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By thinking young, an alum’s bright tech ideas keep GE on top

USC Annenberg alum targets the venerable company’s marketing and social media campaigns at millennials

by USC Annenberg staff
drone in marketing campaign
A drone was used as part of a GE marketing campaign aimed at young people. (Photo/courtesy of GE)

Sam Olstein ’06 stands on the 52nd floor of New York’s iconic skyscraper 30 Rock, overlooking Central Park and thinking about big things. Really big things, such as wind farms, jet engines, gas turbines and power generator test facilities.

The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism alumnus is using a drone to carry an iPhone filming aerial flyovers of five test sites, inviting viewers into the beating heart of General Electric technology from July 20-24.

Olstein, the director of innovation for GE, is the man behind the company’s new-age marketing campaigns, such as Snapchat with former astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the Emoji Table of Experiments with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Leading the charge

If he looks young, with his messy brown hair and round face, that’s because he is. At 31, Olstein is leading the charge on a communications revolution for one of the oldest and largest industrial companies in the world.

Olstein said his job is to keep a 123-year-old behemoth of a company on the forefront of emerging media and new social media platforms. In other words, connect with younger audiences, who associate GE with their grandparents or the light bulb they just bought.

Sam Olstein wants to connect with a younger audience. (Photo/courtesy of Sam Olstein)

Sam Olstein wants to connect with a younger audience. (Photo/courtesy of Sam Olstein)

“As a company that’s been around for so long, people have their perception of what we’re about,” he said.

Olstein and his team set about to change that, deploying the same social media apps used by millennials and featuring familiar faces in his campaigns. The company is betting that texting emoijs to Nye and watching him do experiments assisted by celebrities like Rosario Dawson will resonate with the same age group GE wants to recruit.

GE needs developers — the same developers who want to work for Google or Apple or Facebook, Olstein said. So his job is to translate GE’s work in a simple, accessible way.

“I can understand what a hologram and the power of light is all about when Bill Nye explains it to me with emojis,” Olstein said. “So all of these things that we do in our marketing and in social media are messages meant to help us tell our story and connect with this next generation as we kind of evolve as a company.”

Succeeding where others fail

Where other companies’ failure at awkwardly adopting the younger generation’s technology results in painfully obvious marketing ploys, Olstein has a talent for making GE’s antics seem organic to the platform it’s on.

The key, he said, is using the storytelling skills he learned by studying journalism at USC Annenberg. In his junior year, for example, he was assigned a reporter’s beat in Long Beach, where he was tasked with simplifying a complex story about the construction of a power plant in the harbor.

Olstein remembers the frustration he felt trying to shape the story into a series.

“I don’t even think I got a good grade in the class. It was really challenging,” he said.

Olstein said he uses his USC Annenberg skill set every day in his work.

I always come back to just keeping simple.

Sam Olstein

“I always come back to just keeping it simple,” Olstein said. “Journalists have to tell stories in such a short period of time and cover a lot of information.”

Hard work pays off

His efforts are paying off. In December, Olstein and his GE team won Digiday’s Best Innovation in Publishing award for their neuroscience work with Mic, a millennial news website that’s gained both credibility and a Goliath-size social media presence.

Map Your Mind quiz

The “Map Your Mind'” quiz marked a collaboration between Mic and GE. (Photo/courtesy of Mic)

Mic partnered with GE on BrainMic, which offered a personality quiz that compares the user’s brain to those of historical figures, the science behind a dog’s love for its owner and how altitude might contribute to Utah’s comparatively high suicide rate. The quiz featured a GE logo when a mouse hovers over the headline, but the written work has no mention of GE, which supplied their neuroscience research to Mic.

“We gave [Mic] access and really tried to get to the center of what they wanted to talk about journalistically with this new section of brain science, and the stuff that we already do as a company,” Olstein said.

Power shift

By growing up with the same technologies GE is trying to harness, he said, younger generations have an advantage.

Always, always challenge the norm.

Sam Olstein

“I think the power is shifting,” Olstein said. “Snapchat is one of the most influential media companies today. And it’s run by a 24-year-old.” That’s why, Olstein said, big companies will have to embrace youth in leadership positions or fold up in a future likely to be populated by bright young stars.

Olstein’s advice for those entering the workforce is to be as disruptive as the platforms he plays on. “Always, always challenge the norm,” he said.

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By thinking young, an alum’s bright tech ideas keep GE on top

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