This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.
Christine Roberts is the senior editor for growth and emerging platforms at The Huffington Post. She spends a great deal of her time leading audience engagement efforts on messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Viber and Line.
The position was created five months ago in response to the work Roberts was doing with emerging platforms and messaging apps as a mobile editor. The Huffington Post wanted to focus more attention on the growing messaging app platforms and be in more places where the audience spends time.
“Over the past year, it’s become more apparent that our audience is not just reading us on any one platform and we are working hard to be everywhere where our readers are in a meaningful way,” she says.
What are your job responsibilities?
My day-to-day largely centers around overseeing our efforts on the various messaging apps. This varies by platform, but includes everything from programming content for these apps to looking at the stats and pivoting our strategy accordingly. It also involves being in close contact with our partners at each platform to stay on top of updates and product changes, and to collaborate on bespoke projects. I also often hold brainstorms with our team when we work on bigger projects with these platforms.
The rest of my time tends to vary according to the projects I’m focusing on that month. For example, over the summer, my big focus was the launch of our Messenger bots, so I spent a great deal of time putting together the flow and content for those products. I also manage our Labs team, which takes on different editorial experiments each month. The goal for this team is to test out hypotheses and develop learnings that we can then distribute and implement in the newsroom.
What do you mean when you say you “put together the flow and content for these products?”
By putting together the flow of the bots, I mean writing the dialogue that the bot has with users, as well as mapping out and designing the paths users will take with the bot. I, along with a few of my colleagues, also put together the databases that the bots pull from. For example, our HuffPost Entertainment bot serves users Netflix movie and TV recommendations written by our editors. To do this, we solicited recommendations from the newsroom, as well as pulled recommendations from our past TV and movie reviews, and compiled everything into a spreadsheet that the bot then pulled from.
What have you learned from writing dialogue for bot conversations?
Writing for bots is a really fun learning experience because it forces you to be clear and concise. When you think about the chat bots that exist currently, they are taking you through a series of steps to reach an end goal, whether it’s to find a news story to read, a movie to watch or a recipe to cook. You have to be clear about what the bot is asking of your users when you are guiding people through those steps. Otherwise, they will stop conversing with the bot. There are also character limits on Facebook Messenger, so brevity is key.
I’ve also learned to be more conversational when writing bot dialogues. The bots I enjoy most are ones with personality, like the Poncho weather bot. Two ways to do this are, first, write in the first-person and, second, don’t take yourself too seriously. Write for the bot as if you were talking to your friend. Also, because chat bots are still new, the experience is not yet perfect. It’s likely that your bot will fail on occasion. I’ve learned to always write messages that acknowledge when something didn’t go exactly as planned. This eliminates user frustration and lets people know the bot is still a work in progress.
What messaging apps are you using and how are you using them to connect with your audience?
Currently, HuffPost has a presence on Messenger, Viber, Line and WeChat. Our strategy varies by app, but our overarching goal is to create experiences that grow and deepen our relationship with our audience — and are native to each platform. For example, Viber is very much focused around group conversations, so we have two accounts there, HuffPost Elections (now called HuffPost News) and HuffPost Entertainment, where editors chat about the news of the day a few times each week. These public chats have allowed us to go beyond HuffPost as a brand and introduce the editors behind HuffPost to our audience.
Can you think of a particularly memorable group conversation that your editors had on the election account on Viber? How did the audience get involved?
Some of my favorite conversations are the ones we had on the nights of the U.S. presidential debates and the election. Those evenings were incredibly fast-paced and it was interesting to see our editors react to the developments in real time. It was almost like a live blog, but more conversational as editors were sending GIFs, graphics and stickers, in addition to links to our coverage. During these conversations, we also spent some time talking about what the atmosphere was like at the D.C. bureau. That was a fun chance to give our audience a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to cover these events.
During these conversations between our editors, our audience cannot participate, but they can follow along and “heart” or favorite chats from our editors. We saw a lot of this type of engagement during the debates and election night. These conversations were also particularly memorable for me because a large portion of our audience on Viber is from overseas. It was exciting to provide them with in-depth commentary on how the election was playing out in the U.S.
What’s been the most successful way HuffPost has been able to grow its audience on these emerging platforms?
We’ve seen a lot of success with Line. We launched in late May 2016 and our Line account now has very engaged audience with more than 660,000 followers. This has been especially exciting for us as one of HuffPost’s big focuses is expanding our audience internationally. We have 17 global editions and counting.
What are some ways you’ve been able to engage on Line and what do you attribute to the success on Line?
In addition to posting stories to our timeline on Line, which is similar to posting a story to a Facebook page, Line also allows official accounts to send push messages to their followers. This allows us to reach our audience directly on their phones’ lock screens and deliver them the stories that we think they’d be most interested in. We’ve learned a great deal about our audience’s interests by looking at the engagement rates of those messages, and have changed up the types of stories we send accordingly. Line also has other interesting engagement features, including live Q&As that allow for deeper conversations with followers. We haven’t experimented with that yet, but it’s something we’re looking into.
I consider Line a success because it’s given us the opportunity to expand our audience internationally, which is a priority for HuffPost. As I mentioned, we’ve been able to learn a lot about what this audience cares about by looking at shares and other engagement metrics. I think we’ve been successful because we are consistently pivoting our posting strategy based on that data. We’ve also learned that videos share very well on Line. Posting videos has been an effective way for us to increase our following and boost engagement.