What's on the Horizon?
Predictions are always prone to inevitable ridicule and failure, but there are some we think are worth making.
The functionality of the platforms will mature
A consistent complaint from many of the news organizations that emerged during the research phase of this report was the lack of in-depth analytics and insights messaging platforms offer. As more have entered this space, the chorus of common requests to these companies has risen: how can we measure reach, time spent on individual items of content, plays of audio and video files, clicks on links, open rates, and the most popular content?
While a number of chat apps have their own Content Management Systems, they are still quite basic and lack many features that make it easy to create engaging content for the platform. Some, like WeChat and Telegram, have good APIs, but others, like LINE, Viber, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, don't. This makes it currently difficult for centralized social media publishing tools to incorporate chat apps into their systems.
Having spoken to many of the messaging companies, we know they are working on improving these audience measurements and are thinking pointedly about what do with their APIs. The ones that move the fastest on these are likely to see the most investment in time and attention from publishers.
New ways of telling stories on mobile will emerge
As Samantha Barry of CNN told us, messaging platforms are driving news organizations to think about new ways for creating content. It's fair to say that Snapchat Discover has given rocket boosters to the rise of vertical video—it is now a clear and present danger for any news organization that isn't developing in-house capability and experience working with the format, regardless of whether it's on Snapchat or not.
Apps like Yo, which allows users to send a simple “Yo” message with an accompanying sound to their friends (and nothing more), may appear fairly pointless at first glance. However, the application has a wide range of official brand accounts, which are able to send links and images to subscribers. As a result, Yo is actually proving to be a valuable tool for news organizations' increased understanding of the power of push notifications. The platform asks official accounts authors to think very carefully about the user's expectation when receiving a Yo alert from a brand at a particular time of day.
Similarly, the rise of emojis and stickers is allowing news organizations to engage with audiences in more informal—and perhaps meaningful—ways.
Following its various forays into chat apps, there is an informal “Emoji Think Tank” already in existence at the BBC, where ideas for integrating emojis, cartoons, and illustrations both onsite and offsite are part of regular discussion (these conversations can be viewed via the Twitter hashtag #emojithinktank).
How long will the use of emojis and stickers remain off-site activities? Could we start seeing the first integrations of them into news apps? The BuzzFeed News App has clearly already heeded some lessons from messaging platforms in this regard.
More innovative functionality on chat apps is coming, and with it will emerge opportunities for creating new ways of telling stories.
The growing importance of security, circumvention, and data restrictions
As government snooping, personal privacy, and security become issues for many people globally, those living in countries where these are particular concerns will increasingly look for platforms that enable them to both communicate securely and receive accurate information, unfiltered by government censors.
Telegram is likely to become a major player in this space, combining its promise for greater security with a great set of production tools and open APIs.
Another company that should make great strides here is Open Garden, which created FireChat. Less than two years old, the platform grabbed headlines during the Hong Kong protests of 2014 as hundreds of thousands of people downloaded the app to bypass the state shut down of mobile networks and social media sites.
FireChat uses the Bluetooth connectivity and radio aerials on feature phones and smartphones to create a “mesh” network of people in the same area. Opposite to mobile networks, the FireChat network gets stronger and more resilient as more people join it. FireChat founder Micha Benoliel told us that it would take only 5 percent of a city's population on the app to create a complete network across the city—one that operates completely off-grid, independent of mobile or data networks.
The potential of such technology to combat state-sanctioned blocks on networks, or failures during emergencies and natural disasters, is obvious. FireChat has now moved beyond its proof-of-concept phase and started serious development around its infrastructure and functionality. It recently announced private direct messaging, a feature that many people requested as previously all posts were publicly viewable.
Anonymity and privacy aren't just concerns for people living in countries where government monitoring is a known issue. They are equally significant factors that are attracting millennial users to similar messaging platforms in the West. Yik Yak is one app that has risen quickly in popularity on and around university campuses, as it uses anonymous messaging technology based on location similar to FireChat's. Political journalists reporting from presidential-candidate stump speeches on university campuses have already found monitoring its backchannel of conversation and opinion quite useful. Most recently, Yik Yak collaborated with a news organization for the first time, as it worked with BBC News to crowdsource opinions from Canadian users on the country's recent general election campaign.34
Jott is an app that is equally gaining wide adoption among junior high and high schoolers in the United States. Again, using technology similar to Firechat, the application lets users chat with each other by using the Bluetooth function of their phones to connect—eliminating the need for data or text messaging plans. We expect both Yik Yak and Jott to continue to grow quickly; both are platforms news organizations wishing to better understand younger audiences should watch.
The emergence of regionalized and local messaging-app ecosystems
While many of the apps we've covered in this report have significant coverage globally, or among specific regions and demographics, yet another breed of chat apps is emerging.
Hike is an app you've probably never heard of, but it's already second only to WhatsApp in the chat sphere in India. It is one of an increasing number of messaging platforms that are entirely focused on growing in their home markets. While Hike is aware that it won't likely overtake a giant like WhatsApp in India, the platform has recognized that there is still plenty of room to grow into second place by rapidly iterating its service based on local users' needs and cultural identities.
Zalo is an app that is currently huge in Vietnam. Similar to Hike, it has shaped itself around the cultural interests and requirements of people in the country, offering a more tailored experience that has prompted millions of natives to add it to their phones.
There is evidence of similar growth within the localized app market in Africa and South America. These will be important platforms to watch as news organizations seek to gain global audiences.
The giants are coming
We haven't covered Facebook Messenger or Skype in this report. That's because neither platform has developed serious capabilities for news organizations to reach audiences and distribute content. We expect this to change, though—and when it does, both could became major (maybe even dominant) players in a very short time.
As a standalone app, Facebook Messenger has been around for just under two years. Already, it has 700 million active users. Though many were forced into downloading the app as it spun out from the main Facebook platform, by some measures it could be described as the fastest-adopted technology in history. In March of 2015, Facebook Messenger released its API.35 It is now possible for developers to build services inside the app, creating mini-apps for download inside Messenger. Facebook's strategy with Messenger seems to mimic some of the Asian chat apps with similar functionality: It already has stickers, games are coming, and one of its primary goals is to develop business and commerce capabilities. While Facebook hasn't announced any plans for opening Messenger to news publishers, it may not be long before use cases emerge, complementing traditional brand page accounts on the main social media platform.
Skype, along with BlackBerry Messenger, is in many ways the grandparent of messaging. However, while other chat platforms grew rapidly and attracted lots of interest from publishers, Skype has largely remained an onlooker—until now. From conversations we had with some publishers and those working with the company, we believe this will change. If Skype can develop a means for news organizations to grow audiences inside the platform, distribute content to them, and interact, this could represent one of the most significant shifts in this space.
We have already covered WhatsApp in this report, but it holds the keys to another game changer, should it wish to use them: launching its own API. We know of several vendors that currently pull an unofficial API from WhatsApp and offer a custom CMS that allows for pushing WhatsApp messages to users. However, these all break WhatsApp's Terms of Service, and news organizations that use them run the risk of having their accounts disabled—as we know has already happened in a couple of cases. An official WhatsApp API release could spawn an entirely new industry of startups, in much the same way that the release of Twitter's API did. Except this time, it could be even bigger, given WhatsApp's near-billion account user base.
The robots are coming, too
While no news organization has leveraged robust artificial intelligence to power a messaging app experience, there are strong indications that A.I. will grow in force and ubiquity across chat apps. In particular, Microsoft designed a text-based chatbot nicknamed Xiaoice in China that many describe as a real-life version of Spike Jones's popular film Her (in which the lead character literally falls in love with his operating system).
The Xaioice program uses machine learning—scouring the Chinese Internet to study how humans converse so it's constantly improving its skills—and can remember personal anecdotes users share. For example, Xiaoice may ask if you're feeling better about a breakup you mentioned in a previous conversation with her (yes, the chatbot has a gender).
Users in China can access the experience on WeChat (Weixin in China), as well as through other sites like microblogging service Weibo. According to Microsoft, Xiaoice now has over 20 million registered users, with the average user talking to her more than 60 times per month.36
Other companies like IBM, a pioneer in machine learning that introduced the Watson system, may also be poised to play a role in the messaging landscape if demand for A.I.-powered chat grows. Facebook, too, recently launched a beta of a personal chatbot assistant named M, which is powered by a combination of A.I. and humans working behind the scenes. M can book reservations for you, buy products online, and retrieve information you need—all through a chat interface. When one considers that publishers like The Washington Post are already deploying simple chatbots on apps like Kik, why wouldn't they deploy advanced bots, equipped with machine learning, when the technology is widely available?
Messaging will become like electricity
While messaging is currently a clearly defined function of specific apps, the future is likely to be one wherein the capability is baked-in to nearly all digital technologies and services. The point where a messaging app begins and ends will begin to blur. Already, app classification is getting trickier, especially as social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn update their in-app messaging capabilities, moving them closer to chat app experiences.
There are two possible futures as messaging becomes more like electricity, running through everything we use. One future would see something like the implementation of WeChat in China—wherein people get pretty much everything they require from a chat app and rarely need to use the Internet—spread further afield. The second, alternative future is one wherein messaging technology becomes so diffused across all digital services that chat apps as separate entities are no longer necessary.
Depending on how it develops strategically, WhatsApp is currently best placed to become the electricity of the messaging universe, if it decides that opening its API is the right way to go.
As we conclude this report with the above future-gazing, there is one consideration in which we have huge confidence. Regardless of which messaging platforms rise or fall in the coming years, our messaging behavior in now deeply and culturally ingrained on a global level. We may use different apps in slightly different ways, but huge numbers of people are completely at ease with instant communication on their mobile phones, whether by text, images, voice, or video. So much so, in fact, that the behavior could be described as more firmly entrenched today than TV found itself during its golden age—after all, mobile phones are far more personal and they're with us everywhere we go.
That being said, news organizations that are able to understand mobile technologies and develop strategic plans for how to use them are the ones that will be the most relevant and able to service the audiences of the future.