Testing out Channel 4's WhatsApp and Snapchat Indyref news delivery experiments

Friday morning, the day after the Scottish independence vote and the first place a select group went to for the news wasn't TV, radio or even Facebook but Whatsapp and Snapchat. The two private messaging platforms were used as an experiment by Channel 4 as an alternative way of delivering news, specifically to an audience who wouldn't usually engage in other channels.

So how was the experience? I signed up to both platforms out of curiosity to see how they compared with my usual daily news diet. It's worth noting most of these updates came through while I was sleeping - prior to the count there was very little of interest.

WhatsApp

Of the two platforms, I much preferred WhatsApp. Waking up, I had a easy, linear narrative in front of me with concise updates and links to relevant content. The real surprise was just how clear the storytelling was.

In the two minutes it took me to scroll through the messages, I had a clear grasp if how the story had unfolded - a bit like Twitter but without having to wade through a lot of excess noise. Also interesting was the way the simple use of facts meant it was easy to see the trends - there was little need to seek out analysis or commentary.

Channel 4's Indyref WhatsApp experimental messages

Snapchat

I'm a very light Snapchat user and probably don't fit within the demographic, but the experience was a little underwhelming - maybe the pie charts with scribbled words on in paint worked better with a different demographic, but it wasn't for me. However, in real time I can imagine they would have been quite useful.

Also, vote counts aren't the most inherently visual stories and it didn't help that those manning the account were in the office than out and about. It'd be fascinating to see how reporting on something like, say, the Commonwealth Games would have worked, given the opportunities for more visual messages.

Conclusions

As a rough and ready experient, Channel 4 did a good job. From a rather inauspicious start of a blurry picture of a dog carrying a Saltaire, once the serious reporting started, it was simply and useful for the end user. I wasn't such a fan of Snapchat but can see how a very different audience (ie one younger and less engaged in current affairs) may get a lot out of it.

WhatsApp was a really simple and enjoyable experience. Having it sent direct to my phone in an application I reguarly use meant there was a low barrier to entry and the concise amount of information was just right. Providing updates on this platform were used sparingly, I'd be very happy to turn this into a daily channel where I receive my news headlines.

Although I get Sky News alerts on my phone, this method felt more intimate and personal and while I haven't interacted, Channel 4 did encourage users to send their feedback - an excellent and immediate method of two-way conversation between user and journalist.

It's no surprise to see news companies move into this space - other brands and programmes have been experimenting with these platforms for a while, with Hollyoaks's Snapchat account an excellent example of how fans can get close to the action.

But it also raises questions about the nature of communication going forward. Private, personal channels will only continue growing (want to post an emotional update, for example. Why post on Facebook when you have Whisper) and that presents a challenge for cutting through to the audience.

For journalists and PRs alike, having a direct conversation is powerful but it also means the content must be relevant and, in the case of PR, having a closed channel makes it very difficult to disseminate the message and requires very a different mindset to the cooler social campaigns. As for brands, marketers will have to be absolutely sure that they have permission to enter into a personal dialogue via WhatsApp or Snapchat.

From a professional perspective, the "dark web" presents a new and difficult challenge to cut through (see this excellent post from Niall Harbison for more - and other trends in 2015).. From a personal perspective, I'd be really happy to continue getting my news via WhatsApp.