Sheffer: Trade Labs helps GE make policy personal

The channels we use to communicate with our audiences and with each other have changed dramatically since I joined General Electric in 1999.

Gary Sheffer
Gary Sheffer

The channels we use to communicate with our audiences and with each other have changed dramatically since I joined General Electric in 1999. We are now able to engage audiences directly with one click, share, or tweet.

Access to audience is one thing, telling the right story is another. Impactful conversations start with a simple, relatable story.

One set of conversations we need to have is on economic issues that matter. There may be uncertainty in the global economy and legislative gridlock in DC, but solutions that drive progress should be elevated and taken seriously.

Free trade is one such solution. It opens up new opportunities for job growth and new markets for the things we make. GE’s exports totaled $24 billion in 2012, supporting tens of thousands of US jobs at GE and even more at suppliers nationwide. In the US, jobs supported by trade pay 13% to 18% higher than the national average, and most countries that the US trades with have greater national income, longer life expectancies, and more educated populations. Several initiatives to support trade are pending this year that will help the US economy grow.

The business community, however, struggles to talk about the role of global trade in the everyday lives of Americans. While traditional campaigns helped shore up temporary support among the public in past trade debates, we haven’t been able to cultivate long-term enthusiasm for trade among Americans, even though we know it drives growth in our communities.

The evolution of digital and social media creates new possibilities for businesses to reach people and tell stories about issues such as trade. In order to connect with Americans about trade’s role in our lives, we wanted to experiment with new tools. This was how GE Trade Labs was born.

Using Cincinnati and Houston as our first laboratories, we engaged local audiences using Facebook – a forum where people were already inclined to share and interact with content in a personal way. We started by conducting extensive polling and interviews to understand how trade was perceived in each community, and spent five weeks curating, creating, and promoting daily posts on Facebook pages dedicated to trade-related issues within each city.

The results were amazing. People were willing to comment, share, and like Trade Labs content even though the pages started with an audience of zero. Engagement was more than double the average of traditional advertised content on Facebook.

Within Trade Labs, we tested a mix of nationally focused content with hyper-local stories about landmarks or issues in that community. Local stories received four times greater engagement than nationally focused content. This makes sense, but for a business community where trade conversations have historically centered on benefits in the aggregate, this was a key reminder.

Community benefits, good jobs, and opportunities for future generations were all themes that resonated strongly. Pocketbook benefits such as choice and price, as well as aspirational goals such as job opportunities, drove higher readership and interaction. Not surprisingly, users did not connect to concepts like insourcing and subsidies. Where language like competitiveness resonated for some, more accessible ideas about community inspired others. 

What each community did have in common was the appetite to talk about and share local stories. Trade Labs taught us that our conversations should stick to what the audience cares about – whether that is consumer oriented or community focused.

At GE, global trade is in our DNA. Every one of our staff, suppliers, and customers is a global trader. But as we talk about trade we’re learning that, to get people to care about it, we need to discuss how it relates to what people care about – and those things are local.

Approaching conversations in a way your audience can relate to seems simple. Companies can lose sight of this when it comes to complex issues, but Trade Labs reminds us that it works. It requires research and consideration, but is a better way to start a dialogue and learn – so we can tell better stories about issues that affect us all.  

Gary Sheffer is VP, corporate communications and public affairs, at GE.

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