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The Globe and Mail

Creating informed voters through WhatsApp: A Canadian election experiment

Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

During this year's Canadian election campaign, we experimented with a new way of keeping readers informed: sending messages through chat app WhatsApp. The idea was simple: What's the one thing you need to know today to help you make an informed vote on Oct. 19?

It was a great experiment, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. But it wasn't without its challenges. And it's not something we'd likely do again unless WhatsApp evolves.

Allow me to explain. First, the positives:

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Readers loved it

About 1,700 people (from across Canada and abroad) signed up (200 of whom dropped out at various points along the way). And this was with limited promotion (about a tweet a day throughout the campaign and a few Facebook posts). Hundreds of readers gave rave reviews (with high-five, smiley-face and thumbs-up emojis), including:

- "As a young voter voting for the first time in a federal election, this was an amazing resource."

- "It was valuable and affected how I cast my ballot!"

- "Topical updates that were never overwhelming. Passed on a few of the links to some voters who didn't know who to vote for."

- "It was like a friend giving me a heads up on an issue, and I got hooked on many of them. It was almost a personal relationship between my newspaper and I. Thanks for this interesting experience. I sure am going to miss it."

Many expressed how useful they found this, and enjoyed the convenience of having carefully curated news delivered right to them. Because it is one-on-one communication, several pointed out that it felt intimate and personal. And many didn't want to see it end. In fact, they wanted us to expand it beyond politics and send more of our news this way.

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Dozens of people also offered praise on Twitter, impressed that we were testing WhatsApp out in this way.

100% hit rate

Facebook has an algorithm that dictates what people see in their news feeds. Twitter has a deluge of content. With WhatsApp, because it works like a text message, you know that everyone who signs up to receive messages, will see them. A gift for social media editors.

Easy interaction

I've never interacted with such an enthusiastic group of readers. Combing through the comments on Facebook, Twitter and our website can be a daunting experience. When asked for feedback on WhatsApp, readers were cheery, insightful and full of helpful ideas. Among them:

  • Send updates without links: Not surprisingly, readers didn’t like being taken out of WhatsApp to consume content. They loved when we sent graphics of the latest polling numbers, for example. They could get a sense of the story right in the message. They preferred to see summaries or tidbits of information (especially if presented visually), rather than a headline and a link.
  • More interaction: some wanted to vote in polls, or answer a question of the day. Given that this is a chat app, it makes sense that having more conversations would be appealing.

Now on to the challenges of using WhatsApp this way:

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Logistical nightmare

The sign-up process works like this: Readers send a WhatsApp message saying they would like to join. We add them as a contact to our phone, then add them to a broadcast list in WhatsApp. Because the account is tied to a phone number, this can only be done on one phone, so social media editors had to pass the designated WhatsApp phone back and forth. WhatsApp lets you add a maximum of 256 people to a broadcast list. So we had to create multiple lists and send the same message separately to each list (six lists in our case). WhatsApp's desktop version made this a bit easier, but when adding images, it would often stall and take up to 30 seconds to send each message. (We sent a total of 46 messages to each broadcast list throughout the 78-day election campaign, so this got annoying real quick.) Then, if someone said they wanted to stop receiving messages, we had to find which list they were on and remove them. Adding and removing people took up so much time, we stopped promoting the feature near the end of the election campaign. It was too hard to keep up.

Because of the workflow difficulties, we weren't able to send as many messages as we would have liked, particularly on election night.

There are also no metrics, so you have to devise your own way of keeping track of how many people join and how many interact.

And the sign-up process can be confusing for those unfamiliar with WhatsApp. Many sent us text messages instead of WhatsApp messages and dozens called.

WhatsApp presents exciting opportunities for journalists. Imagine as a reporter, you could join an established chat group and exchange information and photos for a story you are working on? And if WhatsApp is willing to work with news organizations to smooth out the kinks, we would happily test the waters again. A huge thank you to the readers who participated in this experiment. I will certainly miss communicating via emoji.

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