Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter let publishers reach the masses. However, there is a yearning by some (especially youths) to connect with media outlets in a more personal way. Enter messaging—or chat—apps.
Messaging apps allow the user to send and receive messages and notifications on-on-one with other users. Examples of messaging apps include Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Viber, Line (which went public in July), WhatsApp and WeChat.
In 2015, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, released a “Guide to Chat Apps,” which looks at the opportunities and challenges of using messaging apps for journalism purposes. The executive summary partially reads: “Drawing upon our interviews and case studies, we identify a number of opportunities and challenges for organizations using—or hoping to use—messaging apps for news. We argue that to devise a successful messaging app strategy, publishers must understand regional strongholds, user demographics, and popular features of each app.
Advantages to the chat ecosystem include huge, untapped audiences; high engagement through push notifications; unique products like stickers and ‘chatbots;’ and the opportunity to build community through chat rooms and crowdsourced storytelling. Meanwhile, challenges include limited analytics tools and a fragmented social landscape boasting roughly a dozen messaging apps, each with over 50 million registered users.”
With so many advantages, why shouldn’t news organizations give messaging apps a try? E&P recently caught up with a few media companies who are using them to discuss how and why they are using the apps, the challenges, and what opportunities they found.
The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal began experimenting with messaging apps in November 2014 with Line, a mobile app that lets users send free messages, voice and video calls. The Journal wanted to reach an audience in Asia, according to Carla Zanoni, the paper’s executive emerging media editor.
“Messaging apps started growing in leaps and bounds, and we were curious to see what kind of audience reach we could access and learn different storytelling methods,” Zanoni said.
She explained that it was interesting to see what kinds of content people engage with on Line, especially with longer videos.
Last year, the Journal began experimenting with WhatsApp when it launched its ex-pats section. “We thought maybe it would be interesting to take a small yet very engaged audience and build an ex-pats community,” said Zanoni. She said that the community likes to receive one to two curated articles per week, which it learned by asking for feedback in a Facebook Group.
According to Zanoni, WhatsApp was not created with publishers in mind.
When the Journal looks at implementing messaging apps, it comes down to reaching niche audiences. Line is largely based on geography. For example, the Journal has a Japanese- language Line account, and it reaches more than 84,000 people in Japan. With Snapchat, the Journal is focused on reaching millennials, and with WhatsApp, it’s focused on ex-pats.
“It allows us to really focus on a curation of our journalism and build much more intimate relationships with that audience,” said Zanoni, whereas with Twitter, the Journal is promoting many types of stories.
The Journal always sets goals when it launches on a new messaging app—for example, building relationships, driving engagement and raising brand awareness. Whereas, with more legacy-type platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, it focuses on driving people to WSJ.com.
Zanoni said the Journal is able to keep track of some metrics when it comes to messaging apps. Specifically, she tracks referral traffic using vanity URLs on Bitly for Snapchat and WhatsApp. The Journal’s goal of using Snapchat is not just to drive traffic back to the site, but to see an incremental amount of traffic.
For Snapchat Discover, the Journal uses the analytics system that’s built into Snapchat Discover, which it is still learning how to compare. Snapchat Discover is a section of the app that includes curated stories from publishers.
“I would like to explore usage of WhatsApp in Europe and Latin America,” Zanoni said, adding that she expects more growth with Facebook Messenger. The Journal launched a Facebook Messenger bot in April.
Zanoni provided some advice for other publishers who are just now considering on launching messaging apps.
“There are so many messaging apps. It feels like you should be on all of them. Have a deep understanding of who your audience is and what their needs are. Make sure you’re in the space where your audience is already active. Spend some time listening to your audience to hear what it is they need. You want to provide some utility and service on those apps,” she said, adding to at the onset set clear goals and metrics to measure.
BBC World Service
BBC World Service started experimenting with chat apps in October 2014. According to mobile editor Trushar Barot, the media company noticed a large increase in the number of users of WhatsApp. Going back to 2011, Barot said, in London, many young people were using Blackberry Messenger to share photos and videos. That also sparked interest by the BBC.
“I originally started looking at it (WhatsApp) as a potential use for news gathering and audience contribution,” he said, adding that the BBC first used WhatsApp and WeChat for coverage during the India elections in 2014. “We knew that the election would be a very big story for lots of people in the country, particularly on social, and particularly on WhatsApp. So, what we ended up doing was for a six-week period we ran a BBC News election account in WhatsApp where we pushed out news alerts of content that we were producing. We did that two or three times a day, and then on the actual results day, we posted news, breaking news and results. We ended up pushing about 40 alerts during the day.”
The BBC received positive feedback. Users liked that messaging apps provided a more personal connection with the brand, that they were able to instantly receive pop-up push alerts, and they were easily accessible and easy to share. In addition, users could communicate with the BBC privately through the messaging apps.
According to Barot, the BBC also used WeChat during the election and used Blackberry Messenger in Nigeria and MixIt in South Africa, which has since shut down.
Over the last two years, the BBC has also launched on Japanese messaging app Line, which is popular in East Asia.
Barot said that when the BBC launched WhatsApp, it was the first time it started using emojis in social media posts. The BBC asked its audience to respond to news posts using emojis. Now, the BBC uses emojis more freely on other social media platforms such as Facebook.
In addition, Barot explained that the BBC has become more knowledgeable about its global audience and how they prefer to use messaging apps.
“We’ve learned that Western audiences are much more sensitive to getting push alerts. In India, people are very relaxed about getting lots of push alerts or notifications from their phone, and that’s almost a default way of operating on their phones because they don’t actually want to visit websites because it starts eating up their data, so they much rather prefer push notifications, which they can just see on their lock screen,” he said.
When thinking strategically, the BBC targets audiences by demographics as well as geography. According to Barot, when it started to use WhatsApp, there was a much younger demographic, but now many ages are using it, comparable with Facebook, he said. However, Line has a much younger, more affluent demographic that the BBC is trying to target in East Asia, primarily in Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, and Indonesia.
Another app that the BBC started using less than a year ago is Telegram. It’s using Telegram to reach people in Iran. Telegram has high levels of encryption that allows for anonymity and personal privacy. The BBC now has 500,000 subscribers to Telegram.
Another location the BBC wanted to reach was Burma. So, it launched a BBC Burmese channel inside the public chat section of Viber. It now has 100,000 subscribers.
“These aren’t replacement strategies for what we’re doing on legacy platforms like Twitter or Facebook, but they are supplementary or in addition,” said Barot, explaining that some metrics are trickier to track on some messaging apps more than others.
WhatsApp is difficult because it is encrypted, explained Barot. “They just don’t know what’s being shared inside its platform other than what type of content is being shared,”
Barot said it is doing a few things to track metrics and promote its messaging apps: It placed WhatsApp share buttons across its websites, and it is adding BBC branding to all its graphics, so when people share the graphics, that increases brand awareness of the media company.
In addition, Telegram is the only chat platform that provides a reach metric for each messaging app post.
“We know that some of our items are reaching as many as 800,000 or 900,000 unique people. That’s a really useful measurement for us,” said Barot, adding that the BBC uses a link tracker to measure incoming traffic to the BBC website from messaging apps.
Barot explained that there are some differences in terms of content management systems for each messaging app. For example, Line, as part of its CMS, lets users push out different templates for push alerts based around how many images are used.
ESPN is another publisher that provides curated content through Snapchat Discover.
It doesn’t think of Snapchat as a messaging app, according to Nate Ravitz, vice president of audience development at ESPN.
“It’s a platform with tremendous scale and has multiple opportunities, one of which is a unique canvas for content creation and distribution. Our goal is to create and deliver the authority and personality of ESPN in a way that is distinct to the platform, and certainly engage a demographic that skews young,” he said, adding that the media company is only active on Snapchat Discover (not any of the other messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger).
From a content perspective, ESPN is publishing a daily edition of the best of the sports world, with news, highlights, snackable content and viral moments on Snapchat Discover.
“For Discover, it’s mostly the same things that work everywhere else—content that informs, surprises, inspires and mostly, compels a fan to want to discuss or share with a friend,” Ravitz said, adding that it’s trying to reach a younger, more female audience on Discover.
ESPN defines success on Discover by looking at growth of audience and engagement patterns, how often they come back and how much time they’re spending.
“The best measure of whether a fan enjoyed your content is if they come back the next day,” said Ravitz.
He emphasized the importance of having a dedicated team that focuses on curation and packaging of content that is native to Snapchat.
“The mobile-only, vertical-only, visual-driven format is unique, and you want a group of people to build up expertise in working in that environment to create the best experience for fans,” he said.
Who’s Who Among Messaging Apps
Audience: 80 million estimated monthly, active users
Top Markets: North America
Key Demographics: 82 percent of users are aged 13–24
Key Features: Chatbots, web browser, texting, stickers and emojis, games.
Audience: 211 million monthly, active users
Top Markets: Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Spain
Demographics: Majority aged 16–34 years
Key Features: Free to use; multimedia file-sharing capability; works across all major mobile phone platforms and PCs; timeline news feed; official brand accounts with CMS and one daily push alert limit; stickers, coupons and games for free and paid.
Audience: 100 million daily, active users globally
Top Markets: North America, Europe
Key Demographics: 13–34-year-olds
Key Features: Disappearing messages, Discover, crowdsourced Live Story montages, My Story daily montages, QR codes, location-based geofilters, Snapcash peer-to-peer payments.
Audience: 62 million monthly, active users
Top Markets: Iran, India, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Spain
Demographics: Users with high privacy concerns, often in countries where government monitoring and security is a concern
Key Features: Channels allowing broadcasts access to an unlimited number of users; open source code and bot API; seamless syncing across mobiles, tablets, and PCs; ability to send multiple file types, including docs, MP3s, video, images, and compressed files of up to 1.5 gigabytes.
Audience: 250 million monthly, active users
Top Markets: Russia, India, Iran, Australia, Middle East
Demographics: Majority of users aged 25–35
Key Features: Public chats, texting, phone and video calls, stickers, games, service messages.
Audience: 600 million monthly, active users
Top Markets: China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, Taiwan
Demographics: Majority of users aged 16–34 years
Key Features: Connect to friends via nearby “radar;” “shake” phone and connect with whomever else is shaking at that moment; enter walkie-talkie mode; official brand platform with CMS; free and paid stickers and coupons; share multimedia files; works on all major mobile platforms and PC/Macs.
Audience: 900 million monthly, active users
Top Markets: India, South Africa, Malaysia, Spain, Mexico
Demographics: Broad age range, not limited to those aged 16–34
Key Features: Free messaging for the first year, then an annual subscription of $1; free WhatsApp calls; WhatsApp web interface; voice memos, as well as audio, image, and video files; groups and broadcast lists.
Source: “Guide to Chat Apps,” Tow Center for Digital Journalism, 2015