Most Brazilian media use WhatsApp in a limited way and miss opportunities to generate revenue from the app, says researcher

News organizations in Brazil rarely encourage reader engagement through WhatsApp, in addition to using little multimedia content such as images, videos or audio. They're also missing an opportunity to monetize in-app, which could be done through ads, support requests, or subscriptions.

The diagnosis was made by Brazilian researcher Giuliander Carpes, a doctoral candidate in communication and information sciences at the University of Toulouse III who has just published a study on the subject, with the preliminary results of his doctoral research. The survey was carried out in partnership with Spanish researcher Enric Moreu, from Dublin City University. The two are part of JOLT, a European Commission-funded project that studies how journalism can make the best possible use of digital and data technologies.

For his thesis, Carpes investigated the use, by newsrooms, of messaging apps, and conducted qualitative interviews with 40 editors from Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain and France, with the majority of respondents, 28, being Latin Americans. The research also addresses the type of relationship – of dependence or autonomy – that the media have with message platforms.

Preliminary results, which focus on the Brazilian scenario, will be published in an article, but Carpes wanted to present the data in a more timely and user-friendly format, with interactive graphics, for journalists.

"The site works as a kind of best practices guide, an initial benchmarking, both for those who already have a WhatsApp channel and are interested in knowing what is being done by other media, as well as for those interested in creating a new channel," he said.

Carpes researches WhatsApp use by newsrooms

Brazilian researcher Giuliander Carpes, a doctoral candidate in communication and information sciences at the University of Toulouse III

LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) interviewed Carpes about his research. Below, you can read the interview, which was edited for length and clarity.

LJR: Your research focuses on the use of messaging apps in Brazil and Latin America by newsrooms. Why is it interesting to study this topic in these countries? Do they use these apps more than others?

Giuliander Carpes: Yes, according to the latest Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute, the regions that most use messaging apps are Latin America, Africa and Asia. For my research, I'm making a parallel [between Latin America] with Spain and France. It is interesting to see how editors behave in adopting, or not, these tools taking into account different local realities. Europeans find it much easier than Brazilians to give up WhatsApp if it is not giving the return they expected.

LJR: What differences have you noticed between the apps and how they are used by newsrooms?

GC: WhatsApp is the most widespread and, for that reason, it offers many limitations to the massive sharing of messages as a way of trying to stop disinformation. Outlets are interested because of its popularity, but they soon become frustrated by these limitations. Some stay, others drop and go to Telegram, which is very friendly to news organizations (not only because of the channels with unlimited number of users, but also because they make it possible to create chatbots and schedule messages). Thus, the interest and use of Telegram to distribute news has grown a lot, as it is more hybrid, so to speak, having a more private messenger character, while also having open social networking functions, such as channels. But it still doesn't have a comparable popularity [to WhatsApp]. Messenger somewhere in the middle and that is not very attractive.

LJR: What are the main conclusions of the preliminary results?

GC: That, in general, the media still try to use WhatsApp in a very limited way, with the main and, in most cases, single objective, of distributing news in the most massive way possible, to reach the greatest number of readers they can. However, WhatsApp increasingly limits this type of use: each broadcast list and each group today can have a maximum of 256 users. In other words, the tool has and fosters, at least in the free version, an essence of interpersonal communication, one to one, but also of discussion in a small group. And, in general, the media don't take this into account or it doesn't interest them.

It's even understandable because the press lacks the work force to interact "one on one" with readers, but there is one or another outlet that focuses on this and the feedback is interesting. The participation of users in these channels, the interaction, is more positive, more genuine, because, as it is private (between reader and editor, for example), there is no need to make a bombastic, controversial comment to draw attention (which, in more public networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, and in the comment boxes of the sites, encourages troll behavior, very negative).

LJR: Was there something that surprised you about the results?

GC: I found it very positive that some cases – still very few, it's true – try to encourage a certain interaction, an engagement with the reader. The number of messages that have some attempt in this direction within the total sample is still very small, at 13 percent, but some media, such as Aos Fatos and Correio Sabiá, do this consistently.

And there are some cases, like the Tribuna do Paraná, which are very well organized to deal with this interaction. In addition to segmenting their groups into regions of Curitiba, the rest of the state, and football teams, which is very interesting, they have a specific person from the team who is responsible for managing the groups and responding to messages from readers that arrive daily.

I was also positively surprised by the widespread use of emojis, showing that the media are keen to use the language of messaging apps more, they can’t do it as much due to WhatsApp's own limitations. On the other hand, it is still very difficult to use the more relaxed type of communication that is common in these applications and is at the heart of spreading disinformation on the platform.

I find it very difficult to fight disinformation when uninformative content, so to speak, is much more interesting, fun and shareable than credible information. It is necessary to find a way to combine all of this in favor of quality information, without worrying about maintaining a so-called sobriety. News innovation on WhatsApp is very limited.

LJR: And what is the importance of sending this type of journalistic content through WhatsApp, a network that, especially in Brazil, has been widely used to disseminate fake news? 

GC: I think it's very important, but I reiterate that this higher quality content usually comes in a more sober format and language, sometimes even sombre, which unfortunately doesn't have the same impact as a disinformation meme. Nobody knows how to fight toe-to-toe with this, yet. And, in part, I think it's because you don't even try to fight, you know? It is necessary to innovate more, create or copy formats that use the language that is already successful in the day-to-day of messaging applications.

It's funny that in Instagram stories or on TikTok, for example, I see various media that try to innovate, create filters, even specific programs with a young language. Why do the formats on WhatsApp have to be basically newsletters or links, if these are not necessarily the most popular formats in the tool?

LJR: In your research, you report that few outlets make use of multimedia content, such as images, gifs or audio, on WhatsApp. Is this a good strategy?

GC: It's difficult to talk about right or wrong in this matter because each outlet has an idea for its own WhatsApp channel. Often, this option of not using multimedia content is also motivated by a limitation of the tool itself. Many editors have told me that the more complex or heavy the message (if it has videos, photos, gifs), the more likely it is that the process will fail and it will reach fewer people. So, it's understandable that many outlets want to keep the process as simple as possible, just with a link and/or text. But really, these aren't the most interesting cases.

We know that audio messages, in general, don't have so many problems on WhatsApp. This is also a super common and popular format among users on the platform and there are media that are betting on it and reaping rewards. A classic is The Telegraph, in England, focused on those commuting to work, and in Brazil there is Panorama, a daily newsletter with a national focus, and Matinal, a local newsletter for Porto Alegre. In the case of Telegraph, they say that a WhatsApp reader is 12 times more likely to subscribe to the newspaper than a reader who follows the outlet on other networks alone.

LJR: As you said, Brazilian newsrooms use WhatsApp little to change the relationship with their audience. Your research shows that only 12.8 percent of the total messages had any type of engagement request. Is this an adequate strategy for using the tool, which is marked by interpersonal communication?

GC: I think, in general, you can improve a lot. The problem is that many outlets do not have enough of a workforce to interact with readers through WhatsApp. And I suspect that most do not see how to create value in this closer relationship with the reader. So they do what they can. Research indicates that even adapting to Twitter, for example, which is a much older and more consolidated network for news, did not create a new culture for the tool, it only adapted the existing modus operandi.

LJR: You mentioned the lack of staff to do this interaction with readers. Is it worth it to hire people for this?

GC: It depends a lot on the size of your outlet and the return you expect to have. I researched very different channels: there were small local outlets (for which WhatsApp, as a rule, is used to generate clicks), larger sites (which can already think of creating a closer relationship with the reader), large national outlets (for which WhatsApp is a very small audience source, which is a lot of work, so it doesn't receive a lot of investment), small media such as fact-checking agencies (which bet on various audience sources and need for their content to be shared as much as possible) and practically native WhatsApp outlets, such as Correio Sabiá and Panorama. So the more important WhatsApp is for an outlet, the more it is worth investing, but always with the caveat that being too dependent on one tool, especially one that is not very fond of journalism, is not a good strategy. I see local outlets, fact-checking agencies and these WhatsApp natives as those who can benefit most from investing in this type of engagement. But it has to be seen on a case-by-case basis, like everything else today in this platform environment, there is no ready-made formula.

I think that the outlets with more sustainable channels, let's say, are those that add value to the user with a service or product that is important to them – be it a newsletter 3x a day, in the morning or at the end of the day, be it an audio recording, be it a selection of news only about the region of the reader's city or about their football team.

Carpes researches WhatsApp use by newsrooms

Carpes investigates the use, by newsrooms, of messaging apps

LJR: And what are the benefits of investing in these apps?

GC: The main benefit that many editors have reported is the direct contact with the reader, the sent message that arrives directly in their inbox and has a higher read rate than an email, because they're there opening the messaging app all day – not to mention that this message is not chosen by an algorithm. The returns are diverse, depending a lot on each outlet. Audience increase I think only occurs for outlets that are still small, which usually have a low ceiling. The biggest channels today on WhatsApp have about 20,000 people and on Telegram, almost 200,000. It's still far from the millions on Facebook and Twitter (although only a very small part of those millions actually see each post on these networks).

 LJR: Your research shows that only a few outlets take advantage of WhatsApp to increase their revenue streams, whether it's asking readers for support, posting ads or asking readers to subscribe (only O Estado de S. Paulo, Aos Fatos, Panorama , Correio Sabiá, UOL Economia+ do this regularly). Is this, in your opinion, a missed opportunity?

GC: Yes, I think it's a missed opportunity, because it doesn't cost anything to ask for support for your member program, offer some subscription package or even share advertisements there. Why not do it? Those who have done it have had positive feedback, yes. Of course, the revenues there do not cover the entire outlet, but they add up. In terms of subscription, no one in Brazil does what The Telegraph does (in the past, they placed a list of links, left some open and others closed, now they close them all and encourage WhatsApp users to subscribe to the newspaper with a free trial of a month), but Estadão and UOL Economia+ do something.

Some newspapers such as Correio and Gazeta do ES have groups for subscribers only. In a member program, I highlight Ao Fatos, Agência Pública and Correio Sabiá. A local newspaper in Santa Catarina, O Município, runs advertisements for small and medium-sized businesses on the tool, which is quite valid. Estadão and GZH have sponsors for their newsletters on the platform.

LJR: We talked about benefits and opportunities, but what are the risks of these applications?

GC: The main thing is unpredictability. What works well today for a media outlet in a messaging application may not work tomorrow. WhatsApp today has a slightly clearer business model, but Telegram's is still wide open. Eventually they will have to address the issue of disinformation as well. WhatsApp banned the automation and massive sending of messages, which hampered the functioning of channels of various outlets (mainly foreign) and limited their growth potential. Will Telegram give different treatment to news outlets? We do not know.