GE Recruits Social Media Influencers for Adventures in Immortality

Judy Hu is leading GE’s embrace of social media to reach new audiences online. In a recent conversation she talks about the power of YouTube celebrities, how GE came to terms with the loss of control that comes with earned media, and the strange and fascinating immortality of branded entertainment on the Internet.

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As the Global Executive Director for Advertising and Branding at General Electric, Judy Hu oversees one of the largest advertising budgets in business. In addition to managing ubiquitous TV, print, and outdoor campaigns for everything from jet engines to locomotives to “Imagination at Work,” Hu is leading GE’s embrace of social media to reach new audiences online. In a recent conversation she talks about the power of YouTube celebrities, how GE came to terms with the loss of control that comes with earned media, and the strange and fascinating immortality of branded entertainment on the Internet.

As part of a social media campaign for Healthymagination, GE reached out to YouTube influencers. How did that come about?

The reason we did it is because we wanted to explore the space since it’s the biggest audience platform on the Web. This is the first time we actively engaged YouTubers and what’s been amazing to watch is how these YouTube stars have grown.

There are two things that we really love about them.


One, they combine creative content execution where they actually build their own videos while relating our message about Heathymagination—which is about bringing better health to more people–in their own way. They really deliver our message in an authentic voice that’s more impactful and relevant to their fans than traditional advertising.

So part of it is the creative content that they are so good at.

The second thing that is amazing, and I’m still astounded by this, is the built-in distribution network. They leverage their devoted fan base, and then that devoted fan base also gets the message out through Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and all sorts of different ways of sharing our message, but interpreted in a unique fashion.

Right now we have around 11 million views, which when you think about how many people are watching television, 11 million is a really big number.


How does online fit into the larger advertising approach? Tell me a bit about the value return.

We see this as part of an integrated campaign. We won’t abandon the use of network TV to really do what it does best which is mass reach and serves as a fabulous vehicle for certain types of messaging and a way to emotionally grab an audience that we still believe is valid.

But this is a very different targeted campaign. It reaches a younger audience for GE and does it in an unexpected way.

YouTube stars are driving big audiences and getting significant targeted attention. How do you evaluate what someone like Justine Ezarik, known as iJustine and one of the contributors to the Healthymagination campaign, brings to GE?


One of the reasons we wanted to use iJustine is because she is one of the original, groundbreaking YouTube bloggers. I think she really brings a great package. She does really fun, interesting videos. She has a very distinctive voice. She has a very devoted following, and one of the best things about her, is that she has tremendous credibility in the space. So we wanted her for all those reasons.

We partnered with Howcast and they helped us develop this campaign and bring these YouTubers to GE [other participating YouTubers include Smosh, Alphacat and Brittani Louise Taylor]. Howcast does how-to videos and they helped produce these videos on how to live a healthier life in their own Howcast tonality.

I’d heard of several of the YouTubers, and several, quite frankly, I hadn’t. We looked at their blogs, their videos and we made sure they were people who we wanted to represent the brand.


Then we gave them the Healthymagination brief, which is really simple: bringing better health to more people. And they came out with really fabulous ideas.

So many companies are afraid of the loss of control with social media and the Web and using these new celebrities. How does GE manage the duality of the desire for broad reach with the loss of control that comes with these kinds of campaigns?

There is by definition a loss of control, but we choose to look at it in the positive as enabling us to talk to people. It’s a dialogue that allows us to reach out to new people and have an exchange of ideas. That’s how we choose to look at it as opposed to losing control.

What surprised you the most about the campaign’s results?

It was really interesting to see it get picked up. The day we launched the campaign, honestly, it was experimental, so I didn’t know what to expect. But I was sitting at my computer and I could not believe the numbers growing. Across the country people were sitting there and watching iJustine and the others and you could see the views going up and you see the comments coming in and you see the ideas people are submitting and it doesn’t stop, it’s flooding.


That’s the excitement. That’s the upside of engaging people in a space that they’re used to using to discuss ideas and state thoughts and ad opinion. And for GE to be part of that conversation is a new but necessary thing.

Some YouTubers like iJustine and Joe Penna (aka MysteryGuitarMan) feel they need to explain the broader value they can bring to a brand. After this campaign, do you feel GE has a better understanding now?

Again, we were really surprised by the number of people who engaged, but what really impressed me is that Healthymagination launched as a 360 campaign in February and went through April. We had some digital advertising, a lot of TV advertising and print, and we had outdoor. The works. Yet when the traditional campaign stopped, this campaign has lived on.

The growth! People still ad comments and we have 11 million views. Maybe a month ago it was 10 million and it’s still growing.

That’s what’s been really interesting to me. This YouTube campaign has a life of it’s own long after the other parts have ended.


How has your advertising thinking changed around traditional and non-traditional venues? Are you looking at budget lines and thinking about swapping some billboards to get more online campaigns?

Let’s just say we’re going to continue to expand in this space. It’s working for us. We’re going to broaden this effort and we’re really excited about being here. It’s brought us a new audience and it’s brought us new distribution channels and it’s really incredible to see how people interpret our messaging in their own way. You will see GE here in many new ways coming soon.

Is it hard to sell “experimental” online advertising to top executives at GE? I saw that CMO Beth Comstock recently joined Twitter.

I think it’s great that she’s on Twitter and have you seen her latest Facebook page?

Beth totally gets it and the people on Beth’s staff get it and many of our businesses are experimenting with it now too.


So the big multi-national conglomerate that is GE is going to continue to connect with social media?

Definitely. Keep an eye out because we are going to launch something new soon. And we’re not so big and multi-national (laughing). We’re personal and social and friendly and approachable.

About the author

Mark Borden is a Senior Editor at Fast Company magazine. He loosely defines his beat as creativity and how individuals and companies use it to distinguish themselves in the marketplace to attract fans, customers, employees and strategic partners