WhatsApp: The No-Frills Messaging App

Audience: 900 million monthly, active users

Top Markets: India, South Africa, Malaysia, Spain, Mexico

Demographics: Broad age range, not limited to those aged 16–34

Key Features: Free messaging for the first year, then an annual subscription of $1; free WhatsApp calls; WhatsApp web interface; voice memos, as well as audio, image, and video files; groups and broadcast lists.

In early September of 2015, co-founder of WhatsApp Jan Koum announced that the company had passed the 900 million mark for monthly, active users.15

The platform is likely to break the one billion active users mark by the end of 2015 or soon afterward.

While it may not be the dominant chat app in the United States, WhatsApp rules across many parts of the world as the number one downloaded app of any kind (let alone chat app). One of the key reasons for its dramatic, global uptake is the free alternative it provides to expensive SMS charges that exist in many parts of the world. In addition to text messages, it can also facilitate voice memos, images, and video clips—and, most recently, Internet calls.

Another big factor in its huge, global success is the simplicity of the app itself. Once downloaded, it scans a user's address book and immediately lets him or her communicate with any personal contacts already on WhatsApp. It doesn't require the creation of a username or password—an impediment which remains a significant barrier to entry for many people in emerging markets when it comes to other apps and social media platforms.

While many instant messaging platforms tend to skew toward a younger demographic of users, Whatsapp has a much broader appeal globally.

BBC News Using WhatsApp for Newsgathering

BBC News was the first to experiment with editorial content on WhatsApp in 2014, most notably with its Ebola WhatsApp “lifeline” information service targeting those in West Africa.16

However, WhatsApp is not engineered to work efficiently as a mass-push distribution service, and much of BBC News's more recent strategy on the platform has focused on audience engagement through user-generated content and newsgathering.

Early in 2015, the UGC and Social Media Hub, situated in the heart of the BBC's global newsroom, set up a central WhatsApp number and encouraged news audiences across online, TV, and radio to use it as a means to share their content with the newsroom.17

Soon after launching the account, it quickly proved its value: “For us, WhatsApp has proved a key way to get in touch with people in areas where other forms of communication just don't work, so it was naturally the source we turned to following the earthquakes in Nepal,” said Natalie Miller, a senior journalist at the UGC Hub.

Miller explained why WhatsApp became the primary communication tool for many in Nepal at the time of the earthquake:

Phone lines were down in the affected areas and we can be waiting a long time for an email to be received and answered, whereas WhatsApp is quick and allows people to share their views, pictures, and videos with us all via the same channel. In some cases WhatsApp allows us to speak to people who just don't feel safe talking on the phone.

Miller also explained that directly verifying content when people submit it is a much quicker process inside WhatsApp—as all inbound communication comes with a mobile number attached to it. “On other social media channels, it can take some time for us to message people and get a response,” she said. “With WhatsApp it's often instant as they see our message popping up immediately on their phone. If we need to follow up with a call, we have their mobile number and so this speeds up the process considerably.”

The launch of WhatsApp Web,18 which allows the app on a user's phone to pair with a computer screen, has helped the UGC Hub manage incoming content much more effectively, too. Miller recommended using an Android handset, as it is easier to transfer the media content coming in via the subfolder menus on the Android platform via a USB cable onto a computer; iPhones don't have the same ability. “We normally assign one of our producers each day to manage the WhatsApp account in addition to their other duties. The web interface means they can keep an eye on any incoming content, respond to any messages, and also continue to do other work on their computers,” Miller added.

“In the case of the second earthquake in Nepal, we received almost 50 WhatsApp messages, including pictures and videos from within the country and dozens more from elsewhere talking about the quake,” she said. “It became the main source of content for the live news blog on the BBC News website that day.”

The team also produced a separate story on the website detailing the experiences of those affected on the ground.19

The potential for using WhatsApp is clearly significant for the BBC. In addition to the UCG Hub, a number of its news programs have set up their own accounts to solicit audience opinion and contributions. Several of its language services also use WhatsApp to source material around major stories. However, this broad type of use remains relatively limited among other news organizations—particularly those with global audiences—and is likely to be an area of increasing focus in the coming months.

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