Inside General Electric’s media machine
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As a sprawling conglomerate, General Electric is a top producer of brute industrial equipment from locomotives to jet engines to power plants — oh, and lately, Snapchats.
In recent years, GE has moved swiftly and aggressively into emerging media platforms, pumping out gigabytes of original content intended to brush the dust off its 124-year-old brand and prime a new generation of customers and employees.
Among its prolific output: whimsical finger-drawings on Snapchat, six-second science experiments on Vine, epic photos of its factories on Instagram, a sci-fi podcast, a documentary mini-series, a late-night show segment, and even virtual reality simulations.
"GE has some of the best instincts I've ever seen," said Meghan Keaney Anderson, vice president of content at the Boston marketing software firm HubSpot. "People look at GE as this longstanding company and don't necessarily see how inventive and daring they've been when it comes to content."
GE, which announced last week that it was moving its headquarters to Boston, has ramped up spending on new media even as it trims its overall marketing budget. In 2015, it spent well over $50 million on digital marketing, according to the tracking firm Kantar Media and statements the company has made in ad industry publications.
Many of GE's efforts fall under the umbrella of "content marketing," a burgeoning field in which companies try to connect with specific audiences by providing them with information and entertainment that's branded but still useful or engaging — anything from a thinkpiece on global transportation infrastructure to a goofy video of beloved TV scientist Bill Nye, "the science guy."
Such content forgoes the heavy-handed "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine!" messaging of old, opting instead for a lighter, creative-first touch. Some see content marketing as the latest form of insidious corporate propaganda; companies and marketers, however, say it provides genuine value and interactivity to audiences in a way old-fashioned TV commercials never could.
"It's not about the company or the product," Anderson said. "GE wants to be the reason you learn to love science."
Take "The Message," a science fiction podcast coproduced by GE and Slate's Panoply Media that has more than 1 million listeners. The show, which follows cryptologists trying to unscramble a transmission from outer space, doesn't feature GE workers as characters or clumsy attempts at product placement. But the podcast touches on themes and emotions GE wants to associate with its brand: innovation, mystery, discovery, curiosity, futurism, and problem-solving.
"There's are two different ways you can show up as GE," said Linda Boff, GE's chief marketing officer. "One is as a big multinational company . . . Or you can show up in a way that's human, that's relatable, that's accessible, that has a lightness or irreverence where appropriate — you may not expect that of us, and that's exactly what tends to make us a bit more memorable."
GE was one of the first companies to embrace Instagram, posting pictures of its factories and products that Boff describes as "majestic shots of industry." For GE, being an early adopter of nascent media platforms is a matter of "show, don't tell."
"Being early, experimenting, innovating — that's who we are, and that's how we want to show up in media," she added.
GE is not new to media. The company helped found the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA, in 1919 and was involved in the first television broadcasts in the 1920s.
GE also sponsored General Electric Theater, a fiction anthology show hosted by Ronald Reagan on CBS from 1953 to 1962. In a form of proto-content marketing, the show had interludes featuring TV personality Don Herbert as a "General Electric progress reporter" — he demonstrated science-fair technology while encouraging viewers to "Live better electrically!" with GE home appliances.
GE still sponsors segments on television today, including a recurring bit on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" dubbed "Fallonventions," in which students dressed in white GE lab coats show off inventions such as a paper airplane launcher.
But as in other media, GE is now creating original content for television. It recently partnered with National Geographic to produce "Breakthrough," a series that features scientists using technology to tackle global challenges such as clean water and outbreaks of diseases.
"It's a new approach," Boff said. "We're not going be a sponsor — we're going to be a partner. Our scientists and customers and technology were organically and very subtly knit into those episodes."
GE has even dabbled in filmmaking with its "Short Films, Big Ideas" project, in which both well-known directors and amateurs submitted three-minute movies about technology.
Other GE marketing campaigns include Snapchat images that show up on travelers' smartphones in airports and train stations, a new Web video series featuring Nye doing experiments based on emoji,, and virtual reality goggles shipped to New York Times subscribers. It even collaborated with Thrillist to make a limited series of sneakers modeled after astronaut boots, mining the viral buzz around the shoes' release.
Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, said technology is making it easier for companies to track people who subscribe to their content. Sign up for a GE podcast or newsletter and your name might get funneled into a "pipeline" designed to slowly steer you toward a product or job opening. Eventually, he said, GE could even use its massive resources to buy up existing publications in industries it belongs to, such as clean energy.
And while GE is moving to Boston to absorb the city's cutting-edge vibe, Pulizzi and Anderson said local startups might want to soak up some of GE's media savvy.
"The best, most progressive companies are building a subscriber base and creating content focused on their needs," Pulizzi said. "If those readers like and trust you because of the content, they're more likely to buy products from you."