Rather than inserting ads before or within the episodes, GE opted to cleverly weave itself into the actual storyline. At one point in the story, Nicky encounters a GE scientist and ultrasound expert who helps her in her quest to crack the code. And although the story is fictional, much of the science and technology referred to is real and related to projects that GE is actually working on, including experimentation around how sound waves can be used to help heal the human body.
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“The Message” also carries less branding than “General Electric Theater,” a GE-sponsored radio anthology series that ran from July through October 1953. At the beginning of each program, an announcer would intone in a resonant voice, “Presented by the makers of famous, dependable kitchen and home laundry appliances: General Electric” – a promo not at all dissimilar, but somewhat more shilly, to the host-read native ads in podcasts today.
“Podcasting is a bit of a nod to the past, to the old radio shows,” Goldberg said. “Radio shows used to engross people in real, deep narratives and we felt like there was something interesting we could do here considering how podcasts have exploded.”
The otherworldly success of NPR’s ”Serial” is evidence that podcasts have the potential to aggregate highly engaged audiences. The episodes in season one of “Serial” were downloaded more than 68 million times between its launch in October 2014 and February of this year, according to CBS News. A second season is slated for the fall.
Beyond the phenomenon of “Serial”, a study conducted by Edison Research and Triton Digital found that monthly audio podcast consumption increased from around 39 million monthly users in 2014 to 46 million in 2015.
But whereas “Serial” hooked up with email marketing solutions company MailChimp as a sponsor for season one – each program would begin with a charmingly simple 20-second spot that fit into the flow of the show – GE isn’t looking to monetize “The Message.” At least not yet.
“There might be opportunities to do more down the road, but this isn’t really meant to be monetized through other advertisers,” Goldberg said. “For now, it’s another mechanism for us to get out there and reach a different audience in a new way.”
Although it may be eschewing the traditional advertising model, GE is also producing companion content to live alongside the podcast itself, including a blog written by the main character and a real website for the fictional encryption think tank featured in the show.
GE plans to track the number of downloads and subscribers, as well as engagement around the extra blog and website content, although there isn’t a specific number it’s shooting for. If listeners seem to enjoy the experience, GE will invest in creating more programs for “GE Podcast Theater.”
For podcasts that work do with advertisers, however, it makes sense for the sponsored message to be as authentic as possible and contextual to the content of the show. Companies like Midroll Media, for example, act as intermediary reps, pairing sponsors with podcasts and selling native ads into shows like “WTF With Marc Maron,” “Epic Rap Battles of History,” “Savage Lovecast” and “Grammar Girl.”
As Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer noted at IAB MIXX during Advertising Week in New York City on Monday, “The more the advertising and sponsored messages are like the content around it, the more of a reason you are giving users to not turn that off because it’s actually very content rich.”
But while podcasting gives advertisers access to an “uncluttered” channel in a “cluttered advertising world,” as Panoply’s Turck put it, frequency capping is the key to keeping it that way. Panoply only allows the podcasts in its network to include one to three ads per show, depending on the program’s length.
While ad blocking was far from Goldberg’s mind when GE started developing script treatments for “The Message” with Panoply, it’s not a leap to see the program as one possible example of an ad-blocking antidote – the type of content that people actively seek out rather than actively shun.
But that takes work, Goldberg said.
“Content is not a commodity that you just throw out there – it takes investment in good storytelling and good creative,” said Goldberg. “But it’s entirely possible for something like a 30-second ad to be quality entertainment, too, something people choose to look at. In a sense, ad blocking is just blocking junk.”
“The Message” will be available as a free download on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Soundcloud, Overcast and TuneIn starting Oct. 4.