  Unlike other networks, which might focus on scripted drama or science fiction, he says “National Geographic it is about packing in a lot of information, folks look to us for that.” So whether it is a question of fascinating “cocktail party facts to discuss or uncovering the amazing hidden parts of the world, we focus on finding the most interesting stuff for our audience.” And the digital experience is an extension of that. In the case of Killing Jesus, the site allows the viewer to explore a wealth of complementary content of interest such as Jesus in popular culture, what Jesus may have looked like as seen through world art, and what happened to the apostles.

This maximizes National Geographic’s investment by creating what Zymet calls “engagement engines.” In this case, the site was designed for the type of people who “stop and read every placard when they visit the Museum of Natural History.”  Given that both the Killing Lincoln and Killing sites have generated some of National Geographic’s most remarkable traffic to date, Zymet is confident that Killing Jesus will be successful in building audience for the documentary as well as providing the sort of ongoing education, info-taining experience that National Geographic audiences expect and enjoy.


Killing Jesus premieres on Palm Sunday, March 29, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic Channel in the United States, globally in 171 countries in 45 languages and in Spanish on Nat Geo Mundo.

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