Why 2015 Will Be the Year of the Chat App for Publishers and Content Marketers

For publishers wondering whether they need to get their chat app distribution strategy in order, here’s something to consider: Even China’s propaganda machine is embracing chat apps as a way to get eyeballs on their content.

In December, The Economist wrote about how the Chinese Communist Party has embraced new media tactics—particularly its use of clickbait headlines, a more casual voice, and chat apps as a major distribution channel—all intended to reach Chinese consumers who are embracing the mobile web in increasingly large numbers.

The percentage of Chinese citizens connected to the web has now reached 500 million, up from 200 million just five years ago.

As The Economist observes, “It is a striking change” from the party’s usual method of “censoring, admonishing and punishing” any online content that goes against their political interests. Instead of censoring, the party is attempting to compete, and a big part of that new strategy is a reliance on chat apps as a major distribution channel.

Take the Paper, the newest media venture launched by the state-owned Shanghai Media Group. It has attempted to appeal to a younger generation through a particular focus on (state-approved) stories of corruption cases. And as far as casual language goes, President Xi Jinping is commonly referred to as “Uncle Xi.”

The Paper regularly publishes news on WeChat, the chat app that reigns supreme among China’s smartphone users. (Of WeChat’s 470 million monthly users, most are in China.) Though it only launched this July, the Paper has already become the 13th-most followed media account on WeChat. The top accounts? Two fellow state-run media outlets, China Central Television and the People’s Daily.

This development is not only a fascinating—and terrifying—look at how authoritarian propaganda has evolved; it also gives me a strong feeling chat apps are going to become increasingly important distribution channels for publishers of all kinds, from BuzzFeed to GE to Coca-Cola.

Early last year, WhatsApp, the insanely popular messaging app Facebook purchased for $19 billion, gave BuzzFeed and Shazam the opportunity to add an experimental share button to their mobile iOS sites, and BuzzFeed quickly saw the amount of clicks on the WhatsApp button “rapidly exceed” the number of clicks on the Twitter button, according to Quartz. Similarly, Shazam reported WhatsApp accounted for a healthy 10 percent of its sharing activity.

By May, WhatsApp opened up the button to the general publishing public, and the early results were staggering. After just one week, USA Today viral sports site FTW saw WhatsApp stake claim to 18 percent of its overall sharing-button activity, surging past Twitter’s 13 percent. And as Nieman Lab reported in an excellent feature last summer, BBC is embracing chat apps to distribute news around the world—through WhatsApp and WeChat in India, Mxit in South Africa, and BBM (yes, that BBM) in Nigeria.

The rise of chat apps as a content distribution platform is a multi-faceted phenomenon. In a country like China, it’s certainly the byproduct of restrictions and censoring placed on more traditional social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But more broadly, it’s a sign of how social media is changing, as mature social networks become oppressively large, particularly for younger people.

For most millennials, Facebook is your account of official identity. You’re connected to pretty much everyone you’ve ever met on Facebook. That makes it a requisite social network to maintain, but also a place where you have to play it safe or risk the consequences. Even an innocuous political post can leave you dealing with crazed comments from the fringe partisan nutters in your network.

Twitter, meanwhile, is the most public of places, and most of us use it for a relatively singular purpose, such as sports fandom and commentary. For many of us in the media and marketing world, that purpose is work, as Twitter is the cocktail party and professional gossip mill for our industry.

Chat apps, however, offer a place where you can escape those restrictions, building tiny social networks with five or 10 friends—a place where you can share your most ridiculous pictures and links and ideas without risking being ostracized. Most everyone under 30 I know is part of at least one group chat that has just been going on for years. The ephemerality of Snapchat offers a similar appeal; you select the exact people you want to share each message with, and you can be even more brazen since the message is set to detonate.

Simply put, chat apps are blowing up, and people are using them to share everything they would on a traditional social network. WhatsApp surpassed 600 million monthly active users in August; Line reached 500 million monthly active users late last year, while WeChat was closing in on the same figure. Twitter, by comparison, has less than 300 million active monthly users. And yet, media companies and marketers are investing a heck of a lot more time and resources into Twitter than they are in chat apps as a whole.

But… why?

A big part of the reason is how hard it is to track the traffic that come from chat apps. Even BuzzFeed, the king of data-driven publishing, can only measure the amount of clicks from their WhatsApp button, rather than how many people see the links or manually share copy-and-pasted links within the messaging app. As a result, publishers simply have to stare at their growing “dark social” traffic—traffic for which there is no referral data—and wonder what’s going on.

However, a lack of referral data is no reason to ignore the power of chat apps. Just because you can’t measure the reach of the traffic yet doesn’t mean that traffic isn’t valuable. There’s a very good chance chat apps will start offering ways to track referral traffic within the next year or two, which makes it vital for digital publishers to get their chat app strategies in order immediately. This fall, BuzzFeed hired a full-time staffer to manage its chat app presence, and I expect many other publishers to follow suit in 2015.

After all, if the Communist Party can reap the rewards, why can’t you?

Image by Imagechina

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