During this year’s general and local elections a collection of my Birmingham City University students used WhatsApp to publish regular updates throughout the two days of voting. Frankly… they nailed it. In the process they learned a lot, so I thought I’d share some of the things that came up throughout the process – as well as the experiences of the person responsible for the Mirror‘s political WhatsApp account in the week leading up to the election.
1. You’ll need a dedicated mobile phone or SIM
This may sound obvious but it’s worth setting out first: you need a phone. And you need to decide who’s responsible for that.
You have three options here: use someone’s phone; buy a new phone; or buy a new SIM card. There are pros and cons to all three:
- Using someone’s own phone: Pro: it’s with them at all times, important if they’re on the move. It’s also the cheapest option. Con: it means publishing your phone number
- Buy a new phone: Pro: can be passed from person to person if you need to take shifts. Con: the person responsible will have to carry two phones and could confuse them. It’s more expensive than the other options.
- Buy a new SIM. Pro: avoids the need for two phones; relatively cheap. Con: likely to be fiddly to switch SIMs when you need to broadcast (especially on new iPhones). Likely to miss subscription requests while not in your phone.
If you do use someone’s existing number then someone in the team needs to be happy for their number to be published.
You will also need to make sure that you set the profile picture to one which relates to the brand, not a picture of you!
2. Choose a broadcast list – or a group chat
Most people use WhatsApp to have group chats – but most news organisations don’t use this.
Instead they use WhatsApp’s Broadcast Message feature to publish updates. This is because it has particular advantages:
- Users cannot see each other’s details (particularly useful if you’re concerned about data protection issues)
- Users do not know how many other recipients there are (useful if, as is likely, you have small subscriber numbers and do not wish that to be obvious)
- Users are less likely to reply (useful if you don’t have the time to manage replies – although this can also be a disadvantage if you want interaction)
One exception is the Washington Post, who used the chat app to set up a group chat. This is because they actively wanted to invite input, rather than drive traffic, as the description makes clear:
“We have a lot of other questions, and we’re sure you have questions for one another, too … We hope that the election will serve as a backdrop to this conversation, but we also want to talk about your lives: What is it really like to be British in America? Has living in a foreign country changed the way you feel about home?”
[UPDATE: Here’s another example]
3. Write a draft signup page – and consider setting limits
You will need a page promoting the service and explaining how it works. Users will have to add you to their contacts and then send you a WhatsApp message, which isn’t as straightforward as following you on other platforms, so you need to sell the benefits.
They may have concerns about the quantity or focus of updates. As a result of these, WhatsApp channels I’ve seen tend to fall into two broad categories:
- Number-limited services (only the most important news)
- Time-limited services (more updates but only while an important event takes place)
Some publishers, for example, promise to only send a maximum of two updates every day: the most important stories of the day. This makes sense for a general news offering.
The Mirror’s Mike Wright, for example, explained to students that:
“We try to be selective with stories. We want them to be breaking, so the service keeps users up to date with the big politics events, or useful/insightful. We have had a steady growth sign-ups since we started about two months ago, which is encouraging. But it will be interesting to see how sign-ups go after the election.”
With a special event such as an election or protest, the offering is much more specific and users are likely to be more interested in that particular subject, so no limit may be necessary.
4. Prepare well
Before publishing the page inviting people to subscribe, test it with a small sample of people. And see how the messages look from their end. This is where you can spot problems like the wrong profile image, ability to see other users, and so on.
If you are covering an event, prepare well. Antia Geada, who ran the BirminghamEastside WhatsApp account, says planning was key – particularly when it came to visual content:
“Having some background on key seats and templates for the datavis helped a lot.
“I would say also that you should think about what information your audience are interested in.”
5. Consider a visual approach for a younger audience
Wright notes that that the audience on WhatsApp:
“generally seems to be younger than our average, which is not too surprising. But from our point of view this is interesting as we appear to be reaching new readers who may not be already engaging with our politics output (or even politics in general) on a regular basis.”
Despite this, disappointingly all the news WhatsApp accounts that I have followed this year have been entirely textual. What made the BirminghamEastside coverage stand out was their focus on visual journalism: not just data visualisation and infographics but also short animated videos using Legend…
…and mobile video journalism.
Users responded strongly to this. “I thought it was an innovative way of getting interesting and informative content out to people quickly,” wrote one:
“Especially younger people who use this app a lot – which in turn gets them interested in politics. I most like the short animated clips. I think this is something news organisations should think of doing.”
“All the information you shared was exactly what people following the election would be looking for, plus used really good graphics, videos, etc that made the info even easier to grasp, so basically I think you did an awesome job.”
6. …But realise it’s a trade off against clickthrough
One of the reasons why news organisations tend to adopt a textual response is the need to drive traffic to their own site. Mike Wright points out that:
“We get a relatively high percentage of clickthroughs from WhatsApp. This seems to be because it’s a more personal service going straight to someone’s phone, almost like a Sky or BBC breaking alert (just without the irksome jingle). Story urls go out with a tracker code so know how may people are come to that story via WhatsApp.”
7. Decide what you’ll do about responses
Speaking to me before the election, Wright noted that people often messaged back to their political WhatsApp account:
“Often to say they agree with story or are shocked by what they’ve read. The most common question we’ve had is who do we think will win the election. Occasionally we have mick-taking messages. But these are very few and tend to be young people excited they can talk directly to the paper.
“On the whole we try to interact with people who contact us on WhatsApp. Even just to say thanks for the feedback. We have had a few exchanges about what they’d like to see from the service, which we find very helpful. We find responding to people generates a positive response and they like that we take the time to respond. That said, we are also busy journalists so we can’t respond to everything and make a call on what we can engage with and what we can’t on an ad hoc basis.”
9. And finally: if you’re going to stop, make sure future subscribers know about it
If you do not intend to continue the service make sure you delete pages inviting users to subscribe. The Channel 4 WhatsApp service, for example, failed to deliver any messages following requests to subscribe.