A Surprising Lesson from GE on B2B Branding

GE Website shot - Brand building storytelling

In preparation for our storytelling workshops, we request that participants complete some light homework. We often ask them what B2B company does a particularly good job in building its brand and public profile.

With rare exception, GE wins this unaided awareness test.

In a “cement mixer” with thousands of B2B companies, what is GE doing to stand out? How is the company building a brand that people remember?

In reverse-engineering the B2B side of GE’s communications to the outside world, one overriding principle emerges —

GE strives to touch both sides of the brain, the intellectual and the emotional. In analyzing B2B communications over the years, I would say one out of every 100 B2B companies makes this leap … even 1 percent might be generous.

Whether you’re selling bulldozers, semiconductors or lubricants by the barrel, it’s hard to see how a buyer would care about anything that smacks of emotion. Yet, it’s not like these products automatically strip decision makers of their emotions, leaving them in a Spock state.

GE gets this point.

You might be thinking that GE enjoys a unique position as one of the best-run companies on the planet going back to the Jack Welsh days — with the type of  marketing resources that only come from being a $146B company. While true, here’s a takeaway lesson from GE that any B2B company can apply to its outbound communications and brand-building efforts —

Use storytelling techniques to educate, inform and even amuse in contrast to the conventional B2B playbook that shouts “Me, Me … and here’s a little bit more about Me.”

The company’s blog, GE Reports, provides a good example of how this plays out in pragmatic terms. The blog executes on the promise to explore stories on innovation, science and technology, as well as GE viewpoints.

Take a post on the Panama Canal.

The storytelling starts with a double entendre in the headline, “Dig This: The Panama Canal is About to Get Busy”

Next, look at the opening paragraph:

The Panama Canal is a full century old, but it’s going through a growth spurt. The 48-mile-long waterway that cuts across “the backbone of the Western Hemisphere” is going through the final year of a massive expansion. When work is completed this year, bigger locks will allow the giant “New Panamax” class of container ships and supertankers to slip through and boost the canal’s capacity by half.

No mention of GE.

But the part I find most revealing involves the visual storytelling in the post. This is a tough leap for most B2B companies, believing that depth of content, not “pictures,” wins the day. Yet, this is one of the best ways for B2B content to wiggle its way to an emotional touch point.

The GE post’s hero image features a GIF with an explosion sure to capture the most fleeting attention span.


More than scrutinize the visual assets individually, it’s also interesting to consider the “look” of the overall post. Just like newspapers have figured out that a page of black type turns off readers, the same principle can be applied to a blog post.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with two metrics that shape the reader’s immediate impression of a post (before reading a word):

  • Ratio of words to visual
  • Percent of column inches devoted to visuals

GE scores an 81:1 words-to-visual ratio, impressive when the typical post of 300 to 500 words carries one visual. And visuals dress 68 percent of the GE post’s column inches, again far beyond the norm.

The value of visual storytelling also impacts the increasing use of mobile devices to access information. Again, the GE post looks good on a smartphone (two snapshots below).

GE blog post on smartphone- brand building

As I dig – there’s that verb again – deeper in this area, I’ll try to come up with industry best practices for the two metrics on “looks.”

BTW, this post scored an 79:1 words-to-visual ratio with roughly 41 percent of the column inches devoted to visuals.

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Flawed Dot Connecting from Washington Post Correlates Rise of PR to the Fall of Journalism

Since Craigslist eviscerated the classified ads business in newspapers, journalists have been writing the “poor me” story.

At some point, it became fashionable for these “poor me” stories to blame the PR industry for journalism’s shrinking job pool.

Before jumping into the latest “poor me” piece in The Washington Post, the Pew Research Center delivers a good backdrop for the issue.

You can see this mentality implied in the introduction to the 2013 State of the Media from Pew reflecting on the previous year.

“In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.”

Can you imagine? The nerve of these organizations to communicate directly to their target audiences.

And last year Pew put out the piece “The Growing Pay Gap Between Journalism and Public Relations” with number crunching that highlighted  the pay disparity between the two professions.

Growing Income Gap between PR and reporters

This is like pointing out the compensation difference between the person who cooks at Chipotle and the person who cooks at The French Laundry. Sure, both professions share some basic stills, but they’re distinctively different jobs with the wonders of capitalism placing more value on one over the other. BTW, I’m not insinuating that journalists are the “fast-food cooks” of communications.

Contrary to my periodic barbs aimed at the fourth estate, I’m sympathetic to the plight of journalists. While my career as a reporter barely exceeded the shelf life of a hardy carrot in the fridge — a few months at the El Independiente  — I want the business of journalism to succeed. Beyond the good for society arguments, the stack on my nightstand reveals a selfish motive. The best non-fiction storytelling on the planet comes from journalists.

With that said, I understand why journalists feel compelled to write these “poor me” stories. They’re frustrated, angry and sometimes bitter after losing a job and/or seeing colleagues out of work. I can even understand the narrative that blames the PR industry. Identifying a scapegoat can prove to be a cathartic exercise.

Still, when I read The Washington Post story “Why the PR Industry Is Sucking Up Pulitzer Winners” my immediate reaction was WTH (the other acronym would jeopardize the blog’s PG rating).

The story from Jim Tankersley laments the fact that outside of Los Angeles, NY and Washington D.C., 25 percent of reporting jobs in the U.S. have disappeared over the past 10 years, while the PR industry has added 20,000 to its ranks during the same period and geography.

To accentuate the point, we find the paper putting its data visualization talent to good use with this “insightful” chart.

Reporters vs. PR 2004- 2004 income

I suppose Jim is expecting the gap in jobs between PR and journalism to cause the reader to gasp in horror, perhaps uttering words along the lines of “I can’t believe the PR industry has the audacity to hurt defenseless journalists.”

Only there’s a couple of not-so-little flaws with this argument.

Let’s examine the job growth for the two professions during preceding eight-year period from 1997 to 2004 (Occupational Employment and Wages data which only goes back to ’97)  in the chart below. Like Washpo, we also benefit from data visualization talent.

 Reporters vs. PR 1997 - 2004- income

Reviewing this 18-year runway doesn’t show PR is taking “oxygen” from journalism. Instead, the data simply reveals PR as a growth industry and journalism as a stagnant industry. Now, there’s a news flash!

And stories like two Pulitzer prize-winning journalists jumping ship make for good anecdotes, but that’s all they are. Good anecdotes.

Plus, journalists and their publishers are hardly helpless. As a collective institution, their resistance to change and denial of digital media for so many years only prolonged the pain. Thankfully, we’re seeing new models and experiments on how to monetize journalism that bodes well for the future.

Will the world of journalism be like the “good ole days” ever again?

Of course not. All professions or least those professions still on the board — try finding a travel agent — must keep evolving.

As part of this changing world, today’s journalists have responsibility to promote their stories, which Jim dutifully does to the tune of six tweets within a two-hour period, two linking to his story.

Tankersley Tweets

It’s somewhat ironic that this type of promotional splurge would cause a PR intern to be chastised with a “less is more” lecture.

But that’s a story for another time.


Reverse-engineering the Storytelling in a New York Times Feature

PR storytelling techniques

As a PR nerd, when I read a story in a publication that vacuums my attention, two questions immediately come to mind:

  • Was PR the catalyst for the article?
  • What storytelling techniques carry the narrative?

Such is the process I went through with the NYT piece, “A Chinese Billionaire Spinning Research into Investment Gold.”

As for the first question, my guess would be yes, PR planted the seeds for this feature. Either that or Zhang Lei’s storytelling acuity scores in the Ira Glass quadrant. Regardless, this doesn’t take anything away from the journalist Alexandra Stevenson who crafts a story that shows — not tells — Mr. Zhang’s verve.

In breaking down the article, four storytelling techniques carry the narrative.

As noted, anecdotes play a role in providing a window into what makes Mr. Zhang tick starting with the lead.

“With an $18 billion war chest, he is one of China’s richest investors. Yet on a recent trip to San Francisco, Zhang Lei and his entourage crammed into a three-bedroom house in the Mission District, rented through Airbnb. He also ordered water from Instacart, the on-demand grocery delivery service. A few days later in New York, he bought food through Google Express. Of course, it is not as if he could not afford luxury hotels and restaurants. Instead, it was research.”

A second anecdote serves as an indicator that entrepreneurism is encoded in his DNA:

“At 7, Mr. Zhang had his first business idea. He rented his comic books to passengers waiting for their trains. Today, that shared-economy concept is the basis for Silicon Valley companies like Uber and Airbnb.”

It still surprises me that most PR functions (internal + agency) develop content bereft of anecdotes. Not only do anecdotes pump life into stories, but they often serve a dual purpose of meeting the journalist’s need for content not in the public domain (or readily accessible).

Aligning Content With Journalists Needs - storytelling techniques

One of the most challenging storytelling techniques, failure, makes an appearance in the form of rejection when he applied for jobs on Wall Street. Not only did zero job offers materialize, but one particularly harsh salvo came his way:

“One interviewer went so far as to question his intellectual capacity when Mr. Zhang asked whether there was any point to gas stations.”

The third storytelling technique, what I term the unexpected or weird twist, is woven throughout the narrative. Like how Mr. Zhang tried to hire an old friend who said no, but suggested his wife might be a fit. Today, “the wife,” Tracy Ma, holds the chief operating officer position at the firm as Mr. Zhang’s No. 2 executive.

And finally, there’s a contrarian quality to the story such as when Mr. Zhang takes the position that American companies and Silicon Valley can learn from their Chinese counterparts when it comes to innovation:

“I’m seeing an uprising of Chinese entrepreneurs who are able to upgrade themselves versus the relatively slow-moving multinational companies.”

Virtually every company would welcome a 1,432-word feature in The New York Times.

This type of win calls for building out the right content — storytelling elements if you will — that stitch together the Zhang feature.

In short, think like a journalist.

As Mike Butcher, TechCrunch’s European editor put it, “‘The man who bit the dog is far more interesting than the dog that bit the man.”

Update (4/27/15, 2:45 pm): It turns out that the PR function had zero involvement in the story. In fact, the NYT journalist Alexandra Stevenson pursued Zhang for close to a year. I appreciate Alexandra taking the time to share this context.

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A Not-so-obvious Part to “Every Company is a Media Company”

Newsroom- storytelling techniques

Thanks to the wonders of Internet and WordPress, any company can rationalize the cost of digital publishing.

What’s more, Google’s decision to communicate the dialing down of activities in China on its corporate blog gave street cred to owned media. Since Google’s act on January 12, 2005, organizations of all shapes and sizes have become much more aggressive in taking their stories directly to the target audiences.

There’s no question that this move lessens dependence on third-party media. Like the investment world’s emphasis on the diversified portfolio, the building of a brand calls for diversified activities.

With that said, the value of media relations doesn’t disappear. In today’s environment where information gets flung about with the care of a ditch digger, one could make an argument that media coverage is more valuable than ever to a brand today.

Yet there’s the rub.

Succeeding with journalists can require NOT publishing. In fact, it can often mean not publishing your best stuff.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but you can see how this plays out with Intel’s recent media relations work to publicize the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law.

Intel essentially takes on the role of journalist in interviewing Gordon Moore on his famous axiom. Rather than publish the interview, Intel opts to package the content in a tidy PDF downloaded from its newsroom.

Moore's Law  interview by Intel

In pointing journalists to the content, Intel gains three benefits:

  • “Access” to new perspectives from Mr. Moore stands to increase the depth of the stories.
  • Inserts Intel’s preferred narrative slices into media stories.
  • Controls Mr. Moore’s input (also reduces the demands on his time).

Let’s look at this last point. Even if Intel ponies up Mr. Moore for a day or even two days of press interviews, you’re still going to have a gaggle of journalists indignant that they weren’t the chosen ones.

Some journalists like Don Clark at The Wall Street Journal tried to connect with Mr. Moore: “Mr. Moore couldn’t be reached, and Intel said he wasn’t available to comment.”

Of course, everyone ends up unhappy if Intel manufactures 1,500 words of corporate speak. To this point, there’s a journalistic-like quality to the Intel deliverable with the same storytelling techniques.

For example, this anecdote surfaced in the BBC and The Wall Street Journal:

  • “It’s amazing how often I run across a reference to Moore’s Law. In fact, I Googled ‘Moore’s Law’ and I Googled ‘Murphy’s Law’ and ‘Moore’s Law’ beats ‘Murphy’ by at least two to one.”

There’s very much a conversational tone to much of the content like this passage that landed in the San Jose Mercury News and PC Mag:

  • “But one could see the trend was going in the direction that this was going to be the cheaper way eventually. That was my real objective — to communicate that we have a technology that’s going to make electronics cheap.”

Back to the point that Intel did not publish the Moore interview. The commoditization of the news release forces journalists to dig deeper for stories and content not in the public domain.

Content Not in Public Domain - storytelling techniques

It’s true that the Intel document sits in the public domain (Intel’s press room). Still, by virtue of the packaging — atomized content instead of a complete story — and being “roped off” for journalists, the perception is one of out of the mainstream view.

Did Intel’s approach work?

The question can’t be answered by simply looking at media impressions. The media was going to cover a milestone of that magnitude whether Intel lifted a finger or not.

But given that Intel’s atomized content showed up in so many of the articles ranging from USA Today to CNET to Wired, it seems reasonable to conclude that  Intel accomplished its mission.



The Google Algorithm is About to Crush Your Content … Starting Tomorrow

Crushed Coke Can -Google algorithm

Before jumping into the sense of urgency part, let’s frame the issue.

Mobile devices are taking over the world.

In terms of raw numbers, mobile users surpassed the desktop users last year.

ComScore Global Users -Google algorithm

Yet, this only tells part of the story. For PR and other communication functions, the core question comes down to behavior. Are consumers and B2B buyers depending on mobile devices to access news and information?

Just the flow of a typical work day that finds people at every corner hunched over their mobile phones tells us, yes. If you don’t trust the anecdotal evidence, a Pew Research study quantifies that over 50 percent of smartphone and tablet users do indeed retrieve news.

Growing Mobile Landscape Pew research

If this weren’t enough to push all types of online business communications to be mobile-friendly, Google’s Webmaster Central Blog published a post last February that carried these words:

“Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.”

That’s tomorrow.

While Google’s guidance for landing high on the SERP (search engine results page) can be obtuse or worse, the blog’s statement on mobile search leaves nothing to interpretation. If your online content isn’t mobile-friendly as of today, the Google algorithm will crush you.

As PR continues to come up the curve on business storytelling, there’s now a sense of urgency for the function to shape content — whether earmarked for journalists, a corporate blog or social channels — that plays on mobile devices.

Unfortunately, a recent study by Didit reveals that over 40 percent of the websites for the top PR agencies (based on rankings by O’Dwyer’s) failed Google’s webmaster test.

Not good.

If we can’t get this right for ourselves, what does that say about the probability for creating mobile-friendly content for clients?

Google provides a Developer’s tool that grades out mobile-friendly content with either a pass or fail. Just plug in the URL and out comes to the answer. Our site at www.Hoffman.com got the thumbs up.

Mobile-friendly Test - Hoffman - Google algorithm

It’s amusing that some of the mega shops with digital savvy reputations like Edelman weren’t so fortunate.

Mobile-friendly Test - Edelman Google algorithm

To show I’m not picking on Edelman, this blog also failed the test, an issue we’ll resolve next month with a redesign. Looking at the blog’s analytics, it’s clear that the bad look on mobile screens has already cost traffic. Access to the storytelling blog by mobile devices which peaked at 33 percent last year now sits around 23 percent, and that’s before it takes a hit today.

Of course, creating mobile-friendly content is more than a technical exercise. It calls for understanding how behavior changes when the screen shrinks. While logic says that attention spans would also shrink, I’ve read contrarian research indicating people will read longer pieces. One thing everyone agrees on — mobile devices put a premium on visual storytelling.

Regardless of how behavior on mobile devices shakes out, communications needs to get the technical piece right.

We’re working on it.

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