Let’s Steal From GE’s Paths of Flight
The ‘Let’s Steal From’ series has proven an unexpectedly awesome success – not because a million people have come to read it (they haven’t) or tens of thousands have subscribed to our pithy emails (they haven’t either – but you can: the form is at the bottom of the home page) but because it nailed its primary and over-riding goal: it’s hugely fun to write.
The most fun thing about it is that I get to drill down into my favourite content to try to figure out how it works. Kind of an autopsy but for living things (ew — replace metaphor). In doing so, I learn way more than I expected and I stumble across all sorts of cool little side-shoots hiding in the deep weeds of the weird and wonderful web.
Let’s start slicing.
In this edition, I’ll strip back the outer tissues (yuk – see above) of one of my favourite pieces of subtle, B2B demo-ware: the wonderful Paths of Flight video, from GE Aviation. Let’s watch it together in silent admiration:
The piece was Episode 3 of what used to be called The GE Show*. It was produced by Philip Stockton and Benjamin Olander and team, way back in 2010. But it never received the attention I think it deserves (but, with its very narrow target audience, its 220,000 views may well be the B2B equivalent of going viral). So let’s rectify that attention deficit:
[UPDATE: As the comment below from ‘mrsclean’ shows, the actual view count is way higher than the 220k we see. I did wonder about that.]
Giving great demo
In under two minutes, with no voice-over narration, Paths of Flight is a simple, beautiful and magnetically compelling demonstration of one of the world’s most complex technologies: GE’s air traffic control system (specifically, the navigation system for generating take-off and landing paths).
The piece acts as a snapshot of an industry in transition from old-school, ground-based radio beacons to high-performance, satellite-enabled navigation networks. (We have now taxied to the end of my knowledge of these things. Sorry.)
The new systems promise increased safety, more flexibility, fewer delays and less fuel burn – but Paths of Flight doesn’t mention any of these major benefits. And this restraint is one of the things I admire most about the piece. The film does one thing well – makes the viewer go, “Wow”. In doing so, it leaves the heavier lifting of features and benefits to other parts of the GE Aviation content stack. And that makes all the difference.
The film is essentially a product demonstration. It doesn’t discuss millimeter-perfect, high-stakes precision – it shows it. Using a simple technique, executed with craft-love, plus some nice music that builds a bit of drama without over-playing things.
The GE Show team used new photography and computer technologies to capture flight paths in a new way. In fact, they simply updated two of the oldest effects in photography and movie-making: time-lapse and multiple exposure.
Here’s one of the earliest examples of multiple exposure (from 1900), by special effects pioneer Georges Mélies, called ‘L’Homme Orchestre’ (I fucking love the Internet):
The GE team used the same technique but were able to add camera motion (generally a slow pan), thanks to the latest Canon cameras and a gizmo called AutoMate from The Gadget Works, an affordable, motion-control time-lapse rig.
Think about that. With off-the-shelf equipment (and computers), the production team combined old techniques – time-lapse, multi-exposure and camera movement – into something we’ve never seen. Very cool.
The power of silence
It would have been really easy to lay some heavy-handed narration on top of these stunning images. But, again, the GE folks went the less-is-more route – and it pays off.
We don’t need anyone to tell us this is super-precise navigation. We can see that. And we wouldn’t listen if a narrator told us about the potential fuel savings. We’re too busy going, “Whooooooaaah.”
This is about choreography. And great choreographers don’t need to yak at the audience to tell their tales.
The Making of Paths of Flight
Thankfully, the GE folks put out a ‘Making of Paths of Flight’ video, too.
It shows the team going to the airports, setting up their kit and hoping for the best. We experience their excitement as they realise they’re getting what they came for — a feeling completely epitomised by this screen grab:
What we can all steal from Paths of Flight
Admiring is all very nice. But the point of this series is shameless thievery: taking what we learned from specific pieces of inspiring content and applying the lessons to our own work. So apply this:
Do one thing well – This is something every marketing team can steal from: Don’t try to do everything in every piece of content you produce. Think about telling your whole story across your entire content mix. That frees each piece to do a single thing well. And that combination of freedom and focus is where a lot of the very best content comes from.
Hire journalists – Give talented people an open brief to find and tell your stories. I first heard this idea from the brilliant Michelle Kessler of Qualcomm (sadly, no relation). She hired a journalist to just roam the global corridors of Qualcomm to find great stories. Not sure how that worked out (Michelle? You out there? The comment field is below).
Get your geek on – B2B companies are full of gloriously passionate, nerdy, eccentric geeks who are great at things that no one else ever thinks about. But B2B marketing teams tend to hide their geeks and sell everything as if it were Coca-Cola. That’s a big shame and a huge missed opportunity. Embrace your geeks! They’ve got the seeds of your best content.
Lean in to beauty – There’s actually a lot of beauty in the many worlds of B2B — but there’s very little beauty in B2B content marketing. Let’s change that. If something in your world is beautiful, celebrate it. Show people. Your passion will come through and they’ll see something they’ve never seen before.
Know when to shut up – When you’re showing something amazing, don’t be afraid to stop talking and stand back in awe.
Expose your process – Austin Kleon, in his brilliant book, Show Your Work, shows the power of exposing your processes. The GE team did this when they posted the ‘Making of’ video – which is almost as good as the original (and an extra bonus for content geeks like… me.).
Take your time – Everything in content marketing is produced in such a goddamn rush. That’s fine. But why not create a slow track for pieces like this? Pieces that might take more than a quarter to plan and produce. Greatness often travels in the slow lane. Does your content program have one?
Follow the fun – Great content marketing comes from people having a great time making it. That’s why fun is such a reliable rudder for your content strategy. Content you feel that you ‘should’ make might turn out okay. Content you really, really want to make? That’s the content I really, really want to see.
Happy stealing. Share your spoils with me.
Others posts in the ‘Let’s Steal From’ series:
You mean you haven’t read these yet? Shame on you.
The Simpsons – The masters of storytelling, character, humour… and stealing.
Seventeenth Century Explorers – And you thought marketers had a rough time convincing their audience.
The NBA – It was just basketball, then it took over the world.
Follow The Frog – Max Joseph and The Rainforest Alliance skip the guilt trip and get practical (and very, very funny).
The Greatest Infographic of All Time – Has an infographic ever made you cry? This one might.
Epic Split – Jean-Claude van Damme nearly rips his tight jeans (and dies) for Volvo Trucks.
Great First Lines of Novels – Turns out Orwell, Salinger, Garcia Marquez were content guys.
Rand Fishkin and Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays, which owns SEO.
Airbnb City Guides – Useful, optimized, crowdsourced.
Icelandair – Another flight-related content experience. Coincidence?
Catch up, lazy-bones.
* The show itself appears to be defunct (even all the links to it are broken — SEO malpractice or what?) which either entirely undermines my assumption of effectiveness or indicates some questionable decision-making at the otherwise impressive marketing team at GE. Or both. But even if the Show didn’t go on, Paths of Flight did. So there.