Strategies news publishers use on WhatsApp Channels for audience engagement 

Meta recently launched WhatsApp Channels as a way for publishers to broadcast their content to an audience of subscribers. In the month since its launch, several publishers such as The Daily Mail, Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, and Le Monde – to name just a handful – have already jumped onto this platform and gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Die Zeit has even created a WhatsApp channel which has amassed over 32,000 subscribers despite not yet posting on it which highlights the platforms immense potential.

What are WhatsApp Channels, and what are their advantages and drawbacks over other similar solutions? In this article, we explore practical examples of how news publishers are leveraging this new platform to nurture a closer relationship with their subscribers. 

What are Whatsapp Channels?

WhatsApp Channels are a one-way broadcast tool that lets channel administrators share text, images and other interactive content (e.g., polls, video, gifs) with their channel’s subscribers. Unveiled in September 2023, WhatsApp Channels gives news publishers direct access to the personal message inboxes of thousands of news readers and existing subscribers. 

The release of this feature comes at an interesting time for publishers. For several years, the organic reach of social media posts has consistently decreased as social media platforms push more and more sponsored content into users’ feeds. This makes it increasingly difficult for news publishers to reach their audience through these channels. In an attempt to counter this trend, publishers have been exploring alternative ways to distribute news.

Despite Channels’ recent launch, publishers have already long understood the potential of WhatsApp as a news distribution channel. Indeed, since the time of SMS, personal messaging channels have been a particularly appealing distribution method since users check them several times a day and notifications are usually enabled. Telegram was the first to offer channels to broadcast news to users, with WhatsApp joining this trend more recently. 

Publishers have previously leveraged WhatsApp Groups (chat rooms) and Communities (a space hosting several groups). However, this approach presented a few issues: the number of members per Group or Community was limited and the personal information of subscribers, such as their phone numbers, was exposed.

In contrast, WhatsApp Channels have no limit on the number of subscribers, making it a more scalable option for publishers. Moreover, unlike Communities where publishers have access to subscriber’s phone numbers, Channels are GDPR-compliant out of the box, as they do not provide any personal data access. This makes them a much more straightforward option from a compliance standpoint. 

Practical Examples of How Top Publishers Are Engaging Audiences on WhatsApp Channels

We looked at several publishers’ WhatsApp channels across Western Europe and the US to see how they are using theirs. Below are a few common examples of what kind of content you can expect to find. 

1. Headline-focused

A common strategy for several publishers is to use the WhatsApp Channel as a means to highlight the top stories of the day. Beyond providing a snapshot of the headlines, these daily recaps are often aimed at driving engagement to the longer articles on the website or app (if already installed). This has been achieved with some success. For instance, Reach PLC, a publisher with 130 brands across the UK and Ireland, was already using WhatsApp Communities to keep in touch with its audience, and is already investing heavily in their presence on WhatsApp Channels. Within its 80 Communities, it has seen an astonishing 90% open rate, highlighting the platform’s potential. Additionally, forwarded messages can also be a significant driver of traffic for publishers.  

2. Story-focused

Similar to the headline highlights to the extent that it also aims to drive traffic to the long-form article, the story-focused post is a popular content type within Channels. These are single posts with a summary of the article in question which gives the reader more context about the story without having to leave the app. The New York Times, a publisher with a prominent video journalism team, also uses its channel as a way to distribute their video content on a particular story.  

3. Engagement-focused

Despite the one-way broadcast from publisher to user, some publishers are adding different types of content to engage with their audience within the app itself. For instance, L’Équipe, a prominent French sports publisher, uses quizzes (first image below) and caricatures (second image below) with a high degree of engagement in comparison to its other posts.

4. Newsletter-style

Channels is also an important way for local news publishers to have direct access to their readers. In Spain, Pamplonews stands out as an interesting case of this (image on the right). As a WhatsApp-exclusive newsletter, it curates a single post per day with news about the local happenings around Pamplona.

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Advantages and challenges of WhatsApp Channels for Publishers 

With no cost of entry for publishers and users alike, there is little standing in the way of publishers taking advantage of WhatsApp to insert themselves into the daily habits of readers and nudge them on to their own platforms. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023, 16% of news consumers have used WhatsApp as a source of news. Additionally, 54% of surveyed youth (18-24) use WhatsApp which reinforces the opportunity for news publishers to meet younger audiences where they are already.  

That said, there are some obstacles that publishers need to overcome. For instance, WhatsApp limits the visibility of Channels by putting them in a separate Updates tab, and notifications must also be enabled by the user for each channel individually. Moreover, while WhatsApp presents monetisation opportunities, such as revenue share for YouTube videos played on WhatsApp, news publishers still need to find a clear path to convert WhatsApp subscribers into paying customers. Making it easier for Channels readers to purchase a digital subscription, offering Channels members special offers and having a more straightforward connection between Channels and the conversion flow are all avenues that could make WhatsApp Channels more interesting for news publishers. 

Exploring Other Platforms for News Distribution 

WhatsApp Channels are just the latest innovation in a web filled with opportunities for news publishers who are keen to experiment. Artifact, Threads, and Telegram are platforms that offer unique ways for publishers to engage with their audiences and distribute their content as well. 

Telegram, the clear inspiration behind WhatsApp Channels, is a robust platform with a massive user base, offering channels and groups for content distribution and community building. Its emphasis on privacy and real-time communication makes it a reliable choice for publishers looking to build a loyal audience. Through Telegram channels, publishers can broadcast their content to thousands of subscribers, while Telegram groups can foster interactive communities around specific topics. Unlike WhatsApp, Telegram also provides analytics tools to measure engagement, helping publishers to understand their audience better. 

Artifact was designed as a news-reading app utilising a recommendation algorithm. However, with the introduction of the 'Links' feature, it has become a hub for sharing and discovering virtually anything online. This feature allows users to share links with notes, images, or AI-generated summaries, creating a space for curated content. Publishers can use Artifact's Links to distribute their content to a broader audience. Additionally, the concept of 'linkfluencers,' individuals who gain followings by sharing valuable links, could allow publishers to collaborate and amplify their reach. 

Threads, developed by the Instagram team, is a platform for sharing text updates and engaging in public conversations. Threads' integration with ActivityPub, an open social networking protocol, signifies a step towards a more open and interconnected social networking ecosystem. This interoperability with other platforms, such as Mastodon and WordPress, could broaden a publisher's reach to audiences on other platforms without requiring those audiences to have a Threads account. Publishers could utilise Threads for real-time interactions with their audience, gathering feedback, and fostering a community around their content. 

Reuter's use of Telegram to engage audience through polls.

Key Takeaways for News Publishers 

The emergence of WhatsApp Channels has brought a new opportunity for news publishers to reach readers directly, amidst declining referral traffic from mainstream social media platforms. WhatsApp's intimate and personal nature provides an excellent opportunity for publishers to build long-term relationships with their audiences. 

Alternative platforms like Telegram, Artifact, and Threads present distinct opportunities for publishers to extend their reach, engage audiences, and experiment with new modes of content delivery.  

Overall, the discussion opens a broader window into the future of news distribution with the possibility of forging deeper connections with readers and contributing to a richer, more vibrant digital journalism ecosystem. 


Sarah Cool-Fergus

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