Chat apps: the future of news?

Heralded as the next generation of social media, chat apps BBM, Snapchat, WeChat and WhatsApp are the latest forms of social media to be utilised for content marketing by news agencies. Livi Wilkinson explores the BBC’s chat apps strategy.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | August 29, 2014

After its World News website was blocked during the military coup in Thailand in July, BBC Thai relaunched itself on Facebook’s computer and mobile interfaces, in an attempt to maintain audience numbers.

Trushar Barot is Apps Editor at the BBC World Service and BBC Global News. He told the World Editors Forum: “These instant messaging platforms give us an additional distribution method to potentially penetrate markets that we may not be able to do through more conventional means.”

“We realised that digital technology can help us be more agile, responding faster to changing circumstances. One of the fundamental principles of the BBC World Service is to bring impartial and accurate news to countries when they lack it. The Thai Facebook initiative was one example of this – we’ve operated in a similar way in the past, when our broadcasts were blocked in Turkey, for example,” Barot said.

The advantage of these apps is that users click on the ‘push notification‘ almost every time they receive a notification, with a hit rate of up to 100%.

Perhaps the biggest project we have seen in 2014 came from BBC India, which used WeChat and WhatsApp to distribute content to users, connect with its audience and collect feedback and user-generated content. Launched on 4th April 2014, this project was particularly key around the Indian general election in June.

BBC News India sent messages in both English and Hindi to users, sending up to three messages a day on WhatsApp and one a day on WeChat.

Barot explained why these two chat apps were chosen in India: ‘We were looking to find a new way of engaging with Indian voters during the election and knew that one of the fastest growing communication tools being used by many of them was WhatsApp. From the research we did, WeChat appeared to be the second biggest chat app in India based on user numbers and so we decided to try out both services to see what demand there might be for a genuinely impartial news service covering the elections.”

The app Mxit was used similarly in South Africa’s elections in May this year. “This allowed a generation of young people voting for the first time to consume BBC content via a platform they use every day. We haven’t made any long term commitments at this stage, but from our analysis of the pilots during the elections in both India and South Africa, we were encouraged by the feedback we got from users,” said Barot.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria BBC users can access stories through BBM and they can also interact with the organisation: “BBM is a separate project being undertaken by the BBC World Service for audiences in Nigeria. Subscribers receive up to five BBC Hausa news alerts daily, each with shareable story links and are able to engage with the BBC by offering their comments and story ideas. ”

The target user is principally young people, according to Barot: “The target audience is the user base of the apps – and it’s a very big user base. I’d estimate there are 1.5billion users of chat apps globally at the moment – while many will skew towards the younger age range, there are significant differences depending on which regions of the world you look at,” he said.

“We have ambitious targets to reach new global audiences for BBC News and so it makes sense to view these platforms as the next generation of social media, rather than just as simple ‘chat’ platforms. A few years ago, I helped shape the original social media strategy for BBC News and I can see a lot of similarities with how we’ll want to approach these platforms in a strategic way.”

In Brazil, China and India, push-notification apps are providing news organisations with another platform to reach smart-phone audiences. Even regional papers, such as the UK’s Oxford Mail, are getting in on the act, using chat apps to drive audiences to their stories.

Meanwhile, in Norway, broadcaster NRK P3 has launched a campaign to reach out to younger audiences through photo app Snapchat, sending news videos and photos to subscribers.

Barot, who was previously Assistant Editor of BBC Social Media and the User Generated Content Hub, will be sharing his insights at World Publishing Expo’s International Newsroom Summit #NRS14 in Amsterdam, from 13 to 14 October.

Note: For more information on NRS14, contact Federica Cherubini, the Programme Manager:

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