It was a big year of marketing for General Electric. In addition to sending the message that it’s a good place for coders, GE launched an innovative podcast and a series with National Geographic Channel. Linda Boff is GE’s chief marketing officer, and she sat down with Business Insider’s Jay Yarrow at IGNITION 2015.
This is an edited excerpt from a panel conversation featuring Linda Boff.
Jay Yarrow: Native advertising, to me, is ads that fit within the platform and content. Google search ads – native ads. Twitter ads that are in there – native ads. TV ads – native ads. But for other big platforms on the web, we’ve had a lot of banner ads and that just doesn’t seem to want to work right now if you look at what’s going on with mobile.
When you’re looking to do advertising and marketing — what are you looking for? What’s important?
Linda Boff: At GE, I feel like we’ve kind of honed what’s important around a few things. One, for us is impact. So we’re looking to drive impact over shared numbers over impressions. And the way we think about impact is a story, an experience, that is going to make you stop and pay attention. Certainly, I think native — I think we’re all going to agree — is the way to go. Like you — I kind of cast that definition widely. And for us, it can be as diverse as putting on a pair of cardboard glasses, which we did with The New York Times. And watching VR for the first time. It can be listening to a podcast. We did one recently. And I’m so proud to say it did really, really well — a podcast called “The Message”. Or it can be a great experience on television or on the web. So impact matters a lot to us.
And something for us that’s been a bit of a hallmark is — we like to be first. We like to be early. We like that because we feel like it’s consistent with GE. We’re a company that’s been about innovation, been about experimentation. So we sort of rush at things that are new. And don’t mind getting our feet wet and sometimes scraping a knee or two. But we feel like doing that, and kind of amping it, is a big part of how we go to market.
Yarrow: When you say “scraping your knees” — had there been instances where you said “yeah we want to work together” and then it came back and you were like: “what have you done to GE?! Are you crazy? This is not us!”
Boff: I don’t know that we’ve ever gotten to the point where we’ve greenlit something that isn’t about us. We’ve had many conversations where we’re sort of handing over the road map, right? Here’s what we like, here’s who we are, and sometimes you just don’t get that back in terms of somebody coming back with a really thoughtful, creative plan. Most of the time, I will say that it has worked in our favour, and we found like-minded folks. We partnered with BuzzFeed. I guess 5 of 6 years ago. So whether it’s BuzzFeed or mic.com or Vox or maybe one day Refinery29 — you find these things and you build on to them. But I think it starts with brands — I imagine there are quite a few in the audience — just knowing who you are and what you want. And if you start from there and you’re very clear about it, I think most of the time it does work out.
Yarrow: So just to underscore that — when we talked before, I think you said one of the core competencies you bring is understanding social. Understanding how to create content, and then getting that distribution. That’s what you can bring to an advertiser. Because an advertiser can go to Facebook and just buy the ads themselves directly, right? What’s the difference? Why would I work with Refinery29 when I can go and do that directly in the feed?
Boff: The place I start — the place we start — is with the user and then we go backwards. So I have just as much interest in talking to somebody who has a passion about Refinery29 or mic.com, as someone who is deeply engaged in their feed on Facebook, as somebody who’s willing to listen to an interesting podcast they never have before.
So I think as a brand, it’s really one versus the other. For us, it’s a psychographic we are trying to reach. People who love science as much as we do — love technology, love engineering — and we look for that in a lot of different places. Facebook and the video comments not withstanding — over the last year for us — has been a great performance marketing vehicle. There is no place I can reach people as inexpensively, to try to target and re-target, as I can on Facebook. Never thought I would have said that a year ago. So I look more for premium content with publishers or by doing it with interesting kinds of partners.
Yarrow: So for Facebook, for you, even if there are mainstream ads — not the same kind of impact or experience? Not the same kind of brand building? Is that right to say?
Boff: These days it hasn’t been. It’s been a combination of brand building with a real target and focus around it. We did a campaign to reach CIOs using Facebook data. I mean that, to me, is performance.
Yarrow: That’s interesting because I think the conversation around Facebook was that it was really good for brands, whereas Google was more targeted and direct.
So I’m curious. I think you’ve done a lot of stuff that you guys created for media. Like you talk about building your own websites — how do you think about that? Do you think “I can make a website, it’s not that hard”?
Boff: It is really hard. I have a lot of respect for what publishers do. It’s hard to get it right. I think in a funny way — we’re after in some ways — similar things: great stories that people want to consume, that people sort of get addicted to. And ones that they want to share. A brand knows itself better than anybody else will — better than a publisher will. But we don’t have the distribution capabilities.
So a lot of the time, we do want a partner that has that distribution that comes with it. But we also want experiments. So I’ll give you one or two examples: So just recently we partnered with a production company in Hollywood — Imagine Entertainment and Asylum productions and Nat Geo — and we co-produced a series called “Breakthrough” — 6 hours of programming. Could GE have done that alone? Absolutely not. But in this case, we were a development partner. We weren’t a sponsor. So together we did this. Together we went out and found Nat Geo as a distributor. And that felt pretty good. It was a new way to approach it.
I mentioned podcasting before — that was an effort. Again, you don’t wake up in the morning and know how to do podcast. So we partnered with Slate, partnered with Panoply, partnered with one of our agencies BBDO, and out of that came a podcast. I have tremendous respect for what it takes to do these things. And we don’t kid ourselves — we are a global marketing department. We’re not a publisher; we’re not a media company. But we are experimenting with forms of, what I guess I would call “renting” media. And that’s buying an ad on Sunday night football. And our version of owning media, somewhat owning media, maybe co-opting media. And that’s things like “Breakthrough” and podcasting. And we kind of want to play and see where the world is going.
Yarrow: When you think about going to Nat Geo — what’s the appeal to going to Nat Geo when there’a a million other channels and options out there?
Boff: So likemindedness for sure, in terms of science, exploration. In the case of Nat Geo – its distribution in 140 countries simultaneously. Hands down a winner for us. We operate in 170 countries as GE. That was a clear win for us. But could it have been somebody else? Sure it could have. It just happened to be them and it worked out well.
Before coming up here and we talked about where GE does its television advertising and I guess I made a couple waves by saying that it’s only live — not traditional primetime. And I went back and looked — just to be sure I was accurate — and about 92% of the ads we put on television are what we call “live” so think Sunday Night Football, late night comedy, SNL. And then I looked at the other 8% so where are those? And they are high impact moments for our audience — it’s the premier of ‘Better Call Saul’ or the last episode of ‘Doctor Who’. It’s moments that are impactful.
Yarrow: A lot of web publishing has been about scale and getting really big and trying to do it. Are you saying that that doesn’t matter? It’s about building a great audience at a decent size?
Boff: It’s building the right audience. I have known, for GE as big as we are, it’s not about reaching everybody; it’s about reaching the right people.
I think as brands and the publishers, and tech partners who take the brand’s money — you corrupt the experience really quickly if you sort of fish at the bottom. Then nobody benefits in the end.
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