GE’s Crazy, Experimental Podcast Is ‘Serial’ for Coders

I hear the ground shake and the noise of rubble and metal clanging. An announcer discloses that there was a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. This may sound like a news report, except none of it is real.

What I’m hearing is actually “Pivot,” a new experimental podcast from General Electric. Made with developers in mind, Pivot explores what it would be like to create world-changing apps for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) using GE’s software, Predix.

Unlike most of today’s popular podcasts, GE’s creation isn’t strictly nonfiction. It has a fictional story and characters, but also includes documentary-style interviews of real-world technology experts. In the plot, an earthquake inspires two developers, Sam and Ethan, to start thinking about building apps for disaster response. As the show’s tagline reads: “‘Pivot’ is a semi-fictional podcast about a very real opportunity.”

If that premise sounds strange to you, you’re not alone. Before “Pivot” got off the ground, the idea was pitched to a focus group of developers for feedback; it did not go over well.

“The skepticism and the silence in the room—it was unbelievable,” said John Perry, GE Digital’s content marketing director. “It was incredibly discouraging. We thought we had a total dud on our hands.”

But four episodes later, GE’s content team was able to change those engineers’ minds. “What’s been wonderful is that some people who participated in those early discussions are some of our biggest fans and proponents,” Perry said.

How exactly did that tectonic shift happen? Through open discussions with the show’s unique target audience.

Resonating with a tough audience

GE is known for producing high quality content via its brand magazine, GE Reports, which reaches over half a million readers with stories on emerging technology. Soon, the brand will also be part of an upcoming television series on National Geographic.

While these storytelling efforts are meant for a general audience, “Pivot” differs by going after a very specific niche: developers working with big data or consumer IoT projects who want to graduate to something bigger. It just so happens that this audience is one of the most skeptical demographics out there. According to a study by Metia, a marketing agency, developers “distrust marketing” and are more likely to research new technologies based on peer recommendations rather than good PR or marketing.

“We will never succeed with our platform if we don’t win the hearts and minds of developers,” Perry said. “We’re trying to convince them that the Industrial Internet is real, that it’s accessible, fun to work in, and that Predix is the way to do it.”

To win these hearts and minds, GE first had to get a peek inside them.

The creative agency that worked with GE to produce the podcast, SNP Communications, held different focus groups with developers—not just to understand the technologies they were working with, but also to find out what drives their interests. According to SNP’s Dave Imperiale, who produced and co-directed the podcast, “We asked a bunch of tech and semi-personal questions and just used some of those snippets to influence the characters we were developing.”

In the focus groups, developers talked about the early experiences that drove their passion for technology. Some developers said that when they were children, they would take devices apart and put them back together just to learn how they worked. Also, they were excited about large machines like airplanes and trains.

“That’s also been written into the podcast,” said Amy Maloof, the podcast’s writer and co-director. “The characters want to do successful, big things that they would get excited about as little kids.”

These conversations gave GE and SNP Communications an inside look into a group that’s hard to crack. According to Perry, “This is a tough audience. If they think you’re bogus, you’re gone. You don’t get another chance.”

Marketing something that doesn’t quite exist

Reaching a skeptical audience is hard enough by itself, but GE also had another challenge on its hands with “Pivot”: How do you market something that’s so esoteric?

While the Industrial Internet of Things already exists, it doesn’t generate the same mainstream attention as the consumer-focused Internet of Things. For example, most people can understand the data from their personal fitness trackers, but if you asked them about accessing data on the status and location of a fleet of ships, they wouldn’t know where to begin. As for GE’s Predix software platform that works with the IIoT, it’s only used by GE’s partners and industry customers for now, and won’t be available to the public until 2016.

This is where the semi-fictional format of the podcast comes in. After realizing that he couldn’t make a documentary podcast in the vein of “Serial” or “StartUp,” Perry thought, “What if we made it up? What if we made a story about developers, with developers as heroes who happened to have access to Predix?”

A totally fictional story, however, wasn’t enough for GE’s audience of developers. According to Imperiale, “From all the research we did and all the discussions we had with developers, everyone’s feedback was that it had to be somewhat educational. While we would have loved to do something that was just pure entertainment, if there’s no educational component, we would have lost the audience right off the bat.”

That’s how expert interviews came into the mix. During each episode, Pivot’s unnamed fictional host gets in touch with an IIoT expert—such as Dr. Richard Soley, executive director of the Industrial Internet Consortium, and Tim Connors, who leads AT&T’s Internet of Things Service—to ask them about real-world applications for complex technology.

The interviews also proved to be invaluable during the writing process. “We’re creative types, we’re not coders,” Maloof said. “As we talk to developers, they’ve been really helpful giving us accurate tech details that are realistic and cutting edge. So even if our plot is fictional, it could be real.”

The podcast also got an additional dose of reality once GE introduced a crowdsourcing element. The “Ideation Challenge” encourages listeners to submit their IIoT app ideas for cash prizes and the chance to be featured in future episodes.

While it’s too early to tell whether Pivot will be as earth-shattering as the quake that sets off the entire story, it’s refreshing to see a giant company tackle the seemingly impossible task of marketing a yet-to-be-released product to a skeptical audience. “Pivot” might not take over the media world like “Serial” did last year, but as long as GE can connect with developers, it doesn’t have to.

Image by GE

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