‘We Believe in Stories’: GE Reports’ Tomas Kellner Reveals How He Built the World’s Best Brand Mag

They say that Reddit isn’t a friendly place for brands, but don’t tell Tomas Kellner that.

Kellner is the managing editor of GE Reports, which very well may be the best brand magazine on the planet. (Sorry, Red Bull.) Every day, GE Reports publishes fascinating stories on emerging technology that commonly rocket up the Reddit boards and are shared by a devoted audience of over half a million readers. Topping the homepage right now, for instance, is a story about an amazing new material that could revolutionize air travel and a report about tiny sensors inspired by butterfly wings destined to have a big impact on bomb detection.

Oh yeah, and these viral stories? They all tie back to GE.

At the helm of it all is Kellner, who has led GE Reports’ incredible rise while writing nearly every big story, all while expanding GE Reports internationally to regional editions around the globe.

I recently spoke with Kellner, who shed some light on GE Reports’ unique blueprint—from their audience-building tactics, to their measurement secrets, to how they rocket their content through legal, and much more—including why your brand is probably doing everything all wrong.

How exactly did you turn GE Reports into such an amazing tech site?

I really approached it as an online magazine, rather than thinking about it as a company blog. I wanted to produce an online magazine that tells people something new. I basically ignored press releases, and focused 100 percent on storytelling. My stories have real protagonists who are trying to solve real problems and reach real outcomes. That’s one aspect.

The second aspect is that the story has to be newsworthy to earn the right to be published on GE Reports. I want my readers to learn something new. When they come to a GE Reports story, it has to give them a piece of information, a nugget, that they didn’t know before.

These are GE stories in the sense that they’re always somehow connected to GE. But 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.”

How do you go about finding those stories that have a connection to GE, but still have that newsworthiness?

It’s basically just old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. You have to go to the factories. You have to develop sources. You have to go to the labs and see what those guys are doing. It didn’t happen overnight for me. It took me a while to develop my network of sources, and to figure out who’s working on what.

Once you start generating attention to the site, and once you start seeing that the stories start traveling, things get easier. For example, two weeks ago, we had a story on the new Revolution CT scan that can produce these really crazy images of the inside of the body. It’s really similar to what you would see like at the Bodies exhibit—that kind of level of detail.

Via GE Reports

We published that story, and that story got picked up by everyone from Newsweek toTime to The Washington Post. It got picked up by Chinese media outlets and media outlets all over Europe. Literally, we’ve been everywhere. Once people inside GE started to see the type of success that you can have—well, now they come to me with story ideas.

Do you have total freedom to decide what to publish, or is there ever influence from inside the company saying to cover this or cover that?

Yes, I would say it’s about 75/25, in a sense. We usually have big company milestones that are things that the company wants to talk about, so we write about those. They are generally very newsworthy. One of the big things that we covered last year that fell into this category was the “industrial Internet”—basically developing software for machines so that machines can talk to each other.

That’s a really interesting area that’s permeating every field. If you went to the CES this year, everybody was talking about it. That’s one of the perks of running an online publication for a company like GE; they’re really working on stuff that’s newsworthy, that’s sort of badass.

How do you identify your target audience? Who are you trying to reach?

If you look at GE Reports, we are a science, tech, and innovation online magazine; sort of in the vein as Wired or Pop Science, or The Economist‘s science and technology section. Anyway, that’s how I fashion it.

Obviously, engineers—that audience is really big for us. We are also looking at shareholders—that’s potentially a really big audience. Most people will not buy a jet engine during their lifetime, but who knows what’s going to happen in 10 years? Maybe they’ll get smaller, and everybody will have a personal plane or a flying car. There are a lot of people who could buy GE shares. GE Reports is an important outlet to really lay out the business case behind GE, and we do that fairly often.

Customers are another important audience, especially in areas, say, like Asia, where people may not be as familiar with GE as they are here in the U.S. You really want to talk to your customers. Right now, we are really winning the hearts and the minds of people, and really shifting the perception of GE.

Here we are; we’re 130 years old. We were founded by Thomas Edison, and guess what? We are still working on freaking really hard problems that the entire planet has to be dealing with, whether it’s the future of energy, or whether it’s the future of electricity, or whether it’s new propulsion for planes that will get you from New York to Tokyo in four hours.

It’s really a strategic decision, who you want to talk to. Any editor has to decide who his audience is. We do the same thing. If you can boil it down, it would be investors, engineers, and customers. And, ultimately, everybody is a customer. It’s not just, say, the guy who runs the hospital. He is a customer, but the ultimate customer is you when you get an MRI. The customer is the airline that buys our jet engines, but the ultimate customer is you when you get on that plane and get off.

We need millions of readers to get the word out. Everybody can be a publisher, but in order to be a successful publisher you have to build your own distribution channels. Those distribution channels go through your readers, and you need a really large number of them to get the word out.

How do you approach distribution? Is it all organic? Do you go through paid channels?

Actually, no. We mostly go through organic. There’s very little paid. We put pay behind stuff that performs well, but one of the big assets for us, I would say, is email. We love email. It may sound old-school, but email subscription is really a hard-wired link to your audience. For us, email subscribers are an extremely valuable audience that we want. Every day 15,000 people get the blast from GE Reports that a new story is out.

Twitter is another big way for us to get the news out. Another distribution channel is Tumblr, and that’s why we got on Tumblr. It is inherently social, and that’s why we wanted to be there. Of course Facebook—everybody wants to get to the Facebook news powerhouse. I think really getting the organic groundswell behind your stories is really important.

The way a lot of brands have approached content marketing lately is to just rent an audience through native ad campaigns. Why do you think it’s so valuable to own an audience?

It’s amazing. Number one is that it’s your audience. You know who they are, and you can communicate to them directly. You know what they like, and you know what they don’t like. That’s number one.

Number two is that, once you have your site, it sort of weaves this seamless web over your content. No one story exists on its own. I’ll give you an example. Going back into this CT scan story, when it sort of ran its course, suddenly we noticed that media here in the U.S. and in Europe started publishing stories about another technology: this really cool microscope that we [covered] that can produce a really cool picture.

Basically, when our CT scan became old news, there were journalists out there who still wanted to run on the story, so they went for the next thing. The way they found out about it is because that microscope story was featured below our CT scan story.

That ecosystem is really valuable, and GE Reports allows us to build and nourish that ecosystem.

How do you guys measure success? How do you know you’re really winning that battle for the hearts and minds of people?

We start with the usual stuff—we look at users, we look at pageviews. Total time spent reading is really important for us, so we look at that. How many engaged people come to it? How long do they stay?

I’m going to keep talking about this CT scanner as an example just because it’s so recent. You’ve got tens of thousands of people coming to this site to look at a story, and they usually stay for almost 4 minutes—which, online, is a lifetime. It’s a really long time. We know that the people engage with our content. They’re not just popping in and popping out.

Organic pickup is also very important. It means that what we’re saying is actually newsy. The guys who are in the news business are finding it newsy.

Email subscription is big. We measure that, too; how much email subscriptions a certain story drives, and why. Which headline works, with whom, and why? Those are really important questions that you need to be asking, instead of sort of shooting the headlines of stories out there scatter shot to anyone who will listen.

Why do you think that most big brands struggle to create content that people actually want to read or watch? What’s holding them back?

Honestly, they have to forget about the press release. They have to forget about this content being about “me, me, me.” You can’t do that.

If you go to a dinner party, say, and you keep talking about yourself, people will think that you’re such a bore. They’ll be able to listen to you for 5 minutes, but then they’ll turn away. They won’t talk to you for the rest of the evening.

But if you’re at the dinner table and contribute a point of view that actually advances the debate around the table. They’ll say, “What a smart guy” or “What a smart gal.” That’s basically what we’re trying to do.

You guys publish a lot of stories. How long does it take you to get a piece of content from ideation to completely approved, through legal and all that, to published on the site?

It depends. Some stories move fairly quickly. Some stories actually move within a day. It’s sort of like working for a news wire, or for a newspaper. You really have to turn it around fairly quickly.

Some pieces take longer. For example, we recently had a story on robotics. We’ve invested in a company called Rethink Robotics, and they came up with this robot called Baxter. It’s a collaborative robot, so you can work with it. It works with you; it actually senses where you are. When it bumps into your hand, it’s not just going to break it. It’s actually going to stop.

That’s a fairly unique machine, and definitely out there. I don’t have a background in robotics, so it took me a while to really interview the different players who are involved and familiar with the robot—[the players] involved in developing the robot, and who are familiar with using him.

If it’s sort of a more involved, magazine-like piece, it takes you maybe four or five days to put it together. It depends—I would say most of the stories are done within two or three days. Most of it is basically like a newspaper.

Do all of your stories go through legal approval?

They do, or they get checked by the responsible teams against approved claims. You have to put in place. With health care, for example, you could not publish a story without legal approval. Our health care business and our life sciences business is really huge. Often, when you talk about a device, it actually has to go through two sets of lawyers. It has to go through the regular legal department, but then it also has to go through the regulatory lawyers that make sure that what you’re saying actually describes fairly what the machine is doing.

In the beginning, it was a difficult practice for me to learn. I didn’t know who these people were, and how to get the copy through efficiently. It often got stuck. It’s like building a house. You have to put in the plumbing. Once you know who these people are, you don’t have to go through the various gatekeepers—you can go directly to them and check on your story, and see how it’s moving.

I came in through journalism, and it’s often like fact-checking with sources. I find that experience really invaluable. When it comes to a company publication, and your stories get noticed by the top-level publications, you are under a special degree of scrutiny.

You must have a really strong relationship with your legal team to be able to get this stuff approved so quickly. It’s a huge road block for a lot of brands.

It’s not just me. It’s really a part of the culture that’s inside the company. I think we believe in content. We believe in stories. On this side of the business, which is communications and marketing, we do everything possible to be able to tell a really good story.

Do you guys use any particular technology platforms to keep everybody on the same page, especially as you expand internationally?

Yes, we are definitely looking at different technology platforms.Group SJR built the site for us on Tumblr and is helping us to run it day-to-day. You guys are constantly helping us with our internal blog for our internal audience.

But definitely, that is a big issue. It’s like, “Yeah, it’s fine to have GE Reports, but if you want to scale it, [it becomes more difficult].” We really believe strongly in the franchise model. When I was at Forbes, we had regional editions all over the world that published some content that was published in the U.S. edition, but a lot of the stuff was designed to cater to the local audiences and publish stuff that the local audiences wanted to see.At the same time, you had to have some visibility into what’s going on in the U.S. within these other markets.

It was fairly difficult, but when you publish every two weeks, you can do it. When you publish every day, as we do on GE Reports now, it’s harder. In order to scale it, and make it truly a global publishing platform, we need a tool that will allow us to do that.

One last question: How many monthly readers do you guys have now?

I’ll give you the latest. Right now we are halfway through January, and we have about 300,000.

Wow, that’s awesome.

That’s a good month. I have to say, it is a good month. When it goes well, that’s basically what it is. We had a couple good stories. It’s a number, and I’m willing to share that number because it’s repeatable. It’s not the most we’ve ever had. And it’s not the limit.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image by Tomas Kellner

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