summer / 2014

The magazine of branded content
Led by Linda Boff, GE's elite team sets the standard for content marketers.
Jun 10, 2014

It's not surprising that GE positions itself as an innovator in the content space. After all, they introduced the light bulb, the very metaphor for a grand idea.

As you stand in front of GE's corporate home at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and look skyward, you see a business that has parlayed grand ideas into scale—seventy stories of scale.

“Content, until a couple years ago, was not a core strength of ours at all.”

Through the lobby and one swift elevator ride later, you're fifty-two floors in the sky, tucked into a small conference room that's library-quiet, flooded with sunlight. In comes Linda Boff, GE's executive director of global brand marketing. Boff is the type of brand executive gaining more occupancy as of late to C-suites: willing to experiment, nimbly embracing the digital content landscape as the rapidly shifting ecosystem that it is.

Screenshot GE Reports is an online magazine that features stories about innovation, science and technology. »

Guided by GE's passion point, Innovation, the company's digital footprint reflects concerted commitment: They run two content hubs (@GE_Reports and a Tumblr called Txchnologist); they're omnipresent on LinkedIn, Google Plus, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Vine and Pinterest; they've experimented with Reddit and Jelly. “You want to be early,” Boff replied when asked about GE's mandate for innovation, “because being early counts a lot. At moments where we felt like there was something new out there, we experimented.”

“Seeing how the industry is moving—more and more sophisticated conversations, not about 'Could you buy a rectangle that’s a banner?'—has made us more comfortable.”

Boff points out that her team had experimented with 3D printing nearly three years ago, even dallied with augmented reality, and she says her team was the first Fortune 100 company to adopt Vine.

“We’ve had the support here at GE to test and learn, and [GE CMO Beth Comstock] has been the wind at our back, telling us to go out, experiment, try things,” says Boff. “So I think the more we’ve thrown a line into the water and felt 'OK, this feels like it’s working,' the more comfortable we are throwing in the second and the third and the fifth and the twentieth line in the water. So I think experimentation has made us comfortable. I think seeing how the industry is moving has made us more comfortable. More and more we’re having sophisticated conversations, not about 'Could you buy a rectangle that’s a banner? Could you buy a page?' But rather 'How do we together create something?' So I think we’ve caught a wave. I like to think we’ve helped to make that wave but we’ve certainly caught this wave and we’re headed, I think, in the right direction.”

“I think reading content that's all about GE is fundamentally not that interesting.”

This “right direction” began a few years ago, but GE, like many brands, had a problem: no core competency in creating branded content. “We [previously] bought media, we put together creative that wound up in sixty-second increments on television,” says Boff. “We put together websites that were more beautiful pictures than they were anything that was a true engagement tool.”

GE feared that with their limited understanding of the content space, they would build something and nobody would pay attention to it. “It’s the distribution pipes that we’re always keeping in mind now,” she says. “How discoverable is the content that we’re making?”

And they didn't want to rely too heavily on paid media. “You can’t always be paid. The content has gotta catch fire. What we try to do is work that balance where we put enough paid against something that at some point the match ignites, and then people start to share it. It's about discoverability. We want to be in enough places that we have a much better chance of somebody bumping into it just through pure serendipity. It’s anything but linear. It's nothing a marketing manager would put in a plan and say, 'Here’s the linear path of how something’s going to happen.' It never works that way.”

“We try to work that balance and put enough paid against something that at some point the match ignites.”

Vendor partnerships, crucial to GE's acclimating to the content space, include Mekanism, The Barbarian Group, OMD, MEC and content communications company Group SJR. Vayner Media handles their micro social content.

“I think we’ve found some smart partners,” she says. “That makes a huge difference, to be able to have these kinds of conversations and feel as though I’m not crazy, that other people are talking this way also.”

One example of a partnership that helped ignite content occurred last year when GE collaborated with Vayner Media to host a #6SecondScienceFair on Vine, inviting users to post videos that answered the question, “How much science can you fit in six seconds?” GE and Vayner solicited “Vine celebrities,” and then cross-promoted the content across all social media platforms. More than 600 videos were shared; Twitter mentions reached 5,000 while total engagements topped 250,000. A viral hit, for sure, but the real win, for Boff, was that GE didn't brand it.

“We’ve had the support here at GE to test and learn.”

“Nowhere in the campaign does it say GE,” she says. “Not on the hashtag, not on the description, not in the name. It's coming from GE’s Vine account but it’s all about people who love science. To us that’s great because it’s about the essence of who we are. When somebody enjoys that and consumes it and passes it along, and then they realize 'Oh, this is something GE’s doing,' there’s almost this double-take in a really good way of 'Oh, this is pretty cool and interesting. Oh, it’s from GE.’s from GE. This is the kind of thing they’re involved with.' And it’s almost that peeling of the onion rather than trying to put our name in headlights that I think works really well for us.”

When choosing a vendor to work with, Boff looks for more than freshness of approach. She prizes good listeners. “I can’t tell you how many times people come in to see me and my team and all they do is talk about themselves and what it is they have, and they don’t stop to ask what it is we’re interested in doing.”

“With our content we’re trying to just be who we are, in a way that’s as interesting and accessible and human as possible.”

As the interview draws to a close, Boff sums up the GE advantage: “That’s the advantage of 134 years,” she says, laughing. “We know ourselves well. With our content we’re trying to just be who we are, in a way that’s as interesting and accessible and human as possible. If we do that, it works.”