Will chat apps boost BBC audiences?

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As growth rates for Facebook and Twitter slow down, are instant messaging apps the next big thing for reaching audiences?

Last week, the BBC launched a pilot on WhatsApp and WeChat in India, just in time for the general election - thus enabling subscribers to receive news alerts on their smartphones.

BBC Hausa also introduced a pilot on BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) in Nigeria, which has nearly 130 million active mobile subscribers from a population of 170m.

Trushar Barot, from the BBC's UGC and social media hub, says the aim is to explore the potential of instant messaging platforms - or chat apps - in reaching more people, "particularly as BBC Global News have got the very big target of doubling their audiences [to 500m] by 2022".

Chat app growth

However the pilots' roots are closer to home, stemming from the summer riots that spread across England in 2011.

"One of the things that put us slightly on the back foot was discovering that a lot of content was first appearing on BBM, and was particularly being shared by teenagers," explains Barot.

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"Since then we've been much more aware of the potential of chat apps, which are increasingly morphing from a simple text messaging platform to a place where a lot of people are sharing a lot more detail about their lives."

While monthly active users (MAU) for Facebook have grown to 1.23 billion, their expansion rate is falling.

Likewise with Twitter, where MAUs have risen to 241m, albeit after a significant drop in growth rate.

In contrast, usage of some chat apps appears to be accelerating.

WhatsApp has become the most popular instant messaging app in the world, with more than 450m MAUs reportedly using the service. Its rival WeChat, along with its Chinese version Weixin, more than doubled its combined MAU last year to 355m.

"These apps are made for mobile phones, so there's a much greater immediacy in terms of all the information that's shared, compared to more traditional social media like Facebook and Twitter, where people won't necessarily see everything that's posted," says Barot.

"If you're sending something as an instant message then you know that they're definitely going to receive it on their phone, and will probably read it fairly instantly."

Cheaper to use

Some chat apps are also easier to use than social media, he adds, and actually reach a wider demographic. In other words, it's not just the younger generation and tech-savvy early adopters that sign up.

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We seem to be the first main broadcaster testing any of these apps”

End Quote Trushar Barot Assistant editor

"A lot of people in poorer parts of the world are using WhatsApp because it's much cheaper than text messages."

Normally based in London, Barot has recently been working at the Delhi bureau where one colleague revealed how a relative, who couldn't read or write, was using the app to receive photo updates of his farm animals while he was away in the city.

Some people also feel more comfortable with chat apps because of their comparative privacy, where they can contact friends, family or colleagues in closed groups.

It's inside those groups that the BBC hopes its output will be shared and possibly go viral.

Subscribers can also send content more easily to the BBC via chat apps, which can then be used across news outlets.

"It's very difficult to send a file to the BBC News account on Facebook or Twitter. It's very fiddly and complicated for users, which acts as quite a high barrier," explains Barot.

UK potential

Hundreds of people signed up for the Indian and Nigerian pilots on launch day, which was more than expected. Barot reckons this will increase to the thousands soon, resulting in a test base where the BBC can learn about audience reaction and how to resource the new services.

A group of four women check their smart phones Mobiles have increasing pulling power

Subscribers will receive up to three BBC news alerts daily, each with a maximum of eight shareable story links.

The service for the Indian market will be more text-based as users don't have large data allowances.

However the BBC will soon roll out pilots to other countries with larger data scope, where it can send more video and audio clips.

Barot also says that BBC News could launch a UK account before next year's general election, alongside an international-facing version.

"We're in the unusual situation where we seem to be the first main broadcaster testing any of these apps," he says.

"Part of the reason why instant messaging companies are keen to work with us is that they're curious about the impact of a news organisation using their apps in this way."

Prepare yourselves, chat apps could prove to be a game-changer.

  • Read Trushar Barot's blog here

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