Instant messaging: BBC News on chat apps

World Service mobiles editor Trushar Barot says that, when used in the right way, chat apps can help audiences feel much closer to the BBC brand.

How is BBC News developing content for apps?

I was the first person in the BBC to have the role of apps editor. Apps technology is here to stay, which is why we’re devoting attention to it in terms of strategy and editorial roll out.

My brief is twofold. Part of my role is project management, which means I spend a lot of time looking at the in-house news apps for BBC World Service language services.

There are 28 different language services and to date about a dozen have apps on either iOS or android. So I monitor the success of these existing apps as well as scope the current market for new opportunities.

I’m constantly engaging with the editorial teams to ensure I know what functionality and features they would like any new app to include, and also to get a better understanding of the audience response to our existing apps.

The more immediate aspect of my role involves looking at third-party mobile phone platforms. Our focus has been specifically on instant messaging platforms - chat apps like WhatsApp and the Blackberry messenger service BBM. There are also quite a few other big players regionally, such as Line which is very big in Asia.

During the Indian elections we did some really interesting pilots with WhatsApp and WeChat, and we now have an ongoing project with the BBC Hausa service on BBM.

We’ve also launched two permanent services on the Line platform. One is a global English language account; the other a Hindi service channel aimed specifically at the Indian market.

So the other part of my job is developing our strategy on these particular platforms as well as thinking about what sort of content works best on each.  

What sort of BBC content works well on chat apps?

We’ve found that content like BBC Shorts does really well, with 15-second videos explaining stories of the day in bite-sized, easy-to-digest chunks. The format was originally aimed at our Instagram account but it’s now being rolled out as a self-standing digital product.

Another example is Go Figure: a daily, data-heavy graphic that’s produced by the BBC’s online team to illustrate a story of the day in numbers. It’s interesting and visual and that seems to appeal to our chat app users.


In a wider sense, we’ve realised that chat apps are great for engaging with audiences already occupying a particular space. So, for instance, during the Indian elections we posted asking for feedback on the content we were sharing. We asked what they would like to see more of and what they thought worked well. The response was overwhelmingly positive. 

More recently, we successfully adapted this model when our Hausa language service used WhatsApp during the Nigerian elections to get pictures, audio and video from people in the country – especially those in the northeast affected by Boko Haram and voting from displacement camps.

These technologies are very personal and people tend to use them to message friends and family. So when they received messages and a ‘thumbs ups’ from BBC News it meant a lot. It got people excited and made them feel much more closely connected to our brand, which was great.

What can chat apps offer that other distribution platforms can’t?

One of the things I’ve learnt is that, when we do it right, the ability to distribute content inside a chat app is incredibly powerful. For instance, a post on Twitter may only reach a fraction of the audience because the majority may not be using Twitter at that particular time. In comparison, when you post an instant message on a chat app you’ll reach a 100% of your subscribers immediately. The message will appear as a push alert on their phone and, as we know, people’s phones go with them everywhere. So they are much more likely to view your content within minutes.  

So this gives us an opportunity to be really instant and immediate in a way that I don’t think any other technology has been able to do so far.

What’s a good example of this working well?

Top of the list has to be the BBC Ebola WhatsApp service. We’ve used everything we’ve learnt about how these apps work, and how users consume content within these platforms, to provide a core public service operation within a chat app.

We’ve realised that by using chat apps we’re able to deliver potentially life-saving information to the people who need it most: those living in West Africa. The BBC‘s Ebola WhatsApps service is conveying public health information in an immediate and effective way.

It’s the first time this technology has been used in a public health crisis, and the fact that people trust the BBC brand makes it a very powerful tool.

What’s also encouraging about this project is that within a week of it starting we were working very closely with organisations like Unicef, the World Health Organization and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. They were all very keen to share the information they were getting so that we could push it out through our WhatsApp service straight away.

The power of collaboration

This has also become a really good example of an open and collaborative project where BBC News is managing, producing and driving the editorial content. But we’re then sharing that content with our partners. The partners in this instance could be the aid agencies or the technology companies themselves.

So it’s been an incredibly successful and collaborative project.

How do you safeguard BBC editorial standards in this chat app context?

This is all very new stuff for BBC News. We’ve never really worked on chat app platforms before and it’s really exciting that we’re leading the way and developing their potential within the news industry.

One of the things I learnt early on was to make sure the editorial policy team was happy with everything we were doing at an early stage. Thinking through any potential editorial risks is obviously crucial, as is making sure our legal and fair-trading teams are happy.

Safeguarding the BBC’s standards and values underlines everything we do. So it’s really important that we maintain an ongoing conversation with the BBC policy teams as our chat app development continues.

Why is this development work important?

I think the main reason is the huge increase in the popularity of these platforms over the past 18 months. Just to give you some context: when Facebook was four years old it had 120 million users and it was by far the quickest adoptive technology at that point. WhatsApp has added 400 million users in its first four years - that really puts the app explosion into perspective.

Many other companies like Line and WeChat are also adding hundreds of millions of users over a very short period of time. We also noticed a massive spike in user uptake about a year ago and that’s when we realised it was crucial to tap into their potential.

BBC World Service and Global News have an ambition that by 2022 we will have doubled our global audience reach to 500 million users. So digital and social has to be a key part of that, and we need to continue to develop our presence on these platforms.

Have there been many surprises along the way?

The biggest surprise was discovering that it really does work!

When I first started looking at chat apps as a project, I was tasked with doing some research and then writing a report to send to BBC bosses. I ended up carrying out some low-level trials and pilots as part of that research so that we had some fact-based evidence. And the overwhelming enthusiasm for our services by users was something that really took me back. I always had a hunch that it might be popular but to see the evidence was really encouraging.

The significant level of interest that the industry has shown in what we’re doing has also been surprising. I’ve lost count of how many conferences I’ve been invited to attend to talk about this work.

It’s also been very encouraging to see that other news organisations are now experimenting with these platforms too. It keeps us on our toes, and it’s always good to know that we’re leading an industry conversation around what’s potentially a very exciting platform.

Where would you like the project to be this time next year?

The main objective is to increase our audience reach using these platforms. But we still have a lot of ideas and experiments to follow through and they will ultimately help shape our strategy.

The companies themselves are also very young and the technology they’re using was obviously developed for a different purpose. So I’m very hopeful that as these companies mature the technology behind the platforms will improve greatly, which will make our production workflows much simpler and more effective.

So what our strategy will actually look like in a year’s time is still to be determined, but the prospect is incredibly exciting.