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Publishers eye ‘conversational news’ as panacea to mobile conundrum

At a time when great content isn’t enough to secure their survival, publishers are looking to create conversational experiences around those posts to survive the shift from apps to messenger services.

In the future people won’t read the news, they’ll chat with it. Rather than headlines, they’ll receive emoji-laden messages as if written by a friend. This is the fate of mobile news as CNN, Quartz and the Guardian predict it. Odd as it might sound, ‘conversational news’ is the latest attempt from publishers to work out how journalism on mobile can make money.

Whether it’s a AI-driven chatbots like CNN’s new feature or Quartz’s human-powered ‘conversational app’, there’s a growing belief from media bosses that the shift from SMS to messenger apps is in itself a way to get their content to even more people. And unlike other technologies they’re trialling like VR, CNN, Quartz and the Guardian believe it’s a question of when, not if, chatbots and conversational services hit the mainstream due to the ubiquity of mobile messaging.

More than seven in ten (75 per cent) smartphone users use messaging apps at least one a month, according to emarketer. Society is well down the road of messaging apps becoming platforms for various services and bots becoming the new apps where people perform a myriad of tasks in a conversational context.

Unsurprisingly, CNN is trying to play down the hype around its own chatbot experiment. Bots cannot hold a genuine, human conversation with a person - yet. And that’s why the news outlet has a chatbot on Facebook Messenger, Line and Kik, each one slightly different to the other in order to work out how far it can push the technology before it becomes too creepy for people.

On Facebook Messenger, the publisher’s AI is split between curating a personalised list of stories for readers and a feature to allow them to receive information about a specific topic. Two months on from its launch and the results seem encouraging; readers are spending more than two minutes within the app, which chief product officer Alex Wellen suggests “not only are people engaging with the bot but they’re also finding articles that they want to read“. Perhaps even more importantly is that the publisher has seen a double digit increase in people asking the bot about its stories, a sign of things to come if it can get the balance right.

It’s a similar outcome for CNN’s time on Line, where it has been downloaded over 400,000 times since it launched in April. That puts the service ahead of Mashable, the Economist and Buzzfeed on the app, the latter of which has been on there for around a year. Similar to Facebook Messenger, on Line CNN has a feed of several image-based stories but can also publish stories directly to individuals.

On Kik, its early days though Wellen assured “you’ll see the same type of attention to detail to the way we pick stories and how we tell them”.

What’s driving the early momentum on each platform is CNN’s decision to invest time and money in creating content for each one. “We want to be able to tell one story in Snapchat and then tell it another way in Facebook Messenger and then another in Kik and so on,” explained Wellen.

“in the back end we have to build a CMS and publishing systems that enable us to recast every story for each of those formats and then distribute them at scale. As we look to unlock more platforms we’re just spending a lot of time not only understanding that audience but really trying to get the storytelling just right.”

For all the promise of delivering a personalised news service at scale, it will be useless unless it has the required human touch. It’s a point Wellen is all too aware of in the company’s rush to test as many platforms as it can, while counterpart Quartz is tackling the issue head on.

Rather than a rely on deep-learning algorithms, the publisher’s chat-based news app is curated by a team of five editors. Designed to mimic a messaging app, emojis and gifs are used to give stories that voice. Interestingly, early reaction to the app on social media suggests that its users believe an AI is serving them personalised stories.

“Just serving up what’s already elsewhere inside a messaging app doesn’t work very well,” said Jason Karaian, senior Europe correspondent at Quartz. Speaking at a DigitasLBi event he added that “for me interact with bots it has to have the delight and voice otherwise it feels gross as if you’re texting these orbs of technology.”

He continued: “A lot of what’s in the app points to Quartz stories on the site but it’s usually a different writer that will then read that story and distil it down to three or four texts. There’s a real art to doing that and making it feel nice and interactive. It’s not easy and we’ve been working on this for months now because it’s hard to be short but to have enough information and then be funny at the same time.”

It’s a thought not lost on the Guardian, which is currently assessing its own opportunities on mobile messaging apps. “We are working on a bot right now as I’m sure everyone is,” said Aron Pilhofer, executive editor of digital at the Guardian.

Quartz’s effort has intrigued the journalist, who believes it represents “true innovation” in news app development. “That is the sort of thing to me that indicates to me that Quartz may be the newsroom of tomorrow,” he explained at an industry event earlier this month.

“It’s where product and editorial are working collaboratively towards a shared goal. That is not something in most news organisations - those teams are separate,” Pilhofer claimed.

If conversational news is the game-changer many believe it could be then publishers will need to find a way to monetise it. Ads alone won’t be enough due to the personal space content will occupy and so publishers as well as brands will need to focus more on introducing value-added services layers. Or as Jonathan Akwue, chief executive of Lost Boys, puts it: “If you’re running a service then it would be foolish to use that to discreetly or surreptitiously advertise to someone. Trust is going to be important in terms of those interactions.”

In some ways CNN’s believes its already found a way to do just that.

“If you look at the Facebook Messenger experience for example then we are introducing people to stories that they may not have come across and then enabling a web view of those articles which are monetised,” said Wellen. “There’s a piece of it already that’s already being monetised. And then as you look at native executions inside each of these experiences I have no doubt that we’ll continue to innovate with our partners on those platforms.

“It’s more important right now to meet the customers where they are and continue to do it in parallel with our traditional revenue models. If you look at our platforms now we’re doing all kinds of native executions, premium sponsorships and then we have big value-metric businesses as well. We’re seeing revenue already but it's early days.”

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