Can mes­sag­ing apps solve the con­tent dis­cov­ery cri­sis?

The Insider - - CONTENTS -

The in­ter­net has been called many things over the past two decades, but one tru­ism that res­onates with me is, “The in­ter­net is a great place to hide.” Re­sis­tant to reg­u­la­tion, it abounds with bul­ly­ing, cy­ber­crime, hack­ing, ex­tor­tion, and the spread of fake news and mis­in­for­ma­tion. And when it comes to qual­ity con­tent, the in­ter­net acts like a dig­i­tal replica of Harry Pot­ters’ in­vis­i­bil­ity cloak, shroud­ing trusted me­dia with a del­uge of data that is grow­ing ex­po­nen­tially.

Search en­gines are fine for get­ting quick an­swers to spe­cific queries, but for more gen­eral con­tent searches Google tends to fa­vor a very small per­cent­age of main­stream web­sites, or those will­ing to pay for a higher 1st page rank­ing — hid­ing rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion be­hind con­tent Google can eas­ily mon­e­tize.

Qual­ity con­tent dis­cov­ery is a se­ri­ous prob­lem that needs solv­ing.

Con­tent dis­cov­ery through the ages

Since 2012 Reuters has been track­ing how peo­ple ac­cess news. Me­dia brands took a huge hit in 2013 when read­ers started aban­don­ing di­rect links to pub­lish­ers’ web­sites and head­ing to search en­gines and so­cial me­dia for a wider choice of news.

Search dom­i­nated as the dis­cov­ery mech­a­nism for those look­ing for spe­cific top­ics, while so­cial me­dia of­fered serendip­i­tous con­tent dis­cov­ery us­ing be­hav­ioral an­a­lyt­ics — a strat­egy that helped en­gage un­sus­pect­ing read­ers in ar­ti­cles they weren’t even look­ing for, but de­lighted to en­counter.

Over the next few years, as so­cial me­dia grew in pop­u­lar­ity, so did its role in news dis­cov­ery. But in 2015, some­thing very in­ter­est­ing hap­pened. Mo­bile alerts from pop­u­lar mes­sag­ing apps (e.g. Face­book Mes­sen­ger, Snapchat, What­sApp, etc.) started to make head­way into the dig­i­tal gate­way space.

Mes­sag­ing 101

Mes­sag­ing apps have been around for many decades, but for most peo­ple they didn’t re­ally be­come part of ev­ery­day life un­til the iPhone landed in the hands of mil­lions of users in 2007, fol­lowed closely by the first An­droid de­vices in 2008. Today more than 1.8 bil­lion peo­ple use mes­sag­ing apps.

Mes­sag­ing apps have higher re­ten­tion rates with con­sumers all over the world and are pro­jected to gar­ner 2.48 bil­lion users by 2021.

And although 67% of Amer­i­cans still get news from so­cial me­dia, mes­sag­ing apps have sur­passed so­cial net­works in terms of world­wide us­age. Over 76% of smart­phone own­ers will be us­ing mes­sen­ger apps in 2017.

Orig­i­nally in­tended for 1-to-1 com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween friends, mes­sag­ing apps have turned into one-stop shops for con­nect­ing with brands, brows­ing mer­chan­dise, pur­chas­ing prod­ucts, and dis­cov­er­ing con­tent through in­ter­net robots called chatbots.

Chatbots are soft­ware pro­grams that aug­ment mes­sag­ing app func­tion­al­ity with small, of­ten repet­i­tive tasks once per­formed by hu­mans. In short, they mimic con­ver­sa­tion. Today Face­book has over 100,000 chatbots on Mes­sen­ger, which is im­pres­sive given its first chat­bot was only an­nounced in the spring of 2016.

Mes­sag­ing apps and chatbots for news

Mes­sag­ing apps are look­ing poised to be the next pre­ferred gate­way to news through cus­tom chatbots. 23% of peo­ple al­ready dis­cover, dis­cuss or share news us­ing one or more mes­sag­ing ap­pli­ca­tions.

Columbia Jour­nal­ism School’s Guide to Chat

Apps shares why mes­sag­ing apps should be on the radar me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions and is worth read­ing. Here are some high­lights.

Mes­sag­ing apps of­fer ac­cess to the of­ten hardto-reach de­mo­graph­ics — specif­i­cally Gen Zs and Mil­len­ni­als.

They also of­fer more en­gage­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. In 2016, the av­er­age time per visit to the top 50 US news­pa­per web­sites was only 2.45 min­utes. Com­pare that with What­sApp’s and Snapchat’s av­er­age ses­sion length of 16.7 and 12.2 min­utes re­spec­tively. If time is money, it’s pretty ob­vi­ous where pub­lish­ers need to start spend­ing more time.

Mes­sag­ing apps give users more con­trol over their com­mu­ni­ca­tions and con­tent shar­ing; a few also of­fer en­cryp­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties. This adds an ex­tra level of se­cu­rity and pri­vacy for users who live in coun­tries where free­dom of speech is not ab­so­lute.

Price is also a fac­tor. For ex­am­ple, free What­sApp use is of­ten in­cluded in phone con­tract bun­dles.

It’s time to chat

There are al­ready hun­dreds of news bots out there, but in terms of cus­tom mag­a­zine and news­pa­per chatbots, we’re still in the in­fancy stage. But there’s still time to find the sweet spot for your spe­cific au­di­ence. Here are what some pub­lish­ers are ex­per­i­ment­ing with.

The Wash­ing­ton Post used Kik two years ago to dis­trib­ute quizzes, chat ad­ven­tures and games. On Mes­sen­ger it launched its Feels bot to track peo­ple’s feel­ings dur­ing the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

The BBC, an early adopter of mes­sag­ing apps, has been us­ing What­sApp for gath­er­ing break­ing news from eye­wit­nesses since Fe­bru­ary 2015. Hav­ing the app tied to the user’s phone speeds up the ver­i­fi­ca­tion process and al­lows them to con­nect di­rectly with con­trib­u­tors to gather more in­for­ma­tion and build re­la­tion­ships with them.

Imag­ine the en­gage­ment that could be cre­ated with this kind of in­ter­ac­tion — pub­lish­ers could have armies of fee­ton-the-street lo­cal cit­i­zens gath­er­ing po­ten­tially ex­clu­sive con­tent for them and shar­ing it with all their friends. It’s a win-win for ev­ery­one. Chatbots can be very pow­er­ful, but they can also be dan­ger­ous. Don’t do what Mi­crosoft did last year with Tay — a teen-like chat­bot that was de­signed to have ca­sual and play­ful con­ver­sa­tions with users. Un­for­tu­nately within 24 hours, Twitter had cor­rupted the bot, spew­ing out racist and highly of­fen­sive mes­sages, tar­nish­ing the brand.

But us­ing chatbots to just drive traf­fic to your web­site isn’t go­ing to cre­ate the en­gage­ment you need to build brand eq­uity ei­ther. In­stead, use the app the way peo­ple want you to use it — cre­ate con­ver­sa­tions around the kind of con­tent peo­ple want to con­sume or around other ar­eas of your diver­si­fied busi­ness that in­ter­ests them (e.g. con­tests, events, games, im­mer­sive en­ter­tain­ment, etc.).

News alerts — a dou­ble-edged sword

Weeks prior to the 2016 US elec­tion, re­searchers at the En­gag­ing News Project sur­veyed Snapchat users about their use of the pop­u­lar app. They found, to the de­light of pub­lish­ers, that 59% of peo­ple who re­ceived an alert from a pub­lisher opened their app; only 23% turned to so­cial me­dia. An added bonus was that half the users who fol­lowed jour­nal­ists on Snapchat be­lieved it helped build the re­porter’s cred­i­bil­ity.

News alerts, like chatbots, are dou­ble-edged swords that must be wielded with care. They bring huge op­por­tu­ni­ties as we we’ve seen with the Snapchat ex­am­ple, but they can also alien­ate read­ers when mis­used.

There is fierce com­pe­ti­tion for eye­balls on the small screen so pub­lish­ers must be very care­ful when craft­ing and send­ing no­ti­fi­ca­tions to their au­di­ences. En­sure the con­tent is ac­cu­rate and rel­e­vant to the per­son re­ceiv­ing it.

There is a fine line be­tween too much and too lit­tle in­for­ma­tion in the alert. Too much and you lose a po­ten­tial click to your app be­cause you’re given them ev­ery­thing up­front; too lit­tle and peo­ple may un­sub­scribe to fu­ture no­ti­fi­ca­tions if they per­ceive the alert as click­bait — a teaser that didn’t re­flect the con­tent be­hind the link.

Ac­cord­ing to Reuter In­sti­tute Dig­i­tal News Project 2016, 33% of Amer­i­cans re­ceive news alerts on their smart­phones — half of which they click on. The 35% that said they wouldn’t sign up for the alerts cite, “Too many or ir­rel­e­vant no­ti­fi­ca­tions” as the main rea­son.

So at the risk of re­peat­ing my­self, re­mem­ber that you need to send the right alerts to the right au­di­ences at the right times through the right chan­nels at the right price. It’s not rocket sci­ence, but it does re­quire com­pre­hen­sive be­hav­ioral an­a­lyt­ics to get it all right. Treat peo­ple like you would want to be treated. Ev­ery­one hates get­ting phone calls from tele­mar­keters, so don’t let your chatbots be­have like them.

A rare sec­ond chance

As far back at 2011, Gart­ner pre­dicted that by 2020, 85% of cus­tomer in­ter­ac­tions with a busi­ness will be done with­out the help of a hu­man. It’s start­ing to look like we may be there even sooner than they thought.

With con­sumers shift­ing from broad­cast­ing their lives on so­cial me­dia to com­mu­ni­cat­ing through pri­vate mes­sag­ing, the con­di­tions are ripe for bot in­te­gra­tion in the news­room, dis­tri­bu­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels, and cus­tomer ser­vice de­part­ments. So what are you go­ing to do with this new op­por­tu­nity? At a time where trust in me­dia as a whole is ten­u­ous, pub­lish­ers need to think care­fully about how it in­ter­acts with au­di­ences and what they of­fer them through these new chan­nels. Here’s a sec­ond chance to bring me­dia brands’ voices back to life by open­ing up two-way con­ver­sa­tions that rebuild trust with peo­ple at scale.

If you’re look­ing at ex­per­i­ment­ing in this new fron­tier, I would re­spect­fully sug­gest that you:

• Cre­ate chatbots that de­light users, whether that’s through con­tent they care about, a unique and use­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, or im­proved ser­vice

• Of­fer them op­por­tu­ni­ties to par­tic­i­pate in the cre­ation of con­tent — some­thing younger gen­er­a­tions, in par­tic­u­lar, not only value, but ex­pect

• Use be­hav­ioral an­a­lyt­ics to help build more per­son­al­ized ex­pe­ri­ences for them with­out creep­ing them out with ad­ver­tis­ing they don’t want

• Be care­ful with news alerts. Yes, they can lead to more fre­quent us­age of news apps and build loy­alty that could ul­ti­mately help de­liver rev­enue, but they’re ripe for abuse. And if you abuse, you’ll lose your sec­ond chance to make a great im­pres­sion.

Think peo­ple-first and qual­ity al­ways

Did you know we gen­er­ate roughly

2.5 quin­til­lion bytes of data on­line ev­ery sin­gle day? Let me make the 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 feel a bit more real for you…

• If you were to spread out 2.5 quin­til­lion 1 cent coins side-by-side they would cover the planet five times.

• 2.5 quin­til­lion is 25% of all living in­sects in the world — makes my skin crawl. Chatbots are start­ing to creep into the in­ter­net in the same way. Re­ferred to as “the fu­ture di­rec­tion of a uni­fied in­ter­face for the whole of the web”, the prom­ise and ex­pec­ta­tion of chatbots is high.

Un­for­tu­nately, just like most con­tent on the web, most bots (tens of thou­sands of them) are pretty use­less; some are just plain hor­rid.

So, when (not if) you de­cide that chatbots should be part of your con­tent and com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy, use them to el­e­vate your rep­u­ta­tion and brand with users. Put away thoughts of be­ing dig­i­tal­first and fo­cus on be­ing au­di­ence-first. There are real peo­ple on the other side of your vir­tual voices and they are the ones who can make or break your fu­ture in this in­ti­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tions realm.

Cre­ate your con­tent and your chatbots for them, not your­self; and help solve their con­tent dis­cov­ery prob­lem with the price­less com­bi­na­tion of qual­ity con­tent for a qual­ity au­di­ence through a qual­ity chat­bot.

I’d love to share with our read­ers how you’re ex­per­i­ment­ing with mes­sag­ing apps and chatbots. Let’s chat!

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