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July 28, 2016, 2:05 p.m.
Audience & Social
Mobile & Apps

Purple, the news startup built around SMS, is leaving it behind for Facebook Messenger

“I think being in the Messenger ecosystem makes it much easier for people to share Purple and to share really interesting and important content that we’re talking about with their friends.”

The trend toward distributed content — moving news and information from open platforms to those controlled by a few tech giants — has a new and interesting example. Instead of the web, it’s SMS — common text messaging — that the startup Purple is moving away from.

As of Monday, Purple, the bite-sized, messaging-driven news source we wrote about in March, will move from texts to Facebook Messenger. (Purple users receive casual daily news alerts about regarding the current election cycle, with some various breaking world news sprinkled in.)

Why the drastic change? Cost, utility, and finding users where they are.

“The benefit that we get from [Facebook] Messenger is the fact that it’s already in most people’s phones,” says David Heimann, co-founder of Purple alongside Rebecca Harris. “Additionally, the Messenger interface provides a lot of little things that makes the experience a lot better to use Purple on Messenger. “

purple-logoPurple plans to incorporate Messenger bots’ quick replies feature and add video messages to creating more of a personal and shareable experience in the Messenger app compared to SMS. “I think being in the Messenger ecosystem makes it much easier for people to share Purple and to share really interesting and important content that we’re talking about [on Purple] with their friends,” says Harris.

As far as cutting costs, Facebook Messenger doesn’t charge to send (or receive) messages compared to text messaging which, according to Harris, becomes more expensive as user numbers grow. However, Purple isn’t worried about losing users in the shift to Messenger. “[With users] we’re in the thousands, but we’re not all that interested in the raw number of users,” says Heimann. “We’re more interested in growing the high caliber part of the community, which is the reason why we’re moving to Messenger. We’ve gone from, in our early days, of having 10 to 20 percent contributing to some days where 60 percent of our user base will be engaging.”

In order to maintain a high quality user base, Purple will also, for now, no longer be open to everyone, but available on an invite-only basis. New users must be invited by another Purple user or sign up for an invitation on the Purple website.

But don’t call Purple a messenger bot. “We don’t think of ourselves as a bot because all of the content is human-created. All of the engagement that happens between us and users is all human to human, real human,” says Harris. “We have such a focus on being the best place to be informed and actually having a conversation about this stuff.”

Purple is also aiming to cover news beyond American politics, on which it was founded, moving from their “politics nerds” persona to a platform of being “the easiest place in the world to stay informed,” according to Heimann. Using breaking news, Purple is feeding into users’ demand for quick news that gets people talking.

“As an experiment a couple months ago, we covered breaking news for the first time. I believe it was the San Bernardino shooting,” says Harris. “We saw crazy engagement around that, because it fills such a need that our users have in following something like that, in one cohesive place with a voice they trust.”

But how is Purple planning to monetize conversations around news? By using information gathered about its users to market brands and products that would interest them best. “We’re able to create these really personal relationships with our users because we’re messaging with them like a friend would,” says Harris. Another option is a freemium model, allowing for an extended level of engagement if users pay.

“The key here for us is not doing anything that we know doesn’t add value for our users,” says Heimann. “When we feel like we have a created value added and we can nail it, we can do that. “

Photo of Facebook Messenger by Karlis Dambrans used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 28, 2016, 2:05 p.m.
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