“Co-creating content with the customer is most effective for us”
We sat down with senior communications executive Penny Shone, who most recently led Global Growth Communications at GE. Penny explains how to win senior executive buy-in for content marketing, walks us through the global roll-out of content hub GE Reports, and explains why long-form content continues to be valuable.
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Andrea Edwards, ACMA Chairman: Thank you for coming. I met Penny a couple of years ago through work, and I was blown away by your keen insights and intelligence. Sometimes you meet people and they’re just like, woah, this lady’s going to teach me something. You’ve become a friend and a mentor since, and I feel very fortunate you can be here tonight. It’s very difficult to get time with someone like Penny, right? So we’re all thrilled to have you. We’re going to have a big conversation around a lot of different topics, and we’re probably going to go completely astray.
Penny Shone: That’s fine.
But you know I thought we might dig back into the history, to Penny, the girl from New Zealand.
I still am the girl from New Zealand.
Who’s now become a force in the communication sector. So could you just give everyone some perspective on your career. What’s been brilliant, what hasn’t and why communications? Because I know that wasn’t the original plan.
Oh, you know I didn’t have a lot of original plans.
I was from New Zealand and when you live at the end of the earth, you want to go and explore the world so that was my main objective in life. To go somewhere warm and to travel and see the world.
My first career, I guess, was teaching. I taught at a high school for two years in New Zealand and five years here at RGS, for those of you who are Singaporean.
When I was working here, I started writing plays. My undergraduate degree is in history but I did quite a bit of drama. I also started writing for different magazines, golf magazines, men’s magazines, women’s magazines. After a time I figured that I wanted to leave to do something new. And I wanted to use my language, literature, history and drama background. I’d done some film. And so a natural progression in business was something called public relations.
At that time, thousands of years ago, I went to the UK and I did the first European masters in public affairs. And then I worked for a UK PR, actually a global PR agency. It happened to be voted the best in the UK at the time. I worked for them for free during my university holidays so that they would give me a job, and then I came back to Singapore because I’d married a Singaporean. I worked for an international PR consultancy here.
I would say, one of the turning points for me, a highlight of my career, was when I got the opportunity to work on the Citibank Leadership Series with Margaret Thatcher and Colin Powell and a number of global leaders, and that sort of catapulted my confidence, to realize that even though I had once been a school teacher, I could do many other things.
In fact, I’m so glad to see Jack Ma, you know, a teacher, become what he is today because I’m a big believer, that it’s not true that those who can do, those who can’t teach. It’s just the opposite. To be a great teacher you have to be able to do. So I was really committed to that.
Motorola hired me for a couple of years. Then Citigroup asked me to join them, and I had 12 years there, which were fantastic. By the time the 2008 financial crisis hit, I felt I had “maxed out” the job, as we say in Singapore. My learning curve was kind of leveling off so after the 2008/9 financial crisis, I took the opportunity to leave which was actually very scary.
I decided to go and have that gap year I couldn’t afford when I was young, and so at age 47, I took a gap year. And I went back to school at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. I did a Masters in Public Management, which was fantastic. Then as part of that course, I went to Harvard, and that was also fantastic. And when I was there GE approached me to see if I would work for the Vice Chairman and help GE build out its international marketing communications capability. That’s my career in a nutshell.
The one thing you need to know is, I’ve since left GE, and I’m once again taking a gap year, and I’ve no idea what it will bring, but I’m very excited at the moment because I’m doing some work for AWARE, which is a feminist organization here and doing some training on sexual harassment, diversity and inclusion.
Which is incredibly timely. Regarding your career, I think one of the things that I can certainly relate to, even though the journey has been very different, is that careers are a journey. I often find people in Asia have asked me, “How could you have done so many different things?” I mean musician in the Australian Army, right? So I think it’s really cool for people to know they can go on these different journeys, rather than aim for these straight line careers. Especially in this region. Listening to you, it’s great to know that it’s okay, because you probably hire people because of different experience versus the right experience or a combination.
Yeah, absolutely, I look for intelligence, commitment, tenacity and the ability to work in a team. Because most of the companies that I’ve worked for, especially at the senior level, if you want to have credibility you’ve really got to be smart. That means educated and experienced. At the same time you have to be able to work with others.
You know, one of my greatest experiences at GE was working with the digital team. When I started my career, digital as a category really didn’t exist… although you could say Asia kind of leapfrogged the whole of landlines to become mobile and digital very early. Similarly, banking is digital, but they don’t share their marketing techniques at public forums very often. I was pleased to see DBS up there of course. But I think that working with the digital team, and the international digital team at GE particularly, was really exciting. They wanted to understand how they could get heard. We needed to have a conversation to figure out the best solution to present to management and that’s a really great thing. If you listen hard to people, sometimes they’re not the ones that talk the most, but actually if you listen hard to people who are different from you, and you try and understand what they’re going to bring to the party, you get a better team and you get a better outcome as a result.
Absolutely. Alright so let’s move into content marketing. I’m very curious when it first got on your radar, although it might not have even been called content marketing then. Do you remember when that moment was for you?
I do, it was when I joined GE. Yeah, I’ve been using content marketing my whole life, and I kind of didn’t even like the term when I first heard it because you know when you insure your house, you insure it for its ‘contents’. But nobody thinks about what you have in your home as ‘content’. You think about it as something you love that’s got a really important memory. And I know when I was furnishing my house here, everything I’ve bought needed to be both functional and beautiful. And so I think that’s the way I think about content. The danger is the word ‘content’ can make you think about stuff. That it’s just stuff. That it doesn’t really matter what it is. But good content is about an audience, someone who wants information, presented in a beautiful way, so they partly want to combine the poet and the professor. Content has to be both. So, I guess, I’ve really come across content marketing as a way to build, to have a relationship with your customer. And for me that’s really how how I think about content marketing. What is the goal of it? If you’re trying to advocate for content marketing and you go to a business person, the first thing they’re going to say, “Why?” And you’ve got to have a really good answer.
Yeah exactly. It’s funny when you were talking about the poet, one of the things that really struck me is global versus regional versus local. How does it filter down globally into the region then into the local teams? Have you seen that – as referenced when speaking about the LinkedIn blogs from the senior executives earlier – how does it go down further into the organization? How is it embraced more widely and appropriately based on local cultures?
One of my tasks, when we were building our global business in these different countries, was, “How do we build our brand in those countries”. People knew GE for appliances, GE Capital, or some people knew it as GE Money. But actually GE was transforming into a digital industrial company, and we needed to update our brand in the minds of our customers, potential customers, and governments. I looked at GE Reports and I thought this is such a great property at GE. What can I do with it? Is this a good way to scale? And that’s what we were trying to do.
GE is huge in the United States. It’s a blue chip and well-known brand by everyone. When we’re going to a new country, we’re not going to have all of the resources that GE has in the United States, and not that huge heritage. How do I make the brand relevant in a country which doesn’t really know very much about us? So of course, I’d love to be able to adapt everything that they do in the United States, but it’s not all relevant. At first nearly all of the content was created in the US. So what we tried to do then was to say, okay, well, what can we use and what needs to be local and what needs to be international?
So the question for me was what is the right digital strategy in a market? Bearing in mind that some markets, a lot of our customer base was in their 40s and 50s, it wasn’t necessarily hey’re going to use a lot of digital content. But at least we needed local language capabilities, so we need to be able to translate and we needed local websites, so we actually started off with the real basics, and I worked with the fabulous digital marketing specialist Gerald Ang to look at, what’s the back end we need to create? What is the the front end we need to create and what’s the content we need to create? And what’s the mix between online and offline that we’re going to do because still, in a B2B business like GE, you need to have a relationship with your customer. But the great thing about digital is that people love it because it’s young and it’s fresh, it looks cool and interesting. If they don’t use it themselves, their kids are using it, and they want to use it.
The great thing is about the last six years, as we went with our customers on the journey, we localized content in the big markets, and we had platforms in local language, and we would create content, great content with strategy. Big markets got this, middle-sized markets got this, small markets got that and that’s how we kind of divided up the resources. And in some of the big markets, like Africa, we have an Africa GE Reports and they’ve been very successful because it was innovative. There wasn’t very much happening online, and we could use a lot of the global content when it was related to innovation and coolness and sexiness because, everybody loved it, an aircraft engine and a gas turbine don’t look very different from one country to another. You can just repurpose the video, but it was a very important learning moment when we said to our US colleagues, don’t try and do content in Africa. You don’t understand the market, let the team there do the content. And instead, let’s use some of the international content because the US is cool in the digital space. So it was part of our global image. “We’re an American brand in the digital industrial space and we’re doing cool stuff.”
But also how do we make it relevant in countries where that’s not their experience of life? In one country, which was having geopolitical challenges at that time with the United States. We actually did the whole GE Reports in local language targeting direct to the customers. Because what we found was that, engineers, whether they’re in aviation or in energy connections, an engineer is an engineer. It’s planes, trains, technology. Even though they might be an engineer doing something else, they loved to see the cool aviation videos, it was a great way to showcase our technology to them. And that was very successful during a difficult period. Keeping a low profile but really getting out directly to our customers and getting our own engineers to get their customers, who were also engineers, to partner.
Softening the Americanisms of the brand. Or just just being more subtle about taking it to market when it’s critical.
Where being an American company is relevant, it’s completely fine. It’s just recognizing that in some markets customers also want to see themselves.Co-creating with the customer was the most effective for us.
Yes, so talking more on GE Reports. I think one of the challenges that comes up a lot in this region for heads of content, heads of communication, heads of marketing is selling it to the other stakeholders in the business – selling content marketing. When GE Reports was first put on the table, was a CMO bought in? Did you have to get them bought in? What about the other business leaders, Jeff? You know all of those people, what was the process, how deep and how wide did you have to go to get people bought into the idea of telling great stories to win customer trust?
We had to connect the value and explain why it was valuable. We got buy in, it wasn’t that difficult. I remember in Pakistan someone ordering a part from our general site. We looked for case studies where customers had connected because they’d seen something and bought something as proof, as case studies to show the business that actually this could be valuable for them.
So when you’re talking about value, because that’s where people are really struggling, especially if you’re building a case for something that’s never existed before. As an example, you don’t always know what some of the returns are going to be with content marketing, because it can go so wide and so deep and there’s a lot of unexpected returns. Do you remember some of those things that you put out there?
I mentioned Pakistan, Brazil was another. We had a doctor who bought Vscans — hand-held ultrasound machines — from the story we did on GE Reports Brazil. The need was always to make the business case for digital, and also to ask the question: What were the alternatives? Digital is a very cost-effective way to reach customers. But you just can’t have a blanket approach. You’ve got to ask if you can l you target to the customers and what can you do with them?
In another country we went up to the customer sites and helped them with their digital communications and when the customers thank the business leader, it’s great. Digital marketing is not that difficult to sell if you can make it cost-effective, and show logic, and give proof points why it’s successful. So getting those proof points is really important. A key point for anyone in an agency and in-house, is that it’s very difficult for an agency person to sell an idea if there’s not somebody in the company already minded about their area. You need an internal stakeholder to value this and to be able to sell an idea. We were very lucky at GE because of Beth Comstock. She was very innovative and committed and Jeff Immelt was too.
The senior leadership support is absolutely critical, right?
Yes, and you’ve also got to sell it to the CEO in Turkey, in Russia, in China, in Japan, in Korea, in Brazil, in Argentina. You know in France and Germany, you’ve got to sell the idea to them too. They are all critical stakeholders.
Another thing that’s always really fascinated with me with GE is the breadth of the audience, from the mom-and-pop investors all the way through to the defense industry, and we know how hard they are to sell to. Then on another level, you’ve got this amazing social media presence. Has anyone looked at GE on Instagram? Go have a look, it’s beautiful. And you can’t help but think, it’s such a wide variety of audience targets. When you think about that strategy for content on social, how did you define it to reach those different audiences, because they are so wide. I know a lot of companies here have audiences that are wide too, so they struggle with how to get focused on the audience.
Well, I think you just have to choose, choose an audience, and then start with that and there’s usually overflow to another audience, but you have to target your audiences and you can get help with that. (It’s six months since I left GE, just to be clear.) If you’re going to target an investor audience, the investor relations team will do that. In China, the team will look at targeting their audiences. I don’t speak Chinese, I’m not going to be much help, but what I can do is hire someone really good. And put in place a common structure and process and thinking behind how they would do that in pretty much every country. Different countries have different businesses of different size. For example, in China, I’m thinking of how important GE’s healthcare business is. So in China, the team have a very big campaign targeting healthcare customers. Where healthcare is not such a big business in a market, we don’t target that segment as much. So it becomes the responsibility for the person on the ground, the senior person on the ground to understand what our business mix is in a market, and then to match our content mix, as well as our aspirations in that market. So if we’re going off to a new market, we look around the company to find out what we could actually use and repurpose with that audience. I don’t think it’s brain surgery. I think it’s focus.
The other thing is quality. Another challenge in the region is seniority of teams. Often team seniority isn’t prioritized, and at the country level, much more junior people are hired. They wear so many hats, but also struggle with power or the ability to influence. So I think that strategy of building a strong team has been a really successful one for you as well.
And it also depends on whether you want the content to go global. What appeals to an Indonesian customer may not appeal to a customer in the United States. Do we care? No. The question is, if a customer is important to us enough we’re going to work with that customer to make it work for them.
Alright, so we don’t often get the chance to hear from someone who’s sponsored an Olympics…
I did, it was it was fabulous.
What was the approach? What were you looking to achieve through that?
We had a really strong Brazilian team with a really good digital marketing person. For GE the real value when you sponsor the Olympics is in the country itself because it’s a moment of immense national pride. And of course, we sell infrastructure products to those governments and businesses in that country, so our goal was to make the sponsorship work for us locally and then take content and share it globally, where it was relevant. And what we tend to do is put the content up for the team, and then people choose which content they want. So one of the great aspects of GE is that it’s involved in the infrastructure of the Olympics.
Prior to every Olympics it’s the same story. Will the country be ready? Will the stadiums be ready? So, we would focus our efforts on being part of that story ahead of the Games. Then we would not do so much till after the Olympics because we want to make sure that there’s no power failure, but once the Olympics has been a success, it’s a wonderful moment to join with your clients, the clients who have the equipment, who support the Olympic committee in running the Games. They’re the ones who are so happy that we did, there was no breakdown. It’s a great moment of celebration, and a great time to be with your clients, and that’s how we thought about the Olympics.
Cool, I like that. I’ve never been involved in an Olympics, so it’s very cool. A couple more questions. I know you’ve been in a reflective mode for about six months now, trying to work out what’s next. But for us, what should we be focusing and what should we just not care about?
Well, I think there’s plenty written, and you would know better than I that the big trend is for short content, video, photography. Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter and people are overwhelmed with content. So I go back to my comment about content: don’t think of content as stuff, think about it as something that works for your audience. We like different things, so you’ve really got to know your audience, what do they want? And secondly, whatever you do, it’s always got to be beautiful – both functional and aesthetically pleasing, but I’d say the thing that worked most successfully from a business perspective for me was, co-creating content with customers. Because if they become part of the process, it’s going to be more relevant. I think that’s the modern way of communicating isn’t it? Far more engagement, and what could be a better way to engage, and flatter, and inspire, than to actually to create something beautiful with your customer.
Alright, so the final question. What is your definition ofcontent marketing?
Co-creating with your customer. I think it’s content that your audience loves, that you can use to persuade them, to speak highly of you or to take some action on your behalf. I ask, Who am I targeting? What do I want them to think, say and do with this, and will they, am I being realistic? What will it take? Will it take a piece of content, or will it take much more than that to make them think, say, and do something. Because you’ve got to look at it and within the whole integrated marketing and communications mix, not just as one piece.
Let’s open it up for some questions.
(Question) Hi Penny, I’m Jin Wei from Wootag. You mentioned a focus on short-form content. Is that the trend moving forward?
So I certainly don’t want to suggest that I don’t think that there is a place for long-form content. I do, and I look to journalists. I think the media world has done a fantastic job moving to digital and also creating a space and recognition for the fabulous work that they do in providing insight and news to inform and inspire… and do all the things that the four archetypes do! The media are really good at this. They know how to make long-form content interesting with heads, subheads, you know, clickable things, photography, imagery, data visualization, cool stuff. I read the FT every day and look at it online every day. I read The Economist every week and look at it online every week. When I looked at the FT this morning, there were five hundred comments on their front page article on sexual harassment. If it’s a learning piece, then the right target audience can be really interested. We did a long-form piece on the anatomy of a deal, so, what’s it like working with a customer in some countries like Iraq or South Africa. How do you do business in those countries? We created long-form content, from a panel discussion. It was quite long to listen to, but people were fascinated because was deeply relevant to the whole junior staff base who wanted to understand that, to get senior people in the company talking about how they do things, the secrets, the insights. Of course, that’s valuable. You know, so I think it is just about understanding how relevant can your content be to an audience.
(Andrea Edwards) And I’ve got to tell you that this whole idea that long-form doesn’t work… First of all, Google loves long-form, loves it. And I have never met a senior executive, who’s really good at what they do, that doesn’t invest heavily in knowledge, and that means long-form articles, so the only thing that matters is it’s got to be brilliant. It’s got to be valuable, it’s got to be worth somebody’s time because that’s what we’re asking for when we create content, we’re asking people to give us time and the only focus is that and I think we get distracted by the tactics. But senior executives, the buyer, they read. Some of them watch, the younger people tend to watch, older people, I’m an older one, they still read.
It’s just got to be well-written.
(Question) Hi Penny, I’m Miguel and I work for Mediacorp. Running around inside a very large company, how do you get started and how do you get other departments to support your strategy so it’s a positive beginning? As an example, one reaction is: I don’t have time. I’m just wondering how you get started internally.
When I sold in the strategy for GE Reports internationally, I definitely spent time with my boss, the vice chair, and the managers of all those countries, always the regional managers. You’ve got one opportunity when you go into senior management, you’ve got one opportunity to be credible and sell, so you need to be prepared, and you really need to make the first pieces of work good and have value so that they agree that you should do more. You start off piece by piece, and you use the examples from one place that succeeded, with another. We really didn’t have very many people in the international team and other departments to compete with. We were very lean – a startup in the company. We were the only thing, the department of everything, and the business was grateful to have us. I think that the business teams in the country wanted someone to tell their story. So it wasn’t that difficult. I suspect in organizations that have been around for a long time people get competitive, but in this situation, it wasn’t that. There was always a demand for more, and the challenge you have as management is that you’ve got to be selective about what you choose to do so that the team don’t run around ragged trying to support everything. There was always plenty to do, the question was the efficacy of what was being done.
(Andrea Edwards) Did you have an under-the-radar period where you got some wings before you went to the bosses, or did you go the bosses first?
Before I joined GE, some of the countries already had teams in place, and so we looked at the progress they had made. I think the first words out of my mouth when I joined was that we have to focus on the business value. When you want the business to value and put money behind your marketing and communications efforts, you’ve got to show them the business value. The commercial value.
(Question) Hi Penny, my name is Dom and I work for Harley Davidson. When you were
sharing earlier, you talked about finding the value proposition when you’re pitching the ideas to your CEOs. In Turkey, for example. As a content marketer, I’m assuming here you’re looking at changing the brand perceptions whereas the CEOs around world, they’re looking at sales conversion. Were there any specific examples that you can share with us on how you actually got the buy-ins and investments from the CEOs and the stakeholders to let you keep doing what you do.
(Penny Shone) So, an example of buy-in right? The Olympics team in Brazil who really impressed the business leaders with the level of branding we got out of it. We were very innovative in Brazil. We did this fantastic program in Portuguese. The team worked with a much-beloved professor character who had run a TV program on science a long time ago. And they recreated it, talking about technology and the Olympics. It had cult status. And as a result of that, and many other programs they ran, we got a lot of national television news coverage. And I think, when the businesses saw that the customers were really supportive of what we were doing in the digital space there, they could see how brand and business worked together. Because we were striking the emotion and the childhood memories of many of these business people. So it’s that kind of blend between consumer and B2B. You know, every B2B customer is also a human being. We talk a lot about human communication and how you target the human being.
(Question) Hi Penny, I am Peter from Diamond Walker. Given the intimate nature of content marketing, do you think if I’m starting with a clean sheet, it’s something that is better done in-house, hire and invest, or to outsource to an agency? Because I think nobody knows a brand better than the brand owners themselves. What are your thoughts?
(Penny Shone) I think the best answer is not either/or. I think it’s both. I really feel that it’s very difficult for an agency unless you’ve got someone inside the company who’s got credibility and experience, who knows the brand, and knows the company, so you can sell the idea internally and get the budgets. Without that, it’s very hard. But I think a lot of the best content writers, designers, and videographers, they’re from the media or agency world. And I think if you really want good stuff then you just got to get the best people. I think GE has been very successful in the US at going to great small content agencies and saying, okay, we want a lot of innovation. They look for ideas and things that will make GE stand out.
(Question) Hi Penny, I’m Olivia, I’m a content producer. Thank you for sharing. My question is, of all the different metrics that you could use to gauge the performance of the digital content, which ones did your team choose to focus on and why?
A great question. It depended on the target audience, the business goal and the stage of development of our presence in a country. So if we were just starting out, maybe it might be to get the critical stakeholders to sign up GE reports. If we thought that it was going to be a very difficult task, then maybe we would look for clicks or time on site. Where we had an established presence, where we had already done digital content for a while, it was a business score. For example, we would look at the number of customers who subscribed and the reach we had with customers. As we got better, the requirements got tougher, and ultimately we wanted to prove that we could have a direct business impact and get customer endorsement. We even had a Prime Minister of one country tweet about our event. You look for different goals for different stages of the evolution of our digital and social media presence in a market.
(Andrea Edwards) So we’re going to wrap up. I want you to finish with just one sentence.
There are still people sitting around, waiting. They’re still waiting to start. Companies are still waiting to act. What would you say to them?
Well, I kind of take this personally because yeah, I don’t do that much on social media myself! For me, the question is, why? I think that at a minimum, you need to be able to defend yourself. And you can’t defend yourself if you have no way to reach your employees and your customers digitally. In a crisis, a digital capability gives you a way to reach everyone. You need content and if you don’t have experience communicating content digitally, at a minimum, you can’t operate. So it actually becomes a business operations requirement.