Learn About GE’s Winning Social Media Strategy—Direct from the CMO

By Emily Copp

Social

Image via Unsplash under CC0 1.0

General Electric is a leader on social media. By jumping on emerging social platforms and creating award-winning campaigns, they’ve set the tone for how big businesses should do digital marketing.

In our latest Hootcast episode, Hootsuite founder and CEO Ryan Holmes chats with General Electric’s CMO Linda Boff about how their company has changed to keep up the rapid pace of tech—and how social has been a key part of their transformation.

In this podcast you’ll learn:

Press play to hear the show in its entirety, or if you don’t have a set of earbuds handy, read the transcription of our conversation below.

Q&A with General Electric CMO Linda Boff

You’ve been working in marketing for GE since 2003, roughly a year before the invention of Facebook. And since then a lot has changed in the marketing

I feel like GE has spent that last 14 years or so going through a period of transformation, that is different in some ways than what you’ve seen from the Facebooks of the world, and similar in some ways, too. You know, 14 years ago, GE was a company that was nearly 50 percent financial services. We owned a big broadcast partner in B.C. We, in our industrial businesses, largely manufactured things.

Today we’re in three big industrial sectors: healthcare, energy, and transportation. We’ve added a whole software business to the company. And, you know, for our customers, while they are keenly interested in what we make, they’re just as interested in the productivity that we can offer through software and analytics of those things.

We talk about ourselves today as a digital industrial company. So when I think about marketing, that’s literally the number one thing that I think about is our company through that digital industrial lens.

GE is known—and has been praised for—being an early adopter of emerging social media platforms. How are you helping to mobilize such a large company to be on these networks so quickly and creatively? And what are the major obstacles and challenges that you’ve faced in helping get adoption?

We do strategically like to be early, often first, on platforms. It’s very much in keeping with the DNA of our brand, a brand that for 125 years has been about invention, has been first to market with the light bulb or the phonograph or the MRI machine. So whether that means first to market on Twitter’s Vine or early on Instagram, we seek this.

It’s also not necessarily where you would expect a big company that is involved in heavy industry to be. We like to be unexpected. We like to be very human. You know, we like to show up and behave the way a person would, versus a big company.

And candidly, it’s often the most cost-effective time to be on the platform, which is early days. You know you’re learning and you’re doing it organically.

You know often large companies are laggards in terms of adoption. It sounds like GE has the inverse approach and tactic to adoption of new social channels. How do you get buy in on this? Did you kind of sell this through the executive? Was the adoption and approach and strategy very easy to sell internally?

In hindsight it feels easier than it probably was at that time. I think, like anything new, executives at GE wanted to understand how this translated. How does social media translate to the people we want to be talking to? How does it translate in terms of the topics we want to be talking about?

We did a ton of testing and learning. It’s sort of who we are as a company anyway. I’m thrilled our chairman has been on Twitter for, I don’t know, it’s at least three or four years. It’s fabulous. That’s such an amazing signal for the company. Our vice chair Beth Comstock is one of the top five people on social media across all industries. So we’ve had tremendous leadership buy-in from some very visible executives.

We’re at a point now where being on social is a bit inarguable. With a billion and a quarter people on Facebook, it is no longer a question of whether you can reach radiologists there, or whether you can reach potential investors; it’s how. You know that’s something we’re thinking about a lot—how to serve the right kinds of messages at the right time.

Fantastic. I’m sure you are aware, but maybe you’re not, that this is still a progressive stance on social. There are so many laggard companies that are out there still. And you mentioned your chair is active in social, which I think is such a good signal in terms of what that means for the rest of the company and adoption. I wonder if you have any thoughts on executive engagement across the board, and what companies can do to help build the DNA of social.

I think the first thing, and this is simple but foundational: know who you are and be true to that. Because I think it’s all well and good for any company to have a social presence, but that social presence needs to be an amplification of the company, of the brand, of what you stand for. And if you know what that is, if you’re comfortable with that, it lays a tremendous foundation. Nothing replaces that.

I’d say the second thing is listening first. Social platforms provide the opportunity to listen before you speak. Some executives may never choose to actually talk or tweet or post, but you can still gain so much from lurking and listening. And so I’d say that if there’s concern or skepticism, or just overall reticence, listening can be as valuable as talking.

I love that. So step one, get strategy and values aligned, and then step two, listen for a while, and then step three, take a plunge. What happens if you mess up?

I’m not going to pretend I’m a crisis comms expert because there are so many good ones. But in general I think it’s similar to what we’ve been talking about, which is honesty, authenticity, engaging with the people who are your audience or your potential audience. No spin, you know, being real.

I think we misstep when some of those things don’t happen. You have to acknowledge that by being out there, by being conversational, by being honest, there are going to be those moments.

So maybe you could share your favorite social channel or channels and why.

So my hardest-working channel is Twitter. Literally it’s the first thing I look at in the morning. I’m not even sure both eyes are open, and I definitely haven’t brushed my teeth yet. Twitter is my news feed. I’ve curated it so that it is a lovely mixture of people in business and marketing and innovation and a little bit of humor and hard news. And it is incredibly efficient for me.

So it’s my hardest-working and Instagram’s my most enjoyable. It’s my lean back, go home at the end of the day on the train or where have you, and I enjoy it, so two completely different experiences that serve two completely different purposes.

Well I’ve been following you on Twitter so I’ll make sure to follow you now on Instagram as well. Final question, Linda, I’m sure that GE has a lot of cool things planned for 2017 and beyond, anything that you can share that you’re most excited about?

Yeah you know we talked about digital industrial. I am really excited for the work that we are doing in what’s called additive manufacturing, which is basically printing parts and machines. Think about a 3D printer, but at an industrial level.

So I am fascinated by the ability to create things in a fraction of the time with just the materials that you need, no waste—what this might lead to in terms of more efficient supply chain and manufacturing. It’s the future, but it’s now.

It is very cool isn’t it? I know you must have caught this as this is your space, but the recent 3D-printed tool on the international space station, which is such an interesting first. And we’re going to see a lot more of those I’m sure.

It’s such a great example. Think about what you might need in an environment and ecosystem that would seem to be uninhabitable in some ways. We’ve created a whole business around it, so that’s a big one on our radar.

Well that’s pretty heady stuff to leave with. Thank you so much for all of your thoughts today, Linda, and really great to talk with you.

Great to talk with you too, Ryan. Thanks so much for having me on.

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