How we used WhatsApp for Storytelling

WhatsApp is the most influential instant messenger in Germany. But hardly any German media organisation uses WhatsApp as a tool to tell and spread stories.
We did.


On December 4th, 1944, the British Royal Air Force bombed Heilbronn. More than 6500 people died, the city was totally destroyed (we show the “Operation Sawfish” in this interactive). On the 70 years memorial day we wanted to remember the bombing in a very special, new way. Why not by the use of a mobile instant messenger?

The Story

Our goal was to reach people in their daily lifes — and to provoke an instant and close experience of what happend exactly 70 years ago. Thus, we told the story similar to a historic live ticker: “At this time, in England, 2000 men prepared for their flight”, “Now, they are sighted near the French coast”, “At 6:45 pm: Air planes over Heilbronn”. Further, we added some pictures and charts.

All in all, we sent about thirty messages including photos and one video within about six hours. Some would describe the tone of our messages as neutral, others would say we reported in an emotional way. We tried to achieve both: A fact based storytelling with emotional, identity-establishing components. For instance, we showed pictures of Heilbronn’s old town before the war — and after. Many users recognized for the first time that their home town Heilbronn has undergone significant changes over the past 70 years.

The Technique

Beyond the storytelling concept we had to manage one big technological issue: WhatsApp must be operated manually. The terms and conditions don’t allow any hacks or systems automating your content:

“You agree not to use or launch any automated system, including without limitation, “robots,” “spiders,” “offline readers,” etc. or “load testers” […] that accesses the Service in a manner that sends more request messages to the WhatsApp servers in a given period of time than a human can reasonably produce in the same period by using a WhatsApp application.”

Thus, we had to use broadcast lists. Each broadcast list can add up to 256 contacts. About 2500 users registrated for our service, so we installed ten broadcast lists.

One really demanding task was adding users to our service. Inspiried by the Swiss Radio and TV (SRF) and their WhatsApp project during national votings, we decided to tackle the problem in a similar way: Each interested user had to write a WhatsApp message to us with the key word “Heilbronn”. Then we added the user’s number to our contact list, subsequently, to our broadcast list. At no point did we anticipate 2500 registrations, we expected at most 200–300 interested readers. Consequently, we had not reflected about the option of adding numbers to our smartphone and broadcast lists automatically (e.g. through an online registration form which would have been practicable).

To be precise: We only had one smartphone, ten lists and 2500 contacts to be stored manually. How fun! Well, actually, it was fun as we received so many user reactions. We then knew, it would be worth it.

The reactions

You may know trolls from Facebook, Twitter or other social networks. In WhatsApp there are no trolls, at least from our experiences. Never before have we received such positive user feedback for our work.

Some examples:

“ Very well done! Hopefully you reached many people!”
“Thank you for this minutely detailed report. I was sitting in the Kilianskirche (church). Very awakening and touching.”
“It was a great idea. I look forward to other reports of that kind. My ten year old boy followed everything and he was very impressed.”
“Thank you very much for this documentation. It was very creepy and touching. I’m nearly 50 years old, but it was awesome and presented in a suitable way.”

We received about 1000 personal comments through all social networks. Unfortunately, we couldn’t answer all of them . Further, we asked our users how they enjoyed our service. The feedback was amazing:

84 Percent said: I liked it very much.

Just two out of 641 people said, this way of storytelling doesn’t fit WhatsApp.

91 percent want us to use WhatsApp for further projects.

To be continued?

With such a succesful first try, we have to ask ourselves: Should we transfer WhatsApp immediately to our everyday’s work in the newsroom? We don’t think so — for now. First, we have to facilitate the technical handling maybe with some existing applications for managing WhatsApp on desktop. This would help for the moment, but we have to test it first. Moreover, we must improve the registration process. Maybe one day, WhatsApp will open the app for the news business as Snapshat is doing with its “stories”.

Secondly, we really shouldn’t misuse WhatsApp as another tool for firing out links. WhatsApp is a new traffic generator, for sure. But we should make the best out of the power of this social messenger. Our experiment has demonstrated that there is a potential to establish WhatsApp as a storytelling AND communication tool. We can reach our users in a very close and intimate way. We should think about this power before using WhatsApp for journalistic purposes.

This project was created by the online team of the German local newspaper “Heilbronner Stimme”. The article is also available in German.
>>> The complete WhatsApp storytelling in one chart
>>> Operation Sawfish: An interactive talkie about the destruction of Heilbronn