Let’s Talk About Using Social Media to Educate
Featuring an interview with Josh Raab, Director of Instagram at National Geographic.
When Matilda Boseley's Afghanistan explainer on @guardianaustralia’s TikTok went viral there were essentially two types of responses:
While I have some thoughts on that specific TikTok, my main takeaway is this: educating on social media is really really hard. It can often feel like you’re choosing between either compressing and OMG-ifying content to fit the platform's algorithmic desires or creating something that’s impactful and educational but won’t get seen by anyone because it’s not “optimized”. Where is that sweet spot? How do you educate while creating content that will be seen and “liked”?
For today’s newsletter I spoke with Josh Raab, Director of Instagram at National Geographic. You’ll find a lot of good nuggets about “tricking your audience into learning”, engaging features to try, reaching young audiences, and more.
Rachel Karten: Can you tell me a bit about your current role and your previous social media roles?
Josh Raab: My current role is leading the Instagram and TikTok teams here at National Geographic. We oversee a number of Instagram accounts, including our main @NatGeo account, which is nearing 200 million followers, and earlier this year, we launched National Geographic’s first TikTok account. Before this job, I was a multimedia editor at TIME, focused on photo editing and emerging technologies, of which social was an element, but less my overall focus.
RK: In an earlier conversation, you and I talked about this idea of essentially tricking people into learning on social media. How does education and learning play a role in Nat Geo's social media?
JR: In an increasingly digital world, people’s attention has become the currency. This leads platforms to prioritize the quantity of views over the time spent or the depth of the interaction. Our focus is on achieving both by creating short-form content that hooks viewers into exploring and learning more, either on our site or through a series of small encounters on our social platforms over time.
RK: With TikTok and other platforms pivoting to short-form video, how do you "educate" while also understanding the user oftentimes wants to be entertained? Which I guess leads me to ask, do you think education can be entertainment?
JR: Entertainment done well shouldn't be in conflict with education. What is important, especially on TikTok, is playing into the platform as much as possible, while also setting an expectation with viewers that what we put out is not only inspiring and educational, but also impact-driven. Doing this successfully while simultaneously being entertaining, especially on TikTok, can be quite challenging. A lot of our time there is spent considering a multitude of potential stories and narrowing it down to just one or two TikToks a week.
RK: What tools do you utilize within social media platforms to help enhance or assist with these learning moments?
JR: We use the in-app analytics tools in addition to third party analytics tracking tools and comment moderation to track the viewer response to posts once they are live.
RK: Any tips for packing dense educational information into short-form formats? Especially for other, smaller brands looking to create this sort of content?
JR: For video, it is all about the first three seconds. If you can’t hook the viewer up front, you may not get them at all. For stills, it’s more about novelty—showing viewers something they have not seen before or at least not in that context. It is also incredibly important to be genuine and authentic—both in the approach and the storytelling. All of our Instagram captions are written in first person by the photographers, allowing them to connect with the audience directly. This way the audience develops a relationship with the individual photographers over time. For the @NatGeoInTheField Instagram account, photographers show the process behind the polished work viewers are used to seeing.
On TikTok, most of the video is filmed by photographers with their phones. That lower production value goes a long way and is easily attainable for smaller brands with lower production budgets. The other piece of advice for brands I would give is figure out what you are uniquely qualified to do and blow that out of the water. Unless you need to cover everything your brand does, stick to a simpler lower lift model that specializes in one or a group of subjects or topics—this simple approach, if done well, allows your brand to act more like an individual user's account and speaks to how viewers expect to interact with platforms since they are either mostly following friends and family on Instagram and Facebook or individual users on TikTok and Snapchat.
RK: Nat Geo is something like the 12th most followed Instagram account in the world. People always say how important it is to "know your audience" on social. That seems tough when your audience is 188M people. How do you think about the Nat Geo audience and what will resonate with them?
JR: We are fortunate enough to be a truly global account with an incredibly diverse audience and a plethora of opinions. So while we have a general sense of how our audience will react, for anything we post, there will be people who love the post and plenty of folks who hate it. At the end of the day, we prioritize what we think is visually strong with important subject matter, over how it will perform.
RK: Any favorite examples of "tricking people into learning" you've done on Nat Geo?
JR: Yes, lots! One good example is AR filters on Instagram, which take viewers on educational adventures but then allow for them to turn the camera around and take selfies that they can then share with their followers on Instagram, driving additional viewership to the filters. In the last year, we have done this on Everest, allowing viewers to climb the mountain and then digitally dressing them up as climbers for a selfie on the summit; underwater as prehistoric dinosaurs; and most recently on the surface as Mars, where we worked with NASA to allow viewers to become the Perseverance Rover. Most users initially engage with these to take a selfie they can share but then are hopefully drawn into the larger story through the world view of the effect, which we pack with educational elements.
RK: Final words or thoughts?
JR: So much of the change we all want to see will ultimately be left to the younger generations. These social platforms are one of the best places to reach young audiences and we see it as a big opportunity to get them thinking about some of the most important issues. Reaching them in ways that speak to them and show that we understand their concerns feels critical. I really hope we can all succeed in doing that.
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