NATO's Digital-First Strategy: A Behind-the-Scenes Look.

NATO reformed its communications with a digital-first strategy. Many brands could learn a thing or two.
Aika Zikibayeva
November 30, 2016 - 5 min. read

NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization. One of the world’s leading governmental organizations and well-known names. Or is it?

According to Steven Mehringer, NATO’s Head of Communication Services, “ 94% of people know NATO, but maybe 50% know what NATO does or their mission of peace and security.” In an era where its purpose and even relevance has been questioned, NATO is turning perceptions around. It’s doing with a dynamic digital-first strategy any global brand would do well to follow.

But first, the Cold War-founded institution had to discover “digital”.

Speaking at this year’s Social Media Week in Rotterdam, Mehringer described his organization’s late-blooming relationship with social and digital media.

“Historically, NATO has run 10-15 years behind in terms of technology”, Mehringer said, echoing Former Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s comments that, “in terms of communication and video, we are in the Stone Age. NATO has no ability to gather video from the field, to show people what is happening. We are also barely on the field when it comes to the web.”

That was in 2007. Today, thanks to a digital-first strategy, more people are sharing, engaging and connecting with NATO than ever before.

NATO’s 4 rules for digital success

NATO currently has about 1.7 million followers on its chief social channels, a following achieved with these four guidelines:

1. Produce quality content and create stories
2. Speak to people in the languages they communicate
3. Engage with people
4. Don’t wait for people to come to you – go where your audience is.

On point four NATO had been making the same mistake as so many big brands. They had assumed their audience would come to them just because they are NATO.

Changing that mentality, along with securing investment in social and digital in a bureaucracy-laden institution, has been a major challenge for Mehringer. He told the Social Media Week crowd that he still encounters resistance and even backlash. “There are still people in the higher ranks that don’t understand our communication infrastructure and that they must keep developing.”

NATO’s storytelling approach to content

NATO has quickly come to grips with the power of quality content. These days they’re broadcasting events from around the world as fast as they happen. They always aim to be first out with the story, rather than adapting or fixing a message from other corners. “It is critical to be out in front, managing your message–otherwise someone else will do it for you,” advised Mehringer.

NATO is doing just that. With a digital team of only two full-timers, they constantly reach out to journalists and their own people on the ground to gather the insights and content needed. This is not an easy mission, as the infrastructure of the Communication Division is a complex one.

NATO digital first strategy 1

They also review every message going out, and are quick to adapt external content before social distribution to maintain a unified tone of voice.

They also tailor in-house content specifically to particular social channels, which they integrate into all campaigns in line with thier digital-first strategy. “Before the editorial team would create content, and the social media team had to rework it for social media. Not anymore,” adds Mehringer.

For NATO’s digital team, creating an organic connection with audiences is a priority. They are constantly looking for new ways to increase the meaningfulness of their communication. How do they do it? They started by taking a close look at what was available to them and realized they were sitting on an untapped pool of behind-the-scenes content. With their unrestricted access to military locations and war-affected zones they had the opportunity to educate audiences about their mission and get them closer to the issues that mattered.

Here too they’ve been taking advantage of the latest technologies. This includes 360-degree cameras and drones to get closer than anyone else to offer exclusive footage of often dangerous situations.


“You all have this exclusive content, you just have to find it,” says Mehringer.

NATO: Return to Hope

In a first-of-its-kind project, NATO released “Return to Hope”–a communication platform and web-documentary covering NATO’s longest combat operation, Afghanistan.

The team wanted this project to be different. “We didn’t want a website about NATO.”

They instead created an information channel about life in Afghanistan and how their mission had influenced it. The NATO team filmed six local people telling their stories about life in a country devastated by war. The world got to hear these accounts straight from the mouths of the people living them. Both the good and the bad.

This stands as one of the most powerful human-interest campaigns and awareness initiatives yet.

The ROI of storytelling

The campaign won numerous awards recognizing its quality and content. NATO was also nominated in the WEBBIE Awards alongside some of the biggest media companies in the world: Mashable, CNN, National Geographic. Not bad for onetime cold war technology dinosaur.

The campaign website gets about 250,000 unique visitors. This may not seem an astronomical number but the site is impressive from a marketing standpoint due to the average viewing time of 20-minutes. The conclusion is clear: people love content that tells a story.

Changing with the times

As in any organization, one of the social team’s chief jobs is protecting NATO’s reputation. “Don’t be silly. You can do a lot of damage quickly,” Mehringer said. However, his team also doesn’t want to present the organization as the “dad at the prom,” so they aren’t shy of using a little humor.

They celebrated reaching 500k Facebook followers with a “cute kittens” post that reached more than 76,000 people, generated 5,277 clicks, and received over 3,800 interactions.

NATO digital first strategy

However, NATO ’s communication is also impacted and tempered by current events. As events unfold, so does their tone and approach to content production and distribution.

A recent campaign features short videos designed to challenge the onslaught of politically-charged Russian content on social media. The 1-2 minute videos are designed to debunk Moscow’s take on the facts and provide reassurances about NATO’s preparedness.

NATO is a perfect example of how a storied, large and far-flung organization can break with an entrenched pre-digital mentality. Digitally speaking, NATO has made a giant in a short time by embracing the value of quality content and distribution.

Like many global brands, it has struggled with irrelevance by failing to adapt to modern audiences and technologies. That battle looks to be turning in its favor thanks to a digital-first strategy. How many aging corporate behemoths can say the same going into 2017?

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