Amy Maniatis & the new world of NGS “membership”

In the weeks to come, we’ll have some thoughts & analysis about this video and National Geographic’s new definition of “membership.”

But for now: Hats off to NGS & to Chief Marketing Officer Amy Maniatis for making this video publicly available — and enabling the world to see what’s happening inside our Society.

UPDATE @ 10:30pm: Actually, the video does exist, but soon after I posted the clip, which was available at noon today on Vimeo, National Geographic took it down. Here’s what the splash screen looked like on my phone:


Another part of the video (full screen):


It’s worth noting that nothing in the video is a company secret. For instance, look at the frame above: Is this something we need to hide from the public?

During this 60-minute all-hands staff meeting, one presenter (whose name I didn’t catch) talked about recent brand research which revealed that National Geographic is a highly respected brand around the world. Robert Michael Murray, NG’s VP for Social Media, shared data that reflects how deeply engaged people are with the Society’s online content, with millions of fans, likes, shares, and comments. Kara Marston, Social Media Manager, said the new member platform was generating all sorts of great data about who visitors are, where they’re from, what they like, and so on.

The only real surprise came from Norman Gorcys, Vice President of Product Management, who said:

Membership is a product and we’re treating it like one. … The message we’re trying to give is that membership doesn’t exist without the other content that the Society provides.” 

In the eyes of National Geographic managers, membership is a product, not a relationship. Which sort of drains away the warm & fuzzy feeling most people get when they join a mission-driven organization.

Maybe that’s why the video was taken down.

As for the membership strategy as a whole, the focus is on harvesting data about site visitors, and then serving them customized content — and advertisements. Ads are how this platform will be monetized because “membership” is now free. You can now “join” the National Geographic Society for nothing. Zero. Zip. Just hand over your name and email address, and you’re part of the club.

This approach reminds us (yet again) that if you’re not paying for the product, you’re not the customer; you are the product being sold.

Taking down this video may hide the way NGS managers talk about us “members,” but there’s no hiding how we’ll be treated online. It’s now in full view here, and it serves as a perfect reflection of what Norm Gorcys said in the video: “Membership is a product and we’re treating it like one.”

Dear Norm: Thank you for the warm welcome.

Dear Robert: We tried.


{ You can’t make this stuff up. }

Poof! You’re a “brand ambassador”!

Our preference would be that National Geographic’s “social fans” would become members of the Society — especially since “Society” is supposedly one of the linchpins of NGS Mission 2015.

Then again, maybe we don’t fully grasp “social media best practices.”


See the full announcement here.

“People are more magical than the iPad”

Scott Heiferman

Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup

Watch Us! See Us!
Download us! Join us!
Friend us! Contact us! 
 Follow us!

Enough about “us”!
It’s a false sense of membership.
It’s an illusion of engagement.

What about connecting them
to each other?
You’ve got followers. Now what?

I just discovered this presentation (below) by Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup, which he delivered at the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum. Scott makes some great points about the dynamics of groups, and about why people belong to them. His general argument (listen for his “Erins are everywhere” riff) is a wonderful refutation of what John Fahey, CEO of NGS, told me back in 2006: Nobody wants to belong to anything.

Evidently they do:

cc: Robert Michael Murray, National Geographic’s VP for Social Media

If you were the VP for Social Media at a company that isn’t very social, would you hang around? Stay tuned….

Robert Michael Murray, NG VP for Social Media

Our Man in Austin

SXSW (South By Southwest) — the 10-day music, film, and interactive conference and festival — is underway in Austin, Texas.

It’s one of the biggest annual events for digital media professionals, and National Geographic is there. Or at least Robert Michael Murray is. He’s our Vice President for Social Media, and, as befits a guy with that title, he’s on Twitter.

His Twitter stream (below) will give you one window on what’s happening this year at SXSW — and provide perhaps the only public summary of Robert’s SXSW adventure.

Questions or comments? Contact Robert directly via email at

(Robert doesn’t post his NGS email address anywhere online, so we dug up that alternate address (above) at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, where he is a consultant. Oddly enough, National Geographic’s website provides no information about how to reach our VP for Social Media or any other individual member of our Society’s staff — unless you’re an advertiser. Which strikes us as rather anti-social. … Robert, if you’re reading this — and we’ll tweet you a link so we’re sure you’ll see it — is there any chance you could add a few email links to, oh, the Magazine’s online masthead? We count more than 170 names, and there’s not an email address in sight. Thanks in advance for considering this idea.)

Using social tools for (mostly) solitary ends

We don’t hear much from Robert Michael Murray, the Society’s VP for Social Media. But here’s a little sound bite from the MPA’s inaugural Social Media Conference, where Robert was a panelist:

Robert Michael Murray

“We get caught thinking social media is this bright new shiny bullet,” Robert Michael Murray, vice president of social media for National Geographic, said. “Magazines have been doing these things for 100 years.”

But Murray seemed to be against the idea of selling advertising across Nat Geo’s social products. “I walled that off [from advertising],” he said, adding that he spars with the marketing team over his hard church-state stance. “It’s content driven.”

We wish Robert well in that church-state struggle, especially since it often seems like a losing battle.

We’re puzzled, though, what Robert means by “doing these things for 100 years.” What “things”? The things that social media can do? If so, he’s omitting an obvious point. (Or the reporter did.)

If you go back 100 years… or 50 years… or even 5 years, it was virtually impossible for members of National Geographic to communicate directly with each other. In fact, there was no way for a Society member to identify other people who belonged — unless you paid top dollar for the NGS mailing list. Communication was top down, Editor to readers (one to many); not lateral, member to member (many to many). Which meant that membership was a rather solitary experience: You, in your armchair, with your Magazine, gazing at pictures of cheetahs and bare-breasted women.

Today, all sorts of eye-popping technology exists that could enable Society members around the world to connect with each other online. We have the potential to communicate laterally. We could make the experience much more social. We could be a networked Society, which would open up all sorts of new opportunities. But NGS has kept that door shut. Instead, Society managers prefer to keep our eyes focused on their stage, and to drive us to their content.

Why is that, Robert?

Beyond [American] Idol Worship

Robert Michael Murray,
National Geographic’s VP for Social Media,
is hungry for more NGS fans on Facebook:

But here’s a very different approach
courtesy of….

Even Advertising Age, a publication that’s long helped businesses attract eyeballs, can see the writing on the wall.

Which makes us wonder what Robert & Co. plan to do with us 3.9 million (and counting) Facebook fans, none of whom are “paying for the product.”

{ Say it ain’t so, Robert. }

Where do good ideas come from? (part 2)

Yesterday we asked Where do good ideas come from? … and this morning at Barnes & Noble, on the New Releases table, we discovered this book:

Perfect timing! Thank you, Steven Johnson.

Thanks too for eloquently describing an idea and social dynamic that has informed Society Matters since our launch last year: National Geographic can pull out of its nosedive if it taps the energy, creativity, ideas, and passion of its existing network of members — more than 4 million strong.

Or, in Mr. Johnson’s words: “Chance favors the connected mind.”

After watching the book’s video trailer (below), we wondered: Which innovation incubator has a better shot at generating some worthwhile ideas? The National Geographic “brainstorm” we described yesterday — or the NPR/PBS un-conference?

  • The NGS sessions will take place behind closed doors; the NPR event unfolds in public at a university.
  • The NGS sessions are restricted to staff; the NPR event welcomes “public media staff and enthusiasts.”
  • The NGS sessions require potential participants to dream up a new idea before they’re invited to attend; the NPR event doesn’t.
  • The NGS sessions will no doubt be confidential; the NPR event will be “on the record; blogging, podcasting, and tweeting are strongly encouraged.”

“The great driver of innovation,” Johnson says, “has been the historic increase in connectivity, in our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people.”

If so, then why are the conversations about our Society’s future happening behind closed doors?


Any thoughts, John Fahey? Tim Kelly? Robert Michael Murray? If so, please feel free to share them in the comments, below.

“Shoppers want to belong”

Robert Michael Murray

What’s Robert Michael Murray, our Society’s VP for Social Media, up to these days? What’s he planning? What’s the future of our National Geographic “community”? We’ve tried to arrange an interview to ask him, but without any success.

As a result, we rely mostly on Robert’s Twitter feed, since that appears to be his only public channel. (Sadly, Robert stopped blogging soon after he became social media VP. Which, we guess, is a message all its own.)

One of Robert’s most recent tweets caught our eye because it gives us some idea of what’s on his radar:

And what exactly is this “rise of social commerce”? And what does it say about the future of “social” @ NGS?

Shoppers want to belong.” We shudder when we read that. Not because there’s anything wrong with shopping per se. We shudder because it suggests that our Society’s social media strategy — best we can suss it out — is ultimately about buying stuff. Retail verticals. Advertising “partnerships.” Shopping.

Is this a good idea? A sustainable business model? We seriously doubt it, although we’re willing to be convinced otherwise.

So please keep us posted, Robert. Via Twitter. On a blog. With a video. At a community meeting (like those PubCamps that NPR hosts). Something, anything that might give us NGS members out here some hint of what you’re doing to help make our Society more of a community.

P.S. We’d still love to sit down with you for an interview. If you’re willing, please let us know in the comments, below.


UPDATE, 22 September 2010

We give Robert major credit for stepping up to the mic on Twitter last night. We only wish he’d answer our questions.

  1. Alan Mairson
    AlanMairson “Shoppers want to belong” … OR: The Not-So-Slow Erosion of a Great American Magazine Brand:
  2. RobertMichaelMurray
    rmmdc @AlanMairson glad to see that you’re still making things up, wouldn’t want to let facts get in your way. #FactcheckingWouldKillHisשטיק
  3. Alan Mairson
    AlanMairson Please, @rmmdc, fact check away! Jump on the post & tell me where I got it wrong. Cuz fact checking is tough when you refuse to talk.
  4. Alan Mairson
    AlanMairson @rmmdc And there’s an easy way to kill what you call my שטיק : Give us some clue, any clue what the social media plan is for Nat Geo.
  5. RobertMichaelMurray
    rmmdc @AlanMairson it’s sad that I can’t share a friend’s event with others without you trying to make a name for yourself.
  6. Alan Mairson
    AlanMairson Please don’t be sad, @rmmdc. Instead, tell us if “social commerce” is part of NG’s social strategy. Do “shoppers want to belong”?
  7. RobertMichaelMurray
    rmmdc @AlanMairson pretty sure there are still spaces, feel free to register. I know Charlene and Jeremiah have put together a great program.
  8. Alan Mairson
    AlanMairson I just read the tea leaves… & your tweets, @rmmdc. Why don’t you ask Betty Hudson if you & I can sit down for video Q&A?
  9. Alan Mairson
    AlanMairson Thanks for the suggestion, @rmmdc. But I don’t want to hear about “social shopping” from Charlene & Jeremiah. But I’d love to hear from you.
  10. RobertMichaelMurray
    rmmdc @AlanMairson guess you missed my tweets about the Jay-Z and Eminem concert at Yankee Stadium. Too bad, it was a great concert.
  11. RobertMichaelMurray
    rmmdc @AlanMairson don’t dismiss the suggestion too fast, you might learn something about social. Btw, do 2 accounts make it twice as important?
  12. Alan Mairson
    AlanMairson I did see those tweets, @rmmdc. & almost scooped up your xtra tix! 🙂 But you’re making my point for me: You say virtually zero about NGS.
  13. Alan Mairson
    AlanMairson Love learning about social, @rmmdc. Just wish *you* would teach us — with more focus on NGS, and less about Jay-Z & geeks on a plane.
  14. Alan Mairson
    AlanMairson @rmmdc FYI: Two accounts make it twice as important; four accounts make it 16 times as important. 🙂
  15. RobertMichaelMurray
    rmmdc @AlanMairson okay gotta run, but be careful next time you’re making things up … don’t want you to get hurt jumping to conclusions.

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