National Geographic Thinks It Has a Way to Survive Facebook's Jungle

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"It was like hell fire on there," Eby Yielding says.

The octogenarian from Hemet, California, is talking about Facebook and the election of 2016, when she lost half her online friends because she supported Donald Trump. "It was humiliating, and a really sad time," Yielding says.

There is one place on Facebook where she doesn't talk politics, though: the chats around a livestream from Africa, National Geographic's Safari Live. "I've made hundreds of friends chatting for years on Safari Live," Yielding says. She even met a husband, Harold Yielding, who died in 2016 at the age of 69.

The Yieldings might be said to have had a "meaningful interaction" on Safari Live, the type of experience that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he wants more of on Facebook—accompanied by less political angst and negativity in general. To that end, Facebook said earlier this month that it would reprioritize the type of videos and posts it promotes to people's News Feeds, favoring content that fosters community.

Publishers are watching nervously for the effects on their traffic. But Facebook says it will value content according to signals such as multiple comments—just what National Geographic says Safari Live is delivering.

"That is what I love about Safari Live—building a very cohesive community on air and online in a way very few things we've done could achieve," says Geoff Daniels, executive VP and general manager of Nat Geo Wild.

The stream goes live twice a day from Africa, and the audience can chat with hosts as they travel through the bush, where animals become recurring characters. The most famous star is perhaps Scarface the lion, who lights up the chats and Twitter whenever he appears. One of the most popular videos was a recent one of a wildebeest birth. That received 10 million views in three days, says Jonathan Hunt, Nat Geo's senior VP of audience development and digital strategy.

"We've spent a lot of time rethinking our distribution and engagement strategy from something that started out as a broadcast first initiative then became twice a day on Facebook, to something that lives across all the platforms," Hunt says. "Now we're focusing on figuring out the monetization strategy."

Safari Live doesn't have a sponsor yet, Hunt says. National Geographic plans a splashy post-Super Bowl livestream and a week of live safari on TV to help generate interest.

"We've been nurturing this thing for the better part of three years, and we're at the tipping point of breaking through," Daniels says.

The livestream has 140,000 average viewers, according to National Geographic, and it has 260,000 followers on its channel in Watch, the YouTube-like video hub that Facebook introduced last year.

Since 2016, when the safari stream was a launch partner for Facebook Live, it has generated more than 100 million views, National Geographic says.

Even with those numbers, no publisher feels comfortable depending entirely on Facebook.

National Geographic is in talks with Twitter about live streaming directly to that platform, where the hashtag "SafariLive" attracts daily conversations.

National Geographic also plans to develop its own app that would give it a direct-to-consumer lifeline, where it owns the relationship with the audience instead of relying on a go-between such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. But that's "down the line" and part of the company's broader strategy to develop mobile properties for the whole company, Daniels says.

Harold and Eby Yielding met through Safari Live, and wed in 2014 in a safari-themed party.
Harold and Eby Yielding met through Safari Live, and wed in 2014 in a safari-themed party. Credit: Eby Yielding and Harold Yielding

For now, Facebook remains a major focus for connecting the Nat Geo safari with audiences. There's always a place for cat videos on Facebook—and maybe, in this case, lions as well.

"Zuckerberg said that 'we will continue to see posts from media and businesses, but that it should encourage meaningful reactions between people,'" says Nick Barber, a Forrester research analyst. "The National Geographic Safari live content could do that."

Barber, who has watched the safari online, thinks it could survive the Facebook wild despite shifts in the company's algorithms. It wouldn't hurt, however, for National Geographic should be even more responsive in the chats around the show, according to Barber. The guides on the safari livestream do interact with fans, but could do more, he says.

"The reason why content like Safari Live—and live video in general—is so appealing is because it creates a shared experience among viewers," Barber says, "and it gives viewers access they wouldn't otherwise have—maybe in an entire lifetime."

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