Company: Nat Geo

National Geographic has been bringing the world to families in their homes for generations. Whether the magazine comes to your mailbox or the National Geographic (Nat Geo) TV channel is one of your favorites, the brand is iconic. It’s more than just media. According to its website, “The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization committed to exploring and protecting our planet.”


Business Challenge

Much of the content that airs on Nat Geo is visually stunning, and the network is always finding new ways to showcase this content. And, certainly, the brand is no stranger to trying out new, cutting-edge technology to tell stories in the most compelling way possible. The marketing team knew the original show MARS was ripe for a very special campaign to promote the premiere of its second season.


Vendor of Choice: Verizon Media (formerly Oath)

Verizon Media is a subsidiary of Verizon Communications and functions as the umbrella company of its digital content subdivisions, including AOL and Yahoo. Networks and studios such as Nat Geo partner with Verizon Media to pilot innovative ad experiences, including programmatic virtual reality (VR).


The Problem In-Depth

MARS is a different kind of show that showcases what the National Geographic brand has done for decades—combining stunning visual storytelling with the reality of science. Produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, it combines scripted, cinematic elements with documentary-style storytelling. According to the show’s website, “Set both in the future and in the present day, the global miniseries event MARS blends feature film-caliber scripted elements set in the future with documentary vérité interviews with today’s best and brightest minds [think Elon Musk and astronauts] in modern science and innovation, illuminating how research and development is creating the space technology that will enable our first attempt at a mission to Mars.”

How do you promote the second season of a show that combines reality and fiction and tells the ambitious story of human colonization of Mars? Where else would you turn but to cutting-edge technology such as VR?

eMarketers estimated that by the end of 2018, there would be an estimated 36.9 million VR users—a number that is expected to increase 70% by 2020. These numbers were enough to convince Verizon Media to offer what it called in a press release “engaging, well-executed VR ad experiences that provide utility, enhance reality and create meaningful connections with brands.”

The Nat Geo team wasn’t new to VR. “That technology was a major focus for us at our SXSW Further Basecamp in 2017,” says Dennis Camlek, Nat Geo’s EVP of strategy and consumer marketing. Whether or not Nat Geo uses VR for a particular campaign “really comes down to the project we are promoting and whether we see great alignment between the series/film and the technology. Sometimes, it’s a perfect fit, like Genius or even Free Solo, where we used 360 video to give users the chance to experience El Capitan in the eyes of Alex Honnold.”


The Solution

Despite Nat Geo’s familiarity with VR, advertising in a virtual world isn’t necessarily something the average ad platform can facilitate. The team turned to Verizon Media (although it was still Oath at the time). “We’re making programmatic VR easy for advertisers, so they can extend their existing display and video assets into VR environments,” says Jeff Lucas, VP and head of North American sales and global client solutions at Verizon Media. “When it comes to distribution the ads are compatible with any VR headset that works with Android phones, including Daydream VR, Samsung Gear VR and Cardboard. VR users could see ads for Nat Geo’s MARS in picture frames, on TVs, and even on traditional billboards in gaming and social experiences in VR environments.”

“For all campaigns, however particularly for MARS, we’re always interested in trying new opportunities, and we felt this opportunity allowed us to effectively integrate Mars into a virtual world,” says Camlek.

But Verizon Media isn’t making programmatic VR ads a possibility on its own. “We’ve partnered with Admix, a VR/AR [augmented reality] SSP, and BidSwitch programmatic infrastructure to make programmatic VR available through Oath Ad Platforms,” says Lucas. “This enables a brand’s ad to run within any TV, picture frame, billboard or other space where an ad might naturally live within a VR environment. Our partnership enables advertisers to seamlessly extend existing standard IAB display and video assets [in]to fully immersive and consumer-first VR environments.”


The Outcome

If you’re anything like me, when you read the words “VR ads,” it might conjure up visions of elaborate, immersive ads that put the user right into, in this case, the world of MARS. But that’s not quite what we’re talking about. The ads ran for a couple of weeks in November 2018 in Out of Universe, Skyfront, and Jurassic VR. So rather than creating a virtual world based on MARS, ads for the show were inserted onto virtual billboards and TV screens in existing VR products. In other words, they looked like ads.

“We constantly look for ways to innovate and create seamless and immersive content experiences for our audience,” said Camlek, in a press release. “By partnering with 360i and Oath on delivering this incredible, first-of-its-kind VR experience, our audience is able to engage with MARS and get excited for the new season, and ultimately, by using this powerful storytelling device, we’re hoping to inspire future scientists, explorers and adventurers.” 

Neither Nat Geo nor Verizon Media was ready to talk about metrics, but this partnership is the trailblazer, bringing the idea of digital advertising into the realm of virtual advertising.