Creative Roundtable: Internet 'Explorer'

NatGeo reboots its Web presence

Creative Roundtable:
Inernet 'Explorer'

IfNational Geographic is known for anything, it is for spectacular photographs of animals, landscapes and breasts. Oh, fess up: Who among us didn't spend hours thumbing through National Geographic magazine as kids looking for the boob shots?

When it came to redesigning, the in-house team at National Geographic Digital Media (NGDM) aimed to produce "a clean, straightforward site that focused on the content itself - all of the great photography," according to Rob Covey, NGDM's senior vice president of content development and design.

In addition to creating a platform to better display photos, NGDM also sought to make it easier for users to access daily news features and video clips, as well as share site content via social networking tools.

While the new, built on the open-source framework Django, was unveiled in January, Covey bills it as a work-in-progress, noting as of press time that new features, including a robust video player to replace the admittedly antiquated pop-up video player currently in use, were still to come.

Even with the old video player, Steve Jobs was apparently impressed with the new site - the Apple founder actually browsed during his high-profile iPad presentation in January. (The folks at National Geographic, who had no idea that Jobs was going to visit their site were thrilled, of course.)

Unfortunately, iPads weren't available at the time of OMMA's creative roundtable, so our panel of digital creatives - JWT's Justin Crawford, T. Scott Major of Mono, and Tribal DDB's Robert Rasmussen - viewed the site on old-fashioned computers.

Welcome to What do you think?
Major: It feels like you could be welcomed more dramatically - the cover of the magazine was always very dramatic. Why not welcome visitors to the site with one really large, beautiful photo? They could have done a better job at making the photography a bigger deal in general. I remember reading the magazine and paging through it and feeling like you were in the rainforest or in the Sahara. But it feels like you are just looking at a photograph on this site rather than being in the space.
Rasmussen: I know a lot of people are turned off by landing graphics, but I would have done more to add a little bit of visual drama when you first get here. The site does function well. Everything opens quickly and runs smoothly, but there isn't an initial wow factor when you arrive.
Crawford: Hi-res, full-screen photography would have been a really nice feature. It's not difficult to do, and I would have loved to see them utilize all of the real estate, so we could actually appreciate the photography even more.

Let's talk about the overall look of the site. Did NGDM do a good job with the design?
Crawford: I think they did a great job with the design. It's really simple and clean, and it's real easy to graze the site and see all of the features that they have.
Major: They're trying to overdo the search-engine optimization with the HTML text and everything. They should have done a better job at making it feel visually branded toward National Geographic, using their colors and fonts to make it more graphically interesting.
Rasmussen: I like the streamlined look. It feels like a magazine. If I were to say one thing about it, I probably would have embraced the [iconic National Geographic] yellow rectangle a little bit more.
Crawford: I think it would be strange to overuse something like that where it would simply look like border treatments. To me, that might dilute the brand.

There are opportunities for advertisers, including banner ads. How do you feel about the banner ad across the top of the home page?
Rasmussen: It diminishes the brand a little bit, and it makes me wonder how come I have never noticed whether there was advertising or not in the print magazine. But it only really bugs me in the initial top piece, the horizontal banner across the top. It's a small price to pay to get all of this wonderful content.
Crawford: We're not looking for great banner space. The best-case scenario is when you can create a partnership and leverage talent from a National Geographic to co-sponsor programs or make content that is going to be valuable to this audience.
Major: I'm at the point where I don't even like suggesting we do banner advertising anymore, because of how much people dislike it. For National Geographic, it's kind of a shame that they have to do it to make money.

There is a lot of content on Is this site easy enough to navigate?
Crawford: I did have some issues with the navigation. It's such a new launch that there's probably a bunch of bugs that they're still working out, so I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt here, but what I don't like is that it's still so fragmented when you go into the sub properties. They tier the nav, so I have a main nav, and then I have a tertiary nav, and it starts to get a little bit confusing as to where you are overall.
Rasmussen: As you start to get into things, it gets a little tricky because there is just so much content. But, overall, I would say it works pretty well for me.

Does the site take advantage of social media opportunities?
Rasmussen: Every time I saw content I wanted to share, I always saw tools front and center that allowed me to connect to all the social media that I use.
Crawford: Yeah, they've done a good job targeting it down to the article level, which is great because a lot of times sites will just do page shares. But they're making sure a person can share a particular item.
Major: I notice they have the social media outlets like Twitter, but we need to see more real-time Web - I would love to see what people are talking about on right now. What are the trending topics for the latest stories? What photograph are people talking about? Bubble up some of that social media chatter.

What are your overall thoughts on the site?
Crawford: I see a lot of possibilities for this site, and I think it's an amazing step forward. I went to the Wayback Machine and had a look at the previous site design, and it looked very dated and old. It's nice to see this new version with modern, clean, simple design. If I could add anything, I think they could have more robust mapping. That's a missed opportunity.
Major: The bar is set a lot higher because this is National Geographic, and I would give this site a C+ or B-. They need to think more about the user experience and what people love about National Geographic, rather than the things that seem like they're so important, like search-engine optimization.
Rasmussen: I like it a lot. I like how it feels very much like the magazine that I know and love. I want to dig around in all these photos and find things that capture my imagination.


Update: Previously this story contained the statement "(For those of you who never got enough, National Geographic published National Geographic: The Best of the Breasts, a compendium of breast photography from the magazine, last year.)" in the first paragraph, which has been removed because National Geographic never published such a book. The misunderstanding resulted from the remnants of an April Fool's prank, played by NatGeo itself, that had spread online. We certainly regret the error. And if there were any such book we would surely have it in our collection.

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