Executive Summary

Messaging apps now have more global users than traditional social networks—which means they will play an increasingly important role in the distribution of digital journalism in the future. While chat platforms initially rose to prominence by offering a low-cost, web-based alternative to SMS, over time they evolved into multimedia hubs that support photos, videos, games, payments, and more.

While many news organizations don't yet use messaging apps, digitally savvy outlets like BuzzFeed, Mashable, The Huffington Post, and VICE have accompanied a more traditional player in BBC News by establishing a presence on a number of these platforms.

To complement our research, we interviewed leadership at multiple news outlets and chat platforms, thereby synthesizing key lessons and presenting notable case studies reflecting the variety of creative and strategic work taking place within the messaging space. Most publisher efforts around messaging apps are still in a formative, experimental stage, but even those have often proven effective in diversifying traffic sources for digital content.

Drawing upon our interviews and case studies, we identify a number of opportunities and challenges for organizations using—or hoping to use—messaging apps for news. We argue that to devise a successful messaging app strategy, publishers must understand regional strongholds, user demographics, and popular features of each app. Advantages to the chat ecosystem include huge, untapped audiences; high engagement through push notifications; unique products like stickers and “chatbots” (see glossary for definitions); and the opportunity to build community through chat rooms and crowdsourced storytelling. Meanwhile, challenges include limited analytics tools and a fragmented social landscape boasting roughly a dozen messaging apps, each with over 50 million registered users.

Our case studies illustrate a number of ways in which major news outlets have utilized various messaging apps, each with its own niche characteristics. In the past two years, many platforms—including Snapchat, Viber, Kik, LINE, WeChat, and Telegram—introduced official channels that publishers like CNN, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and Cliff Central now leverage for content distribution and user engagement. Other players, like WhatsApp, have no official offering for media owners, but this has not deterred organizations—most notably the BBC—from launching experimental campaigns.

Our research indicates that one of the greatest benefits of chat apps is the opportunity to use these platforms as live, sandbox environments. The chance to play and iterate has helped several news organizations develop mobile-first content and experiential offerings that would have proved difficult in other digital environments. As these services primarily—and in some cases exclusively—exist on mobile phones, editorial teams have learned to focus purely on the mobile experience, freeing themselves from considerations about how content will appear on desktop websites or other broadcast mediums.

As happened after the early days of social media, before which a proliferation of services (some with regional strengths) led to intense competition for user attention, we expect to see some eventual consolidation among chat apps. While Facebook Messenger and Skype do not garner much focus in this report, we believe they could become significant players in this space over the coming year as they figure out the right proposition for their platforms to partner with media organizations.

Elsewhere, we conclude that issues around information, privacy, personal security, and mobile data penetration will unfold in different ways around the world; apps like Telegram and FireChat are among those at the forefront of addressing and solving these problems. They, in conjunction with similar applications, are likely to see an increase in user uptake as they meet needs that other major chat apps are unable to serve.

In developing editorial strategies for some of these wide-ranging messaging platforms, news organizations are not just helping to future-proof themselves, they are also venturing into online spaces that could enable them to reach hundreds of millions of (often young) people with whom they have never engaged before.

Key Observations

The key findings of this report can be summarized as follows:

  • Messaging apps offer strong opportunities to engage new or difficult-to-reach demographics. For example, Snapchat, a very popular app among millennials, has been credited with engaging and informing young audiences on complex issues like the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Innovations such as bespoke (or customized) stickers and emojis can help news outlets quickly build significant audiences via messaging apps.

  • Messaging apps enable news outlets to gather (potentially exclusive) user-generated content and can become a major source during breaking news situations (e.g., as in the BBC's coverage of the second Nepal earthquake in 2015).

  • News outlets may need to experiment with a variety of chat apps to decipher which content type best suits the audiences of each app. BuzzFeed, for example, had considerably more success using LINE for soft news than for hard news.

  • Messaging apps can provide unique opportunities for giving audiences direct access to content and publishers, be it through tailormade WeChat platforms (Cliff Central) or Public Chats on Viber (The Huffington Post).

  • Messaging apps provide a space for news outlets to engage their audiences with different—possibly lighter—types of content (e.g., The Washington Post has used Kik to distribute games, quizzes, and chat adventures).

  • Even apps that are not as geared toward publishing as some of their competitors, such as WhatsApp, hold great potential for news outlets if used strategically.

  • Messaging apps not only facilitate communication with eyewitnesses in areas where other forms of communication aren't functioning (e.g., during extreme weather conditions), they can also provide a platform for people who don't feel safe speaking on the telephone. Additionally, apps such as Telegram focus strongly on encryption and security.

  • Messaging apps are not used solely to drive traffic to websites (e.g., BuzzFeed is using LINE as part of a more distributed strategy and aims to provide as much information as possible inside the app, rather than direct users to its website).

  • When sourcing user-generated content, apps like WhatsApp, which are tied to a user's phone number, can significantly speed up the verification process as they provide a direct line to the content creator/eyewitness.

  • Messaging apps are relatively new and evolving at a rapid pace. Consequently, many news outlets are still in the process of establishing strategies to best utilize these platforms.

  • There is emerging evidence that messaging apps may drive traffic back to outlets' other, more traditional platforms (e.g., CNN's Snapchat Discover drove people to seek out longer-form content on CNN's TV news channel).

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