Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
9 mins read

The publishers’ guide to WhatsApp (or, How to circumvent traditional channels and reach consumers directly)

While weekly use of Facebook has more or less held steady over the past five years, there has been a marked increase in those using networks like Messenger, Instagram, and yes – WhatsApp.

According to the good folk at Reuters, WhatsApp in particular is now being used by almost half of us on a weekly basis, and 16% use it for news.

Partly this may just be basic common sense and statistics (Facebook’s user base must surely be at or near its threshold) but the enthusiastic uptake of closed messenger services points to something else: they enable the user to conduct conversations and interactions behind a digital curtain of sorts.

Perhaps it’s the public-facing aspect of Facebook and Twitter that people are starting to move away from? But what about that other figure we snuck in? What about the way messenger services are being used to share news?

What’s that? WhatsApp for publishing?

If you’re based in Northern Europe, the US or Australia, this may surprise you. Chances are, your WhatsApp use is reserved purely for social purposes. And – to be fair – for most users, most of the time, this is true. 

But there are countries where WhatsApp is being used much more commonly to distribute and read news. In Brazil, 53% of users reported using the app to get news over a week long period. Similar figures have been reported elsewhere: 50% in Malaysia, 49% in South Africa, and 41% in Hong Kong. Compare that to 9% in the UK and 4% in the US, and it’s clear that there’s a big difference in user behavior – and that’s worth spending a little time pondering.

There’s also the question of who people are conversing with via WhatsApp. In Brazil, for example, 58% of users use group to interact in some way with people they don’t know. These might take the form of special-interest groups, ones dedicated to following politics, sports etc. Again, in contrast, the UK only sees 12% of its users prepared to do this.

These two things introduce the problem that’s facing publishers: because these networks are private, we don’t necessarily know what’s going on in them. They have, as IJ Net’s Sergio Spagnuolo so eloquently puts it “become a black box of unverified content”. But given the rates of usage in certain countries, this isn’t something for publishers to ignore.

The wilderness of dark social

Although the name implies something that’s more fitting for an episode of The WitcherDark Social is simply content that’s shared through private messaging channels and that therefore can’t be tracked. 

That said, it’s something we need to be taking more seriously.

It’s true that publishers saw that there was potential years ago: the Huffington Post was experimenting with sending out news alerts via WhatsApp (and expressing their frustrations with it) way back in 2015.

Even back in 2016, FIPP and Statista published the following:

So that’s 84% of content that’s being shared via private channels – via emails, messaging apps and the like. It’s probably not that surprising: most of us share articles we read with friends or family privately rather than publicly.

What’s the problem, then?

Well, the latest LOL-worthy article you shared with your favorite aunt via WhatsApp may be one thing, but when it comes to information and more importantly misinformation being shared through these channels, not being able to trace their origin is troublesome. It’s both not knowing what issues people deem worthy of their time and conversation, and what articles and content they’re reading to satiate that thirst.

We talk about engagement a lot here and one of the tenets of this approach to journalism is being part of (or at least privy to) the conversations your readers are having. Not so you can pander to them, but so that you know how to fill in the blanks, present information in ways likely to involve and engage the reader, to cover the stories readers want covering, and answer the questions they need answering. If all that feedback is happening behind a closed door, we’re none the wiser.

The fact that WhatsApp activity seems to be particularly prevalent in countries or areas where there is mistrust in media or public institutions is both revealing and deeply troubling. It tells us that people still need access to information, that – for whatever reason – they don’t trust the traditional means of procuring it, but also that they’re vulnerable to misinformation masquerading as truth, presented with the due diligence that comes with traditional journalistic protocols.

Back to the Reuters Report we started off with, and there’s a note that WhatsApp seems to flourish in countries where traditional infrastructures are perceived as being corrupted (or corruptible), unstable or generally more distrusted. 

Examples from high-use countries (Brazil, India, Indonesia)

Newsrooms are starting to get WhatsApp savvy, so let’s take a moment to look at some examples from three countries who exhibit higher-than-the-Western average rates of usage.

Brazil: retreat to closed groups = lack of trust in mainstream news

Social media played an enormous part in the 2018 Presidential election in Brazil. It’s estimated that around a million groups (and open groups at that) were created to promote its various candidates. It’s telling that Bolsonaro had only 8 seconds of conventional TV ad spots during the first round, such was the power of this approach to campaigning. 

Misinformation helped fuel the election campaign of Jair Bolsonaro, and it’s hard to put it better than Huffington Post’s David Nemer who said:

“Facebook famously helped bolster Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 by serving as a force multiplier for wild rumors… But in Brazil… there was a different culprit (with the same corporate parent): WhatsApp”

Fake news certainly abounded. One of the country’s main newspapers – Folha de S. Paolo – published a story about the campaign to bombard WhatsApp users with defamatory stories about ones of Bolsonaro’s main opponents. The day after publication, WhatsApp revealed it had suspended 10,000 accounts while trying to bring the situation under control.

These newsroom-driven exposes, while delivering the necessary information to the populace, in fact fueled a feeling of mistrustfulness against the media in general. Trust in media, according to our friends again at Reuters, dropped 11% in the year after the election. Clearly once the seed of doubt is sown, the tendency appears to be for readers to retreat into closed groups.

The penetration of WhatsApp into Brazil is significant. Over half of the country use it, and – as Nemer says – it’s not just to send GIFs to bored coworkers: there they use it for everything.

The key takeaway from the role social media – and particular messaging apps – played during the election was that it forced a change in the way news operated. Journalists and newsrooms needed to change tack and meet readers where they are at, lest they risk losing them altogether.

India: WhatsApp-specific outlets boost subscriptions and revenue

India also had a general election in which WhatsApp played a significant part. 

Quintillion Media – a joint venture between Bloomberg and Quint (an Indian digital content company) – launched a WhatsApp-based news service two years ago, which now boasts 400,000 monthly subscribers. Quoted in an article on What’s News in Publishing, Head of Content, Ankit Dhadda identified an advantage of this approach thus:

“WhatsApp also allows publishers to create and maintain a loyalty base for their brands… without the challenge of having to compete with multiple publishers, such as on search engines and social media.”

Being able to circumvent traditional means of broadcast (company websites) and third party aggregators and platforms (Facebook, Google etc) is interesting. Dhadda highlights the monetary advantages for publishers – they’re a good prospect for advertisers – and in the face of Facebook’s algorithm changes this is clearly advantageous. More than 80% of its subscribers reportedly came via the WhatsApp experience. 

If subscriptions are triggered by loyalty and trust, then the experience at Quintillion suggests that Indian users place a high level of trust in WhatsApp as delivery system. That’s interesting.

Indonesia (IDN Times)

Indonesia faced a clamp down on social media last spring, following a period of political turmoil in the country. Then, users reported difficulties in sending messages containing multimedia content. Authorities there blamed the spread of fake and incendiary content as being the reason for the crackdown.

WhatsApp is one of the most widely used messaging apps there (second only to YouTube), and at IDN Times, they’re well aware that harnessing the power is something worth spending time over.

Novita Santoso, the Head of Audience Development at the publisher tells us that they’re keen to harness the potential social messaging has to offer: “As WhatsApp users ourselves, we can see that the trend in news circulation via WhatsApp is on the up”. 

She identifies three main usages of the app:  

  1. For public sharing (where users share content that everyone in their network can see)
  2. Closed environment sharing (where they only share to a certain group of people)
  3. Individual sharing (where content is shared with a single individual)

While publishers seem unlikely to break into all of these user needs, they are keen to explore whether they can “crack” WhatsApp as a distribution channel by creating regional WhatsApp groups for their users so they can best serve their local audiences with local, optimally relevant content. It’s a work in progress, but it’s worth the effort: Santoso reports that users stayed three times as long with content delivered this way.

So how do they do this, and how do they track it? Well, simply by enabling WhatsApp sharing from the website and tracking it using a UTM tracker. 

Most significantly this endeavor is motivated by the understanding of what their readers believe to be trustworthy. Here’s Novita again: “With what happened during the presidential campaign in Indonesia, we all see that a lot of people are more likely to believe the accuracy of information they get via WhatsApp”. 

They understand that their readers, in their locales, have changed the way they consume information. Clearly it pays to maintain a flexible approach to news coverage.

“What’s really appealing to me, is how [WhatsApp] can deliver relevant content to relevant users through their community”.

So, how can publishers use WhatsApp?

There are so many things to take away from this, so let’s simplify.

The first is that WhatsApp may not be the solution to news distribution in your country. For the countries where publishers are successfully utilizing WhatsApp, there are mitigating factors that make it advantageous to do so. So, know your climate. 

Next, is the fact that dark social – for now at least – continues to present a problem. It’s a problem of access: if you are granted access to a group, only then can you begin to see what’s going on within it. What publishers do have control over are those opportunities that Novita identified: the groups and local interest discussions where people are receptive to receiving updates.

Linked to this is the fact that these groups operate on an invitation basis. As the example from Tow Institute shows us, getting insights and access suggests that as publishers may need to act as observer, rather than active participant in those circumstances and take it as a learning opportunity. 

But the biggest take away here is this: WhatsApp appears to do well in countries that exhibit both high mistrust levels against the media, highly centralized or authoritarian political structures and/or a population that have gone online via mobile. Brazil, India are natural examples of these factors, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria also belong here too.

The underlying appeal of social messaging is that there’s a personal connection – whether real or perceived. If you’re in a group with your community peers and leaders it’s at once a more relatable, more immediate experience. Users have created groups in which they feel able to share and comment – behavior clearly shared by newsrooms. 

At the heart of this is the issue of trust. Even if WhatsApp isn’t a tool being used for distribution in your newsroom, the lessons from countries where it most assuredly is are clear: foster an environment in which users feel comfortable exchanging ideas. Listen. Contribute. Question. We must be responsive to readers. Not dictated by them. We shouldn’t pander to them. WhatsApp gives readers a voice. It’s time we listened. 

So, as a new decade begins, it will be interesting to watch and see how this channel of communication evolves – and how newsrooms find their place in it. 

by Em Kuntze

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.