AEP Award Winner Profile: Snow Leopard Secrets, National Geographic Society

Introducing a digital version of any publication is always a lot more complicated than it seems. When the publication carries branding as deep and venerable as National Geographic Kids, the challenge becomes that much greater. How do you extend the material in the print magazine and make it both educational and fun for kids, all without altering the basic identity of a beloved magazine that has proven successful for many years?

The new iPad app launched by National Geographic Kids in the summer of 2011 aims to take the outstanding content from the print publication, extend it, and package it in a format that today’s “wired” kids will find irresistible. According to the app’s mission statement, the app “takes a sneak approach to teaching, providing interactive, bite-size information; kids are having so much fun they don’t even know they’re learning.”

“We wanted to make this a true interactive experience,” said Rachel Buchholz, executive editor of National Geographic Kids and National Geographic Little Kids. “We wanted kids to engage with our products in ways they haven’t engaged before. Our goal was to enter the digital world while maintaining the integrity of the print product.”

They certainly met that goal—and more. In just its first year, the new app already has 10,243 paid subscriptions and 27,000 single copy sales. In addition, there have been nearly a million downloads of free samples.

Throughout a development period that spanned more than a year and included “a lot of trial of error and a lot of testing,” the National Geographic Kids team worked to determine ways to build on the strengths of the print publication—outstanding text and graphics—and use the capabilities of a digital format to draw kids into exploring topics in greater depth, further enhancing the educational value of the material.

‘We want to use the capabilities of the iPad to our advantage,” Buchholz said. For example, the cover of the December 2011/January 2012 issue featured a stunning photo of a snow leopard. Because pictures on the iPad are so rich and colorful, “they can really pull you into the story,” she noted.  “You have that big, beautiful photo leading kids into the story.”

“We don’t see this as a replacement product right now,” Buchholz emphasized. “We see it more as an enhancement of our print product.” For instance, the article “No Arms, Amazing Feet” from the December 2011/January 2012 issue describes how James Dennehy, born without hands, uses his feet to text, eat, and even drive a car. “We videotaped him while doing the interview,” Buchholz said. “We had these great shots of him driving and texting with his feet. When you touch the photo in the app, it morphs into video. We were really proud of that.”

The app also features kid-friendly puzzles, quizzes and games. For instance, the magazine periodically includes collector’s cards on various topics, and the app version offers an interactive True/False quiz. “That’s another feature we’re really proud of,” Buchholz said.

The app version comes out about 10 days later than the print edition. The same editorial team prepares and designs both versions, although the “bundling” is done by another National Geographic division for now. “We didn’t really add any new staff to do this,” Buchholz noted.

The new app has not only “wowed” young readers and their parents, but also industry peers. The app version of the Snow Leopards Secrets issue of National Geographic Kids (December 2011/January 2012) received the inaugural Innovation Award from the Association of Educational Publishers (AEP) in June 2012, beating out more than 60 other entries representing a wide variety of product types.

AEP’s awards judges, who included both educators and industry professionals, agreed that the product fulfilled its mission. “The reader can hear the soft sound of the snow leopard and watch video footage of the African lion,” said one judge. “These enhanced features will make the magazine more appealing to readers. There is an interactive animal quiz where readers can tap true or false to give their answers. There are visual picture and word scrambles. This is a very interactive magazine.”

“The graphics and copy are outstanding, and the interaction is very engaging,” noted another judge. “I love the voices of the animals, and the Funny Fill-In game is great for writing skills.”

“With so many great entries, we were pretty shocked to win the award,” Buchholz said. “It’s been a huge effort from a large number of people. Even though we’re still in the trial and error process, it’s good to know we’re on the right track.”

While the new app has been extremely successful by all measures, the team continues to refine it. After the product had been out for about three months, they brought a group of kids onsite to test the product. Some were familiar with using the iPad; others were not. “We got some good information about usability and navigation,” Buchholz said.

In response to user feedback, National Geographic Kids has added more interactive games and a voiced-over comic strip to the app. The team also has added a home page and changed the table of contents to make it more like a menu. In addition, they plan to attach surveys to the app as a way of obtaining ongoing feedback.

In the end, the iPad app for National Geographic Kids seeks to merge the magazine’s rock-solid print reputation with the digital capabilities prized by young readers today. Regardless of format, however, quality content remains the primary consideration. “We have to think of ourselves as content providers,” Buchholz concluded. “It’s just a different way of consuming content. It’s the story, the photos, and the design that are the key.”

To learn more about National Geographic apps, visit the organization’s app page.