The significant traffic to our recent webinar and blog about how the BBC is using WhatsApp to boost engagement justifies the focus on Chat Apps as one of the 2015 Trends in Newsrooms to watch. Here, in this excerpt from the report, Jake Evans looks at the innovative ways newsrooms are using chat apps.
Just as newsrooms are settling into their social media workflows, the mobile-driven chat app trend is presenting new challenges likely to cause upheaval. All over again.
“Unlike most technology trends, which travel from West to East, this is a trend travelling from East to West,” says Trushar Barot, the BBC’s mobile editor. “And so I think it’s quite possible that within a year or two this user behaviour – which is sort of second-nature to people in Korea, Japan, South America – will travel westward and become second-nature to a lot of people in the West as well.”
Since receiving less than 1% of global web traffic in 2009, mobile’s share of traffic has boomed to 33.4% in 2015 – and about half of that growth has come in the past two years. In countries like Nigeria and India, over 70% of web traffic comes through mobile users.
In terms of active users of social media platforms, the mobile messaging apps WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and WeChat each garner more users than Instagram, Twitter or Tumblr. In fact, five of the ten most used social platforms at the start of 2015 were chat apps.
The percentage of internet users on WhatsApp globally rose from 16% in 2013 to 24% in 2014. In countries like Malaysia, South Africa and Singapore, over 70% of mobile internet users are on WhatsApp. And in countries where it doesn’t do so well, like China, South Korea and Japan (where less than 4% of mobile internet users are on the app), it is usually because another chat app – WeChat, Kakao Talk, or Line – beat them to it.
For the world’s firsttime internet users, it’s mobile-first
“In terms of [internet users],” says Barot, “If you’re looking at how many of them are getting connected to the internet for the first time in many parts of the world, it’s usually through people buying their first smartphone, and usually their first interaction with their friends and co-workers is through a chat app. So that becomes the de facto social network.”
Barot expects that the next billion people who are about to come online for the first time are likely to do it through chat platforms, rather than the more traditional platforms, which is why he believes they are so important for a global news organisation like the BBC to consider in their strategy.
“In some ways, it’s just a simple calculation that it’s the app that the most people already use on their mobile phones,” says Barot. “It’s the same thing [as] social media years ago, where we wanted to have a presence on Twitter, because that’s where people were spending their time online.”
So it’s that well-worn mantra of “go where your audience is” that could pull newsrooms out of their Facebook and Twitter burrows into these younger social media spaces. But the new opportunities these chat apps offer in terms of sourcing news, telling it through creative and engaging means, and distributing it, might be enough of an inducement for change-fatigued newsrooms to experiment with these new platforms.
How the BBC is using chat apps
The BBC is one of the news organisations mapping these new frontiers, using chat apps such as WhatsApp, Line and WeChat (Japan and China’s leading chat apps, respectively) to connect with people during disasters, elections or pandemics.
To determine when to bring in chat apps as part of the BBC’s strategy, Barot uses a three-circle Venn diagram to determine if a chat app will be effective. The BBC Ebola project was one of the most recent where Barot integrated chat apps into reporting and engagement.
“The Ebola WhatsApp Project [team] have built up a subscriber base of about 20,000-odd people, primarily in West Africa, who are getting daily news from our team with public health information and content,” says Barot.
The service delivers simple text, highly visual and easy-to-understand content, and audio in English and French to its subscribers, but it has also been able to operate as a two-way communication service.
“A lot of those users have also been providing us with tremendous amounts of intelligence with stories, details we just wouldn’t have been able to get through any other means, particularly because in a lot of those countries there’s a lot of security and health protocols that our correspondents have to go through before they’re allowed to be on the ground,” says Barot.
“And equally we’ve found with other cases… it’s been much easier for the people who are on these chat apps to send their messages or their content through these platforms than through any other means we can offer them,” says Barot. “So that’s become really useful getting that sort of audience newsgathering coming in as well.”
From global to local
This is what the Oxford Mail found after six months of experimenting with morning and afternoon updates through WhatsApp. The UK regional daily had a print circulation of about 12,700 at the beginning of 2014 – a 22.9% fall from the previous year – but their six months of WhatsApp bulletins won them more than 1 200 subscribers to the app, with a conversion rate to the paper’s website four or five times greater than their daily email bulletin, and six or seven times greater than Twitter, according to the Guardian.
Alessio Balbi, the head of audience development at Italy’s Gruppo Espresso and Repubblica.it, says chat apps are an opportunity for small newsrooms. “In this field, being a big player could actually be a limit, whereas if you address a local community chat apps are a powerful tool. For a big newsroom to handle something like 50 000 users is very challenging and consuming in terms of time and resources, and the return is limited. But if your audience is more contained and you get to turn a community of 1 000, 2 000 people, into loyal users – it’s a remarkable success.”
Experiment and learn
“One of the things we really learnt last year,” says Barot, “was just understanding how users behave on those chat platforms compared to social networks, and what lessons we could learn in terms of how we can devise plans that work specifically on those platforms.
“And the way we did that was through a lot of trial and error.”
Snapchat, the app best known for being used by young people to send their more sordid snaps to each other – which are then almost instantly wiped from digital memory – became more apparently useful to newsrooms when it launched its Discover feature in January.
The partnership with select media companies internationally, which each deliver a daily ‘edition’ to live on the app for 24 hours, has been received with huge interest.
In the Fusion newsroom, a joint venture of Univision and ABC (US) has been created to reach a younger TV audience. International editor Santiago Tarditi explains how a team of five people are experimenting with Snapchat to find new ways of engaging a crowd of young people who see Facebook as ‘their parent’s social media’.
“From a journalistic point of view [Snapchat Discover] gives you a lot of creative space and a lot of wriggle-room to experiment and try different features,” says Tarditi.
While Snapchat Discover currently only hosts Fusion outside the US and UK (the base of the bulk of Fusion’s audience), Tarditi is enthusiastic about the early results. “We can’t disclose any numbers,” says Tarditi, “but I have to say it’s mind-blowing … and the figures have been very constant.”
However, three months after the launch of the Discover feature the buzz was fading, along with audience reach, with figures showing drops of up to 50% in unique views according to The Information.
A shift for TV broadcasting
If the app makes this feature open platform – or if another app dethrones Snapchat and includes a feature which does the same – then it could have massive impact on the news industry.
“I feel it’s kind of the way forward for the company, and for media as a whole,” says Tarditi.
“I think we’re still a long way from seeing TV become an underdog. It’s still our main platform and our main source of income in terms of ad expenditure. But we do have to understand that there’s a new generation of consumers that are more interested in news being delivered straight to their mobile phones.”
Some of this adaptation is already happening – in one very visible way in particular. Snapchat’s statistics reveal that portrait video ads get up to nine times more viewing completions than landscape ads on the app, and the Discover partners have been playing around with portrait video news too, as they adjust to the app.
“It’s almost forcing them to think in new ways about how their content can be consumed on a mobile phone,” says the BBC’s Trushar Barot, who asks if we are about to see the emergence of an acceptance of portrait style video display. “Suddenly you’re faced with having to create portrait video, which is a really alien thing to news broadcasters, where we’re all used to imagining video in 4:3 or 16:9 format.”
“And so editorially thinking, how are we going to work? It makes sense for somebody viewing it on a mobile phone because … if you’re forcing a user to flip their phone over horizontally then that’s a bad user experience,” says Barot.
However, Barot agrees that it is “a mistake to think that news on the big screen is dead”, and people will still want to see dramatic stories on a big screen. “Where I think the challenge is going to be, is how people first hear about a major story that’s emerging, and in that sense it’s very likely to be on their mobile phones,” says Barot.
“The battle for the home screen of mobile phones is going to be intense, and the strategy for how you win that battle is going to be really interesting.”
Fusion’s Snapchat strategy“
For the digital-first Fusion network, the strategy has been to experiment with any new app that reaches the market – such as Vine, Meerkat and Periscope. Tarditi says the network has been trying to feed “snack components of content” to an audience always on the run and hungry for creative content.
“What we see is that people on Snapchat, and in general on the internet, have a very short attention span, so we really have to gain their interest in any way possible, and that’s with moving images, with sound, with animation, and so on,” says Tarditi. The Fusion team have even played around with stop-motion and clay animations, which can be as simple as a quick animation (in portrait-style) with a goofy sound effect. “We try to always keep it upbeat and light.”
One of Fusion’s attempts to gain interest was with their seven episode ‘Outpost’ series of mini-documentaries launched exclusively on the Snapchat platform. Each episode tells an off-the-beaten-path story from Latin America, and Tarditi says “they are one of the best performing pieces on Snapchat Discover”.
After its 24-hour lifespan on the app, the episodes then move into Fusion’s other spaces on the web and social media, with some of them making it to television. “What we’re trying to tell our audience,” says Tarditi, “Is: ‘Hey, check out Discover, because this is where things are going to be premiering, and this is where you’re going to be able to see them before anywhere else.”
It’s a bold move to launch content exclusively on a platform that has no sharing function and depends almost entirely on word-of-mouth, but Tarditi says they see “very positive engagement” with the stories and that people take conversations to Twitter (where Fusion also have a Snapchat-specific @FusionSnaps account) or email when it is worth talking about.
Be ready for constant change
It can be overwhelming for journalists or a newsroom to try to adapt to the constant change and unfamiliarity of a swathe of new platforms, but Tarditi advises that “experimenting is the key.”
Barot agrees, saying newsrooms also have to understand the specific virtues and functionalities that different apps have.
“It can’t just be generic content that gets reposted from Facebook to Twitter to Whatsapp, you need to think much more carefully about what works on each platform,” says Barot. For the BBC this meant experimenting with emojis on Whatsapp during 2013’s Indian elections, which Barot says people treat as second nature in conversation with friends on Whatsapp, “so we started experimenting with using emojis for audience engagement on Whatsapp and it proved to be hugely popular with our subscribers.”
“These platforms are constantly evolving,” says Tarditi, “and new ones come up every day and old ones are changing every day. What I’m doing personally is that as soon as I hear that there’s a new app in town, I download it and start playing around with it, and get to understand the functionality of it, the possibilities of it.”
“[In terms of] Snapchat, we’ve been on the platform for a few months now, but every day we learn something new, we experiment with something new.”
Using chat apps for crisis reporting and verification
Chat apps don’t just bring chances to test new ways of reaching people, however. When student activist Joshua Wong Chi-Fung told protesters taking to the streets of Hong Kong last year to download the off-the-grid messaging app FireChat in case of an internet blackout, journalists saw the chance for a new method of sourcing news. The masses of people on the streets overwhelmed internet servers and rendered social media networks unusable, except for the chat room app FireChat, since it uses Bluetooth and person-to-person Wi-Fi to create a “mesh” network of phones connected directly with each other. So the crowds of people strengthened that network, and it could operate even without an internet connection.
“What happened in Hong Kong, though, you had no idea who was who [since users can be anonymous] and every time there was misinformation it spread on the app,” says FireChat’s chief marketing officer, Christophe Daligault.
“One example was… someone was saying the army is coming, they’re loading assault rifles now with bullets, you guys need to run for your lives. It wasn’t true,” says Daligault. The FireChat team responded by bringing in journalists with verified accounts to sort information as it broke. Recently they partnered with Storyful, the news verification service, to try and filter authentic news through their chat rooms as it breaks.
The app is still chaotic, but the Storyful partnership will help the FireChat team to develop the app to work more effectively for journalists, and it could be a way towards a breaking news app which sifts out misinformation.
Even if journalists would rather rest on Twitter, they may be forced onto chat apps to find news. When Russian politician Alexei Navalny was arrested earlier this year after breaking house arrest to go to a protest, he told his 25 000 followers on FireChat that he had been arrested and urged them to carry on with their protests. The app sent out a push notification to each of Navalny’s followers, who instantly received the news, as traditional SMS, Whatsapp and similar chat apps have capacity to do.
For journalists trying to protect an anonymous source, they might not find much use in *FireChat, since all chat rooms are public (though they are working on creating private chat rooms). But in places where internet access is limited or cut off, it could be a way for journalists to connect with people without actually being on the ground. In Hong Kong, verified journalists brought into the app were able to chat with protesters on the street “directly, without the risk of getting tear-gassed or coming up against a water cannon,” Daligault says.
Kinks in an evolving system
There are other challenges currently facing chat apps. Barot says signing up subscribers for WhatsApp is still a very tedious process, one which must be done manually person-by-person. Broadly the apps are not as media-friendly as Facebook or Twitter. And in Snapchat there is still the problem that there is no way to transport users outside of the app. So, there is the possibility that user-generated content could be lost inside these closed ecosystems, where it would usually turn up on Twitter – though Barot does not see this as a concern,
“But in terms of news distribution,” says Barot, “I think we’re still in the very early stages. My instinct is that [as] these companies begin to mature, they engineer their products to the point where a lot more functionality gets put in.”
“I think what this has taught us is that our content no longer has to be fed in the traditional way,” says Tarditi. “Platforms like Snapchat Discover allow for this way of feeding content – to be reshaped and formed again – in a way where content lives first on mobile and then migrates to other platforms.”
As social media channels continue to fragment and specialise, it might seem all too much for an app-weary journalist to learn and relearn these communication channels. But whether WhatsApp, Snapchat, or something else, it’s clear that journalists ought to be starting to experiment with chat apps to engage their audiences and help to grow them.
Federica Cherubini contributed to this chapter, as did Julie Posetti.
This post was first published by the World Editors Forum. The full report on Trends in Newsrooms 2015 is free to members of the World Editors Forum and WAN-IFRA.
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