The Content Strategist

5 Reasons GE’s Content Goes Viral on Reddit (and Everywhere Else)

Flying 2,500 feet over Lake Michigan in a two-seater airplane, GE Reports Editor-in-Chief Tomas Kellner had some tough choices to make. Should he keep his Periscope live stream going for his captivated audience, or use his phone to switch over to GE’s Snapchat? Would his signal hold? Should he switch over to his DSLR camera to snap photos for the GE Reports blog?

What he didn’t have to worry about, however, were compliance and approvals, plugging a brand message into his content, or getting in trouble for experimenting on a new platform. All he had to do is tell a great story. And he did, across several platforms.

That’s a big reason why GE Reports has become one of the most successful examples of content marketing. The blog has hundreds of thousands of devoted readers, its stories regularly go viral on Reddit and in the press, and coverage of it ultimately ties back to the GE brand.

On Tuesday, I hosted an Adweek webinar with Kellner to find out more about his content strategy as GE Reports’s editor-in-chief. (Watch it here.) Here are the five keys that Kellner revealed.

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

1. It’s all about the “transaction of content”

Many marketers create content without fully considering their audience, taking their time and attention for granted. Not GE.

“You need to pay people something for their attention,” Kellner said. “You need to give them something of value. Something they want to know or use somehow.”

For example, GE Reports published a story about a revolutionary indoor farm in Japan powered by LED lights made by GE. The indoor farm grew lettuce two and a half times faster than a conventional farm and cut waste from 50 percent to 10 percent. Compared to the average farm, it was 100 times more productive per square foot.

When all was said and done, over a million people read the story on GE Reports.

A GE Reports reader posted the story to Reddit, where it was quickly upvoted by the site’s community. “It soon made it to the top of the front page of the internet,” Kellner said.

Going viral is tough to predict, but GE’s success isn’t by accident. The company gave its audience something of value—a story about a technology that could help solve world hunger—and was rewarded. When all was said and done, over a million people read the story.

2. You need to retire the press release

For the past few years, Kellner has been touting one of my favorite messages in content marketing: You need to retire the press release. Reporters are numb to whatever comes over the wire. But a great story catches their attention.

Take this story about a 150-pound steam turbine developed by an engineer at GE Global Research. It’s strong enough to power a small town, but even more amazingly, it runs on carbon dioxide. A press release about this technology might have slipped by reporters, but instead, GE Reports wrote a compelling news story about the subject. The also story went viral on Reddit, reaching the third spot on the homepage.

After the viral boost, the article drove roughly 300,000 views to GE’s blog and was picked up everywhere from Scientific American to Popular Mechanics to publications in China.

“You want to raise awareness for the brand. You can go directly to your audience but also to journalists,” Kellner told me. “Normally, you’d spend hours and hours going to lunch with reporters. But this is much more effective.”

3. You don’t have to break the bank to find your story

GE Reports is a surprisingly lean operation, considering the depth and breadth of stories it produces. Kellner explained that content marketing isn’t something you have to throw a ton of money at if you have your eyes and ears open for a good story.

For instance, Kellner spotted a Gizmodo story about a kid who built an entire Boeing 777 airplane out of manila envelopes. The detail was incredible. Kellner realized that GE builds the 777’s engine, making it the perfect story for GE Reports.

“No one had sat down with him and talked to him about the whole process,” Kellner said. “We got access to him and did a Q&A with him. There are enthusiasts [for your brand]. Look at what other people are doing and use it to your advantage.”

4. Go beyond the blog

GE Reports is one of the more popular brand blogs you’ll find, but Kellner knows that it’s just the beginning.

“You don’t want to just have a website,” he said. “It’s a storage room. You want to have these assets like a Lego block that you can break up and use on different channels. Periscope, Snapchat, Facebook Live.”

GE has been one of the first brands on most social platforms, including Instagram, Periscope, and Snapchat. That willingness to experiment is driven from the top down by CMO Linda Boff. As she told me earlier this year, “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.”

Kellner was in an airplane over Lake Michigan because he was flying 500 miles with Brad Mottier, who runs GE Aviation’s business and general aviation edition. Rather than just taking pictures and writing a blog post, Kellner juggled between his DSLR camera, the GE Reports Periscope account, and the GE Snapchat account. He engaged tens of thousands of people in real time.

As much as Kellner loves cutting-edge live-streaming platforms, he also gives a big shoutout to the most “old-school of digital platforms.”

“For us, it’s also about email,” he said. “We email our newsletter to 20,000 people every day, and we really see it set off that wave of traffic.”

5. Build a culture of content, and tap your employees for stories

When I interviewed Kellner two years ago, he talked about how the tenets of journalism had helped him build relationships and find stories throughout the company.

“It’s basically just old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting,” he said. “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.”

Kellner has expanded that network by taking off his reporter hat at times and putting on his tweed professor’s jacket. He travels to GE offices around the world giving writing workshops to employees. Often, they turn around and pitch him stories.

One story, for instance, was about St. Helena, the remote island where Napoleon died in exile. Alaynah Boyd, a GE communications specialist who attended one of the workshops, pitched Kellner on a story about how GE was helping open up the first airport on the island.

The story didn’t come across as self-promotional. The angle focused on the business and history. Only one sentence mentioned GE. That focus on the story, and not the the brand, is Kellner’s greatest secret to success.

“Content can’t always be about you,” Kellner said, “and the outcomes shouldn’t be self-serving to your brand.”

Want to learn more secrets from GE? Watch my conversation with Kellner here.

Images via GE Reports.