Robolution: The 50 shades of news bots

In one of the opening sessions of this year’s GEN Summit, Quartz’s John Keefe and the BBC’s Paul Sargeant discussed all things news bot. The panel was moderated by Mashable’s Anne Marie Tomchak.

Will chatbots radically change the way people interact with news? Will they team up with journalists to do a better job? If so, how?

These were just some of the questions covered in this GEN Summit 2018 panel, with John Keefe, bot developer and app product manager at Quartz, and Paul Sargeant, news visual journalist at BBC. The session was moderated by Anne-Marie Tomchak, UK Editor at Mashable.

Playing with the session title, Anne-Marie Tomchak started the conversation with an informal poll: most of the audience had not read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ but had already used chatbots for news. This is a good start, she said.

The BBC bot experience

According to Paul Sargeant, the BBC has been using chatbots for a couple of years now. It all started with a challenge from an editor to develop innovative ways to present information on social media, seeing as the BBC was only providing a rich news experience through its regular channels. This resulted in the first Twitter bots to cover the EU referendum.

‘We want to provide a richer experience on social media and chatbots provided us with the possibility to do a full election coverage with fewer resources involved’, said Sargent.

Paul Sargeant on the BBC experience with bots

The BBC have always produced very impressive graphics for TV, but few of those could be used on social media. This is why they decided to look towards chatbots for news. Of course, the result is constrained by the technical resources available, but the motive was primarily editorial.

Anne-Marie Tomchak then questioned Paul Sargeant about the engagement generated by the BBC’s in-story bots.

Sargeant confirmed that people were often surprised by the bot. But the reactions were mostly positive and encouraging. Most of all, said Sargeant, people liked the different ways to tell stories.

‘We did it with the Oscars and also with Brexit. What’s noticeable is that when people engage with in-story bots, they usually ask up to five or six questions. We are now developing these bots into different languages and we’ve just launched it in Russian.’

Quackbot: a bot made for journalists

John Keefer introduced the Quackbot

How about tools for journalists in the bot sector? ‘We’ve already created a bot for journalists. It’s called Quackbot and operates within Slack’, said Keefe.

‘For example, you can drop an audio file into the bot and it will transcribe it, among other interesting functionalities.’ The Quackbot is available here.

Sargeant commented that the BBC tries to be where the audience is, but the approach must not be linear. ‘One of the most interesting features that bot development and use allow, is to have a variation of tone for each audience. And that is pinnacle to engaging people.’

‘I always say to them: write as if you were texting a friend’, said Sargent.

‘But, if you go down that path, where is the boundary between authority and lack of it?’, Tomchak challenged.

‘Well, I suppose the authority remains clear when using the BBC brand. But, in this context, it’s important to use a more looser and casual language’, said Sargent.

A bot is an ‘engager’

Quartz recently launched the no-knead bread challenge for their Facebook messenger bot.

‘We wanted to see how the bots can be used in a story that develops over time. So we attached a bot to the complete process of cooking bread, which takes approximately 20 hours, sending a notification for each step of the process. That’s something a bot does very well’, said Keefe.

‘Everyday you get new info on the process, pushing people to interact with the content on a regular basis.’

Paul Sargeant confirmed that the BBC also had this experience with the Brexit news bot. ‘People don’t see the whole thing, but if they see a piece of the content now, they might be willing to see another piece tomorrow.’

‘The real value is not in reaching more people, but rather in deepening the relationship with the people you reach’ — John Keefe.

‘It’s something like a sustained experience, then’, Anne-Marie Tomchack suggested.

‘Exactly’, Keefe confirmed. ‘Of course there is a value in reaching larger or younger audiences with bots. But the real value is not in reaching more people, but rather in deepening the relationship with the people you reach. That’s very important.’

‘We have the same experience at the BBC’, Paul Sargent added. ‘Chatbots will not increase reach, but they will increase engagement.

’50 shades of bots” debated dated on stage at Lisbon summit

How about ROI?

Tomchack then displayed a part of a story on gun control produced by the BBC using bots that she considered to be very informative but also probably very resource demanding and expensive to produce.

‘ROI is not our priority concern. We’re developing a format. Of course, at the stage of development, the cost is higher. But it becomes a formula that can be reused, thus generating an economic advantage.’

‘You can put ads inside the bot experience, but that is not a good idea’, added Keefe.

Either way, Keefe considers that there is a potential emerging market for bot developers. At Quartz, teams were divided into editorial and commercial to expand storytelling partnerships with clients. Keefe mentioned a partnership with HBO for a campaign promoting the serial Westworld in the US that used a bot fictional character named Tes. ‘It’s an amazing experience’, Keefe concluded.

So, it seems, there really are ‘50 shades of bots’, Tomchack concluded for the session. Bots may not yet be mainstream, but experimenting with them is forcing news organisations to look at news in a very different light.