Beth Comstock, a key lieutenant to GE Chief Executive Jeff
Immelt, wasn’t there by accident. GE has been exploring the changing media landscape
aggressively and early, taking the decline of traditional print media as an
opening to try new ways to reach young, influential audiences. To that end, the
industrial conglomerate is a surprising and noteworthy experimenter with new
media. Engaging in what is called “branded content” or even sometimes “brand
journalism,” GE is Instagraming pictures of its machinery, pinning
photos on Pinterest, blogging on Tumblr and posting six-second videos
on Vine, among other things.
Last year, GE was one of the first companies to join Vine,
posting its first clip the day after the video-sharing platform first launched.
Produced for about $2, the video showed how combining milk, dish soap and food
coloring can create a geyser of colors.
GE maintains a small team of employees who write articles
and manage freelance contributions to more than a dozen platforms, from
GE-owned blogs to posts on other sites. One series of GE’s posts on Pinterest
is devoted to GE’s “badass machines,” artfully depicting the massive gas-fired
turbines and intricate jet engines the company builds.
The scale of GE’s effort has attracted attention from
corporate peers and advertising agencies. GE won’t reveal marketing budget
figures, but some 40% of the company’s spending is now on such-digital media
forms, as opposed to other channels like TV or print display advertising, a
spokesman said, and the company expects that share to grow.
GE spends about $162 million a year on traditional media,
according to data compiled by Kantar Media. Other companies, too, have been
shifting more of their marketing dollars from traditional media into producing
their own branded-content feature stories and videos.
Branded content represented 37% of the marketing spending in
2013, down slightly from 39% in 2012, according to a survey by the Content
Council, an industry group. But 80% of survey respondents projected a “moderate
or aggressive” shift toward content marketing this year.
GE has a history of embracing new marketing approaches. In
the late 1950s and early 1960s, it tapped actor Ronald Reagan to introduce
GE-sponsored TV dramas. A decade earlier, it paid a young PR man named Kurt
Vonnegut to comb its Schenectady, N.Y., factory for stories to tell in an
With social and digital media, seemingly no new platform has
been too frivolous for GE to try. GE provided crucial support for media startup
Vox.com, an explanatory-journalism site launched by former Washington Post
blogger Ezra Klein, with whom it already had a working relationship. While Mr.
Klein was still at the Post, GE courted him and others for a news website and
marketing campaign in development. When Mr. Klein left to join Vox, GE and its
ad dollars followed. The GE site, launched after Mr. Klein left the Post,
aggregated video clips and content featuring the blogger, along with Fox News’s
Bret Baier, Politico’s Mike Allen and others, discussing and expounding on the
The advertiser had “absolutely zero influence” on Vox.com’s
editorial content, said Jim Bankoff, chief executive of parent company Vox
Media. But both GE and Vox have a similar audience in mind: young, relatively
affluent and policy savvy. For GE, the purpose of the relationship was to get
GE in the minds of policy makers and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
With BuzzFeed, GE paid the website—which is known for
photo-based posts and quirky lists, or “listicles”—to gin up material that
would get one of America’s most venerable corporate brands in front of a new
audience, and with luck go viral. In a series of slick, whimsical videos,
BuzzFeed video guru Ze Frank examined the characteristics of visual learners
and creative people for a celebration of “Inventors’ Month,” which ultimately
directed viewers to GE’s YouTube channel.
BuzzFeed had just begun to take on content creation for
paying clients when GE signed up in 2010, Mr. Peretti said. In the intervening
years, the conglomerate has ridden Buzzfeed’s rise as the website exploded to
some 175 million unique visitors a month.
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