Publishing news on messaging apps is now critical, here’s why

The exclusive report “Why Chat Matters as a News Medium” presented by Empirical Media last June at the GEN Summit in Vienna was downloaded over 2,000 times, a testimonial of how relevant the topic is to media organisations around the world.

> Watch the video of the GEN Summit panel

> Request the report here

The focus on messaging apps is on an upswing: the top four chat apps combine a reported 3 billion monthly active users, surpassing those of the most popular social networks.

As the co-author of the report, GEN approached me to answer a few questions and touch upon the proliferation of “Chatbots”.

Your report provides great takeaways and key recommendations about Chat Apps in general, but with more and more platforms to choose from, can you offer specific insights into the messaging apps you have studied?

Our report provides practical case studies from 12 news organisations across four chat platforms: WhatsApp, WeChat, SnapChat and Telegram. Thanks to these case studies, we are able to highlight what makes each platform stand out and unique:

  1. WhatsApp, still the largest in terms of number of active users (over 1 billion), is often used for reach but most importantly it allows to gather small to medium size communities of readers. The limit of 256 users part of a group chat prevents it from being used as a large distribution platform (although it can and has) and its relevance relies in its ability to bring together like-minded readers around a news topic or event. We have two great case studies in our report which clearly illustrate this point (El Colombiano in Medellin, Colombia and Correio in Bahia, Brazil);
  2. WeChat is the main platform in China and holds the third rank in terms of number of active users. For any media organisation wanting to reach Chinese readers, it is the indispensable outlet to be present on but most importantly it is used to gain “influence”. Our two case studies on this platform (NYT China and Modern Weekly), show that identifying the key opinion leaders and main influencers among WeChat users is an essential component to help multiply the impact of each story posted;
  3. SnapChat can be defined as the native and creative chat app which naturally calls for more investment from snap producers (reporters and readers). The many functionalities and tools offered by SnapChat are ideal to open the creative process and produce content unique to the platform. It is also the best platform to re-use reader generated content, like in the case of Verdens Gang, Norway, in our report, which curated over 1,000 snaps from readers generated for a Justin Bieber concert in Oslo;
  4. Telegram is the most media user-friendly and secure platform with best analytics. It is interesting to see news organisations select Telegram over WhatsApp, although WhatsApp has the largest audience in their market. Telegram has an open API (Application Programming Interface) and has not limit in the number of users to include in distribution lists which makes it ideal to become a strong and natural additional app to a media publishers’ distribution strategy. Its analytics provide the number of shared posts which is unique among chat app platforms, and its high encryption level make it safer for users in countries where media outlets are censored.
This full page ad ran on the last page of El Colombiano in Medellin, Colombia. The title created a fictional character named “Malala” who invited young readers to use their “WhatsAppoderes” (WhatsAppowers) and interact with her. A powerful community building case study part of Empirical Media’s report.

Beyond these four platforms studied in your report, are there any others you have been following and find interesting to highlight?

Line is definitely important to highlight for any publisher wanting to reach the Japanese market where chat has surpassed social more than anywhere else in the world. Like WeChat in China, Line is now a powerful commerce tool in Japan and foreign media publishers reap the best results by moving their stories in Japanese language.

Messenger and Kik are heavily investing in chatbots and are therefore highly appealing to advertisers wanting to experiment with building a more personal relationship with younger readers. These two platforms will most probably be leading the way with digital commerce in the US which is why publishers should be encouraged to experiment with both. It might seem at first overwhelming for media publishers to select which messaging apps to focus on but when looking at the amount of resources advertisers are investing with all players, no chat platform should be ruled out.

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A good example of the experimentation process currently happening is CNN testing different story telling and reader interactions on Messenger, Kik and Line during the Rio Olympics. Such big news events are perfect opportunities for trial with little risk. Our chat app report points out how important it is for media publishers to help frame advertisers’ narratives on these messaging platforms, in a similar way to the growing role they are currently playing with native advertising. Several third party agencies are joining the ecosystem to help advertisers benefit from the rise of chat apps, and media publishers ought to fill this space too.

Data from BI Intelligence part of Empirical Media’s report showing how Chat Apps have surpassed Social Networking Apps for its number of active users. More data supports this point showing it also holds true for the number of photos and videos being shared. Probably the most convincing data points about why media should seriously explore chat platforms.

Can you define chatbots for us and tell us how media publishers can use these?

Bots rely on Artificial Intelligence (AI) software to engage with users in an attempt to offer a seamless conversation experience, as if a fruitful dialogue were taking place between two parties. Some bots react to open ended answers or questions, others to a set of selected queries. The AI piece allows to tap into the data provided by the reader’s answers to enrich the response sent by the bot. Mobile messaging apps offer the ideal environment to take advantage of this technology, hence the proliferation of “chatbots”. Most chat apps have launched bot stores allowing advertisers and publishers to easily experiment with chatbots.

A great recent example is the launch of The Guardian’s “Sous-Chef” chatbot on Messenger which learning has helped The Guardian build their main news chatbot. The “Sous-Chef” chatbot offers readers the ability to receive recipes from The Guardian’s archives by telling the bot what ingredients one has in its fridge. It is fascinating to learn about the amount of experimentation that was necessary in order to fine tune the tone and style of the bots’ responses while understanding that readers did not want the bot to sound too human either. Some chatbots even include a delay in the bots’ response to mimic the typing time one is accustomed to with chat.

Chatbots are very powerful solutions to instantly develop thousands of one-on-one personal interactions between a reader and a news brand, between a customer and a retail brand, but early experiments clearly point to the need to be honest about who is on the other side, what are the brand’s objectives and why they are engaging with a bot. The Guardian was very upfront about their experience by sharing the entire process through a couple of insightful articles.

A screen shot excerpted from The Guardian’s article “Meet our experimental Guardian Sous-Chef Facebook messenger bot” dated June 9th 2016. A second follow up piece ran on July 6th explaining the entire process and its learning.

Philippe Hertzberg is an international affiliate with Empirical Media, a consulting firm based in New York which is now part of The Institute for Journalism in New Media.

The following video introduces the content of the Chat Apps report presented at the GEN Summit last June 2016.


Ted Livingston — CEO & Founder, Kik messaging app

The potential is limitless. Chat apps are the new browsers and bots are the new websites. (Wired, 8 November 2016)

Satya Nadella — CEO, Microsoft

Chatbots are the new apps. (USA Today, 30 March 2016)

Andreas Graefe — Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism

“Every time we get new data, we create an automated news item”. “We can publish articles seconds after we receive the data, and we can do it in an unlimited amount”. (Taipei Times, 7 November 2016)
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