You don't have to go viral to be successful on social media. GE is proving that with what it calls "micro-media"—communications efforts that target small communities and facilitate discussion within them rather than trumpet to huge audiences.
"I don't speak to my friends with a bullhorn," says Paul Marcum, director of global digital marketing and programming at GE. "As a social engager, you can't."
What GE has done instead is to foster communities such as the one that flocked to its HealthyShare Facebook app this summer. For the most part, GE has taken a hands-off approach to the community, which has nearly 25,000 users, making it an open forum for people to encourage each other to become healthier and ask each other health questions.
It's indicative of GE's social media philosophy of focusing on people rather than trends, and it's working.
The path to sharing
HealthyShare got its start in June as the result of a partnership between GE and Facebook looking ahead to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Paul Adams, global head of brand design at Facebook, explained the idea behind the app: "Many research studies show that our friends can help us live healthier lives. By supporting each other, we increase people's motivation, helping them meet their goals of feeling better and being healthier and happier."
The initial version of the app included health advice from Olympians and focused on keeping track of users' progress in their fitness regimens. After the Olympics wrapped up, the app relaunched as a place that's more about sharing ideas and information. The fitness challenges remain, but the app's front page displays people's pressing questions about their health.
"We're supporting the conversation," Marcum says. "We're not in there as a brand trying to manage the community toward a particular product or anything along those lines. We're there to just elevate health as a focus to folks."
Give and take
GE doesn't aim to drive HealthyShare users to products, but that doesn't mean the brand isn't involved. The notion of "surprise and delight" is a huge part of the company's social media philosophy.
"We try to be really responsive online," Marcum says. "There's just something delightfully real and humanizing from getting something from someone today. There's an expression of warmth in taking something out of the digital realm."
For HealthyShare, that meant sending helpful gifts—basketballs, yoga mats, and the like—to participants who were trying to reach certain goals.
"We want to support you, like you may be supporting your friends," Marcum says.
At the same time, GE asks something of its communities. For example, as the company was planning sites for a video tour of its various plants, it asked its Facebook fans which plants they wanted to see.
About a year ago, the company acquired a MakerBot 3D printer and asked fans to help decide on a design to print out for an upcoming air show.
"We got sketches of UFOs," Marcum says. "We even got a declassified document on the SR-71 Blackbird. We'd print it out and come up with a whimsical summary of it."
That sort of input is welcomed on HealthyShare, too, he says.
"We're going to let the community tell us what they need."
The impact of communities
GE's approach isn't one that's going to result in a million video views in a week or 100,000 new "likes" every day. But Marcum says this approach, one that inspires word-of-mouth while building and facilitating online relationships, is the social media strategy that will prevail.
"This being the Internet, none of us are above a good cat video or meme, but at the same time, we're very much true to who we are," he says.
Having conducted a study with Buzzfeed to find out what kind of brand lift social content provides compared with paid placements, GE discovered that word-of-mouth is considerably more valuable. No brand is totally sure of what benefits they'll reap from social media, but it's "the building blocks toward ROI," Marcum says.
"We have been very much focused on quantifying that in a way that we can model it out."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.