In late July 2018, National Geographic Partners, a for-profit joint venture between 21st Century Fox and the nonprofit National Geographic Society, announced the latest of several recent rounds of layoffs. A handful of senior executives—including chief communications officer Laura Nichols, executive vice president of digital Rachel Webber, and executive vice president of consumer products and experiences Rosa Zeeger—departed the company. Both Webber’s and Zeeger’s roles were also eliminated entirely in the process.
Yet an internal letter from National Geographic Partners CEO Gary Knell had an optimistic tone. “We are all in this together, and recognize our brand’s singular power and role as leaders and keepers of history,” wrote Knell. “We will provide resources through subscriptions and advertising to support that content. That was true 130 years ago…and is still true today. Different skill sets, but the basic business hasn’t changed.”
That last statement—“the basic business hasn’t changed”—seems to overlook the vast transformations that the National Geographic Society has undergone since its founding as a scholarly membership organization in 1888. In its first several decades, the Society was much more exclusive, accepting members only by official nomination and election. Member benefits ranged from academic lectures and maps to early pre-publication previews of the National Geographic Magazine, which was not available to the public at the time.
The National Geographic Society and Magazine gradually butted heads with a problem that countless other publications have faced in today’s media landscape: “member” and “subscriber” became increasingly conflated. Multiple CEOs tried to shift National Geographic’s reputation from an exclusive society into a multiplatform, commercially-driven brand. They’d hoped that additional streams like TV ad revenue, e-commerce, social media engagement, and even gaming would compensate for dwindling magazine subscriber numbers.
But according to interviews I conducted with former National Geographic employees, these attempts resulted only in further brand erosion, siloed internal department practices, and uncoordinated customer engagement efforts, from which the organization is still recovering today. (National Geographic did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
Amy Maniatis was chief marketing officer at the National Geographic Society until June 2014, one year before the organization sold a controlling stake in its media properties to 21st Century Fox for $725 million. “We had discussions all the time about how the word ‘membership’ has really eroded and lost a lot of its original meaning over the last 20 years,” said Maniatis. “Today, people say that they’re ‘members’ of things like Netflix and Amazon Prime. The main question is, what does ‘membership’ really mean any longer, and what organizations make it relevant?”
The story of how National Geographic’s membership program has dwindled over time is not just about the relevance of the word “membership” in today’s consumerist and tech-driven culture. It’s also about the intimate, often-underrated relationships among shifting media business models, internal organizational practices, and outward brand messaging, and what happens when those three elements fail to move together in tandem—which ultimately hurts audience members.
“Partners” vs. “Society”: The many faces of National Geographic
Before I get into what happened, I want to share what I think is the biggest struggle National Geographic currently faces on a daily basis: communicating clearly to audiences that its for-profit and nonprofit entities exist under different names and have vastly different financial and editorial goals.
The National Geographic Society (which I’ll call “the Society”) is a nonprofit organization with the mission to “inspire people to care about the planet.” It’s expected to invest in at least 600 grants for scientists, conservationists, explorers, and educators by the end of this year. What many people may not realize is that the Society owns just 27 percent of the most renowned and recognizable staples of the “National Geographic” brand, namely the yellow-bordered magazine and multimillion-dollar TV channel.
The remaining 73 percent is owned by 21st Century Fox and is housed under a for-profit joint venture named National Geographic Partners (which I’ll refer to as “NG Partners”). According to Knell’s internal letter from July, cable TV currently accounts for over 75% of NG Partners’ revenue. It has also recently been confirmed that Disney will become the new parent company of NG Partners, after the former acquired 21st Century Fox for $52 billion.
While the nonprofit Society tallied more than 70,000 donors in 2016—the most recent year the organization issued public financial documents—contributions still accounted for just 15% of the nonprofit’s total revenues and could not make up for program costs, even when combined with residual TV income. The Society’s operating loss that year totaled a steep $79.5 million, largely because of nearly $108 million in expenses for scientific research, exploration, and grants.
Early days: Member nominations and exclusivity
There’s a scene in the 1946 American film “It’s a Wonderful Life” that many Society execs over the years have referenced as exemplary of the organization’s early membership ethos. In the scene, the young protagonist George Bailey shows a magazine to his friend (and future wife in the film) Mary Hatch, who exclaims: “A new magazine! I never saw it before.”
“Of course you never,” George said. “Only us explorers can get it. I’ve been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society.”
The key word here in this scene is “nominated.” The National Geographic Magazine was the first-ever publication used as an added “member benefit” for a national nonprofit, rather than a standalone product available to the public on newsstands. Each early magazine issue included a form that members could fill out to nominate and recommend other people to become members of the Society. Like a club, nominees would then be officially “elected” in a process that was somewhat opaque but nonetheless low-barrier, enabling the Society to grow to 1.2 million members in the U.S. alone by 1930.
With the original mission statement of supporting “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge,” the Society initially emphasized more intellectually-driven member benefits, such as invitations to scholarly lectures and access to a peer-reviewed academic journal. Importantly, early issues of the Magazine were far from exemplary journalism. Current editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg recently spoke out about how the initial tone of the magazine viewed international cultures with sweepingly racist, sexist, exoticizing, and patronizing tones, all the way up to the 1970s—a fact that the publication tried to combat with the controversial cover for its “Race Issue” last April.
While the Society’s intellectually lazy and biased magazine reporting in the 20th century is not a model for today’s journalists, what continues to serve as a model is the close connection and emotional involvement that members felt with the magazine’s authors.
Alan Mairson is a former staff writer and editor at National Geographic Magazine and author of the Society Matters blog, which published a running commentary and critique of the Society’s business practices from 2009 to 2014. Mairson said that while the early Magazine “wasn’t journalism, it was truly a journal, in that sense that it consisted mostly of first-person writing.” He continued: “Writers didn’t pretend to be a fly on the wall. They saw themselves as actors in the drama they were covering. To me, that was one of the charms of the thing.”
Turn of the 21st century: The faint promise of e-commerce
Despite being rooted in notions of scientific camaraderie, the Society began treating membership as a transactional relationship just a few decades after its founding. As first reported in Stephanie L. Hawkins’ book American Iconographic: National Geographic, Global Culture, and the Visual Imagination, a 1925 advertising circular for the Society was already referring to supporters as “subscribers” rather than “members.”
This conflation has only intensified in the 21st century. According to a case study by Harvard Business School, 73% of Society members in 2006 viewed their association with the organization primarily as a magazine subscription, while only 23% of members felt that they actually belonged to a society. Even Knell’s internal company letter last July reflects this imbalance in perception, with the way the CEO intended to “roll out a more directed agenda around membership focusing on print renewals first.”
There are many theories as to how the Society lost its grip on membership over time, all of which arguably materialized during John Fahey’s tenure as CEO from 1998 to 2010.
One was an increasing focus on more environment- and animal-focused stories (e.g. “Wild Tigers”) rather than human-centric profiles (e.g. “John Glenn’s Three Orbits of the Earth”). This was a shift that was officially cemented in 2004, when Fahey decided to change the organization’s mission statement to “inspiring people to care about the planet.” While the new mission statement was more outrightly philanthropic in its call to action, it was not actually grounded in changing reader behavior or demands. Fahey even admitted in a 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal that there was no concrete proof that switching to a more environmental focus had actually improved reader retention.
Another theory is that Fahey became overconfident in e-commerce as a viable membership strategy. Historically, the Society always included a diverse range of product-driven benefits beyond its journal, including maps and other research tools. Fahey wanted to take these material benefits one step further—creating a brand-new position of senior vice president of e-commerce within the Society in 2007, in firm belief that upselling National Geographic-branded lifestyle products to members would be an effective vehicle for increasing both reader loyalty and company revenues.
Today, the National Geographic online store offers everything from branded apparel to home furniture and outdoor equipment, and even has its own branded wine subscription service called “Wines of the World.” (Many major metropolitan newspapers have their own wine clubs, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times; in the case of National Geographic, a wine offering seems merely like revenue pursuit creep rather than a differentiation grounded in the publication’s brand and values.) Meanwhile, the magazine’s subscriber base has largely dwindled, from around 15 million subscribers in the early 1990s to only around 3.5 million (i.e. 1960s levels) around the Fox deal in 2015.
During a presentation at the 2016 Washington Nonprofit Conference, fundraising executives from National Geographic and Avalon Consulting shared that purely benefits-based membership campaigns actually resulted in lower retention rates than more mission-based ones. In addition, donors recruited via premium, consumer-driven incentives tended to exhibit weaker long-term value than those responding to purely philanthropic incentives. By investing in e-commerce, the Society unwittingly sacrificed mission-driven benefits for a more consumerist outlook on its future—and readers inevitably responded as a result.
Cable TV and the Fox buyout: from community-driven to mass broadcast incentives
As with e-commerce, the biggest incentive for the Society to expand its media ventures into TV, and to ultimately build a joint venture with Fox, was money. More specifically, commercial cable channels were famous for their dual revenue streams of advertising plus subscriber fees from cable companies.
Given the inability of donations and grants to compensate fully for the steep costs of the Society’s research and travel efforts, Fox seemed to provide a much-needed solution, at least on paper. For example, with the creation of the for-profit Partners venture, the National Geographic TV channel received $400 million a year from Fox to spend on 150 hours of content—an average budget of nearly $2.7 million per hour. However, the emphasis on bringing in profits pulled the Society even further away from clarifying its mission for members who were driven by wider philanthropic causes, and even closer to viewing membership as more of a product relationship.
Unsurprisingly, the TV and magazine staff did not live peacefully together under the same roof. Numerous reports claimed that the sales teams in both departments were approaching potential advertisers separately, and with vastly different pitches, leading to brand confusion even behind the scenes. On several occasions, the Society’s Standards and Practices department attempted to alter or kill a TV series in development—particularly reality shows like “Diggers” and “Nazi War Diggers,” which professional archeologists criticized for broadcasting insensitive and unethical scientific practices.
In 2012, Fahey finally stepped forward and addressed the discrepancies between the TV channel’s programming and the more mission-driven magazine—but claimed that such a discrepancy was necessary for the nonprofit Society’s longevity. As the CEO told On the Media, success for National Geographic meant “a mix of [TV] shows that we think are spot-on brand, spot-on mission” and “a variety of other shows there that may not appear to be our mission, but are the types of programs that will allow this channel to survive and thrive.”
This two-pronged approach to revenue generation is common within media companies today: for example, think about how BuzzFeed generates most of its engagement and revenue from entertainment-driven video and listicle products such as Tasty in order to fund its groundbreaking, longform news coverage. Yet some National Geographic readers found that the way Fahey gave permission to the TV channel to have a completely different voice from the magazine was unrealistic with how people now interact with media.
“Convergence is not just about technology; it means your audiences are converging too,” said Mairson. “The semi-toxic stuff you thought you could separate only for TV, now the fact is that it’s all one brand to the consumer. The [National Geographic] channel is doing less of that two-step now, but it really cost them.”
Today, both the magazine and the TV are still under the same organization in Washington, D.C. The only core difference from before the Fox deal is that they are now both for-profit, and thus continue to run on more commercially- rather than philanthropically-driven business incentives.
Redefining membership to be free and, yes, Instagrammable
Throughout most of the 2000s, member engagement and acquisition strategy at National Geographic was distributed among several uncoordinated internal departments. The membership program perhaps most similar to the Society’s early days was the Grosvenor Council, which consisted of donors who gave annual gifts of $1,000 or more and featured benefits such as exclusive access to expeditions with National Geographic experts and a free live-stream of the Society’s annual Explorers Symposium. But there was also a Home Entertainment DVD club, a Lifetime Subscription club for magazine readers, a Chase Rewards program, and even a Frequent Purchaser loyalty program for National Geographic’s retail store in Washington, D.C.—all more consumer-facing.
Importantly, this internal lack of coordination was also reflected in the user experience. Katel LeDû served as the director of photography for digital media at National Geographic from 2010 to 2013 and played a crucial role in revamping the company’s online membership initiatives. “At one point, the online navigation for Nat Geo looked a lot like our organizational chart,” said LeDû. “Even though there was a lot of overlap in terms of content, the Magazine and digital media staff were on two separate teams and were not aligned at all. This meant that we had one website for the magazine photography, and another standalone website ‘natgeo.com’ where we were building a lot of photo content that had nothing to do with the magazine. Eventually, the company realized that this might not be the best experience for readers.”
In the early 2010s, during Fahey’s last few years as CEO, National Geographic seriously reconsidered and opened up its approach to membership. Today, most of National Geographic’s online "membership" options are free. Anyone can sign up to become a member via the Society’s website, which then prompts new users to explore the online photo community Your Shot, take advantage of e-commerce and even insurance discounts, and/or check off a list of interests in exchange for receiving personalized emails and editorial recommendations.
At this lower level, incentives still remain primarily benefits- rather than mission-based. Nonetheless, “loosening the reins on membership nowadays is so important,” said Maniatis. “Where I think membership is done best in its modern interpretation is when it’s a more open rather than transactional relationship. You’re still supporting and furthering the mission as a ‘member,’ but the ties are looser.”
One of National Geographic Society’s more successful “open” membership initiatives has been Your Shot, an online community platform where users can embark on “virtual assignments” with magazine editors and share their work with the public for potential inclusion in the print magazine. After the Fox buyout, NG Partners followed up on the success of Your Shot with the launch of Open Explorer, an open platform for “citizen scientists” (university researchers, students, professional adventurers, and more) to document their projects in real-time with the public. The platform currently has around 500 active expeditions and is carefully moderated by National Geographic staff.
The National Geographic community’s interest in photography also compelled the Society to embrace an unexpected platform for membership: Instagram. Around the time National Geographic launched its Instagram account in 2012, the average member of the Society was 65 years old or older, creating a sense of urgency internally to attract younger generations to the Society’s mission.
National Geographic is currently the top non-celebrity Instagram account aside from Instagram itself, with over 90.2 million followers and counting. The brand’s success on the social platform comes in part from giving nearly 130 independent photographers access to the official account to post and curate photos.
But there’s still one big catch that has yet to be resolved with the company: how do you actually generate more revenue from free membership programs? Like many other media brands, National Geographic had no internal method for concretely measuring its return on social media investment, even though social media was one of its most crucial levers for engagement. “The piece we didn’t crack is how an open membership funds your mission and your storytelling,” said Maniatis. “At the end of the day, it’s still an unpaid experience.”
The Society’s free membership channels seemed to clash with certain other customer retention strategies that catered to a smaller, more elite group of higher income members, rather than an open community with a low financial threshold. For instance, NG Partners’ private-jet business, with excursion prices ranging from $64,945 for 15 days to $93,495 for 21 days, is a “high-profit engine that brings our brand to life in a unique way” and a new focus for the company, according to Knell’s internal company letter.
There is nothing wrong with multiple tiers or forms of membership under a single roof: our previous research has pointed to several different possibilities along the spectrum of “thin” versus “thick” membership models that organizations tailor to their own business needs. But a news site should still steer all of those models towards the same mission, mutually agreed upon by internal management and communicated clearly to supporters.
The takeaway: What your membership program can learn
Despite its faults, many elements of National Geographic’s membership history provide valuable lessons for media organizations looking to build their own membership programs. For example, the organization’s more engaging and successful membership initiatives:
Grow through means of organic passion and commitment from existing members, who spread that passion within their own social circles (National Geographic’s early nomination system).
Align the interests and activities of like-minded community members not just with staff (Your Shot), but also with each other (Instagram, Open Explorer).
Give community members a platform to grow their own brand and exercise and share their own skills (Instagram, Open Explorer).
Not all media companies can pull off successful membership programs, especially if internal departments and priorities are misaligned. Growing membership is resource-intensive and can sacrifice resources that might otherwise be spent on reporting—or, in National Geographic’s case, on more lucrative revenue drivers like TV programming and travel expeditions.
“For CMOs who are thinking about building membership programs, the first question you have to ask is why?” said Maniatis. “Do you really need this membership right now? Is it mission-critical? If it’s just a financial setup—if you’re just equating ‘membership’ to returning subscriber revenue—then you might need to think harder about whether that’s really membership, or if it should go by another name.”
The evolution of National Geographic’s membership is also a potent case study in the importance of effective change management. LeDû said, “The leadership team needs to be transparent about what changes are going on and why, how the goals might be changing as a result, and importantly how staff could be a part of that change. When you don't have actual alignment along a senior leadership, how can you expect to see that same alignment among the leaders doing the execution work—and then how can you expect members to be a part of that too?”
Emily Goligoski, Jessica Best, David van Zeggeren, Jay Rosen, and Lukas Kouwets contributed to this post.