I seem to remember mobile phone networks experimenting with this type of service in the UK over a decade ago, yet even so, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Purple and the way it worked.
Essentially subscribers choose to receive live updates about important events i.e. the US election debates or breaking news stories. The latter feature reminded me of the very clever technology that drove the once very promising, but now sadly missed news app Circa. The updates are interesting, informative and interactive too as Purple responds to individual users’ question.
Of course, as a platform text messaging is less than ideal for receiving news. Firstly in many countries users pay per text, so there could be fees involved. Secondly, as a platform it reeks of the presmartphone period. Surely Purple could take the core of its service and deliver it in a more effective and contemporary way?
Which is exactly what the startup has done. From this week Purple has pivoted to offer updates via Facebook Messenger.
Bring on the bots
“The benefit that we get from [Facebook] Messenger is the fact that it’s already in most people’s phones,” David Heimann, cofounder of Purple told Nieman Labs. “Additionally, the Messenger interface provides a lot of little things that makes the experience a lot better to use Purple on Messenger.”
What could give Purple a technological edge is that it can now start harnessing Facebook bots to deliver the news. So if a user responds in a certain way the bot then comes back with updates. It makes the process of maintaining the conversation between the service and the user more seamless and easier to manage. The startup also believes that moving to Facebook Messenger will help to grow its interaction levels (subscribers responding to the news, asking questions etc), which the company claims are already an impressive 20 per cent. The virality of the platform too will surely help it expand its user base. Purple has ambitions to launch its service on other messaging platforms including WhatsApp and Slack (which, interestingly the New York Times and others are already using), and its mixture of informative, yet intelligent updates and comment could work in many other places too.
Various media companies have been experimenting with bots on Facebook Messenger as a way of offering updates to users. The market leader in this space so far has been CNN which delivers personalised stories to its readers if they respond to CNN with a keyword.
TechCrunch, The WSJ and Business Insider have created similar services. Some publishers have however been critical of the lack of promotion that Facebook has given these services, which has meant adoption has been sluggish.
For Purple’s founders though, it is the human element, rather than the technology, which is its key component. “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,” cofounder Rebecca Harris told Nieman Labs. “We have such a focus on being the best place to be informed and actually having a conversation about this stuff.”
Purple is currently mulling over various monetisation options, but don’t expect to be in too much of a rush to serve ads or start subscription services. It is keeping user numbers low while it continues to experiment. If you want to join a fairly exclusive band you have to subscribe via the company’s website.
It is early days for Purple, but its core idea of combining bots with human resources to distribute news and respond to individuals is one that many media companies are surely considering.
And media companies shouldn’t be be writing off text messaging too. As an experiment, to run in tandem with the Olympics in Rio, The New York Times Deputy Sports Editor, Sam Manchester is going to send periodic updates from the games via SMS.
According to Nieman Labs these will be very personal messages using smartphone snapshots, GIFs, emojis etc and Manchester intends to respond to readers’ feedback and questions.
Also Manchester will ask readers themselves what topics they would like to learn more about, which in turn will direct what he texts about.
Marc Lavallee, Times editor of interactive news, told Nieman Labs, “what we’re trying to do is figure out if there a space between broadcast, where everyone gets the same exact thing, and a total human-powered one-on-one interaction — which obviously doesn’t scale easily — to see if we can have the best of both worlds.”
Might this be a dry run for the US election later in the year? Possibly. One things for sure news organisations are definitely thinking of making things more personal.
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