How National Geographic Uses User-Generated Content + Bitly to Win Big on Social

Take a quick glance at National Geographic’s social media and you’ll understand why they’ve been so successful on channels like Twitter and Instagram.

The content they share with their 106 million followers looks like the stuff you’d see in wildlife documentaries. And their audience can’t get enough of it. In fact, the eye-catching images have been key to the brand’s high engagement numbers. (And by “high engagement” we’re talking nearly half a million likes per post on Instagram.)

A lot of thought has gone into Nat Geo’s social media strategy, particularly, it seems, around its approach to user-generated content (UGC). UGC is a way for brands to curate content that benefits both their business and the contributors. The brand gets to leverage quality content while extending its reach, and the contributors get credit for that content, amplifying exposure to their work. In Nat Geo’s case, UGC has been a wildly successful way to fuel its popularity across its social media channels.

The really great thing about user-generated content is that any brand can use it as a tactic for sharing engaging content. How a brand goes about doing that, though, is important.


When working with influencers and volunteer contributors, it’s important to first identify what communities would be ideal to tap into.

Make sure you’ve defined who your brand’s ideal UGC contributors are, and the idea content you’d like them to contribute.

There are so many creatives and thought leaders out there who would be more than happy for your brand to share their photos, videos and testimonials, among other types of content, in exchange for credit or compensation. So make sure you’ve defined who your brand’s ideal UGC contributors are and what kind of content you’d like them to contribute.

This is where Nat Geo hits the nail on the head.

The audience development and social media team at Nat Geo shares stories and images from contributors, photographers, and explorers from around the world. On the @NatGeo Instagram account alone there are over 140 contributing photographers who share content. So not only does Nat Geo get access to incredible imagery and content, they’ve helped build a strong community of contributors whose ethos of telling stories through their photography goes hand in hand with National Geographic’s goal of offering a portal to explore the farthest reaches of the Earth and beyond.

Here’s just one of many photos the company has shared on Instagram, featuring a UGC image.

Photo: Brian Skerry, Instagram @BrianSkerry


In a recent influencer marketing campaign, Nat Geo launched the #natgeo100contest. The campaign was a celebration of hitting 100 million (yes, million) followers on Instagram, and prompted photographers around the world to post their “most Nat Geo-inspired photo” to their Instagram feeds using the hashtag.

“We wanted to thank our community for being loyal, active contributors for the past several years, which is where the idea for the #natgeo100contest came from,” shares Kate Coughlin, VP of Audience Development at Nat Geo. “Our director of Instagram worked with our contributing photographers to review countless images and highlight the best submissions on our website and on our Instagram account—something we’ve never done before.”

The campaign ran for 24 hours and it turned out to be a big success, receiving more than 94,000 submissions.


As important as it is to match the right UGC content and contributors for your brand, it’s equally important to be able to measure the engagement that content receives across your different communication channels.

In general, the team at Nat Geo says they have a good handle over the types of content that performs well across their social media channels. “We can tell fairly quickly after something is shared if it’s resonating with the audience. To gauge success, we look at the engagement rate, the conversions we’re seeing to our website and the sentiment of the conversation taking place,” says Kate.

“Understanding which pieces of content our audience choose to share, or which they click on from our social posts lets us know what our audience cares about and can inform our social strategy.”

Nat Geo’s tech stack includes Bitly, which helps the business track how their content is performing and which channels their audience engage on most.

“We’re able to effectively track where we distribute our content and with the help of Bitly, see how our audience responds,” explains Kate. “Understanding which pieces of content our audience choose to share, or which they click on from our social posts lets us know what our audience cares about and can inform our social strategy.”

Final Thoughts

While this post covered how the Nat Geo team uses photo and video user-generated content to promote its brand and engage its audiences, any business, no matter the size or industry, can leverage UGC.

Just remember: the approach that works for them may not work for your company. It’s important to identify the type of content you’d like to generate and the people out there who are willing to provide it—and make sure you can measure how effective those submissions are at helping you reach your social media goals.


Learn how Bitly Enterprise can help you reach your business goals.

Tiffany Fowell @Bitly