Can messaging apps solve the content discovery crisis?
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 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!