Journalism Meets Brand Storytelling: Q&A with GE Reports’ Tomas Kellner

Compelling isn’t the first word you’d typically use to describe a publication dedicated to covering the activities of a company that makes jet engines and MRI machines. The exception: GE Reports, overseen by Senior Managing Editor (and former Forbes reporter) Tomas Kellner.

While many would be satisfied with a just-the-facts, press release approach to announcing company news, Kellner isn’t. Using his journalistic instincts, he labors to turn even the most mundane story into one he’d want to read. And though the finished piece is sometimes enhanced with slick videos or eye-catching GIFs, it’s his deeper dive that keeps the reader engaged long after a splashy graphic has pulled them in.

Curious about his transition from journalist to content marketer, I recently sat down with Kellner to learn about how his past experiences are serving him in his current role  — and what others can take away from his journey.

AW: What’s the biggest difference you noticed when you transitioned from being a “regular” journalist to a brand journalist? What’s the greatest similarity?

TK: The biggest similarity is that you still have to tell the best story. You have to tell it in a way that your readers are used to. When you’re a brand journalist you’re competing with everyone else out there. Your product must be as relevant, well written and important as your audience is used to reading in traditional media. So in that sense there’s no difference. The difference is that even though I have freedom to roam, the majority of my stories are tied to the company’s strategy. For example, our transformation to the digital industrial space, with all of our products being tied to the Internet. As a beat reporter I’m looking for stories that tie to concepts like this. But again the editorial process is the same.

AW: What journalistic instincts aren’t being applied to content marketing enough?

TK: It’s really the storytelling aspect — it’s the emphasis on brand messaging and the lip service to storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, messaging is important. As a brand journalist you have to absorb the messaging and express it through the storytelling as a point of view. Telling the story in an attractive and compelling way so that it doesn’t come across as a bullet point. There’s just too much marketing the old way, and too little storytelling despite all the talk.

AW: Besides investing in a crack writing team, where else should brands invest to make stories more engrossing? Photography? Videography? Data visualization? Something else?

TK: I think that storytelling really is the core of everything. And you don’t have to invest in a crack writing team. We’re actually trying to build our own writing team and training internal people who already have the basic skills, but also an advantage of domain knowledge. We’ve also been training people across the company in the art of journalism and storytelling.

Stories need to have multiple entry points. It can be a headline and the lede, but photography is also very important. Data viz, infographics and other formats are also important, but they each play a role. For instance, photos work well on Facebook and different things work well on Twitter vs. Snapchat. You should have all of those ready in your arsenal and ready to deploy.

AW: How is data and technology informing your storytelling?

TK: “We are using data and technology to understand how stories are performing how to help them reach the right people. We use data to better understand what about stories is resonating and what channels they’re succeeding in differently — and then we try to replicate that success. We use the information to shape our coverage as we go and develop future stories.

AW: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in building a publishing brand outside of a publisher?

TK: In order to succeed you have to treat [your content] like journalism. That’s your opportunity or that’s your downfall. It’s not marketing and it’s not communications, or PR the way that’s been done for the last half century. Readers aren’t setting aside time for branded content — they’re setting aside time to catch up on news and consume useful information. You’re competing with the Wall Street Journals of the world, not other brands.

AW: Are there other journalists who create branded content whose work you like? What are they doing right?

TK: There are quite few of them. Ken Kaplan at Intel comes to mind — he’s someone whose stories I want to read. I don’t necessarily want to read about Intel. I don’t care about computer chips at all, but when Ken writes stories about what the chips are capable of doing, that’s compelling storytelling to me. Your readers are paying you with time, and you’re paying them back with information that’s useful to them. If you don’t give them anything back then you’ll lose. Pay them back well, and you’ll earn their readership and loyalty.


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