Magazine Hot List 2010: Web Site of the Year

Growing up in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s in a small Oregon town, Chris Johns was transported to amazing places through the plethora of books and magazines he devoured when visiting his grandparents home. His favorite publication was National Geographic, with its distinctive yellow spine and trademark yellow portrait-frame cover, that inside teemed with brilliant color photography, foldout maps and fascinating tales from around the globe. “That magazine captured my imagination and took me to places, connected me to cultures, landscapes and environments that I never dreamed I would ever visit,” says Johns.

Dare to dream. The images of Johns’ youth became the daily subjects of his life as he became a renowned photographer and ultimately, the editor in chief of the magazine he always adored. Since assuming the throne in 2005, Johns has lived by the mantra that content is king. He has tirelessly worked to deliver exciting and appealing content to the magazine’s millions of readers in new and relevant ways.

Johns and his trusted lieutenants have been on a journey to expand beyond the printed page and deliver content through other venues, including TV, books and museums. Most impressive is Nat Geo’s all-encompassing Web site, which serves as the umbrella for all the brand’s assets. For harnessing the brand’s value through top-notch photography intertwined with robust reader interactivity, NationalGeographic.com is AdweekMedia’s Magazine Web Site of the Year.

The site opens with a rotating series of stunning photographs, which were made more prominent by a January relaunch. Recently, it highlighted shots from the Chile and Turkey earthquakes; a church in drought-stricken Venezuela re-emerging from underwater in an area that had been inundated for a dam; and the blood-red waters of the Japanese dolphin fishing village portrayed in the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove.

Along with the amped-up photo presentation, the redesign introduced flyouts along the site’s navigation bar that show the breadth of content, including news photos, videos and stories.
Readers are artfully directed to a “weird” section, blogs and links to popular places like the highly successful My Shot and Your Shot amateur photographer sections and features on animals, the environment, travel and kids. The portal also guides users to NatGeoTV and a retail store.

“It’s a beautiful site that stands out for both its design and content,” says Dave Martin, svp of media at Los Angeles-based agency Ignited, who has used NationalGeographic.com for client Princess Cruises. “I love the updates and the links to blogs. And it’s very easy to navigate.”

National Geographic—an outgrowth of the not-for-profit National Geographic Society founded in 1888 to promote “the conservation of the world’s cultural, historical and natural resources”—spawned its site in 1996, making it a pioneer of sorts among print properties exploring the possibilities of the Web. Even though it’s one of the oldest magazine-based brands, it has blazed trails in approaching new ways of expanding its raison d’être. The magazine was one of the first publications to run black-and-white photos, followed by its leadership role in using color, underwater, high-speed and digital photography.

The relaunch is the achievement of Rob Covey, svp of content development and design for National Geographic Digital Media. A longtime print and television artistic designer, he was brought on board in 2007 by Johns to tap the portal’s potential.

“The clear purpose of the redesign was to build a site that placed photography out front because that’s one of the strongest representations of the brand,” Covey explains. “We wanted to let the photography be the centerpiece around which we designed a branded house of all the component parts of National Geographic. And we wanted it to be representative of the magazine: clarity of design, direct and unadorned imagery, ease of navigation and based on the philosophy of the society—not to mention a ton of content.”

Yet Covey knew that the brand’s best-of-class photography wasn’t enough to drive visitors to the site.

“People are inherently interested in sharing, whether it’s our brand or another brand,” he says. “They want to see their thoughts and images, and so once you accept that fact, it’s the way to attract traffic and distribute our content.”

The strategy has paid off handsomely. In the past year, the site has more than doubled its audience to 7.3 million unique monthly visitors, per comScore. (National Geographic’s in-house estimate puts the monthly traffic much higher, at 14.5 million uniques.)

Sharing, it turns out, is one of the site’s main draws. The Your Shot section receives some 5,000 monthly submissions from amateur photographers vying to have their photo picked by editors to be published online and, ultimately, in the magazine. Some 90,000 users belong to its offshoot My Shot, a feature that lets photographers build a Web page portfolio and submit shots to online contests. In the two years since it launched, My Shot has grown to more than 675,000 photos.

Social media networks have also contributed to the site’s popularity.

NationalGeographic.com has more than 840,000 friends on Facebook, while its Twitter fan base is 109,000-plus. Its videos and photos have gone viral; there was a heartwarming short about an orangutan-hound dog friendship that found its way to YouTube, while a reader’s photo of a Banff squirrel garnered more than 180 million impressions worldwide.

As the site’s popularity has grown, so has the industry recognition. The site has collected numerous nominations for digital media awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors in recent years. Earlier this month, NationalGeographic.com was nominated for five ASME digital awards (more than any other online publication) and won two, for photography and community.

Advertisers also are attracted to the site’s interactivity. For Energizer, National Geographic put together the Energizer Ultimate Photography Contest for amateur photographers (and tapped a huge potential market for its digital camera batteries).

The top prize included a meet and greet with one of the society’s top photographers, an invite to a brand-sponsored expedition and the publication of the winning photos in an advertorial section in the magazine. The contest attracted thousands of entries, thanks to the Web’s drawing power.

“They know we have lots of enthusiast photographers,” explains Claudia Malley, svp and publisher of National Geographic Global Media. “Energizer wants to be in our pages and on our site because it wants to be the battery in those digital cameras. We were able to do this so well because the Web site is so robust.”

Energizer was so pleased with the results that it’s renewed the contest twice. “It’s got a new selling point now because it’s an annual program,” says Matthew Carrow, communications manager for Mediaedge:cia, which planned the Energizer campaign.

Such cross-platform deals have been on the rise since last year when National Geographic adopted a platform-neutral ad sales model. Today, nearly half the site’s revenue involves at least one other medium.

“It’s really powerful to go out to talk about the brand first,” Malley says. “Nobody wants to sit down with five different people—one person to talk about a banner on a Web site and then with another to discuss a page in the magazine. Since we all lived within the yellow border, we didn’t need different silos.”

Nat Geo’s integrated sales approach factored into winning the Energizer business. “They have so many different assets and the ability to pull them all into the campaign,” Carrow says. “You can make a good sales pitch, but if everyone’s operating in their own silos, the lack of cohesion will be problematic.”

As the overseer of domestic sales and marketing for all of the society’s digital properties and print publications (including National Geographic Traveler, National Geographic Kids and National Geographic Little Kids), Malley says that the Web site is a natural extension of the flagship magazine. That, she notes, is unlike many other magazines that have been compelled to think through how to use their online presence most effectively. “It’s been a natural transition,” she says. “Our people were already out in the field, sometimes for as long as six to nine months, and a lot of content comes back in. What do you do with that? We use it on the Web site, which is much more organically developed than forced thought.”

Malley says the National Geographic brand is more relevant now than it’s ever been.

“People care about the larger world and how they are connected to it,” she explains. The demographics are diverse, from soccer dads and moms to the boardrooms of major corporations and even to Capitol Hill. “Companies realize that we can be very powerful in reaching their constituency base. And the Web has been key to this,” she says.

Covey and his staff are working on the prospects of new platforms that will be emerging, including tablets like the Apple iPad, and thinking about new ways of presenting video, audio and interactive graphics. “Technology can further our mission,” says Johns. “It goes back to that deep-seated desire to tell stories that no one else has heard or seen. That’s part of the National Geographic DNA.”

The more robust the platform, the more it interests National Geographic. The opportunities, says Johns, “are staggering and we’re excited.”


True Believers

Thirty years ago, a photographer named Chris Johns joined The Seattle Times, where he immediately found a kindred spirit in Rob Covey, the paper’s design director. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that Rob was a soul mate who loved great content and great journalism,” Johns recalls. “He was a no-nonsense guy with a great sense of design.”

“It was great to be in print journalism in those days,” says Covey, who was a co-founder of the Society for News Design. “Chris was a member of a constellation of photographers who shined at the paper. I did layouts of Chris’ photos that ended up getting us nominated for awards—even a Pulitzer.”

The two collaborated together on some memorable projects, including a dramatic shoot of a volcano erupting in Oaxaca, Mexico (“Literally, the hot rocks were raining on my head,” remembers Johns) and exclusive photographic coverage of a man who was still searching for his missing son and daughter-in-law a year after the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption in Washington state.

Johns and Covey eventually went off in different directions, although they both found themselves in the Washington, D.C., area. Covey wound up at Discovery Communications, where he developed the company’s Web properties. Johns struck out on his own as a freelance photographer, eventually landing at National Geographic. “I loved the newspaper business, but my love for magazines won out,” Johns says. “With my background and my passions, there was only one place for me to work, and that was, of course, National Geographic.”

Johns and Covey eventually reconnected in 2005, more than two decades after they had first found each other. Over lunch, they reminisced about their Seattle newspaper days and mused about collaborating again. Johns, by then as editor in chief of National Geographic, needed someone to whip the magazine’s Web site into shape.

“To be blunt, I wasn’t very happy with the site,” explains Johns. “It needed a lot of energy, and I didn’t have the time. I felt it was at a dead end. Then I thought of Rob, who I knew had the talent, skill, background and passion to do it.”

Covey came on board in 2007 as managing editor and creative director for
NationalGeographic.com, which has won numerous awards under his watch. While the medium had changed, the collaborative spirit he and Johns enjoyed in Seattle hadn’t. “Rob and I were on the same page on everything,” Johns says. “I was an advocate for a photographic community. I wanted people to share in the joy of photography. We started there and Rob kept going. He’s taken the Web site into places I could never have imagined.”

—D.O.

Photo credits: small: Bill Cramer/Wonderful Machine
(for two large group photos: Chris Johns [in red tie], Claudia Malley and Rob Covey)