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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Chat apps: The unlikeliest of news delivery channels

March 31, 2016 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller

Since its earliest days, the news has always been about stringing together sentences and paragraphs to tell stories for readers. Even in the Internet age when people lament over increasingly short attention spans and stories are being told ever more succinctly, the general approach has held — that is until, the idea of delivering news as text messages came along.

How is it possible, those of you who grew up pre-Internet might wonder, to deliver the news in a sentence or two? How concise can one get before rendering the exercise meaningless? The fact is that with some creativity, it is possible and even fun to receive the news in this fashion. The key is linking back to longer articles to give you depth if you want it. Otherwise you can just dip in and have a look whenever you have a moment (or within the flow of other conversations inside the chat application).

The fact is that venerable news organizations that are steeped in that pre-Internet past like the New York Times, Washington Post and The Economist are all experimenting with delivering news to a new generation of readers using chat apps, opening up new audiences in fresh markets who might have otherwise chosen to ignore their news brand altogether.

How chat became a channel
The idea of delivering news in a chat app is a matter of following the audience. This is particularly true in Asia where people are using chat apps for far more than chatting, says Eytan Oren, CEO of Block Party, a messaging app consultancy and co-author of a comprehensive Guide to Chat Apps report published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School.

“There are now more people using messaging apps than traditional social networks, so to a large extent it’s a matter of going where the audiences go. Chat app users are also a natural place for users to share and discuss news with friends and family, so publishers have the opportunity to facilitate and enhance those conversations,” Oren explained.

That’s precisely why The Economist went after this market, in spite of being well known for writing smart stories about world events, says community editor, Denise Law. “We concluded that chat apps are yet another effective distribution network through which to build our reach, particularly among new communities who may have never heard of The Economist,” she explained.

It’s also a way to diversify your audience and not become too dependent on a single social channel, particularly Facebook or Google.

“If you’re getting more than half of your traffic from one social networking site, you’re vulnerable to unexpected changes in that platform’s algorithm that can greatly impact your business. Chat apps are also a great place to connect with teens and millennials that may not spend as much time on traditional social networks,” Oren explained.

Quartz delivers the news via short, in-app messages.

Build or buy
Once publications decide to deliver news in a chat app, the next issue is whether you plug into an existing one and the audience that comes with it, or you build your own and control the message, branding and audience. The Economist decided to use the chat app LINE, rather than build its own because it’s expensive to build and maintain an app like this. It also offered the ability to build a branded page.

“LINE allows publishers to host content on a homepage, something that you can’t do on WhatsApp or Messenger. Users can visit your homepage, subscribe to your news alerts and receive both content posted to a timeline or via a push alert. We liked that you can publish content using two different distribution channels,” Law said.

Quartz, an Atlantic Monthly Media publication, born online decided to build its own and experiment within their own product, according to Zack Seward, VP of product and executive editor at Quartz. “We started by pursuing the idea that we could create notifications and built an app to do that. Then the question was, what goes inside the app? We tried a bunch of different ideas but eventually came back around to the simple idea that it’s all just messages,” Seward explained.

A work in progress
While chat apps provide a way for publications to diversify across multiple channels, it still lacks some basic analytics and audience measurement tools you get with Google, Facebook and Twitter. There are also many chat apps and it’s hard to know where to put your resources and attention. Even though The Economist is using LINE now, it’s exploring other options and plans to support additional apps in the near future.

For now, chat may seem like an unlikely news channel, but it offers a great way to reach people you might have otherwise missed. Just keep in mind it’s still in the experimental stage and plan accordingly.

Ron Miller (@ron_miller ) is a Freelance Technology Journalist and blogger. He is enterprise reporter at TechCrunch and a Contributing Editor at EContent Magazine.

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