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With in-article chat bots, BBC is experimenting with new ways to introduce readers to complex topics
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Feb. 9, 2018, 9:45 a.m.
Audience & Social

With its new Olympics texting experiment, the Times is saying goodbye to SMS, hello to personalization

“What we’ve created is a bot-like exchange, but in the voice and tone of a person.”

The New York Times isn’t giving up on its ambition to use text messaging to communicate directly with readers — but it is switching up the tech that it uses to do so.

Dating back to the Summer Olympics in 2016, the Times has used the scale of the games to experiment with using direct messaging to let its reporters and editors communicate with readers. Its latest project brings it to Pyeongchang, South Korea, where journalist Sam Manchester will cover the Winter Olympics that officially opened today, with results, photos, and behind-the-scenes coverage.

The idea behind the South Korea project, as with the Times’ previous experiments, is to use conversational interfaces to create a more intimate, personal experience with readers. The latest experiment will attempt to deepen those relationships further with new backend personalization features designed to connect readers with coverage that they care about. That’s thanks to a new polling tool, which Manchester will be able to use to ask readers which topics or events (say, curling) they’re most interested in. The Times’ system will remember readers’ choices, sending them targeted messages from Manchester when events happen later (like the curling finals).

The Times is able to implement these new features thanks to what is probably the most significant improvement to its messaging projects: sending them through its native mobile app rather than via SMS, as it had previously. “One of the big benefits here is that we do control the whole space,” said Troy Griggs, graphics editor at the Times. “So much more is on the table now. Any interactive experience we build now we can tie together in a way that we wouldn’t be able to elsewhere, even on Instagram or Snapchat. We can really integrate our content and experience in a way that is new.”

When the Times first started its texting experiments, it quickly ran into a major snag: SMS itself. Texting at scale gets very expensive quickly, particularly when photos and gifs are added. This strained the Times’ budget for the effort, limiting the number of texts that could be sent to readers each day and constraining the projects’ overall reach. “We couldn’t advertise this widely because of the costs,” said Ben Koski, director of interactive news at the Times.

The Times’ new system patches these issues. Sending messages through the Times app avoids the cost concerns and, in turn, giving the Times the ability to message many more people. A custom content management system built for the messaging efforts will let Manchester draft both messages as well as responses to those messages, which will appear based on how readers respond. Manchester will be able to see every message sent to him, with the option to sort the responses to determine what people are most interested in. “What we’ve created is a bot-like exchange, but in the voice and tone of a person,” said Griggs.

While bringing the messaging experiment within the Times app is certain to get more readers interested, Koski said that he’s not sure how people will perceive the experience in this context. “We are pushing on some of the central understandings of how people use this app,” he said. “With our push alerts, we speak in this omniscient voice and point readers to articles. In this case, we’re using that same space to talk to you in a more conversational environment. To me, it will be interesting to see how readers feel.”

POSTED     Feb. 9, 2018, 9:45 a.m.
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