Burning up our (brand) equity

Does a documentary called “Ultimate Factories: Porsche” — which looks like a one-hour advertisement for a high-end automaker — suck the credibility out of Our Brand? Does it sacrifice the long-term health of NGS for a quick infusion of cash? Are programs like this a strategic error for our Society?

Evidently not. Here’s Tim Kelly, President of National Geographic Global Media:

“Our organization must evolve
to take advantage of myriad new opportunities.”

The National Geographic Channel's web site, along with a promotion from Porsche via Twitter (inset).

“There appears to be an epidemic of brand erosion going on, with some of the best and brightest companies with years of doing things right stumbling and hurting themselves in eyes of their consumers. I think part of the reason is that companies forget their core competencies in the drive for growth…

What are the lessons here? You can grow too fast. You can get disconnected from your consumer base. You can forget your roots and DNA….”

— from “Toyota, Home Depot, Motorola, BP, Wal-Mart — Brand Erosion Hits The Biggest And Best Brands. What’s Going On?” by Bruce Nussbaum in Bloomberg Business Week


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.

“Enable community”

In a recent post at Buzz Machine, Jeff Jarvis offers eight ideas on what magazines must do to survive — and this one tops the list:

Jeff Jarvis

1. Ignore print. Enable community. Yes, print is where the revenue is today. But it’s only going to shrink. Preserving print — and the past — is no strategy for the future. The physical costs of production and distribution are killing. The marketing cost of subscriber acquisition and churn is hellish. The editorial costs of maintaining gloss are wasteful if not sinful. So concentrate instead on your relationships with your like-minded souls among the people formerly known as your audience. In a social (post-brand, post-search) market, these magazines still have tremendous if very perishable value if you know how to unlock it because their people care about the same stuff. Enable communities to build and meet and create value around their interests….  Enable them to do what they want to do and follow along. Before you follow the money, follow the passion.

Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

But here’s the question for NGS: What community has the National Geographic Society enabled that allows members to look not at the stage (where the ads are displayed), but sideways to other members? How can we find out who else is part of this (nominal) community?

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

Panic Attack, Indeed

Fede Alvarez of Uruguay made this video short for $500. Since it was posted on YouTube just 33 days ago, it’s been viewed more than 1.1 million times.

Which begs a question for Tim Kelly, President of Global Media for our Society (and NGS CEO in waiting):

What’s your global strategy to confront
this growing media insurgency?

More Than a “Blip” (or: The TiVo Tipping Point)

xxx, co-founder of Blip.tv

Dina Kaplan, co-founder of Blip.tv

As web and TV continue to converge, new media start-ups like Blip.tv (“the next generation television network”) are driving traditional broadcast and cable executives nuts. Why? Partly because new distribution channels are now available for free to anyone with a video camera and a computer. But largely because the power that once was centralized is now in the hands of “viewers.”

Consider what this means for television channels supported (for now) by advertising:

According to TNS Media Intelligence, television advertising totaled $64 billion in 2007, or 32 percent of the total spent by U.S. advertisers. Internet advertising, while the fastest growing, still accounted for only 8 percent or $11 billion. Tom Rogers ’76, CEO of TiVo, believes that the $64 billion of advertising on traditional television is about to hit a brick wall, thanks to the digital video recorder technology (DVR) marketed by his company and others. Today, the 25 million households in America with a DVR can skip ads. While the majority of homes still do not have a DVR, the market is approaching a tipping point. “Most analysts expect that number to go to 50 million within the next two to three years,” Rogers says. “At that point two–thirds, or more, of the American homes that advertisers care most about will be avoiding their commercials.”

The National Geographic Channel (U.S.), which launched in 2001, has become a valuable part of the Society’s media portfolio, even though NGS holds a minority stake. (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is the Channel’s majority owner.) But if Tom Rogers is right, then what happens to our Society when that tipping point is reached, and the Channel’s business model — cash for eyeballs — “hit[s] a brick wall”?

Tim Kelly? Are you out there? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, below.

A Brief Moment of Great Clarity

“I can’t remember the point in doing this.”
— Ed Wardle

To: Tim Kelly, President, National Geographic Global Media
Re: Alone In The Wild

Any chance you remember the point of enabling what Ed calls a “soul destroying” experience? If so, please share it in the comments, below.

This “adventure” enabled & supported by your Society.

Social Media @ NGS: How High a Priority? (cont’d)

In National Geographic’s organizational chart, here’s where our Society’s new—and first-ever—Vice President for Social Media sits:

Org_chart_social_mediaDoes this accurately reflect the importance of social media to the future of our Society? We don’t think so. Do you? Here’s some food for thought:


Social Media @ NGS: How High a Priority?

Robert Michael Murray

Robert Michael Murray

As we reported two weeks ago, National Geographic has appointed Robert Michael Murray to be our Society’s first-ever Vice President for Social Media. We’re delighted that NGS has finally seen the value in focusing on social media, but when we read Monday’s official press release about Robert’s appointment, we started to worry.

Here are three concerns:

1. The chain of command: According to the press release, Robert will report to the President of National Geographic Digital Media (John Caldwell) who reports to the COO of National Geographic Ventures (Ted Prince). And best we know, Ted Prince reports to the President of National Geographic Global Media (Tim Kelly) who reports to the President and CEO of the National Geographic Society (John Fahey).

Is social media a high priority for our Society? Doesn’t look like it.

Solution: Raise the institutional standing of the Society’s new social media evangelist by making him a top executive with direct access to CEO John Fahey. (Yes, it’s that important.)

2. Defining “social media”: In the press release, John Caldwell, President of National Geographic Digital Media, says:

“National Geographic is an inherently social company with an ongoing goal to connect people with stories and visuals. Robert will bring clarity to that effort and amplify the Society’s voice when it comes to creating a cohesive and engaging user experience across myriad platforms and international audiences.”

With all due respect, Mr. Caldwell is using all the wrong language—especially for a digital media executive who is supervising the supervisor of this new initiative.

If National Geographic is seriously committed to social media, Society executives need to stop talking about “users” and “audiences” and ways to “amplify the Society’s voice.” Why? Because social media is not about pumping more cheetah pictures to “users”; it’s about helping amplify the voices of the people formerly known as the audience. Social media isn’t about connecting “people with stories and visuals”; it’s about connecting people with other people. Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed, and other tools are not just new platforms “to transmit National Geographic-curated stories and the mission of the society….” They are amazing new mechanisms that could help members create and curate their own content—and connect with each other.

Put another way: Social media has the potential to put the word “Society” back into the National Geographic Society.

Solution: Let a social media professional like Robert make announcements about social media. Or at least let him edit these statements before they go public. (If you want to be social, you need to sound social.)

3. The Press Release itself: Why announce the appointment of a new VP for Social Media by using perhaps the most anti-social of all media tools—a press release? The company strides on stage to make a big announcement… and we sit back and listen. There’s no byline on the statement, no room for comments or questions, no conversation at all. There’s also no contact information provided for Robert—or for John Caldwell or Ted Prince.

Mr. Caldwell claims that “National Geographic is an inherently social company,” but this press release suggests otherwise.

Solution: Set up blogs and Twitter accounts for John Caldwell and anyone else at NGS who is responsible for our Society’s social media efforts. Actually using these tools—and exploring what social means online—can only help executives help make this new initiative more of a success.


FYI: Here’s the job description that National Geographic posted many months ago for the position of Vice President, Social Media. It provides an even more detailed picture of exactly what John Caldwell thinks social media really means. It also outlines what Mr. Caldwell expects Robert Michael Murray to do.


Adventures In Global Media

To: Tim Kelly, President, National Geographic Global Media Group
Fr: Your friends @ Society Matters
Re: Remembering Who We Are

Ni hao, Tim!

Something odd has happened to our favorite morning show, Today Now:


You gotta admit that’s funny. Of course, it’s not entirely a laughing matter—especially as the National Geographic Society continues its transformation into a global media business. For instance, consider this story….

In late 2006, National Geographic‘s senior editors began planning a special issue on China, scheduled for publication in May 2008, just weeks before the Beijing Olympic games. Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns decided he wanted to include a feature story about censorship in China, and wisely gave the assignment to a world-class writer—Ha Jin, a Chinese expatriate who has won a National Book Award and two PEN/Faulkner Awards, and who now teaches creative writing at Boston University.

Ha Jin

Ha Jin

In May 2007, Ha Jin turned in his 4,000-word manuscript on Censorship in China.

In July 2007, National Geographic magazine announced its new publishing partnership—after many years of negotiations—with the People’s Republic of China.

In the fall of 2007, a senior team from NGS headed for the PRC to celebrate this new business partnership. But a few weeks before the trip, Chris Johns killed Ha Jin’s Censorship in China story.


Tank Man

Tank Man

What was the problem with Ha Jin’s story? It couldn’t have been the quality of his reporting or writing; in the months the manuscript sat on the Editor’s desk, no one ever called Ha Jin to suggest any rewrites. Nor could the problem have been lack of compelling photographs: You start with Tank Man, and go from there.

Here’s our informed guess what happened: Our new Chinese partners don’t want to publish stories about the lack of free speech in their country. So the Editor reassembled our special issue to avoid any tension. As a result, the May 2008 issue features stories on subjects such as architecture in Beijing, water quality, the middle class, and a “village on the edge of time.” Ha Jin’s 4,000-word story became a 250-word sidebar called “Cutting Off Dissent” (which I wrote)—a two-pager short enough to be easily removed, if any one of the Society’s 30 international publishing partners so desired.


from NGM's special issue on China (May 2008)

We think this arrangement is unhealthy for our Society—and our society—for a very simple reason: While people in Beijing will obviously never see Ha Jin’s story, neither will people in Boston, Bloomington, Boise, Baton Rouge. What National Geographic readers in Iowa learn about China is being driven by the Editor’s desire to cater to the needs of our international partners, instead of by the interests of people here at home. (This shift in editorial emphasis has been noticed by long-time Society members. Details upon request.)

Timwe have ideas that we’d love to share with you about how National Geographic magazine can grow in a healthy, sustainable way while still remaining true to the values and vision that made the Society great.

But we’d also love to hear from you. As President of our Society’s Global Media Group, is there anything you can say to reassure folks who worry that National Geographic is becoming International Geographic? Any suggestions about how to convince members—75 percent of whom still read NGM in English—to stop heading for the exits? Any ideas about how we can stop censoring ourselves, even when we talk amongst ourselves?

We’d welcome your thoughts in the comments, below.


Photo credits:
≡  Ha Jin, via Boston University’s Creative Writing Program
≡  Tank Man, by Jeff Widener (Associated Press) viaWikipedia
≡  Minnie & friends, by Fritz Hoffmann via National Geographic

The Arc of History


Editors-in-Chief of NGM (follow the arrows): Gil Grosvenor (1970-80); Bill Garrett (1980-1990); Bill Graves (1990-1994); Bill Allen (1995-2004); Chris Johns (2005-present)... who is now underneath (top down) John Fahey (CEO), Tim Kelly (President, Global Media), and John Griffin (President of Publishing)

The Vision Thing
(first in a series of blog posts about the future)
begins next week.

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.