Fishing where the fish are: ABC News on Facebook Messenger

Craig McCosker, ABC’s product manager for mobile, on a recent experiment.

Late last year, 20 ambitious young journalists lined up for the final round of the ABC News 2017 cadet intake interviews.

“Why do you want a cadetship?” we asked. “Because you are in all the places I get news,” many said, citing ABC News on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Apple News, our website and app.

But then surprisingly, their most enthusiastic support focused on a week-old ABC News service that was testing the waters of a new platform — Facebook Messenger.

“And you are on Facebook Messenger! It’s amazing, it’s changed how I get news. I didn’t know it was even possible! It’s a game-changer. I’ve been telling all my friends about it!” candidate after candidate gushed, momentarily losing their interview veneer.

Messaging grew fast from 2015 to 2016, with Facebook’s Messenger app drawing millions. Courtesy of Craig McCosker/ABC

In digital media, “fishing where the fish are” is as a common refrain as the audience fragments. Messaging is looking like a good spot to anchor.

It starts with what’s been happening on mobile. Our cadet candidates lived on their smartphones. They are the main way under-44s now access online news.

However, the main uses of smartphones are Facebook and messaging. Messaging apps are just like texting or SMS but have more advanced features and use your internet data plan. Last year, people spent five times as much time on social and messaging apps as they did in 2015, app analytics firm Flurry reported. This came at a cost to other app categories: News and media apps saw just 5 per cent growth.

Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Apple iMessage and Snapchat are some of the big ones, but the list is much larger. Anyone travelling on public transport during the afternoon commute will see most people are in a messaging app catching up with family and friends.

We’d been watching the growth of messaging, but had scant evidence people were using these apps for news. The Reuters Institute 2016 Digital News report found low usage of messaging apps for news in countries it studied, apart from Japan and Korea. WhatsApp was the exception.

In February 2016, we used the Oscars to run a trial of WhatsApp. The ABC News Digital mobile editorial team wrote custom updates that went out to our WhatsApp subscribers. The trial got great engagement and stayed on as a news alerts service. However as the audience grew to several thousand, the team found the platform increasingly difficult to manage. WhatsApp was designed to message small groups, and the workarounds to message thousands were time-consuming and prone to errors.

In April 2016, Facebook launched Facebook Messenger Platform. The platform allowed developers to start to build automated services (aka chatbots, or just bots) on Messenger where people could get content and services.

Messenger is by far the biggest messaging app in Australia, reaching more than half of the active online population each month (Nielsen DRM). But until Messenger Platform, there had been no way to build a news service on it.

We targeted the July federal election as an opportunity to launch a Facebook Messenger election service that answered questions about the election and gave on-demand results. The election bot saw intense usage. It also revealed interest in getting general news on Messenger.

The News Digital Mobile Team set to work and prototyped various styles of general news bot harnessing the insights from the election, WhatsApp and app push notifications. The mobile team consists of five journalists working under Lincoln Archer, news digital deputy editor. We used the free bot-building platform Chatfuel to create and test the prototypes. Chatfuel proved so effective for the job it became our editorial production system.

After testing the prototypes on ABC staff and their friends, the team settled on an approach they felt would best meet the needs of Messenger users and was sustainable with all the other demands on the mobile team.

The core of our offering, then dubbed ABC NewsBot, would be a digest of essential headlines, updated throughout the day, mixed with the day’s more positive news, all in a fast, conversational format. Users could get a summary of the news sent to them in the morning at a time of their choosing.

The audience could also get breaking news notifications. Over time we also set up a range of news categories users could choose from.

We then conducted a formal study to get a handle on how it would play with a broader audience. More than 250 ABC YourSpace community members trialled the service for a week and were surveyed on the experience. (YourSpace is a community of people who give us opinions on new products.)

The study found the experience was overwhelmingly positive, and Messenger provided us with an opportunity to engage and attract a younger audience. Our trial users said they most liked the tone of content, the ease of use and the convenience.

After further refinement, we decided to launch at the start of November so we could catch the last big news events of the year — the Melbourne Cup and the US election.

Immediately we saw widespread surprise and delight that Messenger could be used for news and the ABC could be so innovative. But things really took off when we put out the offer of as-it-happens US election news on Messenger. That captured worldwide interest. On the days around the election a large wave of people engulfed us.

A significant number of people were there just to get election news and dropped out after the result became known. However, we kept most subscribers, we kept growing and people kept coming back. Our notifications get very high tap-through rates. We see very short visit times on average, but then we are about getting up to date quickly.

Of course, there have been hiccups in the process — it’s new technology. Our journalists improve the service daily, tweaking the tone and style, how messages are threaded together into stories, the timing of push messages and creating new content types such as quizzes

It was on the intense days around the US election that we were interviewing our potential cadets.

The next US election is scheduled for 2020. In three years our cadets will be coming from a culture where mobile messenger platforms are super-apps — disrupting apps, websites and email across content, advertising and e-commerce.

Craig McCosker is the product manager for mobile at ABC News Digital. Learn more about ABC News on Facebook Messenger in this online guide.