In the early days of digital, media companies believed that more was better. However today, they are waking up to a hard truth. Stockpiles of content – without technology platforms to make it widely available in ways people find valuable, meaningful, and dead-simple – can destroy competitive advantage, rather than build it. National Geographic, an iconic brand with over 360 million social fans, including a significant audience across desktop and mobile for its editorial and video content, is exploring technology platforms and partnerships to open the aperture of the content they offer and the audiences they reach.
Peggy Anne Salz – mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove – caught up with Marcus East, National Geographic executive vice president of product and technology. They discussed the company’s strategy to build strong emotional engagement with global audiences through deep personalization, intuitive access, wider app distribution, and an intelligent platform codenamed CHIP. National Geographic has no shortage of compelling content. Here’s a look at their strategy to deliver experiences to match.
PAS: You joined National Geographic from Marks and Spencer, where you ran e-commerce, digital product, digital operations and technology platforms. Before that you ran e-commerce solutions for Apple in EMEA, and later at HQ. How does your experience prepare you to define and drive mobile strategy at National Geographic?
ME: Spending half of my career in technology and the other half in consumer brands allows me to understand what it takes to deliver mobile content consumers love. Your app is only as good as the content and the utility that sits within it. And for us, the emphasis is on making sure that we’re investing in both of those areas. That means having the right technology platforms and the right app strategy, but driven by content. Ultimately, it’s the content that our consumers love and why they come to National Geographic.
PAS: So, we are back to Content is King…
ME: Yes, and everything we do has to be about making the content king. The content is what drives the experiences that consumers love. That’s fascinating for me because I’ve worked in e-commerce environments where consumer value is very much about utility. At National Geographic, it’s about bringing our brand to life on mobile. The reality is many of our consumers are right now interacting with us through their mobile the way they want, which may be on Instagram or it may be on Facebook. So, what we do need to be complementary to that experience.
Social reach and engagement is important to us. We have 360 million social media fans, and that’s an incredible footprint. However, we also think there’s an opportunity to build upon that and to extend and optimize our mobile experience for that audience that is dedicated and comes directly to National Geographic and wants to get deeper and further into the stories behind the pictures.
PAS: Your mobile app is work in progress. It’s already breaking some exciting new ground when it comes to helping users navigate and personalize content. We can’t all access it yet, so what can you tell me about the user experience you offer?
ME: Right now, we’re redesigning elements of our website to really be optimized for that mobile experience. Around 50% of our traffic comes on mobile, which is no surprise. At the same time, we’re also building a new app strategy, which we’ve launched and tested in one market: Australia. We launched the app with a telco partner, and we’re seeing a great deal of success there and that is informing our wider global mobile strategy.
Content is king in the app and so the experiences that we deliver through our app put the content front and center. We have a 129-year heritage of photos and articles and, more recently, videos. We don’t want the interface to get in the way of that. The interface has to allow our consumers to explore the content and go further. That means moving the navigation into the background so that it really highlights the content. We achieve this by thinking about what the consumer wants to do first, and there are three concepts. Rather than presenting consumers a complex navigation that groups content into pictures, video and articles, we’ve decided to design it the way people to engage with content. We have ‘Read,’ which is where users can engage with the editorial and the magazine; we have ‘Watch,’ which is where they can access to our video content.
Our app approach is about the consumer and the content. For this reason, the app experience also provides a level of personalization, allowing the user to specify what’s most interesting to them. Over time, the app will learn exactly what things are most interesting to that consumer based both on their preferences and on what they’re actually consuming.
PAS: The navigation is invisible and intelligent. What about the platform that powers it?
ME: We want users to log in to the app and experience the content that’s right for them, and we’re applying this same principle to our websites. We’re also looking at how we can, using some advanced techniques like progressive web apps, for example, to create a more personalized experience for consumers. This is why we want to build an intelligent platform to support the ambitions of our business.
So, what we’re exploring and building is what we’re calling a cohesive intelligent platform, codenamed ‘CHIP’. We’re building an innovation lab here in our headquarters in Washington, D.C. and we’re working with lots of technology partners and companies to explore all that. The idea is, as users come into our platform, we want to learn more about them, give them an opportunity to tell us about their preferences so that we can improve that experience, and let them see the content that’s most valuable for them. Offering personalized experiences where content is front and center – this is really the future of mobile.
PAS: It’s an ambitious strategy. But what is really interesting is how you are building the platform to deliver it because you are also orchestrating the best pieces of the other platforms, like social …
ME: I like your choice of the word “orchestrated” because the platform that we envisage is, you could argue, a virtual platform because we aren’t going to build every component of it. We are making it by orchestrating the right content management systems, the right personalization engine, the right distribution system. For some parts of the platform we may work with third parties, and for others we may build it ourselves. It all starts with experimentation; we are iterating in an agile way and building.
We’re unique in that we’ve got unparalleled global reach. We touch over 745 million consumers across 172 countries, and that’s every month. But it’s also across lots of different content types. People watch our TV channel, which is the most widely distributed in the world. People read the magazine, and they also interact with us in social.
As we build out and execute our digital capabilities we want to create a way to allow our consumers to go beyond how they experience our content today. Take consumers who read the magazine. We want them to also be able to consume our digital content on our website and watch our TV channel. It’s all about pivoting away from the different products and channels that we have and bringing it to life for the consumer and giving them new ways to explore National Geographic and the world around them through National Geographic.
PAS: You want to enrich consumers’ lives through content. That also sounds a lot like you may have a new twist on native advertising. Where does monetization fit in and how do you plan to also put content front and center in that experience?
ME: We’re exploring all the ways in which we can create the best experience, including sponsorships and e-commerce opportunities that can become part of that experience. Let’s imagine we have a consumer who absolutely loves penguins and they are on our website where they search for and engage with lots of content about penguins. We see that as an opportunity to maybe share with them details about our products that are related to penguins. It might be a penguin cuddly toy, or it might be a book about penguins, or ultimately, it may be a trip to Antarctica to go and actually see penguins in real-life. This is where we will have delivered on the ultimate promise of digital and making content part of everything that we do.
PAS: You also offer educational content. How does personalization of content and advertising extend to that audience?
ME: Ten years ago, media brands and publishers would’ve expected people to come to the website, do the work, go through the navigation and find the content that’s right to them. The Nirvana, for us, is to create a personalized experience, one that allows us to know enough about those two personas – the consumer and the educator. So, when they interact with our brand, we can give them access to content that is relevant to them, and that meets their needs.
To that point, one of the things that we’re embracing is the Jobs To Be Done paradigm that Clayton Christensen and other academics have proposed. Yes, we look at all the metrics as any media company would, but we’re also deep diving into what consumers really want and why they come to our website. Getting a deeper understanding of those consumers want to do, powered by technology. We need to have the right technology platform in place to do that in the first place. This will allow us to maximize the brand opportunity.
PAS: You can also maximize your opportunity by getting your brand in the hand of all your readers – across all 172 countries. How do you see this global opportunity and what are you doing to grasp it?
ME: There is a real opportunity at distributing apps using alternative channels and app stores. And it’s a cost-effective way to reach and interact with consumers and markets where we haven’t necessarily had a strong proposition. We recently did an audit of app stores globally – of which there are over 200 – to better understand their focus and their audience. We have a good relationship with many telco partners around the world that have their own app stores. Various technology companies have also come to and asked us to publish out app in their app stores as well. So, right now, we’re auditing to make sure that we, in a deliberate way, prioritize which of those app stores are right for us.
PAS: I am researching this alternative app store landscape, which is over 350 stores and counting. In China, for example, alternative Android app stores dominate…
ME: I was quite intrigued to see the range of app stores in China. From WeChat to handset maker, there is a wealth of opportunity. We also want to minimize the cost of being in all these different environments, and that’s why I attach so much importance to orchestrating an intelligent platform so that if our teams in Asia, for example, can identify a new app store and a new partner in the region and be able to embark on a relationship without having to build everything from scratch, and without having to do lots of development work.
The number of app stores is quite remarkable, and as you well know from your research, many of them are quite different – with different audiences and different demographics. So, it’s fair to say that in the short term our priority will remain the best known and most established app stores, but we are exploring all of them.
PAS: Of course, being in app stores – even if it’s just Google Play and iTunes – means investing effort to ensure brand integrity. As a global and iconic brand, how do you ensure this?
ME: On the one hand, protecting your brand online and in apps is incredibly important. One of the things I’m responsible for here at National Geographic is information security. However, I believe if you build the best experiences for your consumers, ultimately, that’s the best way to protect your brand. Consumers will come directly to you to get content because they know your website or app is the right destination – and the only way – to get the most up-to-date content and personalized experience. It’s all about creating a compelling content story and a compelling user experience because that will make sure consumers come to us first.
Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. Full disclosure: She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.