National Geographic is an Instagram powerhouse. The publisher has just topped 175 million followers, which makes it the 12th most followed account on the platform and the only media brand to crack the top 50. Their photographs and stories reach tens of millions of people around the world each day.
With such a vast following comes great responsibility. The world as we know it is changing. But explanations about how, why, and what to do can be divisive. National Geographic’s mission is to use science, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. But how is it being translated into its social media strategy?
National Geographic’s Director of Instagram Josh Raab knows that many younger people aren’t subscribers to the publication. For many of them, their primary interaction with the brand will be through social media, rather than longform journalism.
Instagram’s audience skews much younger than many other social platforms, with two-thirds of users aged 34 or under. So ,for a publisher like National Geographic, there is a huge opportunity to reach younger people with key messages about climate, conservation, and our changing world. But it requires tactful handling.
Finding the nuance in conservation conversations
Raab’s aim with NatGeo’s Instagram accounts is to educate, rather than overwhelm followers with problems. “Anything that we do is impact driven,” he emphasised. “We know the change that we want to see is going to have to come from future generations. So our hope is that [Instagram] is the way that we can cover a lot of what we see in the world, and further[people’s] knowledge and understanding of it.
But it’s a delicate balance. As social media grows increasingly divisive, Raab is keen that NatGeo remains a place to go for information, rather than explicit activism.
“What we don’t see enough is the nuance in some of these conversations,” he said. “I think that the biggest way that we can help is to really educate people on the complexities of some of those problems or some of those subject areas that we’re covering, and let them make up their mind for themselves.
“At the end of the day, you won’t see us yelling and screaming in ways you’ll see in other places. Social media for us is more about telling people about the world and highlighting some of the changes that we’re seeing over time.”
He sees Instagram as a way of learning by stealth, even if that means competing for audience’s attention spans. “We try to trick people into learning,” he said. “How do we get people who might be on a platform for instant gratification to walk away with an unexpected understanding of something they didn’t necessarily go looking for?”
A unique curation process
In order to encourage a range of voices and perspectives, NatGeo has come up with a unique model for curating their feed. Posts are actually submitted directly by the photographers themselves. This includes the captions. Although they are reviewed by the publisher, each one is in the photographer’s voice, which avoids the text sounding too corporate.
“It’s a great way to connect the audiences directly with the photographers, who are really the storytellers, the explorers, the people behind the stories,” Raab explained.
This approach also helps NatGeo avoid the trap of posting content just for the sake of high engagement. Raab noted that the team have a good sense of how a post will perform before it’s put live, but that doesn’t influence whether or not it’s posted. “For us, it’s about whether or not the story feels relevant,” he emphasized. “We’re pretty focused on having a broad coverage… rather than only the ones that would perform. If that were the case, you would see a lot of polar bears and cute animal content!”
Raab believes there is a distinct advantage to having an account the size of NatGeos when it comes to posting about issues like climate and conservation. “You can guarantee that you’re reaching people across the globe, of every interest and political standing,” he explained. “So we do the storytelling we think is important, and that the world needs to see.”
“We’re lucky enough – or simultaneously unlucky enough – that regardless of what that is, we will have people who love it and those who like it less!”
Comprehensive storytelling through Stories, Reels, and AR
When it comes to getting the most out of Instagram, Raab has noted that although the algorithm changes, it consistently favors new functionalities like IGTV, Lives, or more recently, Reels. “We try to play into those, because we know that’s where we can reach the most people,” he explained.
This approach led the publisher to be an early experimenter with Instagram’s Spark AR tool. Although producing AR experiences aren’t yet on the regular schedule, the team have released over a dozen filters over the past year. These range from an AR tour of Mars to a Yosemite National Park filter, complete with a bear selfie experience.
“We saw an opportunity to do more comprehensive storytelling within a platform that is intended to be used more for social purposes,” said Raab. “We’ve tried to find a way to integrate both storytelling and social experience into singular creations. And, for the most part, I think we’ve been successful.”
The more informal nature of Stories complements what NatGeo is aiming to do with inspiring the next generation. The off-the-cuff feel, where scientists and photographers are telling their stories from the field, help show NatGeo’s followers that although they are incredibly talented, they are people. “I want them to watch it and think, “That could be me one day,”” said Raab. “That’s just integral to what we do.”
Inspiration through education
Climate change and conservation are polarizing political issues, especially in the social space. But NatGeo’s commitment to bringing in the voices of leading scientists, educators, storytellers, conservationists, and more into its photos, captions and stories makes it a place that people can come to learn, rather than be preached at.
“Getting the message out to younger audiences is important. But we also want to inspire them to do some of what they’re seeing,” Raab emphasized. “We want to educate them about the world, rather than yelling at them about the exact changes they need to make, or making them feel like change is hopeless.”
“Ultimately, it will be up to these younger generations that we’re able to reach there to make the change that the world will need.”
As the most-followed publisher on Instagram by a country mile, NatGeo is doing something right. Education by stealth – and the occasional cute polar bear picture – seems to be a winning formula for inspiring the next generation to care about our world.