Reach turns to WhatsApp to drive audience growth and engagement

Reach turns to WhatsApp to drive audience growth and engagement
Russell views WhatsApp as a way to aid local news distribution
The Media Leader Interview

In the first of a two-part feature examining publisher strategies with direct messaging, Reach’s engagement director, Dan Russell, discusses how WhatsApp has become a ‘big win’ in reaching new audiences.

As publishers’ traffic from search and social media has fallen in the past year, many are looking to take more control over their capacity to engage audiences.

Dan Russell, Reach’s engagement director, explained in an interview with The Media Leader that one of his most significant tasks is reaching people “without going through an algorithm, which is often like a maze”.

Although Meta in particular has presented challenges to news outlets by deprioritising news on platforms including Facebook, one of its other services, WhatsApp, has emerged as a significant way to engage with readers.

Russell says WhatsApp, in contrast with most social media platforms, offers the possibility to speak directly to a captive audience without having to worry about SEO or algorithms. Readers can simply sign up to receive messages from publishers, akin to newsletters, across two features in the app: Communities and Channels.

While WhatsApp is part of Reach’s “broader engagement mix” that still includes social media sites, Russell admits there are “lots of things at the minute stopping our platform from getting out there” and that WhatsApp provides something different, with greater autonomy.

Support for local news

Russell first began experimenting with WhatsApp in 2017, but “the technology wasn’t quite there” to widely spread messages and track performance.

In 2022, WhatsApp launched Communities, a feature that enables the creation of group chats users can subscribe to that, as admin, the outlet can send messages to. Over time, the app has added complementary features, such as the ability to create polls, share files and allow users to react to messages.

Communities sparked renewed interest from Reach. Given the publisher’s ownership of various local news outlets, Russell saw the tool as an opportunity to aid local news distribution. “Community is at the heart of local news,” he says.

Channels, a similar feature later introduced by WhatsApp that enables one-way broadcast messaging, has also been put to use.

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According to Russell, the number of sign-ups to Reach’s various Communities and Channels have grown month on month and internal research has found the audience has viewed using the app for news consumption positively. As of mid-March, Reach had 170,000 sign-ups to its Communities and an additional 1.7m subscribers to its Channels.

Page views derived from WhatsApp exceeded 5m, more than double the total follower count, as the app is commonly used to share and forward messages and articles. Within Communities, open rates are above 90%. For stories related to sport, Russell says it is not unheard of for stories to receive two to three times the number of page views than there are members of the Community in which the article was originally shared.

A thoughtful strategy

Much of Reach’s success comes from a thoughtful strategy around which Communities and Channels to create, which articles to post (and when) and how to conduct audience discovery.

“An awful lot of data is driving what we do,” says Russell. “But it’s very different from everything else because it’s content-based. You send it [out] if you’ve got the content and the way you know if you’ve got the content is from the data.”

While Channels are discoverable, they currently exist in the seldom-used Updates tab on the app. Russell calls this a “challenge” and tells The Media Leader he has raised the issue with Meta.

Communities, on the other hand, have a dedicated tab. However, there is no in-app discoverability for individual Communities. As such, Russell and his team have conducted staff training on best practices for promoting Communities.

Russell admits that, perhaps because Communities are more prominently featured in the app, the open rate there is considerably higher than on Channels, even though Channels may attract more subscribers because they are discoverable.

Unlike newsletters, Russell thinks there is little concern of users unsubscribing: “Once you get people in, you’ve got them in and you don’t really have to worry about them leaving.” Another distinction: because users can scroll back up the chat history to see prior messages, articles shared there have a longer tail than in newsletters.

Tracking engagement

Reach tracks engagement on articles through page views, emoji reactions and responses to in-app polls. WhatsApp does not provide demographic data on those signing up or reading, placing the onus on the publisher to approximate impact.

Russell says light-hearted articles tend to get a lot of attraction, such as those about football clubs or Eurovision, but Reach has also experimented with harder-hitting content through creating Communities to track, for example, specific court cases.

While a Community for a court case may only get a few hundred sign-ups, according to Russell, the engagement within that pool is especially high because of the opt-in nature. For example, if Reach is running a number of stories in a given day on a trial, those people will read every single one. “You’ve got less people, but consuming more,” he points out.

“What we’re trying to do is identify what people want and give them it,” Russell notes.

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Options away from WhatsApp

The irony in using WhatsApp — which is owned by Meta, just as its other platforms have started deprioritising news — is not lost on Russell.

He admits: “If you’re using a service that you don’t own, you’re always going to be vulnerable to platform changes.” As such, there “has been conversation” about an alternative strategy if Meta were to restrict publisher support on WhatsApp.

In the US, Reach is increasingly leaning in to direct messaging options via SMS, where startups have stepped in to offer publishers the capacity to reach and measure audiences. It has been working with Subtext, a texting platform that connects users to subscribers via SMS, and has also tested instant messaging platform Discord.

“[Subtext] provide something different to WhatsApp and we’re exploring that at the minute,” says Russell.

The startup bills its services as more akin to Substack, albeit for direct messaging rather than newsletters, and with an intentionally less prominent brand association.

Ultimately, for Russell, the usefulness of any direct messaging platform comes down to its ability to supply broad reach.

“What you’ve got to have is the scale,” he says. “We do popular content for the masses. That doesn’t mean we can’t do niche content, and we do, but we’ve got to go where the audience is.”

Part two of this feature on publishers’ use of direct messaging, an interview with Subtext co-founder and CEO Mike Donoghue, will be available on The Media Leader next week.

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