Digital/multimedia

We downloaded 3 apps to chat with news bots, and we couldn’t wait to delete most of them

Remember when groups first started experimenting with “bots” to generate news briefs like baseball game summaries, and it seemed as though every other tech think piece heralded those algorithms as signs of the journalism apocalypse?

News-writing bots may have faded from hedlines for the time being, but that could be because our industry has found a new futuristic fixation: direct news distribution bots through apps like Quartz, Facebook Messenger and even Slack.

It’s a cool premise: download an app and let the news come to you in bite-sized chunks. No need to go out of your way to visit multiple homepages or to scroll through hours worth of Twitter feed frenzy to find something you might actually want to click on. The value in engaging more directly with followers has obvious loyalty-building potential for newspapers who struggle to pull in repeat site visitors, and the challenge of figuring out how to personalize content for more direct distribution has captured the attention of newsroom innovators.

So the premise is neat and we as an industry are clearly excited about it, but what’s the experience actually like for news consumers? Are news delivery bots as super awesome for the average mobile user as we think they are, or is it too early in the game for these products to be truly useful?

Our team wanted to know, so we seized the opportunity to play on our phones at work by downloading three different apps and assigning each team member to follow specific news outlets. For the sake of our experiment, we focused on messenger apps that allow you to subscribe to multiple news outlets, rather than news delivery apps like Quartz that curate the hedlines and news sources for you.

Want to skip ahead to our conclusions? Fine, click here. Want the TL;DR version? We talk a lot so, we’ve got you covered here.

The apps and our first impressions

Kik
This app started as a chat platform that has expanded with bots and games that users can chat with, as well as open-sourced tools for developers to build on these experiences within the app. Apparently, the app has raised concerns over its anonymous chat features enabling sex predators.

We followed: The Washington Post, NBC News, Buzzfeed and The Weather Channel

Carly (following NBC News): So with NBC News, you pick one of several categories (politics, tech, business, entertainment or health) and message that word to them. I picked politics and NBC responded with one link to an article. But it doesn’t give you the headline, just says “Here’s our latest story in politics” and you just blindly click on the link. Totally lame and useless. Hate it. Then randomly I got a message that says “If there’s one thing you need to know today it’s this” and then again no hedline just a link.

John (following Buzzfeed): Relatively simple to sign up/get started but doesn’t appear to give me any sort of ability to curate the content I receive and seems to only send me the same handful of photo galleries/article links regardless of the responses I give. Articles are “instant articles” and open directly in the app. Interested to see what actual push notifications will look like in terms of content/diversity. Everything appears to be super random at this point.

Tim (following The Weather Channel): This wasn’t difficult at all, although I’m always freaked out when Google Play informs me in big letters that this app is “T Teen.” I get it. Stay away, Dad. It was much easier to find The Weather Channel on Kik than it was The Economist on Line. It was basically an easy setup that just asked for my zip code.

Lizzie (following The Washington Post): The app itself is pretty intuitive – nothing is tripping me up with its interface. I selected Washington Post to chat with, and it immediately invited me to go on a virtual “great American road trip” by typing the name of my state to get started. OK, I’ll play. I typed in Texas. The Washington Post bot responded by sending me a photo of what is apparently Lewisville, Texas – why that place out of all of Texas, I’m not sure – and then asked me whether I wanted to go to Louisiana, Oklahoma or New Mexico next. We went to Louisiana. Same premise. It’s a fun idea, but I wasn’t inclined at the time to continue any further. The app doesn’t seem to respond to anything else – no matter what I type in, it just sends me the first message about the road trip again.

Line
Line is another chat app that offers free domestic and international voice and video calls, as well as text messaging with various smilies, audio and video capabilities. Line allows users to follow brands for coupon updates, as well as celebrities and now news outlets for news updates.

We followed: Hypebeast, The Economist, HuffPost Healthy and Mashable

Carly (following Mashable): This app is totally cute and I’ve already used it to chat back and forth with a friend like 20 times. But in terms of reading news, it’s pretty random. Far as I can tell there’s like the general news feed of articles that Mashable is pushing. Bunch of random Star Wars dogs and some designer who makes dresses out of prawn crackers. So anyway I tried to message Mashable like “BERNIE SANDERS” and also “ACTUAL NEWS” but got back an auto response that said “We cannot promise that we’ll respond to each message, but we do come with gifts! Do you want something cute, fun or crafty?” Obviously I picked fun but received no response. I expect a gift of some sort.

John (following Hypebeast): Gives a select number of topics I can search for/chat it about, though that might be the bot itself and not the app, and is basically like NOPE if I try to ask it about anything else, which fair, Hypebeast, fair. The article links open in-app, but one thing that I think is sort of annoying is that the only text I will receive is basically “click on the picture to see more” so I have NO idea what I am getting myself into aside from the link pertaining to my search term, or query or whatever we are calling it. Also each term only appears to have one article attached to it so basically there are only like six articles it is showing me for the whole site.

Tim (following The Economist): This was the one that made me feel my age. I’d never signed up for Line and was bombarded by requests for “sticker packages,” which I’m sure has to make the staff at the highly-regarded Economist squeamish. The bot opened with an official announcement, explaining how the magazine was first published in 1843, and how their goal is to an “indispensable guide to global affairs.” Again, that was hard to take after being asked if I was interested in buying a sticker package that Line insisted it was “super excited to share” with me.

Facebook Messenger
Chances are high that you use this app on a regular basis, but do you use it to subscribe to news brands? Facebook recently opened up a beta for developers to create in-app direct distribution apps, but so far the onboarding of news outlets has been slow.

We followed: CNN, TechCrunch, TheScore and Wall Street Journal

Carly (following CNN): I refused to install Messenger for the longest time but was finally forced to because I have certain friends (names omitted to protect the guilty) who refuse to communicate any other way. So I’m still getting used to a platform that just about everyone else is very familiar with. That said, getting your news via Messenger is super easy. I love that I can chat CNN one word — “UCLA” — and three recent stories come up. Swipe left, and you can view them one at a time. I don’t like the “Get a summary” feature. It sends three or four chats with little blurbs (like bullet points) about the story, which I find annoying for some reason. If I’m interested in a story, I’ll click it and just read the first few graphs. I like the “Top Stories” feature — CNN does a good job of including variety of news. I might actually use this with some regularity. Still hate Messenger on principle, though.

John (following Wall Street Journal): I feel like the familiarity of FB messenger is sort of the saving grace. It certainly appears to be the most user-friendly/rich experience…but not all of the options seem to quite be working yet. Like, it wants to give me the ability to curate my news, but doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of this yet. Also, FB messenger is the only one of these apps that is actually sending me push notifications… though they come through as “Wall Street Journal has sent you a message,” without any sort of teaser/preview of what the message might be about… so I am not very inclined to check it.

Tim (following TheScore): Instant drawbacks — college sports. Half the world revolves around college athletics, but TheScore wouldn’t respond to Texas, Longhorns, or Austin in my original response. Since the site is Canadian-based, however, I was able to get notifications on Canadian Football League teams along with Major League Soccer. Thanks for that. Here’s the thing for pro sports — make sure to play with the notifications. My first experience was horrific as I sat in a show and my phone buzzed every minute during an improbable 15-13 baseball game. I was notified every time there was a pitching change and every time a team scored.

Lizzie (following TechCrunch): Initially, the most difficult part of using Facebook Messenger for this purpose is figuring out which publications have launched bots on the platform. I messaged at least one account an awkward “Hello?” before finally figuring out that if a bot was launched for the publication, there would be a prompt for me to start chatting, rather than the typical messenger interface.

I signed up for TechCrunch’s messenger bot, and it greeted me by notifying me that it would send me a daily digest of trending stories. I had the option to opt out at that point. When I type in a search term, it brings up several related stories, though some of them are from as far back as 2011. When I see a story I like, I’m able to either “View on Web” or “Read Here.” Read Here delivers the story to me in small text chunks through the app, with the option for me to click “Next Page” after each chunk. I like viewing it this way, because it allows me to easily disengage at any point by no longer clicking on to the next “page.”

Reflections (five weeks later)

Out of the three, which was your favorite app?

Carly: The Facebook one. Clearly the easiest to use, and I thought it had the best content. Or at least the content that I gravitate toward, which I guess is harder news and less dogs dressed funny.

John: FB Messenger by default, as it was the only one of the three that I would consider to be functional in terms of pushing news content. In terms of user-friendliness, I’d say they all ranked about the same in my mind…so not wonderfully. I think, as a user, theoretically the interfaces were all SUPER simple and easy to use, but the lack of features/functionality made them all pretty frustrating.

Tim: So, this obviously depends what you’re looking for, but Facebook Messenger is the most visible one in my life, so I probably noticed or used it the most. However, it was really formulaic — essentially just game updates that I could have grabbed myself — and the only thing I really appreciated was a reminder on the occasional days I forgot my favorite team was playing an afternoon baseball game. The actual news posts were of slight interest, but the content was usually either second-rate, or hours behind. And when there was big news — for example, when my Buffalo Sabres made their pick in the first round of the NHL Draft — I missed it because it was in the middle of a deluge of Blue Jays game updates. There are settings I could have easily tweaked, but it’s just difficult to get the balance right.

Lizzie: In terms of utility and ease of use, I found that Facebook Messenger and Line are both leagues ahead of Kik. Facebook Messenger just makes sense because it’s something that most of us are already familiar with and use on a semi-regular basis, and there’s no need to adjust to a new platform or to try to add a new app into my phone routine (it’s sad, but my phone usage is completely habit-driven). Line is also nice because it’s very simplified – there’s not a lot of power or functionality in the interactions there, but that’s by design. Your range of engagement is basically limited to a few menu buttons that are specific to the different bots you follow. There’s no option to type or ask customized questions. Kik, on the other hand, gives you that option, so I was continually frustrated and annoyed when it didn’t work. If the bots aren’t actually intelligent enough to understand my query and respond with relevant content, they should stick to an approach like Line, where there’s no real premise of those capabilities in the first place.

 

Push notifications – were they obtrusive? Did you appreciate them?

Carly: I could only get Messenger to send notifications. Not sure if that was user error or the other apps just don’t do it. Either way, I really find notifications annoying. I have them turned off for everything, not just these apps.

John: FB was the only app that actually sent notifications… though in terms of the amount of notifications, I could only receive all or none. Would have been nice to say like, send me fewer notifications but still send me some… but that was not an option I was able to find if it does exist. I will also give FB props for changing the way it pushed news through notifications over the course of the weeks. In the beginning, I would just get “WSJ just set you a message,” which is not at all helpful and in no way makes me want to check the message, but I guess they figured it out because now the push notifications come with a headline of sorts, so I am much more inclined to check them. Didn’t receive a single notification from Kik or Line.

Tim: The Score Facebook Messenger bot completely ruined what had been one of my primary forms of communication, simply because I always seemed to have a notification, so I started to disregard them.

Lizzie: I didn’t really mind the ones that I did get (mostly just Facebook Messenger), but they almost never actually prompted me to click through. I would typically just ignore them because I would get them while I was in the middle of something. Eventually I would circle back because I hate having the unread numbers all over my iPhone screen, but sometimes I would click on them just to clear the notifications and wouldn’t actually read anything. TechCrunch’s daily digest notifications were nice because it was just once daily, though it doesn’t seem to come at a consistent time each day.

 

How often did you find yourself engaging with the apps? Was there one app that you engaged with more frequently? 

Carly: I found myself using Line most often, but that’s only because I found friends! I didn’t actually use any of them consistently for news.

John: The only app I checked with any frequency was FB Messenger, though only because it actually sent notifications/updated content. In terms of actual engagement though…none of the apps really offered any sort of functionality in terms of interaction. Hypebeast on Line did like offer the illusion of curating the news I received, though they never actually updated it, so regardless of the terms I searched for, it only ever send me the same five stories. Though all basically sent some form of “I don’t understand” whenever I tried to search/ask for something that wasn’t a clearly defined option.

Tim: I actually noticed that I used the Weather Channel’s daily update to plan my day. The hourly forecast was really helpful. However, before I got the daily updates, I had been in the routine of calling up Accuweather (which was already on my Android phone), and that would allow me to seamlessly check my hometown (Buffalo) for updates as well. Since I stopped using Accuweather, I realized I stopped checking that forecast on a consistent basis.

Lizzie: I interacted with Facebook Messenger’s TechCrunch bot the most because, again, Facebook Messenger is already somewhat a part of my routine. I almost never called up Kik except for when I forced myself to for the sake of this post, because they never sent me push notifications and it was pretty evident from the get-go that the Washington Post bot I followed was not going to be putting forth any useful content.

 

What could the news organizations you subscribed to with these apps do to improve your experience?

John: Actually update content. Offer users more enhanced search/engagement features.

Tim: That’s a good question. I thought about this, and especially in the case of bigger, breaking sports stories, Score really should find a way to let these pieces stand out. Right now, they all mesh together. So if my favorite hockey team’s star has signed a contract elsewhere, that gets the same treatment as a run being scored in the eighth inning of a 10-2 blowout. Again, you can tweak the settings to have some of these features turned off, but I just feel like their should be a bigger, bolder presentation for huge stories.

Lizzie: Washington Post could do literally anything else, like updating their bot even just once a week or so, and my experience would be dramatically more positive. My experiences with HuffPost Healthy/Line and TechCrunch/Facebook Messenger were mostly positive, but I don’t feel a real attachment or desire to engage with them. I think maybe a stronger mix of content, like more videos or infographics, could make it more interesting. The biggest issue for me though is that the push notifications come at times that are completely inconvenient for me, and there’s not really any compelling reason for me to circle back when I do have time. The lack of personalization is really a missed opportunity – and maybe that’s just the limit of how “intelligent” this form of AI actually is, and that’s the real issue here – but if these apps could send me recommendations based on my reading patterns and what content of their I actually click on, I would feel much more compelled to use them.

 

Will you continue to use any of the three apps? Why or why not?

Carly: No. I get most of my news through Facebook’s news feed, Twitter and BuzzFeed. For me, a newspaper’s mobile site is critical to pulling me in and keeping me. I’m probably not going to download any news apps, because I feel like I’d have to download a bunch to get the variety of content I’m looking for. Maybe the answer here is not focusing on making our apps everything and more, but ensuring our mobile pages are engaging, easy to view and act as conduits to additional content on our sites.

Tim: Line is already off my phone. Buh-bye. Seems so kiddie to me. I’m interested in trying a few different bots on Facebook Messenger, but I’m not sure how many of them will stick. As for Kik, I’m old and still can’t get past the fact that I remember my now 16-year-old using Kik to message her friends like a half-dozen years ago. Still, I do like the daily forecast from The Weather Channel, and I have a feeling I’ll keep it.

Lizzie: I’m deleting Kik immediately. For now, though, I’m keeping Line – probably with notifications turned off – and I don’t see a need to unsubscribe from TechCrunch on Facebook Messenger just yet, because it’s so unobtrusive with just one message a day. I really like the idea of these kinds of apps because I like the idea of getting a variety of news and perspectives from one place, rather than having to load a bunch of different sites. That’s just not how I consume news. Until more news outlets place exclusive content on these apps or the bots become more interesting to interact with, though, my main sources of news are still going to be newsletters, NPR and my Twitter/Facebook feeds.

 

As a consumer and a journalist, do you consider these sorts of direct news distribution platforms to be worthwhile endeavors for newsrooms?

Carly: I think there’s definitely a large volume of consumers who would be attracted to an app that’s easy to use, has a variety of content and is able to balance local news with national breaking stories. There’s potential here, but right now it’s critical that news organizations are optimizing their content for mobile — approaching every story assuming it’ll be viewed on a small screen within a limited time.

John: Maybe, but I think there are a lot of issues that need to be worked out. I don’t feel like they are offering any sort of advantage over just checking sites online or through the sites’ own apps. I guess I just don’t really see the point of them…yet. I think it’s a lot to ask people to like, follow your organization in YET another way and then not offer any reason for doing so.

I think that someone needs to be driving these, and I don’t know if it should be the content producers or the apps themselves, because as it stands, aside from maybe FB, no one seems to be leading the charge to get things up and running.

Tim: We’ve often joked at the Center for News & Design that we have more ways to communicate than things to say. I feel like that’s where bots are right now. I can get news — targeted news — on just about everything I’m interested in other places. Why would I need this when I already, say, follow these organizations on Twitter? But I assume there is some usefulness to it, and as the approach becomes more targeted, I’m sure I’ll end up having a number of bots I count on. It’s just a matter of time.

Lizzie: Yes. Right now there might not be a lot of return, but I don’t think it’s far-fetched to expect apps and direct news distribution bots to be an important part of the news delivery landscape in a few years. Some of the tech seems to be pretty underdeveloped right now, but as AI becomes more commonplace and tools for building bots without a high level of coding experience become available, I see these kinds of apps as having powerful potential. That’s especially true of the potential for personalization. Facebook Messenger will probably be the first one of these to really be able to customize content for the user because of the insane amount of dirt Facebook has on all of us already, but I don’t think we’re too far away from that becoming more common (which is definitely an equally exciting and terrifying prospect).

Clearly newsrooms shouldn’t be putting all of their eggs in these baskets any time soon, but even though I’m fairly underwhelmed with these apps, I wouldn’t discourage newsrooms from experimenting with them. This form direct news distribution isn’t going away, and it’s a good idea for newsrooms to dip their toes in it now, so that there’s a basis of understanding when these apps do become more important.

TL;DR

– We’re (mostly) optimistic about the future of these apps, but most of us are deleting them from our phones immediately for the sake of our data and sanity.

– Facebook Messenger was the crowd favorite for two main reasons: 1) we were already familiar with it, and it didn’t feel like going out of our way to check in on it; 2) it seemed to overall deliver the most legitimate, useable news across outlets.

– It’s clear that the “intelligence” of the algorithm just isn’t in a place yet where these apps can be used to their full potential. When the news delivery can be personalized down to content types and push notifications timed to your habitual down time, these apps could be really powerful.

 

Header image: iphonedigital on Flickr

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