This is a post by Richard Parker
Edge’s defiantly ginger strategy guru Rich is a fan of Copenhagen, Steak-frites, George Orwell and Paul Simon. Not necessarily in that order.
Inspiration

Imagine this for a second: you’re in charge of content for a 124-year-old company with more than 300,000 employees around the world. You service eight different business sectors: power and water, oil and gas, energy management, aviation, healthcare, transportation, appliances and lighting, and financial services. Your audience is vast spanning from engineers to shareholders and potential shareholders, customers and potential customers, chief financial officers, healthcare workers, and pilots, to name just a few. Unlike a lot of brands that think their target audience is pretty much everyone, yours genuinely is.

How on earth would you even begin to think about communicating with them and is it actually conceivable for one organisation to create content that appeals to a highly skilled engineer one minute and primary school students the next?

It’s a question General Electric, or GE, the fourth-largest company in the world, has been grappling with for many years and recently, totally nailing it.

The brand’s content marketing strategy started to take shape when it looked to shift from interrupting with advertising to interacting through content. The change was driven by the desire to build on the brand globally.

One example of the approach is clear: entertain, don’t sell. It’s evident in yet another clever way GE is playing in the space, Fallonventions. A partnership with The Tonight Show hosted by Jimmy Fallon, Fallonventions sees young inventors showcase their work to a national TV audience as Fallon quizzes them in a GE-branded lab coat.

Past Fallonventions include a wildfire warning system, a hat that helps you scratch your back and a flashlight powered by a the heat of your hands. The future scientists are awarded $5,000 scholarships from GE.

Emma Rugge-Price, vice president – brand, marketing, and communications for GE Australia, New Zealand & PNG, told Marketing Magazine earlier this year: “We wanted a singular strategy that would work in lots of different markets. So we created a global content marketing strategy and we implemented it at the local market level with local media partners. Since then we have continued to push the strategy through the creation of new content and digital distribution.”

Across the various content initiatives GE has in play, and there are many, the tone and approach are best summed up by Tomas Kellner, editor of GE Reports. When asked where many brands fall down when getting into content, he told Contently: “They need to forget about the press release. They have to forget about this content being about ‘me, me, me’. You can’t do that.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Andy Goldberg, chief creative officer at GE. When asked about the strategy behind GE’s science fiction podcast The Message, described as Serial meets The War of the Worlds, he told NiemanLab: “I’m not saying, ‘Hey, go out and buy a jet engine.’ It’s a science fiction story to connect listeners with what the GE brand is about, without selling the GE brand.” The Podcast shot to number one on iTunes late last year.

The mandate to use content to entertain is a solid start but like any large scale project, you need company buy in. This is something GE prides itself on. Kellner told Contently: “It’s really a part of the culture that’s inside the company. We believe in content. We believe in stories.”

In terms of deciding how to implement the strategy in each market, Rugg-Price told Marketing Magazine: “As long as it fits the criteria around content marketing and it embraces interaction and integration versus interruption, and as long as I am creating locally relevant content that is compelling, then I am meeting the brief of my brand.”

So we have a strategy, an approach, plenty of rope to play with and everyone on board. Next comes the execution.

GE Reports

At the heart of GE’s content offerings is GE Reports, dubbed “the World’s Best Brand Mag”.

GE Reports is a science, tech, and innovation online magazine in the style of Wired or The Economist‘s science and technology section. The publication includes stories on three major themes related to GE — new technology, machines and advanced manufacturing. It began in 2008 as a “reactive tool” to the global financial crisis.

Every day, GE Reports publishes stories that quickly amass a large readership. The audience is vast spanning from engineers to shareholders, potential shareholders and customers, particularly in Asia.

Managing editor Tomas Kellner, a former reporter for Forbes, told the Brunswick Review: “The company wanted to contribute the GE Capital perspective to the conversation but there weren’t enough writers around to be picking the story up from every company that wanted to be heard. So we originally built this platform to tell our side of the story, reactively. Now it’s really a proactive tool where we can tell all the stories we think are worth telling.”

The hub of GE Reports is based in New York but using a franchise model, the function has been rolled out to other markets. In Australia, PR firm Edelman looks after the content strategy and editorial team which works as a newsroom, creating short-form articles, videos, infographics and guest blog posts. The responsive site GEreports.com.au was built and launched in October 2013. According to Edelman, locally, GE Reports demonstrates how GE is “powering, curing, moving and building Australia and New Zealand”.

While international markets play their role, Kellner is clearly the pin-up boy of GE Reports writing most of the feature articles, guiding editorial, as well as teaching storytelling workshops to GE employees around the world. He has a team of internal writers and calls on freelancers via a content marketing company.

Yet Kellner doesn’t think of himself as spruiking the brand. He told Contently: “I basically ignored press releases and focused one hundred percent on storytelling. My stories have real protagonists who are trying to solve real problems and reach real outcomes.”

The stories are chosen based on their stickiness with Kellner saying: “They have to be newsworthy enough so a person who is in no way connected to GE, interested in GE, or owns GE stock, would still walk away and say, ‘This is a really cool piece of information. Maybe I should come back and check on them more often’.”

The pieces are sourced through good old fashioned journalism. When GE Reports was first established, Kellner spent many months building a network, making contacts and delving into the intricacies of what GE does.

Distribution of the content is largely organic with little paid effort going into the mix. Pieces regularly get picked up by online bulletin board Reddit where they are shared by more than half a million readers. While Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr play a role in distribution, trusty old email is the biggest traffic driver. In February 2015, 15,000 people a day received email blasts from GE Reports, a figure that had grown to 17,000 by July. At that time, the site was attracting in excess of 600,000 readers a month with each of the stories produced by GE Reports seeing tens of thousands of page views with a per-page engagement time of almost four minutes.

The content also racks up a great deal of earned media. One example is the story of a new type of CT scan able to produce highly detailed images of the inside of the body. After appearing on GEreports.com, it was picked up by Newsweek, The Washington Post, and media outlets in China and Europe.

While the platform may not be directly selling GE offerings, it is educating and informing readers in an engaging way which has the effect of doing just that. Kellner says: “GE Reports is an important outlet to really lay out the business case behind GE.”

He adds: “Right now, we are really winning the hearts and the minds of people, and shifting the perception of GE.”

GE gets social

In addition to using social media for distribution of its flagship GE Reports content, the company runs a number of social initiatives.

GE prides itself on often being one of the first brands to get on board with new social platforms and apps such as Snapchat, working overtime to understand which sector of its audience is using the technology and how best to communicate in the environment. GE marketers boast that they started playing around with Vine one day after the video-sharing app launched. It was also one of the first companies to get on WeChat in China.

GE’s Executive Director of Global Brand Marketing Linda Boff told DigiDay: “Social started (for GE) because we wanted to be having conversations with people: consumers, employees, investors, and anybody else that shares our passions. If that’s what you’re looking to do, then you’ve got to be where people are now spending their time.”

Anthony Spargo, Director Public Affairs GE & Communications GE Capital, Australia and New Zealand told Social Media Today in 2014: “For us it’s really about understanding our customers and prospective customers, and knowing how and where we engage with them in an authentic and productive way.”

One of the better-known examples of GE’s social presence is #6SecondScience. The Vine-based campaign encouraged users to share their own six-second science Vines.

Another is #EmojiScience. In an effort to make science more engaging and relatable to younger students, GE took over the New York University laboratory. The lab was used to create content to distribute via Snapchat with GE responding to fans on the platform. For example, if a fan sent a broken heart emoji to GE, they would receive a ‘Bubble Balloon’ experiment, where a heart-shaped balloon inflated on account of the reaction between vinegar and baking soda. Coupled with the Snapchat experiment, GE created the Emoji Periodic Table of Experiments, an interactive chart that links to science-related videos, photos and experiments across the web.

Similarly on Twitter, GE launched the hashtag #Springbreakit, where it demonstrated the power of ‘super materials’ by crushing and blasting things. A year on, the hashtag still has traction because let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to see stuff getting smashed up?

Over on Instagram, GE is showing brands how it’s done. Bold, striking, eye-catching images of jet engines, turbines and locomotives rule for an audience of 211,000 followers.

In addition to all of this, GE is also using LinkedIn to communicate with its business audience, particularly to target chief financial officers (CFOs) working in the mid-market, defined as businesses with annual revenues of between $10 million and $250 million. In Australia each year, GE’s finance division GE Capital creates a report based on a survey of 5,500 CFOs. When looking for ways to engage this audience in conversations around the findings of this report, GE’s Spargo found the one platform these time-poor executives consistently use is LinkedIn.

GE’s Spargo told Social Media Today: “We worked closely with LinkedIn to develop the GE Capital Australian Mid-Market Hub, a place for discussion of the key issues and trends impacting innovation and growth and how this is driving the Australian economy. The group has been a great success, and now boasts 2,250 plus members.”

Linking the content initiatives

With all of these initiatives working across so many different platforms, producing content and linking them all together must be a challenge, particularly as they span different markets.

But GE continues to find unique ways to do this. Another of GE’s clever content projects is Breakthrough. Premiering on the NatGeo channel in November last year, Breakthrough is a documentary series that sees GE partner with Imagine Entertainment. Featuring a star-studded lineup of Hollywood talent including Ron Howard, Peter Berg, Angela Bassett, Paul Giamatti and Brett Ratner, the series looks at ‘the stories behind science’.

Rugg-Price told Marketing Magazine earlier this year: “We have a number of communication channels where we are always looking for new content. Content like Breakthrough, which is very global in its nature, can be applied to any channel. We will create events around this content and distribute it through our content platform, GE Reports. We will also push it through social and host screenings with university students. There are a lot of applications for this type of global content. I’m not saying all global content is as universal but, in this case, it definitely is.”

Measuring success

Measuring against the goal of shifting people’s perceptions is quite different from measuring return on investment with sales figures in hand. Yet GE’s belief is that through content, it can seed its brand in the hearts and minds of many and sales will naturally follow.

This is supported by Rugg-Price’s comments about measuring the success of the documentary series Breakthrough. She says: “What we measure overall is brand reputation, the number of communications channels and reach. The expectation is that globally we will get really good reach and GE is supporting the content with major activities in every market. It’s a great opportunity for us to interact with our customers and stakeholders to help differentiate ourselves.”

Using content, GE is attempting to do great many things from engaging, entertaining, educating, influencing and shifting brand perception. And they’re accomplishing it by stepping aside to let the content speak for itself.