Trends in Newsrooms 1: The Rise of Bots
Chatbots are on the rise within the news industry, with many organizations experimenting with the Artificial Intelligence technology. But what's behind this trend, and what benefits can chatbots really bring to a media outlet? It’s been more than a year since Quartz launched its nascent chat app that sparked interest, praise and criticism within the industry. And ever since companies like Facebook, Telegram or Kik made the technology to build chatbots available to the general public, news organizations have been experimenting with it in various forms. Most news organizations see this trend as just that: a chance to experiment with an emerging technology on established platforms. And clearly, these experiments are primarily centered on testing the waters of a more personalized experience with their users. But like with any new technology, chatbots come with the expected yin and yang.
A more personalized news experience
“I think one of the big advantages is the ability to personalize your news stream to your taste and to your needs,” said Andrew Haeg, CEO of GroundSource, a company that allows organizations to build chatbots.
“Forever, we’ve created stories that people receive and they’re largely undifferentiated and everyone receives the same story. But if you have a different level of expertise or curiosity about the story, you don’t really have a way of customizing the story to your own needs.”
GroundSource recently teamed up with the Texas Tribune to help them develop its Facebook Messenger bot, Paige, aimed at delivering information about the Texas legislature.
With Paige, which sends out updates on Mondays and Fridays and allows users to ask questions or submit tips, the Tribune is trying to reach an audience that is curious about politics but not too heavily invested in the subject matter.
“They had a really good, vivid picture of who they were serving with Paige,” Haeg said.
“When you’re setting out to create a bot, you really need to know who it’s for and what informational needs those people have. Doing actual research about who the bot is for will inform everything from the voice of it to the information it’s going to convey, to the questions you can ask it, as well as the marketing and the discovery of the bot.”
With 1,000 people subscribing to the bot within two weeks, Haeg noted, “early indications are really strong that people want to engage in this way.”
Boosting discovery of content
Rappler, a digital pure player in the Philippines, launched its Facebook Messenger bot in a bid to stay connected with its user base that was moving from Twitter to Facebook, and to improve discovery of its content.
The chatbot, dubbed RapRap, functions as a search and conversational tool, surfacing content related to keywords, and allowing users to ask basic questions.
“They wanted to increase discovery of their content,” Kevin Anderson, who covered Rappler as part of his report “Beyond the Article”, explained in a WAN-IFRA webinar.
“They found that simply sharing their content on Facebook was really leading to kind of a superficial level of discovery, and there are certain things that work well on social platforms, like very emotive content, and identity-based content. But they really wanted people to be able to see and for the chatbot to surface the widest range of content to their readers.”
The chatbot has also allowed Rappler to better communicate its editorial priorities with its audience, since the Facebook newsfeed offers few possibilities to highlight or differentiate between the various types of content Rappler’s staff produces.
“People see an article but there’s no sense of the importance of the article, it doesn’t give you the same kind of editorial priority you have with the design of your own website or push notifications,” Anderson said.
“They also wanted to communicate the types of content they produce, news, commentaries or analysis. And they thought that was also lost in the newsfeed. They felt that with a chatbot they could communicate the different types of content and ways they produce them.”
Additionally, Rappler built a chatbot to help with crowdsourcing information for their projects around corruption reporting or good governance, allowing users to submit reports.
A shift from open social networks to closed messaging apps
While the launch of RapRap was driven by a change in social media tastes, users moving from open social networks to closed messaging apps has also played a part in the rise of chatbots. In fact, a Business Insider Intelligence report found that the combined user base of the four biggest chat apps (WhatsApp, WeChat, Vibr and Facebook Messenger) has already surpassed that of the four biggest social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat).
Messaging service Telegram rolled out its bot API and platform in 2015, and was used for the launch of Politibot, a chatbot created for the Spanish election last year.
“We chose Telegram because it was heavily used by politicians in Spain, especially from the new parties,” explained co-founder Eduardo Suarez.
“We thought it was a good way to connect with political junkies.”
Launched a day before the election campaign started, the bot served up daily news digests, which included graphics, long and short-form articles, and provided users with real-time election updates within their constituency and on a national level.
Within three weeks of the bot going live, Suarez said 8,000 users had signed up, and 103,510 sessions were recorded out of which one-third lasted longer than five minutes, and two-thirds longer than one minute. On top of that, weekly user retention stood at 56 percent.
Naturally, the bot’s capabilities were limited and it couldn’t understand all questions and messages it received, but Suarez said that actually helped spread the word about it.
“People were connecting with the bot. Some of its answers to questions it didn’t understand went viral,” Suarez said.
“From the beginning, we said this is a very clumsy robot, this is an experiment, and we tried to lower people’s expectation in that regard, and I think that is a good idea.”
The bot is now also available on Facebook Messenger, covering international politics in addition to the Spanish political landscape.
Limitations of chatbots
The above examples show in what ways chatbots can be used to benefit a media organization, from reaching new audiences to providing more personalized experiences. But the technology is in many ways still limited.
“One of the most interesting things is that people really do chat to them as if they were living sentient beings and the technology is nowhere