What National Geographic Did to Earn 3 Million Snapchat Discover Subscribers in Just 3 Months

A new streamlined design plays up more photos and less text

A 10-person team cranks out daily posts for the app.
National Geographic

National Geographic was among the first crop of publishers to crank out daily content for the app’s Discover section in 2015. In July, the channel had 1.9 million subscribers, but with a new strategy that focuses on images, graphics and a streamlined design, Nat Geo’s subscriber total has since shot up to 5 million.

Earlier this year, Nat Geo hired Jonathan Hunt from Vox Media as svp of audience development and digital strategy, tasked partly with revamping Nat Geo’s Discover channel. After spending a month reorganizing the publisher’s teams across social products and video and audience development, Nat Geo’s Discover channel relaunched on June 9 with a 10-person team—led by Stephanie Atlas—to focus on visuals and graphics.

“A lot of what we changed is in our storytelling approach and also design—we went from a place of fragmented storytelling where we were pulling together a bunch of different content streams across the organization to a more cohesive experience,” Hunt said. “We try to squeeze as much value out of a single item as possible.”

So far, the initial results prove that it’s working. In addition to the growth of subscribers, the reset has doubled to quadrupled the number of daily unique users and completion rates that track how many consumers flip through all of an edition’s content has doubled. All told, the new strategy has increased Nat Geo’s revenue from Snapchat by 58 percent through a revenue-share program that splits ad money between Snapchat and Nat Geo.

The types of stories and angles now focus on science and exploration, wildlife and culture, all of which are areas that “we think we’re uniquely qualified to own that other folks on the platform aren’t doing to our same level,” Hunt explained.

The publisher pushes out an average of 12 pieces of content each day, including three or four features as well as quizzes and polls. Nat Geo preps four different tiles every day with different headlines and visuals that focus on two topics as the cover image for the edition. All four are tested for three hours once an edition goes live and the most-clicked option later becomes that day’s cover image.

“When you’re competing against Cosmo and Kim Kardashian, you really have to think about a way to get people interested in what our value proposition is, which is strong visuals and piquing people’s curiosity,” Atlas said.

Meanwhile, the tone and voice of content is more utilitarian and informative. For example, travel and adventure stories are currently a big priority for Nat Geo, including a special report that ran in Wednesday’s edition about the Amazon jungle with the headline, “The Amazon is the new frontier for deadly wildlife tourism.”

National Geographic's special report from the Amazon

The design of content has also changed a bit to be more consistent. According to Hunt, the previous iteration of Discover “tried to appeal to what I think we thought Snapchat Discover audience were—younger people that maybe didn’t care for high-quality visual storytelling, which wasn’t the case as well,” Hunt said.

In terms of the difference between text and photo content, “there’s light text pieces but text should not be what you’re focusing on,” Hunt said. “It’s that incredible, Holy-shit photo and supplementing that with context through the text or the swipe.”

Atlas added, “We won’t just take something from the TV channel and put it on Snap. We create a new experience that makes sense for our audience.”

That said, some content doubles as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts. For example, a franchise called Through the Lens shows vertical-oriented photos that Nat Geo uses on Instagram Stories.

“Our photographers are going out into the field and taking viewers on this journey with them and they’re able to capture more of a magazine style for Discover but then also add their own personal interpretation for Instagram Stories,” said Atlas.