The world needed a distraction-free messaging platform — so we started building one
For those of you who have seen the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma; my words here will mean something. I work for Whispir (ASX:WSP), a messaging platform that’s used for all kinds of things, but in essence, we send messages, under certain conditions — If this happens, send that message. It’s used for sending critical, life-saving messages that navigate people away from live bushfires, to sending COVID-19 updates via SMS, which many of you will have seen already.
I started as the Chief Product Officer here less than a year ago because I saw an opportunity to do some good. Our CEO Jeromy had a passionate vision to really engage humanity, and it was an earnest cause I thought I could lean into. Once I found my feet, the team and I crafted a totally new 5 year product vision for Whispir, based on a concept known as a Blue Ocean Strategy, putting us on a path to becoming a communications intelligence company. To reach that goal, and in service of our mission to really change the way the world communicates, I knew we needed to hire some smart people. So we did.
I reached out to someone I knew and respected, Fiona Milne, to seek her counsel on our strategy. I showed her the plan and soon after, Matt Lambie, our new CTO and I asked her to join Whispir as our Head of AI & Data and lay the groundwork for a very ambitious plan.
I also knew that if we really wanted to build a great company, we had to create the kind of company people didn’t just want to work for, but create the kind of place people wanted to be from. To do that, we would have to solve problems our competition couldn’t. That’s what gets people up everyday. Solving hard problems that make a difference in the world around them.
Fiona and I talked about tackling one of the greatest challenges in communications today, and it is a dark and malevolent problem— messaging companies are mostly predatory towards the public, and it’s lead to everyone being totally addicted and distracted by their phones.
We thought that was worth fixing.
I told our story to investors and the general public (Which you can watch if you like), stating that I thought this was a huge problem and one that, if we could solve it, would not just help us grow and assist our customers, but allow us to solve a huge societal problem that was starting to keep me up at night.
The tide is turning
A few months back, I wrote a story about giving up my phone for 30 days. It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done and the experiment showed me how deep the hooks go. I quickly learned that liberating myself from my device occasionally appears to reboot the brain in the most beautiful way possible.
To call this a movement is premature, but something is going on. The Netflix documentary comes ahead of the US election and people are acutely aware of how much influence technology companies can have on real world events, all driven, at least in part, by what messages arrive to us on our phones and which ones we pay attention to. Messaging companies have a responsibility to do better, and Whispir, I assure you, has decided to make this a priority moving forward.
Cathy O’Neil, the author and data scientist who also appears in the Netflix documentary discusses towards the back of her book, Weapons of Math Destruction, a corrective idea for those who build the machines that run our lives. She encourages data scientists to embody a kind of Hippocratic oath, similar to doctors, that guides us in building algorithms that do not discriminate, that does not destroy, that do no harm. Fiona’s team is writing such an oath today at Whispir.
It is perhaps a sobering moment in time to realize that Nir Eyal’s book Hooked, often used as a practical guide on how to build habit-forming tech products was followed up by a sequel called Indistractable, a book on how to undo the damage the first book may have inflicted. I am not sure how responsible Eyal feels, or that he should, but his first book really showed most of us how to build behavioral economics and psychology into software, and it is unfair to cite it as the only contributing factor, but its publication and success do speak to the industries obsession with engaging users and it’s passion for using hard science to do it. It feels like those of us who work at the bleeding edge of this stuff are fast becoming both arsonist and the fire-fighter.
When I arrived at Whispir and looked at the competitive landscape, what worried me most was the existing products on market are geared towards messaging the public about things they don’t need or want, and customers have no intelligent way of helping them solve this problem without impacting their bottom line. Customers lack the tools to really understand how people engage with messages (or if they will at all) and so are left in situations where their activities are focused on building lists, blasting content out, and hoping for the best.
The fact the industry tolerates engagement rates so low says a lot about how we respect those we are talking to. To see 2% open rates shows most of the industry is fine with abusing 98% of the public with messages they never wanted in the first place.
Most messages that organizations send are, by the numbers, a waste of time. They distract us from our purpose in life, they distract us from our families and after watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I realized the problem was vastly worse than I was willing to admit. And it’s time we really started to talk about this more openly as an industry.
Our new direction at Whispir aims to deliver on three promises, one of which is this idea of distraction-free messaging. The concept is simple. If you send a message through Whispir, we want to ensure that you’re encouraged and coached only to send messages to those who really need and want the particular content, reducing down the noise for the public and getting you a much better return on investment per message.
To make it a bit more real, think along these lines. Let’s say you’re a small software company getting started that doesn’t want to spend a lot of money messaging prospects. With Whispir, we’re building a way to predict which recipients inside your distribution list have a high probability of opening this message before you send it, allowing you to really dial in the effectiveness of your messaging campaigns and reducing waste.
How we do this is where the magic happens, and where Fiona’s team fits into the story. It’s also why we’ve started hiring roles from lateral disciplines, physics, and neuroscience to name names. Predicting the future is no easy task, but as I said, if you want to solve hard problems, you need smart people, or at least ones that can do complex math.
As the product comes to life (which is currently in the beta stage and referred to as Whispir Workflows - you can try it for free if you like) the goal is to perform some of the following tasks.
Neurologically suitable message layouts
Our messages team is working on a way customers can layout message designs that are suitable for people that grew up speaking different languages other than English. Studies show that when people were raised speaking different languages as children, whereby the direction of writing follows a specific orientation if the message you show them is written the counterintuitive way to their native language, the probability of them absorbing this message goes down.
The science behind this was covered in-depth during a recent podcast between Caltech Physicist, Sean Carroll and Lera Boroditsky, a PH.D in cognitive psychology at Stanford University. Boroditsky talks to a good example of this research as it relates to people who read from right to left and how it alters what one expects from a message.
When we read from right to left, like those who read Arabic, we most likely anticipate events that happen before to appear on the right, and what happens after on the left. If you picture the following phrase,
“Bob hands Alice a bunch of flowers,”
people who read right to left will visualize Bob on the right with a much higher probability. If you lay this message out in reverse — you have a problem and less of the message is absorbed.
By being able to detect the preferred language of a recipient in our new intelligent message designer, we can ensure the messages we send out are arranged in the most appropriate way for the end-user. The goal is to show our customers how to design messages that are more appropriate to the audience and if the content has a low probability of landing well, help remove those users from the campaign so we don’t unnecessarily bother them, or even better, customize the message for each type of recipient.
Paths that work for the user
Another concept we talk about is called Dynamic Paths. This is the idea that effective communication requires we use channels that work for the end-user. We all have different preferences. Some of us love WhatsApp, some love email and others only want to get messages via Telegram or Signal, apps that are becoming more popular with those who value a greater level of control over their privacy and personal information.
The dynamic path functionality is designed to predict which path is going to work for the end customer before the message goes out. From a functionality point of view, imagine you’re a Whispir customer and you log into the platform. Effort-wise, we just want you to design the message you want to send, then leave the rest up to us. We’ll work out the right channel, the right time, and the right layout arrangement of the message, all designed to ensure we’re not distracting users unnecessarily with content they don’t need.
This means 20% of the messages might go via WhatsApp, but 15% might go via SMS, and we will send these messages at times that work for the end recipient.
Greater controls for the user
Finally, we want to put much more control in the user's hands. Right now, if you’re on some vendor's distribution list, you’re caught in the net. You have very little control over what you want to see and how often you want to be communicated with.
If you click ‘manage notification settings’ on any messaging platform, the options are all tipped in the casino's favor. ‘I want no marketing messages’ you might say, but what kind of messages are we talking about? And when you try unsubscribing from these lists, some companies use dark patterns, a technique in User Experience aimed at confusing you into not really knowing if you’ve unsubscribed or not. The fact these patterns exist speaks a lot to the intent of the platforms.
At Whispir, we aim to give end-users vastly more control by allowing them to not just update things like how often they want to be contacted or what kind of messages they want to see but give them vastly more specific control that helps us learn which messages they don’t want to see again.
They’ll be able to set things like what times of the day they are with their families, or even what kind of topics they have no interest in hearing about.
We’ll then use these preferences to inform our algorithms with the aim we can greatly reduce down the unnecessary noise that is flying into the end-users inbox, giving them a distraction-free experience.
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