winter / 2015

The magazine of branded content
Future Storyteller
How Robert Michael Murray helped National Geographic become relevant on social media—and avert disaster
Dec 23, 2015

In a five-year stint as VP of social media for National Geographic Society, Robert Michael Murray’s initials might as well have been “ROI.”

When he started, National Geographic had a handful of Facebook and Twitter accounts that totaled about 500,000 followers. By the time he left in June 2014, the iconic brand’s social footprint numbered 90 million, generating as many as 46 million engagements per month. For the first time in a generation, the iconic brand seems relevant.

Today, Murray is the chief innovation officer at Matchfire, which helps startups with their digital footprint, design and storytelling. We caught up with Murray after he presented “The Power of Data, the Importance of Moments and the Future of Storytelling” at Inbound15.

As VP of social media for National Geographic Society, you grew their presence considerably. What were the institutional factors that made it possible?
We were able to show to the executives that National Geographic, as a brand, connected with a younger audience, with millennials. And the reason that it connected with millennials is that it was international, it was global in perspective. It was cause-oriented. It helped to tell stories in order to help people change the world and those were very much the traits that you see in millennials.

Once you identified that audience, what did you do to engage them?
We looked at social in a more holistic approach, and understood that social plays itself out across an organization in various different ways. What it does in PR is not the same function that it's going to have in sales, nor is it the same function that it's going to have in customer service. For us, we knew if we could get into the millennials’ newsfeed that they would consume our content and they would realize their affinity for our brand. But the first thing was to understand that social media is a little bit more complex than simply posting to the platforms. So, one of the first things that we did was constant social listening. We were able to get very adept at finding out where people were talking about us.

There was a negative incident surrounding the brand that played out on social media.
There was an instance in which there was something reported incorrectly, that the National Geographic Society was getting into a relationship with an organization in Abu Dhabi around sponsoring dolphin shows. And so as you can imagine, with the uproar against SeaWorld, and this idea of containing these beautiful animals, to have National Geographic associated with that was horrific. There was no truth to it whatsoever, but because you can say anything on social…

What steps did you take to control the negativity?
We were able to see the spread and see how it was sharing on social. And because we routinely track these things, we could tell what the velocity was. We saw that someone created a petition [against us]. We reached out to individuals, the people who we were able to determine as influencers, and asked them to, basically, correct the record. I reached out to a large number of individuals and personally wrote to them.

You wouldn't believe how many people immediately were like, "Wow. This brand reached out to me and I now know more. And I'm going to go out and make sure that message gets out to others so it doesn't spread further." It was controlled by simply listening, and understanding the various social platforms that are out there.

You’ve said that storytellers can often get trapped in the medium that they're most comfortable with…
Because I think storytelling is a fundamental piece of what social media is all about, storytellers should ask themselves, "What is the way that the story can be received by as large of an audience as possible?"

As a magazine writer, or even as a television producer, you don't get as many signals. And now in digital, I know how far someone scrolls. I know how long someone's stayed on the page. I know if they've commented. I know if they've shared. We can put snippets of code on the websites to know what people are cutting and pasting, so we can actually know what parts of a piece that readers found interesting. To me that's data, that as a storyteller, allows me to figure out what's working and what's not. It’s super exciting.

And we know the devices they’re consuming it on.
Yes. If you know that you have an audience that consumes your content in a mobile way, maybe delivering them a four-minute audio file of the story might be beneficial. And if you’re publishing a magazine, you do the 8-page spread. But each piece of the story builds on the other.

To me, I think storytellers and content creators, if they can create an ecosystem in which you now are encouraging people to get every aspect of the story in a different media, that by putting it all together—the video, the print piece, the audio file, the social media snippet—you start to get a much more rich story.

And that's the direction where I think a lot of content-creatives, a lot of brands, a lot of storytellers can go. They can use this richness, this pallet of now being able to tell stories in multiple ways that don't necessarily conflict with each other, but become a piece of the larger puzzle of the story they're trying to tell. That, I think is really exciting, and where the future of storytelling is going.