How new digital platforms opened uncharted partnership frontiers for National Geographic

Tasked with brokering advertising and corporate cross-platform partnerships for all of National Geographic outside the US and Canada, Attenborough’s remit is as vast as the world the National Geographic Society set out to explore 127 years ago. Add to this the confusion caused by the changing media environment and you need a person with deep insight into the advertising environment, trends in ad space and innovation in multi-platform partnerships to fill this role. 

Attenborough, based in London, relishes the challenge. In fact, he says, all of this have made his job ever so more interesting. To be successful, he warns, “the modern media environment has necessitated a much deeper conversation with corporate entities before you can secure successful global partnerships. We are moving far beyond traditional media advertising…”

Custom partnerships

These new frontiers take many forms. One referenced by Attenborough is what he refers to as a ‘custom partnership’. This happens when they create a unique relationship with a client after a consultation process to agree to a multi-platform partnership.

A good example is the three-year project they have initiated with Microsoft to demonstrate the photographic and video capabilities of Microsoft’s latest devices. As part of the agreement National Geographic photojournalist Stephen Alvarez has set off to explore the seven Natural Wonders of the World by exclusively using Microsoft Lumia products. 

“He creates stills and video footage created for a content hub at, as well as social and print assets globally. Each shoot might use Microsoft’s latest generations of technology – be that their next smartphone integrating other products and services. The content created are not only showcased across our media platforms, we also drive online traffic through co-branded media,” says Attenborough. 

The content also features on National Geographic’s highly popular Instagram account, which is curated and managed exclusively by photojournalists like Alvarez. The numbers are staggering. “Stephen will hashtag the Lumia product on the image that he takes…and here we are looking at about 30 million followers, which is huge.” 

At the same time, Microsoft can use the content to launch their devices across various markets around the world. The campaign has been used as a model for multi-platform partnerships in the trade and at a number of conferences. 

Custom partnerships can also be successful to promote specific global regions. Attenborough mentions the recent partnership struck with the Kenyan Ministry of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism. It entails National Geographic’s “rogue travel reporter” Robert Reid spending several weeks in Kenya sharing his experiences across media platforms.  

Although a partnership like this inevitably include various forms of sponsorships in the form of transport, accommodation and other funding, the editorial integrity of National Geographic remains intact because part of the agreement is that there will be no sponsorship control over content. “Robert – as our digital nomad – shares his experiences socially in real time on various platforms and produces a series of blogs for And at the same time we do a co-branded advertising deal with the Kenyan ministry to drive more traffic to the blog area and reach more people.”

Enterprise partnerships

Maybe more conventional, but certainly far removed from traditional advertising is ‘enterprise partnerships’ where corporate partners will join existing National Geographic initiatives. A typical example is Davidoff Cool Water fragrances who has been supporting National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project over the past four years. The initiative aims to help protect the last truly wild places in the ocean. This project has been successful to lead governments to take positive decisions to protect marine areas in the ocean.

Attenborough says clients such as Davidoff like to be associated with successful projects because they become part of the National Geographic story on all its media platforms. “It creates a virtual circle where they help to support an initiative through various forms of advertising or funding, which enables us to fund further research, scientists, explorers, photographers, all of which also becomes part of creating more content.”

Similarly National Geographic has a partnership with Botswana Tourism who supports their annual World Legacy Awards as a destination partner. “This is an awards programme which recognises excellence in sustainable tourism and honours the companies, organisations, and destinations driving positive transformation of the tourism industry.”  

Development and contracts

Attenborough stresses that it is important to draft near perfect custom relationship contracts to prevent possible disputes. They have been lucky with their experiences thus far but one thing they cannot predict is the development of technology, which often necessitates amendments to the original contract. “Technology is changing so fast that on longer term relationships it inevitably becomes necessary to make certain adaptations to existing relationships.”

The obvious questions is: what’s next with regards to platforms and possible revenue streams? Attenborough is excited about new developments in how to present images to audiences. “One of these is virtual reality and we already have clients interested in working with National Geographic to produce virtual reality content,” he says.

Innovation seen with Google Cardboard, Twitter Periscope or Youtube 360 means that this kind of content has become more accessible in terms of cost of view. “National Geographic has always been synonymous with great content and imaginary so naturally it makes sense for us to start developing relationships in the virtual reality space working with corporate clients to create content in those areas.”

As a potential revenue stream the National Geographic studio teams responsible for producing long and short form video content are already experimenting in this area. 

Value of video

The value of video itself has been undervalued, says Attenborough. “We have phenomenal video content coming up in the travel space where we can really bring on partners and integrate them into the video production cycle. What makes video special is that you can show it on traditional channels but it also links well with our social following. We can showcase video on Snapchat, native video on Facebook or cutdowns on Instagram.”

Building more platforms for video content creates areas for commercial partners to join in “for the ride”, especially good video content produced for small screens (read ‘mobile’), he says.

Ultimately National Geographic content needs to be tailor-made for every available platform. “This will not only showcase our content in the the right way on each platform but also build our brand and help our content to become available to all audiences on any platform they see fit… When you build such a great social media following it opens more and more revenue doors in a multitude of areas.”

This means it becomes easier for him to forge more partnerships because potential clients “realise the power of National Geographic’s social standing and want to amplify their relationships with us”.

More about Charlie Attenborough

Charlie Attenborough joined National Geographic in Singapore as asian director in 2007 before he was promoted in 2010 to international managing director, global partnerships, based in London. His responsibilities include managing all commercial partnerships outside of North America. Previous to National Geographic, he spent seven years with TimeWarner in Hong Kong and London, and further back worked for other regional publications based in the UK at The Economist Group and The European Newspaper. He has degrees in European Studies from Nottingham University in the UK, and Business French from L’Institut Britannique in Paris.

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