Before and after the flood: How National Geographic used data to become a digital video pioneer

National Geographic hadn’t always had a data problem. A 130-year-old organization, the entirety of its media output once consisted of its flagship print magazine. But by the 2010s, its audience was scattered across multiple TV networks and an arsenal of digital platforms. Raw data flooded in from every angle, and it was tough to derive meaningful insights.

In 2016, the company was gearing up to launch Before the Flood, a documentary about climate change starring Leonardo DiCaprio. But with its viewers spread out across a vast and complex ecosystem, the company grappled with how best to reach them. Ultimately, it decided to make the film available, free of charge, the same day as its TV debut.

It was by no means a safe strategy, but the company arrived at it through a newfound understanding of its data. We spoke to Brad Dancer, Nat Geo’s EVP of data, insights and brand standards, about how business intelligence software impacted the risky but rewarding distribution and marketing strategies behind the film.

Preparing for the flood

From the beginning, the programming team wanted to supplement the film’s linear debut with a digital release. Its online audience had grown rapidly in recent years. But the company had never truly launched a prestige project with digital viewers specifically in mind, and it wasn’t certain its online audience was sizable or engaged enough to justify a digital distribution strategy.

“We decided to look at all performance across not just TV channels, but our social networks, our owned and operated websites, our TV Everywhere properties, our MVPD partners— wherever we had distribution outlets,” said Dancer. The company used business intelligence software to automatically collect and synthesize relevant data onto customized digital dashboards.

“We could see what the traffic had been like on our pages for these kinds of events in the past,” said Dancer. “Rather than looking at individual websites or a group of Excel spreadsheets, we could look at all these platforms at once.” The conclusion was clear: Nat Geo would indeed have the traffic it needed.

The programming team also turned to social listening software to capture audience sentiment. “We took all the comments that were being made across platforms,” Dancer said, “and processed all the natural language [… and] just brought it onto the same platform.” The signal: Nat Geo’s audience was expressing a clear desire to see the film online.

That’s when the programming team settled on its unorthodox strategy: The day of its linear debut, they would also place the film online for a week—for free.

In the past, it would have been tough to justify such a decision. But since the company had so quickly assembled clear and detailed data supporting the move, executives won board approval for the strategy well ahead of the film’s debut on October 30, 2016. That gave Nat Geo’s marketing team ample time to get the word out about its unusual release.

The dam breaks

Nat Geo made Before the Flood available on dozens of websites, social pages and VOD platforms, simultaneously airing the film on TV in 171 countries. It was the company’s first major effort to target a major original project toward digital and TV viewers simultaneously—and there was a lot of data to wrangle.

The company had existing infrastructure to make its task easier, of course—Nielsen ratings, data analysts and an experienced marketing team. But it was BI software that kept it afloat, surfacing the most relevant information in real-time and filtering it onto individual screens in a unified format.

That let the marketing team spot and fix problems quickly. On Nat Geo’s YouTube page, for instance, the team noticed viewers were watching the film for a only few minutes before shutting it off. Real-time audience sentiments quickly surfaced an explanation: Viewers thought they were just watching a trailer. “We just changed the copy and headline to say ‘full-length movie,’” said Dancer.

Average view-time on YouTube skyrocketed. Absent a coherent, swiftly-compiled overview of audience reaction, the team might have radically altered its marketing strategy when only a minor tweak was needed.

Similar issues arose on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. Whenever there was a problem, Dancer said, “we’d isolate and use data. Then we’d change copy on our pages or the posts we’d make.”

After the flood

Just two weeks after the film’s digital run ended, it had already reached more than 60 million viewers worldwide. It was, by far, the most widely-seen documentary in Nat Geo’s history. The company knew it had finally mastered the art of targeting a digital audience.

But with an accumulated wealth of data, the analytics team dove deeper. “We had a postmortem the same week after the digital window,” said Dancer. “We were intimately aware of everything that was going on, so we could use the [dashboards] and just talk lucidly about things.”

A lot had gone incredibly right, but Nat Geo did uncover some mishaps. Most notably, the film hadn’t actually launched on every digital platform simultaneously. “Some were delayed, some weren’t,” said Dancer. “One went up early.”

The company decided to simplify its communications process in the future, organizing a smaller team of core staff. “We didn’t want to be emailing or slacking each other constantly,” said Dancer. That reduced the risk of miscommunication.

Of course, without all of those cross-platform signals at their fingertips, Nat Geo might not have even attempted such an ambitious approach in the first place.

“We don’t want to be data wranglers,” said Dancer. “We want to answer the big questions without having to manually manipulate data all the time. The more we can get out of that business, the better.”

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