‘There’s a Bigger Risk Sitting on the Sidelines’: Why GE’s CMO Does Everything Your Brand Is Afraid Of

On the marketing conference circuit, there are few things worse than going on right after GE CMO Linda Boff. Not just because she’s a ridiculously tough act to follow, but also because you’re stuck backstage and don’t get to hear her speak.

That’s the situation I found myself in last month at Collision 2016. Luckily, I was able to catch up with Boff the next day to discuss how GE has managed to innovate so rapidly on so many different platforms and replace Red Bull as the industry’s new favorite content marketing example.

GE is a surprisingly fast mover for such a large enterprise. How do you decide what new formats and channels to jump on and what risks to take?

We have a proclivity to go early for sure. It’s deliberate. It’s not an accident we keep doing it—it’s a strategy. We decided to experiment on a wide variety of platforms, fundamentally, because it’s a mirror to the DNA of the company: founded by an inventor, Thomas Edison, always about experimenting, always about iterating and what’s new.

To mirror that, we have really pioneered many first-to-market activations, experimenting on new platforms, using new technologies. We try to do this in ways that are unexpected, and it leads to benefits for us. We were probably the very first brand on Vine. We were certainly among the first brands on everything from Instagram to Medium to Poncho to Periscope. We also experimented with VR very early.

Sometimes you scrape your knee and a platform goes away, but I’d say it’s a greater risk not to be there trying it.

How do we identify them, and what’s the risk? I think we identify them because all of us on the team use technology. We spend a lot of time talking to people who are often the founders of these companies or sometimes the investors in them. I think the team tends to be early adopters themselves.

I’d say there’s a bigger risk of sitting on the sidelines and waiting it out. For every Meerkat that you try, some may work, some may not. We just move on. So now we’re using Periscope.

We did something called #droneweek using Periscope and went to five factories in five days and told stories at each one using drone footage and our employees. Sometimes you scrape your knee and a platform goes away, but I’d say it’s a greater risk not to be there trying it, because in this world you don’t know what’s going to necessarily take off.

It seems like there’s really a freedom to fail.

Very much so. There’s a freedom to experiment and a tolerance to fail. I don’t think you get that way unless you have a company that invests in technology. It’s in the culture of the company that was started by a guy who said, “I didn’t fail in creating the light bulb. I just tried ten thousand ways that didn’t work the first time.”

Our vice chair, Beth Comstock, has more than a tolerance. She’s such an innovator and really supports us. She’s hungry to figure out: How do we keep the company fresh? How do we make sure that we stay relevant and contemporary, and we’re meaningful to new audiences?

We have a ventures arm always looking to partner with great companies. Whether it’s attracting employees because we’re in a hunt for great talent, whether it’s people who want to invest in the company because we’re a very widely held retail stock. Those things matter.

(Full disclosure: GE Ventures is a Contently client.)

Honing in on one of your recent experiments—the virtual reality campaign with The New York Times—how would you rate that? Is there anything you’d do differently in the future?

I’m fairly thrilled with this one, and I’ll tell you why. I think the Times and GE have shared vision, which is: What could we do in the VR space that would be a great experience, that would bring VR to life to the majority of Times readers? Let’s face it, people like you and I understand VR, but most people have not had a firsthand experience. They haven’t tried on Oculus or Samsung Gear.

We felt as though we needed to bring VR to life in the way that was stupid simple. You got your Sunday paper, you opened it up, and there was a piece of cardboard that was really easy to use and understand. You could experience something that many people hadn’t experienced before.

How do we make sure that the user really is king throughout this experience? They’re giving us some time and attention. What are we giving them back?

I was really thrilled with the results—the level of participation, the downloads. I want to say that it was one of the Times’ top downloads of anything like this that they’ve tried. We got flooded with photos that people sent us of their kids, their families, trying on this pair of cardboard with the GE monogram and the New York Times monogram on the outside. My expectation was not to create the greatest VR film the world has ever seen, although I think the quality of the films was very strong. It was to introduce something new in a way that was as frictionless as possible.

I thought it was really well done. I really enjoy the work of the folks at Framestore who collaborated with you on the campaign. I’ve visited there a few times to check out everything they’re working on, and compared to other branded campaigns, I thought what you did was strong because it actually brought the user into a world and a new experience.

I think you could draw a line through for everything we do, which is: How do we make sure that the user really is king throughout this experience? They’re giving us some time and attention. What are we giving back?

Another place that might be an even bigger success for you was your mega-popular podcast, The Message. When I covered it, I wrote that the branded content singularity was near because there was this very strange moment when a piece of content marketing made it to #1 on iTunes. Were you surprised by how successful it was?

Our philosophy is: If we build it, they won’t come. I think we never take for granted that our content is going to necessarily find that audience on its own. We all know there are too many choices and channels and ways to spend your time. You’ve got to work backwards.

Nobody clicks here, and then clicks there, and then clicks there. They do the exact opposite.

We were talking a little bit about this on stage at Collision. Jemima Kiss, the woman who interviewed me from The Guardian—we were comparing notes on this. You start with a great story, then you say, “Okay, who’s going to be interested in this great story? Where might they interact and come across this?” Then what we try to do—and, again, every campaign is different—is we try to prepare for serendipity. We try to prepare for the fact that no human behavior and experience looks the way it does on paper for a marketing campaign.

You’re staring at a marketing campaign. You’re saying, “Yeah, this is really, really good,” and it often is really good. But you have to say, “Okay, but nobody thinks this way.” Nobody clicks here, and then clicks there, and then clicks there. They do the exact opposite. You try to build in—at least we try to build in—enough triggers, opportunities, and places where somebody would discover something to make it findable.

Do you think you’re adopting a mindset like BuzzFeed where you’re pretty platform agnostic? You’re just willing to create and distribute content for any platform without worrying as much about drawing people to or any other branded content sites?

I think that is a fantastic example. You are absolutely right, because I think that is the way BuzzFeed thinks. Yes, we’ve tried to do that, and I think it’s really paid off.

I keep using the hot sauce as an example. It’s been a hot sauce kind of a week. It’s one small campaign, but it’s illustrative. Part of what we try to do with some of our storytelling is reach new audiences. We want people who are sneakerheads or foodies to know about GE. It’s just another way to reach people through a passion point.

Clicks are cheap and easy, and shares aren’t because there’s intent behind it.

In the case of something like hot sauce, we went out a week ago to a place in Brooklyn called The Heatonist, and we had a party with hot sauce, which was part of a hot sauce convention at the Javits Center. It’s looking for where culture, and technology, and innovation triangulate and intersect.

This is a painfully broad question, but how do you approach ROI on these campaigns?

We measure everything that can be measured, and we value some things much more than others. Clicks are cheap and easy, and shares aren’t because there’s intent behind it. Despite the fact that you measure everything, I think all of us value certain things more than others. We believe that, in our case, upper-funnel metrics matter.

As a brand that is very well known, it’s not about driving awareness for GE, it’s driving understanding of who the company is today: a digital–industrial company helping to electrify the last third of the world that doesn’t have electricity, a company that is probably the foremost company in the world on material science.

You need to have the freedom to experiment and ability to fail.

We pay a lot of attention to the value of our brand. The value in our brand is about forty-two billion dollars, one of the ten most-valuable brands in the world. It helps us command price.

What advice would you give someone inside of an organization that’s not moving as fast, but they want to get this culture of storytelling going, they want to get a strong content program moving?

This really brings us back to GE Reports. GE Reports—hopefully I’m not going to get in trouble saying this—was born out of a good crisis. It was fall of ’08, a financial crisis, and we were looking for, as our chairman likes to say, a way to tell our story our way because nobody else really wanted to tell our story our way. It just wasn’t the time that the media was going to do that, so it was like, “Well how do we tell our stories then?

You remember the great stories.

The advice I would give is that everybody has a great story. If a bar of soap called Dove can create one of the most memorable campaigns out there… they’re a bar of soap. Everybody has a story. I think you got to just figure out what your story is.

Fundamentally who are you? We don’t kid ourselves. We’re a company about science and technology. We get our geek on. We love it.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Image by Getty
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