Products in these areas are mostly pull products. They assist you mostly after explicit intent and action on the user’s part. It’s quite common for people to consume news via push notifications from their news apps. So, in our “post-app” world, such behavior will most likely continue.
Most of the news chatbots do not fascinate me at all. They send you articles that fit a specific keyword. They let you subscribe to certain keywords and topics which will prompt the bot to proactively send you related articles. Some of them send us a daily digest of most popular articles at fixed times.
To be fair, a lot of the product development and user experience really depends on what is and isn’t allowed by the underlying messaging platforms.
For instance, the implementation of CNN’s chatbot is so different on Kik and Facebook. This is mainly because of how Kik and Facebook have designed the usage of buttons in their chatbot experiences.
But there’s always an exception to the rule. For news, it’s Purple. Purple is sticky. It pushes all the political news at the right time in the right amount. It looks so simple — yet it is so effective.
Sar Haribhakti: Tell us what Purple is and what your vision for it is.
Rebecca Harris: Our vision is to build something that makes it really easy to be informed and actually learn about the issues that matter.
The media industry has totally failed to inform my generation. Content either gives you headlines but no context, or dumbs things down way too much, or it’s biased so you can’t trust it. That’s scary to us for the future of democracy, so we started Purple to make it easy to understand important, often wonky issues.
The easiest/best way to learn about something is to talk to someone who is really knowledgeable about it and super interested in it. So we thought ‘how do we recreate that experience with technology?’, and that’s how we came up with using messaging.
From that emerged a new form of content: bite-sized, choose-your-own adventure stories written in a way that feels like your nerdy friend is texting you.
Sar Haribhakti: Your product has built quite a name for itself. Did you put in targeted efforts in user acquisition early on? Or is it just word of mouth?
Rebecca Harris: So far, the vast majority of our growth has been via word-of-mouth. It started as a Google Voice experiment that my cofounder David Heimann and I tried with 50 people.
We covered an early Republican primary debate live via text message, and saw an amazing response in terms of engagement. It grew very quickly from 50 to 100 people, and from there we built a custom system to create and distribute messages as our user base grew.
Sar Haribhakti: Most bot builders are trying to figure out what the right cadence for pushing content and sending re-engagement notifications, and what the right length of a message is. As a user, I think Purple has been doing a great job on all these fronts. How did you figure it all out?
Rebecca Harris: The frequency of messages is something that we think about a lot, especially when we started on SMS. Users were inviting us into a really intimate space that is typically solely reserved for family and friends. We didn’t want to blow up people’s phones or spam them.
We found that one message a day is the right cadence for our users, with the exception of breaking news alerts or live event coverage. That one message becomes something users look forward to, and we’re not overwhelming them with information.
That’s how we developed the use of keywords (words in all caps that users can text to dig deeper into that topic). That way, it’s up to the user to determine how many messages they want from Purple. We try to limit our push messages to one per day, unless there is something breaking or there is a live event that we’re covering.
I think sending re-engagement notifications is a good idea, but really difficult to find the right frequency/cadence. Length of message is something that we think about a lot, but with most messaging platforms there’s a character limit anyway. That might seem like a big constraint, but I think it’s a great thing because it forces you to focus on the content itself.
Sar Haribhakti: The voice of the chatbot would likely become a core differentiator as more layers of the tech stack get commoditized. This seems to be especially true for news chatbots. How did you think about building a voice for Purple?
Rebecca Harris: I 100 percent agree. We use messaging organically to have conversations with family and friends. So naturally, we think about our voice very much from a position of how we would text this information to our friends.
It developed literally as an extension of my own voice, but it’s not that it was me specifically that made it successful. What makes our voice successful is that it’s genuine. Our goal is for Purple to feel like your nerdy best friend is messaging you, that’s our north-star when it comes to writing content.
Sar: You recently switched your product from SMS to Facebook Messenger. Any specific reasons behind that decision? Did you notice any interesting changes in how users engage differently?
Rebecca Harris: There were a few reasons we made the switch (cost, deliverability issues, etc.) but the main reason was that we wanted to focus on one platform first.
We want to be where users are, so we definitely plan on being multi-platform again soon.
Facebook’s UI allows us to use quick reply buttons as a way for users to navigate through stories rather than having to message a keyword every time. So we’ve noticed a major uptick in how far into a Purple story users go because the ease of navigating that story has increased.
Sar Haribhakti: Have you thought about monetization yet?
Rebecca Harris: We’ve thought about monetization, but the main thing we’re focused on right now is engagement and focusing on the product and the content itself.
The opportunity to monetize bots increases as mobile payments become more frictionless on messaging platforms.
It’s still very early, but I think we could see a resurgence in the subscription model with news bots. It is completely dependent, however, on what news bots are serving up. If it’s just links to digital content, then it’ll be almost impossible to monetize via subscription.
Rebecca Harris: When the internet was created, media companies saw it as a huge distribution platform and the early news sites were basically PDFs of the newspaper. When social media platforms were created, media companies saw them as a huge distribution opportunity, and they basically took traditional content and posted links to it.
The problem with these early approaches was that we weren’t looking at how the platforms were being used organically by human beings. Today’s news sites look very different than the newspaper PDF days because now, the media industry understands how the internet fundamentally works. We know the opportunity it gives content creators to go way, way beyond just posting a PDF of an article.
Well, I see the same thing happening right now with messaging platforms. Media companies are building bots that are essentially RSS feeds. That to me is the equivalent of putting a PDF of a newspaper online.Think about it: These are natural communication interfaces. In order to truly take advantage of the power of messaging, we need to think conversation first, not transaction first.
Think about it: These are natural communication interfaces. In order to truly take advantage of the power of messaging. We need to think about how they’re organically used and adapt to that, rather than trying to force media made for different platforms onto messaging just because it’s a new way to distribute it.
This is a shorter version of the interview. Find the full interview with more context here. Check out my interview with the head of editorial at Poncho on chatbot editorial strategies and with another founder working in the chatbot-powered story-telling space.