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What CNN has learnt after six months of chatbot experimentation

CNN has been using chatbots for six months

For news publishers, relying on the likes of Twitter and Facebook for distribution and traffic is a risky business, with changes to algorithms and features augmenting effectiveness constantly.

Couple this with the rise in people’s use of messaging apps, which are notoriously hard to track and community manage, and it’s no surprise that CNN has spent the last six months experimenting with chatbots.

In theory, using a semi-automated mechanism within messaging apps helps brands and publishers to achieve greater scale and control with less man hours. Unilever recently launched a chatbot to help its brand Signal spread the word about brushing your teeth.

However, it’s early days, so The Drum caught up with Alex Wellen, CNN's senior vice president and chief product officer, who is responsible for the product, technology, and strategic vision of the broadcaster's mobile, web, data, video, TV, and emerging platforms, to find out how its chatbot experiment is developing.

How is the chatbot experiment working so far? How have people responded to it?

Over the last six months, CNN has rolled out a variety of chatbots across messaging apps like Kik, LINE, and Facebook Messenger as well as voice-activated devices like Amazon Echo. We’re constantly evolving these experiences as well as exploring chatbot experiments on new smart home and automobile platforms.

We’ve seen the most growth on LINE, where our chatbot publishes a handful of international stories each week; we see high engagement on Kik, where our chatbots invite the audience to experience the news in a "choose-your-own-adventure” format; and we’ve observed the most experimentation on Facebook Messenger and Amazon Alexa, where people can ask and receive responses to open-ended questions about the news. CNN defines success metrics for each platform, from reach to engagement to monetization, with the overarching goal to learn, scale up, or wind down the product.

Why did you go into Chatbots in the first place?

It’s still early days, but we believe chatbots will ultimately have a profound impact on our digital lives. The technology enables both the intimacy of a one-to-one conversation as well as a mechanism for broadcasting a critical message at scale. That is precisely why CNN is being aggressive in this field; we believe these platforms can be a powerful way to deliver real-time, personal news to an audience.

You use it to post select stories a day – does this work with the audience?

Yes, but it’s not enough to deliver the right story on the right platform at the right time. When someone adds a branded channel to a messaging app, they are doing something far more intimate than “following” an account; they are putting CNN right alongside the people that matter to them most — the family, friends, and colleagues they message each day — and we want to earn that trust. We want the conversation with CNN to feel personal and non-intrusive. That means finding the right balance of notifications, and giving the audience control of how often or how few alerts they receive each day. In other words, the chatbot can’t be too chatty. Part of that depends on the existing capabilities and limitations of the messaging platform, however.

How important is it for publishers to look at chatbots for distribution?

Chatbots enable both scale and granularity. It is the difference between one editor reaching everyone with the same message at the same time, and a chatbot reaching every individual with a unique message at a unique moment in time. That said, technology cannot single handedly solve the dilemma of distribution. What we’ve learned is the most effective chatbots bring the right mix of editorial curation and technological automation. It is an art and science.

What is also clear is that there is a growing expectation that you should be able to turn to your kitchen, your watch, your phone, or your car, ask a question, and receive an intelligent, automated written or verbal response — whether that be a text message, audio clip, or video. We believe this is an important space for news to play, and that chatbots are one more way CNN can target and distribute its global reporting.

What about messaging apps more generally?

With more than three billion monthly global users, messaging apps represent a crucial global growth platform for news. To that end, we’ve seen meteoric growth on LINE. Since launching in April, that audience has surged to over 4.5 million followers worldwide. We are now the No. 1 news publisher on that platform, surpassing longstanding brands like BBC, the Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, and The Economist. The credit and ingenuity goes to a small, scrappy cross-functional team of writers, programmers, designers, and product managers that use a chatbot to message that international audience daily. We’ve also published a wildly popular, limited edition sticker collection that features CNN anchors and reporters like Christiane Amanpour and Sanjay Gupta.

Kik is also worth highlighting. It has enabled us to reach an entirely new audience of 13-17 year olds. Our editorial social team has led a number of powerful experiments around the Summer Olympics in Rio as well as the US Presidential Election.

For CNN, it’s an important new channel in our pursuit to be the worldwide leader in mobile and video news and information.

Does this differ in different markets? How do you decide on which platform to use or are you looking at developing on different messaging apps?

Each CNN chatbot has its own personality and functionality, in line with what we know about the audience and that audience's typical behavior.

We are building a portfolio of messaging experiences. LINE, Kik, Facebook Messenger, and Amazon Alexa each enable CNN to reach different audiences and experiment with fresh storytelling techniques.

For example, on LINE and Kik, visual communication elements are the norm, so on Election Night, our social and product teams created custom graphics, real-time GIFs, election stickers, emojis, and election-themed keyboards to enable those audiences to share the news in the ways they’ve become accustomed to communicating. This resulted in massive engagement, with CNN and Kik users sending and receiving nearly 5 million messages, downloading and sharing millions of GIFs, emojis, and stickers, and adding hundreds of thousands of new subscribers.

How do you plan to evolve this in the future?

The next frontier is real-time multimedia chat bots that return intelligent audio or video responses across mobile, IoT, and connected TVs.

Our first foray into this ecosystem has been Amazon Echo. Our new “Ask CNN” skill features a real time personalized news experience. When you hear about a particular story or want an update on breaking news, our homegrown bot will enable consumers to turn to Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, and Fareed Zakaria and chat about the latest. Simply ask Echo to “Enable CNN” and then trigger the skill by saying: “Alexa, Ask CNN”.

It’s still early days, but by being first on many of these platforms, we are helping shape the overall experience and consumer expectations as well as experiment and learn.

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Charlotte McEleny

Charlotte McEleny is The Drum's Asia Editor, charged with finding all the interesting industry news and insights from the Asia Pacific region. During her year in Asia, she's covered topics as wide ranging as industry overwork to artificial intelligence, and interviewed top CMOs such as Alibaba's Chris Tung, and world famous creatives such as Rankin.

Based in Singapore, she travels the region regularly, attending and presenting at many top events, such as Spikes, Ad Week Asia and Innovfest.

Prior to her role as Asia Editor, she spent 10 years working across the London marketing trade magazines, even picking up an award for Best Digital Team at the PPA Digital Awards during her spell as digital editor at Marketing.

All by Charlotte