Can chat products help news publishers build trust?

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


We have an overall hypothesis in the news media industry that as people age up and become civically engaged — buy a house, send their kids to school, become more interested in politics — they have a higher propensity to subscribe to our products. This comes partly because we have yet to figure out a way to monetise effectively off-platform. 

But we’re already disproving that hypothesis. The majority of digital subscribers are 45+. There are very few (any?) news organisations that are attracting younger paying subscribers. Not Millennials and certainly not Gen Z.

But look at social platforms, any of them. The top accounts are always individuals. Something Richard Gingras wrote about recently and then discussed with us on the INMA Silicon Valley Study tour is trust.

He argued that there is not a dearth of trust overall — everyone trusts someone. This really struck a chord with me. People trust people. They don’t always trust brands. And that makes sense on a human level: You see a face, you get to know someone. It’s a mirror, something similar we humans can connect to. And that’s why social has done well. It’s also why Substack has done so well. 

And therein lies a challenge for us as news brands: How can you effectively build that connection? We talk about engagement. Maybe we need to start talking about connection. 

I am well aware that a brand, an institution, means processes. For us it means rigor. It means separating fact from fiction. Chasing the truth, providing context to complex situations. People may understand this, but we need to find a way to connect that back to the human level. 

So how do we make a brand more human? 

The obvious thing is to show the faces behind the news. But that also brings challenges as personalities can come and go. Those with large followings are exactly those that do well on Substack — on their own. Every publication deals with this, and it’s nothing new. 

Another way is using audio. Voice has been shown in numerous studies to provide greater connection to people. Good quality audio builds trust. Schibsted spent a lot of time thinking about what their synthetic voice should sound like. More about that in our recent report here.  

And a new way to connect, with the help of GenAI, is chat. As we’ve already seen with ChatGPT and other GenAI products, we’re moving from searching for a few keywords to asking questions. And the answers we are getting back are detailed, as if a human had put them together. We can further interrogate these responses, build on them further. This is chat. And chat is human-like. It builds connection. As a whole, this may move us a step closer to trust.

News media companies can use chat to build trusted connections.
News media companies can use chat to build trusted connections.

On the study tour, we met a company that, I think, solves a number of the issues above. It’s a chat application that can either be placed as a chatbot on our Web site. Or it can be used on any chat platform. Yes, pretty much any: WhatsApp, Teleram, Facebook Messenger to name a few.

“But we have broadcast ability on WhatsApp now!” I hear you say. 

Yes we do. But that is a one-way broadcast communication. We cannot converse.

The reason I got excited is actually not just about the chat. It’s that they can provide off-platform analytics for these tools. Advertising and sponsorship can be bought into the chat. And it could also be used as a subscriber-only benefit. On the surface, it seems to be a product that we can use off-platform, can get metrics for, monetise, and build into our subscription products to increase engagement. This is the kind of thing that could be a game changer. 

This is the kind of gem we love surfacing on study tours. It’s actually been used predominantly in sports and commerce to date. There are trials with media at the moment, of which I will keep you posted to see if the promise of the platform lives up to my expectations. 😊

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About Jodie Hopperton

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