Beyond the Page: New Zealand Geographic and Dish extend themselves—UPDATED

James Frankham

Since New Zealand Geographic’s inception in 1989, a large part of its focus has been on showcasing stunning photography. The magazine has gained a loyal following, with a subscriber base of 8,000 and over 300,000 readers. But, in 2009 the title was looking for a new way to interact with its audience, so it bet big on that fundamental pillar, photography, and the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year was born. And not only was it successful for growing and engaging its community, but it was also a commercial success, so much so that Kowhai Media came away with the Best Brand Community award in the business/current affairs category, alongside Tangible Media’s Dish magazine in the consumer category. 

Credit: Richard Robinson

Shameless exhibitionists

The Photographer of the Year is much more than just a competition, however. The initiative reaches the title’s audience across multiple touch points, including a popular, free exhibition held in Christchurch and Auckland, which has thousands of attendees each year.

“We decided [photography]was going to be the best avenue. We wanted something that was going to involve the readers themselves and involve them in a more critical way than just looking at pretty pictures,” says editor James Frankham.

He says the competition has grown every year since its launch and is open to professional and amateur photographers alike.

“We’ve had just over 5,800 entries into the competition which is open to the public and free to enter, and then we take those images and judge them and that becomes material for an exhibition which is also reproduced online.”

Frankham says this year the exhibition is tracking well, on par with the previous year’s numbers.

“Last year we had 33,000 people go through the exhibition and 36,000 votes [as people chose] their favourite images from the competition, so that creates a lot of interaction between the online community and the images themselves.”

An awards ceremony announcing the winners is held in late October at Auckland’s Karanga Plaza.

He says there’s a reason the competition continues to be held in Christchurch.

“Christchurch was the first city to come on-board and support the competition,” he says. “It’s funded by the Transitional City Projects Fund which has a goal to revitalise the inner city and draw Cantabrians back in. And very often, even this year, there were plenty of people turning up to the exhibition and that was the first time they had been to the city centre since the quake … And so we brought more than 7,100 people into the city that wouldn’t have otherwise been there. So that’s a great win for the council and us alike.” 

Sponsor attraction

The competition has also acted as a fantastic commercial platform, Frankham says, with a range of sponsors on-board including Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Resene, Tamron and Manfrotto.

“This was an entirely new way for them to meet their market. As well as branding at the events they can also do their own marketing around the Photographer of the Year brand,” he says. “And they can host the voting page for the people’s choice award and they can also turn up to the event themselves and have their own kiosk and their own activities on site. Those sort of site activations are typically really, really expensive and under the banner of Photographer of the Year we are able to do that and do it cost effectively.”

He says the exhibition has also helped New Zealand Geographic’s direct marketing.

“Whenever somebody votes in favour of an image, we also gather their name and email address so we can be in contact with them later.”

The magazine also gets a lot of interaction towards the end of the year and the beginning of the next.

“We have really good sales for our November/December issue, which has the announcement of the winners, and in particular the January/February issue sales almost double [196 percent lift in sales] of anything else because it includes a calendar of images of the winners in the competition.”

For the three months of the year surrounding the competition, web traffic on New Zealand Geographic’s website doubles, he says.

Frankham says in a macro sense, over the period the competition has been running, circulation has remained pretty stable.

“I think having this big brand community is one of the reasons for that stability,” he says. “And stability is kind of the new growth in the magazine market in some respects.”

He says sales of the magazine have also remained right up there and readership has grown.

“Our retail sales have grown something like 15 or 20 percent year-on-year and so the magazine is bucking the trend and it’s hard to put that down to any one factor but the assumption is that it’s largely to do with our engagement with the audience through mechanisms like the Photographer of the Year competition.”

Timelapse and hyperlapse finalists:

Career platform

The competition isn’t just good for sponsors, it’s also launched the careers of budding photographers.

“For many of the photographers it’s a pretty special occasion too, for some of them it’s launched careers in editorial and also commercial careers. A lot of people have gone on to start photography businesses in arts or to leave their day jobs and take up photography full time off the back of winning a category or an award in this competition,” he says.

The title is also growing its brand community in other ways, having introduced a paywall system and digitised the entire back catalogue of the magazine back to 1989. The collection has been made available for every school in New Zealand and has also been provisioned for a lot of public libraries across the countries.

Lisa Morton

More hands on deck

Tangible Media’s Dish magazine has also created an engaged brand community across a range of platforms, and attributes its success to the hiring of a digital editor mid last year to look after its website and social media platforms.

The decision has seen all of its social channels, including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook grow massively over the previous 12 months, says Dish associate publisher Lisa Morton.

“When we launched our website in 2013 it gave us this opportunity to talk to our readers more and create more of a sense of community and get more of a response from them. So it was quite exciting to have that immediate communication with readers.” 

She says Facebook has worked particularly well for Dish.

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“Claire [Aldous, food editor] posting her weekly Friday Baking recipe just really took off. We felt it was worthwhile having the investment in a dedicated resource for website and social media channels. Otherwise, the website would risk just being a reflection of what was reproduced in the magazine. It has to be more than that as well as being authentic and engaging to our community of home cooks and food enthusiasts. Just as crucial was creating a model that our advertisers could be part of as well.”

And one of its videos showing people how to make butter has 1.3 million views on Facebook. 

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Advertising appeal

She says sponsored Facebook led-campaigns attracted the audience and pleased the clients. For example, a two-week Viaggio cruises campaign launched early this year reached 11,345 users and the company sold two cruises.

Dish’s combination of culinary content creation and its large social following has also attracted other advertisers, with high profile campaigns for Silver Fern Farms, Kapiti cheese and Tourism Australia, she says. 

Complementing this digital activity are a range of events: ‘Dine with Dish’, ‘The Chef’s Table’, ‘The Long Table’ and ‘Dish Drinks’, which have also been commercially successful and have helped attract an older and wealthier audience.

She says its readers are really loyal and invested in the brand and it means a lot for them to hear from a Dish perspective.

“They love reading it, they love cooking from Dish and they love to get more of it more often and have that Dish filter over things.”

The success of Dish’s brand extensions and the creation of the new role has driven a positive sales story, with sponsorship up 237 percent year-on year, advertorial up 298 percent, the website up 129 percent and magazine sales up 13 percent, she says. 

“What has been really gratifying is that while our digital audience has exploded, this has not come at the expenses of paid circulation of the print product. This in part gave us the confidence to follow a paid-for-content model on our new website and while it is early days, that seems to be paying off.” 

And, in the eyes of the team, the investment has more than paid off.

“We tested and tested [digital strategies] as we weren’t sure how people would respond, but pretty much every time people would engage with it [website and social media]in a really fantastic way.”

Judge’s Comments:



An outstanding entry that delivered results through a smart long term strategy, creating forums hubs and environments that encourage repeat visit. Mass channels with tailored messages… Good commercial integration. 

Highly Commended: NZ House & Garden, OHbaby!


Winner: New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year

An outstanding entry – truly worked across all touch points. Innovative event and execution that took the brand to where the people were. Massive engagement and usable data. Good brand alignment. Made sense that New Zealand Geographic would be involved in this while finding a way for competing advertisers to be involved in the same property. 

  • This story is part of a content partnership with the Magazine Publishers Association.
  • Corrections: this story previously incorrectly referred to Kowhai Media as “Kowhai Publishing”; there weren’t 36,000 people voting online, but rather 36,000 votes tallied; the word ‘Cantabrians’ was previously misspelled; Fujifilm has been removed from the list of sponsors for the Photographer of the Year competition; and sales for the Jan/Feb edition of NZ Geographic increased by 196 percent, rather than by 125 percent.   

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