GE might build jet engines and steam turbines, but over the past decade, the 126-year-old brand has also developed a reputation as a social media powerhouse. A fearless pioneer, it was one of the first businesses to use Instagram and Vine, making a splash with its brilliant and award-winning #6SecondScience campaign. GE’s work on social has been a personal source of inspiration, and so it was a real pleasure to get to speak to the mastermind behind it.
On my podcast, All the Social Ladies, I was recently joined by Beth Comstock, former Vice Chair and Chief Marketing Officer at GE and author of the new book, Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change. Beth gave me a peek behind the curtain, sharing her lessons learned about taking risks on social media and what she’d tell other marketers.
1. Build a content factory.
In 2009, Beth decided that GE needed to build a “content factory,” tapping Linda Boff to lead a “scrappy team of digital innovators” and carving out 15 percent of the advertising budget to attack the challenge of digitizing the company’s marketing with greater creativity.
“With the rise of social media and many more people telling stories, why don’t brands have the same capability?” Beth remembers thinking. “Why are we restricted to an ad block to tell our story?”
To work hand-in-hand with its in-house team of narrators and digital natives, GE created a “farm team” of independent creators around the globe to explore various parts of the business and create compelling pieces of content around it. One of the earliest examples? An edgy video the team filmed by tying a small camera to a toy soldier before throwing it off a wind turbine.
2. Use data to back up your experiments.
When I asked Beth why she thought more companies don’t take risks like this on social, she identified a fear of looking stupid or wasting money. Her advice: “Try it in a place where you can test and learn…Be willing to have a strategy and sit down and explain it to people.”
And find the story that helps you correlate the growth you need to experiment. GE, for example, was able to calculate that for every $1 it spent via its content factor, it received $1.41 of value through amplification.
3. Don’t be afraid to be first.
GE was the first big company to partner with Buzzfeed, back when the media company was still relatively small. This first-mover advantage allowed the team to spend less money because the model was not yet fully developed, giving them more impact and buzz.
“It’s counterintuitive,” Beth notes. “People don’t take a risk because they say, ‘I’m not going to get the audience I want.’ Not yet. But Buzzfeed was desperate to get a brand partner to take to other brands. So we both won in that.” In order to win, you have to be willing to take a risk.
In her book, Beth writes that she often gets calls from CEOs asking her how to replicate GE’s success on social. Here’s what she says:
“What I tell them is that it really comes down to a (relatively) simple equation: great content + the right time, right place, right audience + amplification through conversation + shout louder than we spend = massive ROI. You have to grab shares of people’s hearts and minds before you can hope to grab shares of their wallets or loyalty. And you always have to make room in your budget—and mindset—to challenge and experiment.”