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“The tide is turning on Facebook as a news platform”: How publishers are using messaging apps to engage readers

The use of messaging apps for news has been growing steadily over the past few years. Reuters Institute has noted this trend in its annual reports for 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Antonis Kalogeropoulos, Research Fellow, Reuters Institute writes in the latest report, “Our own research shows that people are spending less time with relatively open networks like Facebook and more time with more private messaging applications like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, and Telegram. They are also using them more heavily for news.”

The tide is turning on Facebook as a news platform because its phenomenal success as a social network has made it less conducive to discussing and sharing news. People are being pushed to the safety of messaging apps by the combination of privacy fears, exposure risk, content clutter and declining relevance. 

News in Social Media and Messaging Apps (Reuters Institute and Kantar Media, September 2018)

According to eMarketer, the number of mobile phone messaging apps users is set to reach 2.48B by 2021.

What’s more, the growth is being driven by the younger generation, as one can see from Reuters’ latest findings. It appears that the future of news distribution and user engagement may, to a notable degree, rely on these apps.

Clearly, messaging apps are where social media is going next, and we and other publishers need to figure them out.

Tom Standage, Deputy Editor, The Economist

Telegram, the privacy-focused messaging app

Earlier, we covered how publishers are using messaging apps like WhatsApp and Viber to engage with their audiences. Today we look at how journalists are using the messaging app Telegram. Big-name publishers on Telegram include The Washington Post and The New York Times

The Washington Post on Telegram

The Reuters’ report notes, “As groups have become more relevant, journalists have started to use them for sourcing and distributing stories. In authoritarian countries – where the traditional news media are often tightly controlled – journalists have used private groups in messaging apps to spread news about protests to key influencers.”

This is happening right now in Hong Kong where protest against a controversial extradition law has grown into a civil disobedience campaign. Over 2 million people have taken to the streets to express their opposition to the law. 

Telegram is being used in this movement to disseminate information and coordinate activities. Yahoo Finance reports that protest organizers use the encrypted messaging available within Telegram to share sensitive information and evade the increasingly sophisticated surveillance of Beijing backed authorities. According to analytics platform AppAnnie, Telegram was the most downloaded app in Hong Kong last month. 

“We need to cover this audience”

In Ukraine, journalists are using Telegram to create public news channels. According to global market research and market information group Kantar, nearly half of Telegram’s Ukrainian audience is under the age of 25, and many of them don’t watch television or listen to radio news. 

The purposes of using the messenger app have changed. While last year it was used mainly for communication with friends, now it is also used for file sharing and news reading. 

Marina Kostromina, Kantar Ukraine’s Account Director 

Telegram allows sharing of files that are up to 1.5GB in size, making it possible for news publishers to share long and high-resolution videos.

Ukrainian news channels on Telegram

Fedir Popadyuk who created the Telegram channel of Ukrains’ka Pravda, a popular Ukrainian online newspaper in 2017 told journalist Tanya Gordiienko, “I thought, ‘There is a platform, and there are people interested in it. We need to cover this audience.’” 

We had an understanding that Telegram is quite effective as a medium. If you post something on Facebook, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will see your message. With Telegram, you can really reach the entire audience of the channel.

Tetyana Nikolayenko, Co-creator of popular Ukrainian Telegram channel The Newsroom

Ivan Oberemko, who runs a popular Telegram channel in Ukraine comments, “For the reader, it’s a convenient platform — not overloaded with content, but also with offline access.”

He adds, “And Telegram provides very high conversion rates for audience responses, conversion from views to page visits, views in real life.” 

Where Telegram scores over WhatsApp, the dominant player in this space, is in allowing unlimited subscribers for its ‘channels.’ These are tools to send messages to a large number of people at once. WhatsApp, in contrast, limits the number of members in a channel to 256. This makes distributing news on WhatsApp a tedious process for publishers with large number of followers as they have to create and maintain multiple channels. Additionally, Telegram has a view counter for posts, a feature not available on WhatsApp.

Telegram is also being seen as reliable when it comes to protecting users’ privacy. According to The New York Times it was pitched by its founders as a champion of privacy. Last year, the company refused to give in to the Russian government’s demand to access users’ encrypted messages, leading to a ban on the app. Telegram founder Pavel Durov said, “Threats to block Telegram unless it gives up private data of its users will not bear fruit. Telegram will stand for freedom and privacy.” 

This is a message that’s likely going to resonate with users at a time when Facebook is facing severe public backlash over privacy issues. And users’ trust issues with Facebook may spill over to WhatsApp. In fact, when Facebook acquired WhatsApp, Telegram attracted millions of new users. The following tweet was posted by Telegram a few days after WhatsApp’s acquisition. 

Recently, The Quint, a popular Indian publisher on WhatsApp, announced it’s moving to Telegram citing WhatsApp’s policy changes (The Quint did not clarify) towards news publishers. 

Facebook’s policy changes have hurt publishers earlier. While The Quint has not shared details, unfavorable policies are likely to make other publishers wary, and motivate them to move to more supportive apps.

Further, with its pivot to privacy and increasing focus on messaging apps, there is uncertainty about Facebook’s strategy for Messenger and WhatsApp, and how that’s going to affect publishers. 

In this environment, Telegram appears to be a strong alternative for publishers experimenting with messaging apps to engage users. Its emphasis on privacy and features like unlimited subscribers, large file sharing and post views serve both readers and publishers. 

And while it’s smaller compared to WhatsApp and Messenger, Telegram has seen steady growth since 2014, the year Facebook acquired WhatsApp. 

Download WNIP’s comprehensive new report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.

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