Major brands are using custom content as an increasingly important part of their marketing mix. The world of content marketing, from digital native posts to lush print magazines, is thriving—one of the few areas of ad-based media that’s booming outside the duopoly of Facebook and Google.
In fact, the global content marketing industry will grow at an annual rate of 16% per year through 2021, reaching $412 billion by the end of 2021, according to a report published last November by the British market research firm Technavio.
Marketers, dissatisfied with the performance of traditional display ads and digital marketing, are building meaningful customer relationships by telling stories, not about themselves, but about their customers and the interests and values they share.
It’s little wonder, then, that brands are hiring journalists and setting up their own content operations, and media companies are setting up content-creation studios to help brand marketers meet their objectives.
One marketer deep into brand marketing is GE, the 126-year-old multinational conglomerate that operates in the finance, aerospace, healthcare, and energy industries, among others. The company had 2017 revenues of $122 billion.
[GE on Junes 26th will be dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the venerable stock index that for over 100 years has tracked blue-chip stocks and served as a performance indicator for not just the stock market, but the entire economy. GE as recently as 2005 was the most highly valued publicly traded company in the U.S. It will be replaced on the Dow index by Walgreens.]
The company produces GE Reports, a web-based magazine with daily content, and GE Brief, a twice-weekly newsletter that has 100,000 subscribers and a total audience of double that.
I recently chatted with Tomas Kellner, the editor in chief at GE, about how a giant finance-and-manufacturing company obtains value from content marketing. The main thing, he says, is to understand that content marketing works because it’s about telling stories that are relevant that people want to read. At that level, it’s a simple concept.
“It’s stories that connect to the larger themes that people want to read about,” Kellner says. For example, at GE, that would be about climate change and energy, and about how to get more renewables to people. GE makes wind turbines, gas turbines, storage batteries. Those are our products, but that doesn’t mean we have to only talk about our products.”
The whole point, Kellner says, is to respect the reader. After graduation from journalism school, he says, he spent time at Forbes, and worked under some great editors, who instilled in him a respect for storytelling. “I have to create stories that are well told and worth reading,” he says. “They have to have appealing protagonists and meaningful challenges. So that’s how I approach content marketing from my perch as editor in chief of GE Reports and the GE newsletter.”
GE Reports’ competition isn’t IBM or Boeing or Intel, Kellner says, it’s really The Wall Street Journal. His mission is to break through the noise and distractions of cell phones, incessant notifications, media saturation. It’s not easy. “People don’t set aside 10 minutes each day to read branded content,” Kellner says.
With that understanding, though, the job gets easier. After all, the story ideas can become almost limitless: Science, technology. Lifestyles. How innovation and invention work. “It took eight hours to fly from Paris to New York 50 years ago, and it takes eight hours today,” Kellner says. “Why? Where are the people working on making it a four-hour flight? There are people at GE who can take us through this journey.
“These are all interesting topics that people want to know about. You could look at the future of medicine—that’s a field we could address. Even smaller companies are doing things that people would want to know about. The reaction might be, ‘I had no idea!’
And that’s why we exist.”
For all GE’s size, the content-marketing operation at GE is small, says Kellner, who’s been at GE Reports since 2011. “We are a tight and frugal operation,” he says. “I’m the editor, and internally I’m working on GE Reports with two colleagues on the communications team. Externally, we have a network of freelance journalists and videographers who help up develop stories and video.” The newsletter launched a year ago.
As media evolves, content marketing is too. Kellner says that for GE, text-based media isn’t as valuable as it once was. He’s overseeing a migration to video, where the majority of stories now are 90-second videos, distributed over social-media platforms. “LinkedIn is an extremely powerful platform for a company like GE,” he says. “YouTube is quite good as well. We supplement videos with live broadcasts too. We’ve had 10,000-plus views on some of our broadcasts. And you get the engagement and feedback right away, you can see what kinds of questions people are asking.
Which leads to an occasional criticism of content marketing: Lack of ROI. Some observers say it’s not about marketing, sales and ROI, but about building relationships, which are more important in the long run. Others say all marketing has to produce measurable results, or why bother doing it?
“ROI is tough,” Kellner says. “We are a B2B business. It’s very difficult for us to measure direct impact. Did we help sell a multimillion jet engine or a turbine or not?”
That said, Kellner says, there are a variety of ways to indirectly track ROI. “If the New York Times or a smaller trade uses my stories or links back to me, I use that to show ROI,” he says. “Our newsletter, GE Brief, has 100,000 subscribers. Having 100,000 people who willingly subscribe to you—that’s ROI. The viewership on our website is amazing. We get 18 million monthly views, mostly organic.”
Also, investors link back to GE stories, which are then seen on investor boards. The investor community is an important audience for public companies, Kellner notes. “And then, when we publish a good story, there’s an increase in inbound calls, and we chalk that up as ROI, too,” Kellner adds.
In the end, Kellner says, “Brand journalism is really a transaction where the reader or viewer is paying us with their time, and we are rewarding them for the time spent with a piece of information they can use in their lives.”