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WhatsApp and Snapchat, the media’s latest El Dorado?

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For a year now, major media channels such as the BBC and the New York Times have been publishing news on instant messaging channels such as WhatsApp and Snapchat. Readers might find this incursion of content into their private space intrusive, but it represents a major traffic-generation strategy for the media. WhatsApp has no fewer than 800 million active users throughout the world, compared with 200 million active users for Snapchat.

To be able to publish its content on WhatsApp, a media outlet must first provide a call number. All the reader has to do is send a message to this number – via Whatsapp – to obtain the news published by that particular media channel on the platform. This approach involves more effort than a simple click on a ‘Follow us’ button on Facebook, as Barbara Chazelle points out in Méta-Media.

The BBC was the first media channel to use these platforms, particularly WhatsApp. In 2014, Trushar Barot, Mobile Editor for the BBC World Service, decided to use this application to cover the elections in India. At the same time, there was a spike in the number of people using WhatsApp, which was a sign of public interest in this type of coverage.

Subsequently, other media have followed in its steps. Readers have played their part too, and news sent via these platforms has even given rise to a record engagement level of between 15 and 20%. NRCQ, a Dutch business news site, has also seen a conversion rate of 15.5%, ‘a much higher rate than we could get by Facebook or LinkedIn!’ according to its chief editor, Freek Staps, when he spoke at the Digital Media Strategies forum.

As well as increasing engagement levels, these applications are becoming effective participation tools allowing readers to give their own opinions. Trushar Barot, Mobile Editor for the BBC World Service, made that particular point during a WAN-IFRA webinar. During various catastrophes, particularly the Ebola epidemic in Africa and the earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015, the BBC used WhatsApp to put together a database of subscribers present on the ground. Their participation was a genuine success, as 70% of subscribers were people directly affected by the catastrophe who were sharing news, photos and videos.

These applications create a form of direct communication between the media and the public. They enable an exchange of information, an instantaneous contribution by readers and, in return, create a warning service for the general public, as the spokeswoman for Snapchat has pointed out: ‘Discover is a platform for publishers to tell great stories.’

Just now, people are experimenting with the opportunities this offers – how much content to post each day? At what time? The media are still feeling their way, but their incursions into Snapchat et al. are well under way. During the US 2016 presidential elections, Snapchat may even become the leading communication tool of the campaign. In comparison with its competitors, this platform has the advantage that it is favoured by young people: Jill Hazelbaker of The Washington Post, notes that ‘more than 60 % of 18-34 year olds who have a smartphone in the United States are ‘Snapchatters’. So if candidates want to speak to a young electorate, this platform will be an essential tool. On 10 August, Hillary Clinton posted her first photo on Snapchat.

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