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Post Title - Content Innovation: Rise of the bots and chat apps

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Written by Ben Woodhead, Australian Financial Review Digital Editor

Robots might not have taken over journalism yet, but they are adding new types of audience engagement to the journalistic repertoire.

In this case, we’re talking about bots — basically bits of code that run automated tasks. They’ve been around in journalism for a while, often doing things like scraping websites for data. Now, though, they’re taking on a role in audience interactions.

What’s driving this is the rise of messaging (aka) chat platforms. This might be messaging apps (such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or WeChat) or office-oriented networks (such as Slack or Hipchat). None of these are particularly prevalent in Australia, but they are prominent or gaining prominence elsewhere.

The following screenshots from Slack show how a bot works in conjunction with the Chartbeat real-time analytics we use to answer simple questions:

A bot, such as Chartbeat’s Slack integration, can be pointed at pretty much any API. That could be analytics, a content management system (eg. /AFR what are the last 10 Commonwealth Bank stories) or any other source of information that’s open for bots to query.

Couple bot capabilities (which run all the way through to Facebook’s M) with the messaging and document sharing capabilities in office-based messaging networks and it’s easy enough to see why some think these sorts of platforms could replace email in workplace communications.

It’s also easy enough to imagine this stuff being a flash in the pan. Bots existed over a decade ago in messaging platforms such as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). And if the current bot movement is in its early stages in the US, it’s in its very early stages here.

So where does the journalism bit come in?

One example is The Washington Post, which has used chat app Kik to deliver quizzes. Users participating in a quiz are sent links to stories when they answer questions:

Then, over the weekend, there was a report that The New York Times has launched an election bot that lets users as the NYT newsroom questions about the 2016 campaign:

On Friday, The New York Times rolled out NYT Election Bot, which anyone can add to their Slack channel to receive “live results and updates on the 2016 elections from The New York Times. You can also submit questions to the newsroom by using the command /asknytelection.”

If you have a read of the Q&A with NYT interactive news editor Marc Lavelle, he’s pretty open about it being an experiment and that they don’t really know where it will lead, or what the best formula is for making this work.

Then there are these questions, asked on The Verge:

The fact is, as investor Semil Shah has written, messaging has usurped the browser on mobile devices: it’s where most of our activity takes place. And once you’ve dethroned the browser, which empires will crumble? Could a new e-commerce channel rise to challenge Amazon? Could a bot outdo Google when it comes to understanding what you’re looking for?

Which media companies are poised to succeed in a world where we consume more information through text messages? (In the bot era, Facebook’s Notify app looks a lot like a media company.) What does a media company look like when it optimizes for Slack?

That last par is really the point. As the chart below shows, messaging is growing more rapidly than social media and could bring with it interesting new capabilities for journalism and a new set of storytelling techniques.

Those capabilities won’t necessarily supplant what we do. In fact, it’s fairly easy to imagine how for major news events we might scoop people up on our sites and then push them towards messaging for just-the-facts updates. But, if it comes to pass, it’s another set of skills that may have to find a place in our newsrooms.

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