“The Message” & Branded Content

The success of “The Message,” which hit #1 on the iTunes charts in November 2015,157 has brought the conversation about branded content in podcasting to the fore. “The Message” is a fictional podcast produced by General Electric (the company came up with the original concept, hired the creative team, created spinoff websites, etc.) and distributed by Panoply, the podcast network owned by The Slate Group. Shannon Bond at The Financial Times reports that the podcast has generated interest from brands interested in “recasting themselves as ‘storytellers’” – so much interest, in fact, that Panoply has created a unit for branded content within the network.158 GE’s chief creative officer Andy Goldberg explains: “I don’t consider it advertising. It’s a podcast show that just happens to be produced by a brand instead of a network. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, go out and buy a jet engine.’ It’s a science fiction story to connect listeners with what the GE brand is about, without selling the GE brand.”’159

Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen warns, however, that while the strategy has worked remarkably well with a fictional podcast, the path is more fraught for journalistic outlets producing non-fictional podcasts160 (see: StartUp episode #17 “Words about words from our sponsors161). As I note in my report: “Many podcasters I spoke with maintained that while this murky ethical territory must be navigated carefully, both native ads and branded content offer meaningful potential for revenue generation. The most important mandate for podcasts is to be as transparent as possible in order to maintain credibility and avoid alienating audiences, their biggest assets.”

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