An interview with GE’s Social Media Wizards

The GE Social Media Team: Gary Sheffer, Jen Walsh, Sean Gannon, Lisa Lanspery, Mike Eisenreich, Megan Parker and Vivek Kemp

A few weeks ago I was introduced to GE’s social media initiative when doing research for an article on Social Media’s B2B Superstars. I’ve continued to be impressed with their aggressive and progressive approach to using social media and asked SM Communicator Megan Parker for an interview. She graciously agreed and included other team members in the process. Here is a discussion with:
  • Megan Parker – “The Enthusiast” and GE’s Twitter-er. An example of her creative flare: “Hey baby! GE donates $8M for UK maternal hospital”
  • Sean Gannon – “The media guy” corralling stories from around the GE system for the team
  • Jen Walsh – “The web expert” and fan of llamas.
  • Vivek Kemp – “The reporter” and balloon artist.
  • Lisa Lanspery – “The storyteller” and computer enthusiast

Megan, as GE’s lead Twitter-er, how do you describe to your mother what you do for a living?

Parker: “I’m fortunate to work and live close to my family. So when I started my role as a social media communicator, I did the most logical thing I could think of — I scheduled a Parker family meeting. We spent a couple of hours one Sunday afternoon in the family dinning room going from the principles and theories of social media up through the latest and hottest tools. I wanted to ensure that my family understood that social media has changed the way people share and converse on a large scale.”

Other than subject matter, how is it different managing social media for GE instead of doing it yourself as an individual communicating with friends?

Gannon: “The biggest difference is remembering that no matter how casual the conversation is online, what we say via various social media is, in the end, still the voice of GE. While it’s not the voice of “BIG GE,” as in an official press release or a viewpoint on our main website, what we say is nevertheless trusted by our audiences to be factually correct – 100%.

“That requires balancing the instinct to stay informal with the discipline to only inform our conversations with well-researched information. In this sense, we are much more like the news blogs of major media organizations because if you go to these sites you’ll find humor, informal writing, asides, genuine human voices (not corporate-speak) – but you’ll also find an unwavering attention to detail and facts. That’s different from shooting off a story or a comment to a friend. Causal doesn’t have to mean sloppy or lazy when it comes to the facts.”

How has GE’s social media strategy changed since its inception?

Walsh: “I like to think of GE as a corporate pioneer in the social media arena. Before ‘consumer-generated content’ became a term of art, there was the GE “Pen,” which we created in 2003 when we launched GE’s new “Imagination at Work” campaign. The basic thought is that every idea begins with a sketch, so why not let people doodle and put their own imaginations to work.

“Internally, GE employees have been able to create blogs and wikis for several years, as part our project management and workflow toolset known as SupportCentral. We launched ‘From Edison’s Desk’ in 2005 to the delight of scientists and technologists at our Global Research Center, but more importantly, to give promising, job-seeking PhD candidates a regular view into the type of work we do in our R&D labs.

“In 2006, we asked consumers around the world to “Picture a Healthy World”. After they crashed our servers (we had no idea so many people were so healthy!), we had a great set of photos and stories that we could show and share when we took over all the digital signs in Times Square on World Health Day.

“We’ve made our monthly innovation stories on sharable. And as our Managing Editor, Sean Gannon, likes to say, we’re letting everyone and anyone who visits “have it your way.” Just come to the site and decide if you want to get GE Reports via RSS, email, Twitter or YouTube. Thanks to Mike Eisenreich, our technologist, you can now embed our new widget. Finally, Beth Comstock, our CMO, has a moblog called “BlackBerryBeth,” where she shares her ideas and observations with thousands of communicators and marketers at GE. These regular updates keep a far-flung team connected and also inject fresh thinking into the organization.”

What on-the-job learning has been most beneficial to your success?

Kemp: “Over the past five years I’ve transferred from newspapers to broadcast news and finally to GE’s digital media team. Each jump has required a willingness to adopt new technologies and techniques. But really, the entire job of reporting is an active task of learning (and listening). You parachute into a person’s life, into a conflict, or into an event and you’re charged with learning and digesting those issues, so you may translate them into words, pictures or videos (and increasingly Twitter, blogs and podcasts).

“I’ve been fortunate to learn how to write an article, shoot and edit a digital video and narrate a broadcast story. But, honestly, the single most important on-the-job lesson I’ve learned, and been lucky enough to practice, is how to craft a story – an on-going lesson. And one I hope I’m always learning.

How will GE convert the expense of social media activities into shareholder value?

Walsh: “GE’s social media activities are part of the way we work and communicate every day. They are not an extra expense to the company, but rather part of our regular media and communications mix. GE has become a daily news publisher, sharing our stories and data in text, audio and video formats, available anytime, anywhere online. The ROI for shareholders is more timely and useful information that they can share and interact with. That’s what I call disclosure!”

Are there different skills necessary to be successful in social media compared to traditional types of marketing?

Lanspery: “Relationships are pivotal in both online and offline campaigns. What is different in social media is how information and opinions about your products and services will appear without any attempt on your part to control the source and flow of information. The key skill you need for social media is flexibility — flexibility to participate in the conversation.”

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