Exploring chatbots for news

Iterations of a Facebook Messenger bot for Dutch news (NOS Update)

The NOS is a Dutch public broadcaster that covers Dutch and global news and sports stories for the Dutch speaking population. Every day millions of users trust us to inform them on what’s happening in the world around them through our TV and radio broadcasts, website, apps as well as social media.

Communication channels come and go and each audience seems to have a preferred channel (we still have a loyal user base for our Teletext feed and app, for example). New audiences do not necessarily feel comfortable with existing channels and next to that new channels can provide additional opportunities for news representation and dissemination, attracting previously untapped audiences as well.

In January 2017 we launched our first version of a chatbot; the ‘NOS Update’. It was created by BotBoys out of a hackathon. It provided a broadcast of three important news items on weekdays at noon.

First version of ‘NOS Update’ (Jan-Dec 2017)

The introduction message was crafted daily by our ‘NOS op 3’ (a NOS sub-brand that focuses on online news & radio for the 20+ target group) news desk and provided links to the mobile versions of the three news items. In addition it served a limited search capability.

After internal and external review of the chatbot and its capabilities we started out on designing a new and improved version of the ‘NOS Update’ (click link to open) which we launched in December 2017.

This article focuses on the considerations that were made in creating this chatbot.

Why a chatbot?

As is commonly known now, the use of messaging applications is growing rapidly and Monthly Active Users of these applications have surpassed those of Social Networks back in 2015 already. In addition the integration of bots on these messaging applications (bots were launched on the Facebook Messenger platform in April 2016) has opened up a whole new range of possibilities for publishers.

So the first reason for the NOS to explore chatbots was a ‘move with the crowd’, although adoption of chatbots as such wasn’t that big yet, as illustrated by this poll in November 2016:

https://twitter.com/rrhoover/status/800396028138532864

However the media landscape is changing ever quickly and with the advancements of Artificial Intelligence, in combination with bots and voice assistants, it is also a matter of ‘getting prepared’.

Finally, the hopes of enticing a new and maybe younger audience and examples by respected foreign news agencies like the German Novibot and the English The Guardian newsbot , urged us to keep iterating and finding the right setup for our own chatbot.

Requirements for our news bot

The first version of our chatbot had its pro’s and con’s:

Pro:

  • Focus; only three selected news items with a dedicated intro, so no information overload
  • Emoticons or Emoji; every article was introduced/summarized by an emoticon which increased the attention value. And users ❤️ emoji 😉 :
https://twitter.com/APompliano/status/840280550552276992

Con:

  • Manual selection and production of bot messages by the news desk on weekdays only
  • No customization
  • Limited search
  • No possibility to continue on news consumption

So for our next version we wanted to improve and extend the features, namely;

  • Base the bot feeds on our different API’s, including news, news photos, weather, traffic and search
  • Introduce customization and sharing features
  • Facilitate the exploration of related and/or other news

Regarding the messaging platform we still only consider Facebook Messenger for now. For the Dutch audience it has by far the largest user base (after WhatsApp, of course, but that platform does not support bots yet).

Technical considerations

Since we are still exploring we didn’t want a large upfront investment in a custom system directly linking to the Messenger Platform. We therefore looked at the possibilities and limitations of the different Chatbot Publishing Platforms out there.

After some desk research we decided to give FlowXO.com a go because it gave us the right mix of content management tooling and technical flexibility. It supports multiple messaging platforms, so we wouldn’t limit ourselves to Facebook Messenger in the future. In addition it offers over a 100 extension modules which for example allowed us to put in header authentication for our API. Finally, the logging and debugging view proved to be an advantage.

Since FlowXO is multi-platform and generally user text input driven we needed to do some customisation in order to take advantage of specific Facebook Messenger features like (generic) buttons, quick replies and sharing. This is the ‘price’ we pay for flexibility. We finally used Javascript to generate some variations in the content.

Our chatbot ‘NOS Update’ dissected

The new chatbot consists of the following content elements (with the Dutch title between brackets):

  • Headlines (Belangrijkste nieuws): the five top stories as selected by the news desk (realtime)
  • Weather (Weer): a summary of the weather forecast with a link to the full report (Volledig weerbericht) on mobile web
  • Traffic (Verkeer): a summary of the current traffic update with a link to the full report (Volledig overzicht) on mobile web
  • Latest news (Laatste nieuws): the five latest news items (realtime)
  • News in images (Nieuws in beeld): a curated overview of ten striking news photos
  • Search (Zoeken): every manual user input is considered a search request, unless it is one of the bot commands. It produces the five most relevant results based on keywords in the title and/or body, the publishing date (more recent first) and curated context (e.g. part of a collection)
  • Settings (Instellingen): a flow to setup or adjust your daily updates

To keep a good overview of the conversation flow we used the iThoughts mind mapping tool:

An overview of the different ‘chat’ flows in the NOS Update bot

On first startup of the bot the user is guided through these content elements and given the option to subscribe to a daily update. There are three time slots from which you can choose for the news update (07:00, 09:00 and 12:00), which produces the following daily notifications in reverse order (see screenshot):

New notifications from ‘NOS update’

Technically we could completely personalize the update settings, but we chose to avoid ‘choice stress’ for the morning update and limit the options.

The News in images update is more serendipitous in and of itself, so we fixed that timing at 15:00, allowing us to possibly vary it in the future as well.

When you receive the first update and open it in the Messenger App or website (or select one of the news items from the menu in the App or on the website) you get a carousel with the news image, title and a ‘More (Meer)’ button. The daily update also includes the weather and traffic summaries, but more on that later.


When you click the ‘More (Meer)’ button you receive a text box with the first paragraph of the news article and three buttons:

A news item singled out
  • More on nos.nl (Meer op nos.nl): this opens the web browser within FB Messenger and shows the full article on mobile web
  • Share on Facebook (Deel op Facebook): this allows the user to share this specific article on Facebook
  • More like this (Meer zoals dit): this triggers a search request based on the title and content of this particular news item

We deliberately chose to have this staged presentation of the news article (where others link to the article directly from the carousel), because it allows us to single out a news item and provide relevant options afterwards. Also showing just the first paragraph allows the user to get the gist of the article, but then choose to read on, delve deeper, or move on.

The News in images (Nieuws in beeld) update is slightly different. When you click the ‘More (Meer)’ button here you receive a short description of the photo and another (higher resolution) copy of the image.

News in images

You can click and zoom this latter copy of the image, so you can really explore the photo. And of course the credits for the photo are shown.

Finally, the weather and traffic updates allowed us to keep the attention value of emoticons or emoji, but this time in a generated instead of a hand selected way.

Emoticon example in our test bot (with real data though!)

Without giving too much away, because you should discover it yourself really, the emoticons in the weather message change depending on the temperature, chance of rain and wind force. And the emoticons in the traffic message are dependent on the total length of traffic jams. This is achieved with some custom Javascript.

In conclusion

All-in-all our second iteration is still a basic (chat)bot, in the sense that it shows news articles in a messaging environment, but with more options for the users to choose from and for us to expand on. It doesn’t, for example, have a truly conversational presentation and interaction, or any real (artificial) intelligence yet.

It does however provide a new and slightly different way to find (or stumble upon) and consume news that hopefully proves to be the right fit for a new loyal audience.

Try it now!

So, if you haven’t already, check it out our chatbot via m.me/NOSupdate, find it via search on Facebook Messenger or scan this QR code from within the Messenger App: