WhatsApp has become a heavily used instant messaging platform in Germany, so local newspaper Heilbronner Stimme embraced it to tell readers a story about its city’s history.

On December 4, 1944, the British Royal Air Force bombed Heilbronn, a city in the South of Germany. More than 6,500 people died that night. The city was totally destroyed. On the memorial day 70 years later, our media company’s online team wanted to remember the bombing in a special way.

Our goal was to reach people in their daily lives  —  and to provoke an instant and close experience similar to what happened 70 years ago. We also wanted to engage with younger audiences with the story. So we decided to tell the story of that dark chapter in our city’s history in a new way: using WhatsApp.

Instant messaging provided a dramatic, minute-by-minute "replay" of the historic event, making a big impact on readers.
Instant messaging provided a dramatic, minute-by-minute "replay" of the historic event, making a big impact on readers.

We used an approach similar to a historic live ticker with messages with images, videos, and charts, throughout the day at the same time stamp or approximate moment as the events had unfolded 70 years earlier:

“At this time, in England, 2,000 men prepared for their flight … Now, they are sighted near the French coast … At 6:45 pm: Airplanes over Heilbronn…”

Over about six hours, we sent about 30 messages. We tried to achieve a fact-based storytelling with emotional, identity-establishing components. For example, we showed pictures of Heilbronn’s old town before the war and after. Many users recognised for the first time that their hometown Heilbronn has undergone significant changes over the past 70 years.

Not only did WhatsApp provide great impact, it also made it easy to connect directly with users and follow up with a questionnaire. Responses indicated a high level of satisfaction with the way this story was shared.
Not only did WhatsApp provide great impact, it also made it easy to connect directly with users and follow up with a questionnaire. Responses indicated a high level of satisfaction with the way this story was shared.

About 2,500 users registered for our service, so we installed 10 broadcast lists in WhatsApp that we used to reach everyone in the best way possible. We only had one smartphone, 10 lists, and 2,500 contacts to be entered manually. That sounds like a lot of work — and it was. But also was fun and worth it because we received so many user reactions.

Never before have we received such positive user feedback for our work. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks, in WhatsApp there were no trolls. We received about 1,000 personal comments through all social networks — so many we couldn’t even answer all of them!

Some examples of the feedback:

  • “Very well done! Hopefully you reached many people!”

  • “Thank you for this minutely detailed report. I was sitting in the Kilianskirche (church). Very awakening and touching.”

  • “It was a great idea. I look forward to other reports of that kind. My 10-year-old boy followed everything and he was very impressed.”

  • “Thank you very much for this documentation. It was very creepy and touching. I’m nearly 50 years old, but it was awesome and presented in a suitable way.”

We asked users how they enjoyed this service, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive: 84% said they liked it very much, 91% want us to use WhatsApp for further projects, and only two out of 641 people said this type of storytelling doesn’t fit WhatsApp.