Last Thursday, I hosted a webinar focusing on the chatbots and conversational interfaces section of the report that I did for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, Beyond the Article: Frontiers of Editorial and Commercial Innovation.
In the webinar, I gave an overview of the strategic motivations that publishers – including Rappler of the Philippines, Nyt, the youth section of Helsingin Sanomat of Finland, and Quartz of the US – had for launching chatbots and developing conversational apps. I also looked at how they developed these projects and what business models they were using to support their journalism.
I’ll just review their strategic motivations briefly here:
- Rappler launched a Facebook chatbot for three reasons: One, audiences had shifted rapidly from Twitter to Facebook over the last year in the Philippines. Two, they wanted to use the chatbot to both increase discovery of their content for Facebook audiences, and three, they also wanted to better communicate their editorial features – straight news, analysis and comment – to readers.
- Helsingin Sanomat’s youth-focused Nyt noticed in 2014 that Facebook was no longer helping them reach teens and, based on research that showed that 80 percent of their target audience used WhatsApp, they launched an experiment on the messaging platform. The experiment was successful but unsustainable, so they developed their own conversational app.
- When Quartz launched four years ago, the mobile-focused news service did not launch with an app because they found that app usage fell off quickly. However, with the rising importance of notifications, they wanted to get onto the lockscreen of their users. Inspired by Lark, a conversational fitness coaching app, they launched a conversational news app.
Is WhatsApp going to develop tools for news companies?
One of the questions that came up during the webinar is whether WhatsApp was developing editorial tools to make its service manageable for news groups using the service to broadcast updates to users. I had heard rumours, but nothing firm. After the webinar, I did a quick search, and I found a Reuters report in early March that said that WhatsApp was trialling tools for businesses, and had launched a pilot with Y Combinator. Neither WhatsApp nor Y Combinator confirmed the trial, but one of Y Combinator’s companies provided details.
However, this trial was couched in terms of WhatsApp going in search of a business model, rather than helping news organisations. (I was in Asia in March, and Chinese messaging platform WeChat does have editorial tools. It’s really worth looking at what the Chinese messaging and weibo, Twitter-esque platforms, are doing. They have developed a far richer experience than Twitter or WhatsApp.) In the end, WhatsApp’s trial seems much more focused on helping businesses connect with their customers, rather than serving the needs of editorial organisations. Moreover, as a paid service, it doesn’t really address one of Nyt’s primary issues with WhatsApp: they couldn’t drive users from WhatsApp to their site, felt unsure about advertising on the platform, and so couldn’t really monetise that attention.
Moreover, Facebook, WhatsApp’s owner, seems much more focused on Messenger as a platform for editorial organisations. I do wonder how long Facebook will see value in having two messaging platforms.
Strategic insights beyond the report
Apart from the webinar, my good friend Damian Radcliffe summarised not only some questions he asked me about the report but also comments that I made to The Media Briefing in a podcast last month.
I’ll highlight some of the top level observations from Damian. What really struck me in the research for the report is that media companies are starting to embrace product thinking. Bar one of the examples, every case study in the report highlighted a strategic challenge or opportunity as the basis for these projects.
I want to emphasise a point that Damian highlighted from my conversation with Chris Sutcliffe and Esther Kezia of The Media Briefing for the podcast: Innovation requires rationalisation. The most successful media groups I work with are working hard to figure out what they do and, just as importantly, what they stop doing. Focus is critical to successful execution. I told Chris and Esther:
Often the resources of an organisation are fully committed, and this is especially true for news organisations going through cuts. To free up resources for innovation, those groups must figure out what they stop doing.
Quartz exemplifies this. Last year, they decided to quit producing a high-end tech conference, not because it wasn’t successful but because it wasn’t successful enough. They are a start-up operating as part of a legacy media company, Atlantic Media, and as a start-up, they are focused on their highest growth areas. This is a critical lesson for media companies. They have to focus on areas where they can find growth, and they need to be fully focused on those areas.
If you haven’t read it already, you can download the report from the Reuters Institute. And if you have any questions including enquiries about speaking opportunities or consulting engagements, feel free to get in touch in the comments below, or via Twitter, LinkedIn or email.