Due to the growing plethora of social media platforms, newsrooms are increasingly seeing the need to meet users where they already are. That means not only bringing readers onto their own website or app, but also engaging them on the same platforms that their audiences regularly use. With over 5 billion downloads, WhatsApp is one of the most important platforms for engaging new and existing audiences.
To use this messaging tool for engagement, your newsroom needs to get access to the WhatsApp Business API, a legally permissible and scalable way to engage with audiences on this platform.
At CGNet, we already had a toll-free number that rural audiences in central India call to report and listen to stories. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we conducted a survey of how many users in rural India who called that number also had an associated WhatsApp account. The number was approximately 30%, which we knew would increase over time. To stay relevant to the community we had been with for over 15 years, we needed a WhatsApp strategy and we needed it fast. This guide is based on the lessons learned from the integration of the API we did with CGNet Swara’s toll-free number.
How to obtain WhatsApp API access for your newsroom
Procuring access to the WhatsApp Business API can be a long and arduous process. It can take anywhere from 1-3 months. But if your newsroom realizes it needs to be on this platform, here are the steps you can take:
1. Choose your vendor wisely! WhatsApp does not provide API access directly, but operates through third-party vendors, each of whom has its own business model. For example, Twilio and turn.io charge on a per message or per user basis, so an increase in user base and engagement directly translates to more money spent. We made use of IMI Mobile, which charges a fixed maintenance fee every month and simply passes on any additional costs to you. As WhatsApp does not charge for replying to a user, an increase in engagement will not increase costs when working with such vendors.
It is helpful to have a vendor with a point person and a troubleshooting software team that you can engage with in the design and development process. Depending on the larger outreach strategy, it can also be important to have a vendor that has a multi-channel presence across other communication platforms like SMS, Telegram or Interactive Voice Response (IVR).
2. Create a Facebook Business Manager account if you do not have one and link it to your Facebook page. You then need to send your Business Manager ID to the vendor you have selected and allow them to send messages to Facebook on your behalf by navigating to ‘requests.’
3. Verify your Business Manager ID by navigating to the security center. Phone number verification is not available in all countries, which represents a particularly cumbersome step where your website needs to be verified.
4,. Choose a phone number and write a description of your company that will be displayed against your account. There needs to be a discussion over whether you would like to own this number or rent it from the vendor, which can be important for reducing costs and easily changing vendors in the future. In case you decide to use your own number, a one-time password is generated and sent viaSMS to this phone number, which needs to then be entered by your vendor. This phone number should not have had a WhatsApp account associated with it for the last six months.
5. Register your Facebook page with the news page index (for media outlets only) by navigating to the registrations tab. This can be a roadblock for some community media outlets due to their stringent standards on what counts as media. You can use this form to submit any complaints if you encounter problems in this step.
What this process looked like for CGNet
At a larger level, WhatsApp is determined not to let their service become like SMS, which has a constant barrage of advertisements that people do not respond to. Accordingly, their API incentivizes engagement by making it free to reply to a user for up to 24 hours after their last message. Initiating a message outside that timeframe not only requires the user's permission but also pre-approval of that message from Facebook. Not only that costs money, but WhatsApp also bans a vendor permanently if it is blocked by a sufficient number of users.
The overall implication of these rules is that a successful WhatsApp strategy requires high engagement with users, which can be achieved by providing them a service they regularly seek. In one sense, a newsroom with a WhatsApp chatbot requires a ‘subscription’ from users every 24 hours because messaging them outside the 24-hour window will cost additional money.
CGNet’s model of impact journalism revolves around resolving basic governance problems reported by villagers, such as a non-functioning handpump or a road in their village that needs repair. There are also cultural items such as songs or folk tales that get recorded by communities who have appropriated the toll-free reporting service as a cultural repository. This past history helped us realize that the service we provide for self-expression that can bring tangible change to low-income, non-technical communities would be a reason for them to regularly engage with our chatbot.
We finally settled on using the WhatsApp Business API to enable villagers to report stories from the ground that our editors could then verify and publish online. The platform would also be used to disseminate our stories to these villagers in the form of videos, audios and text/GIFs sent over WhatsApp. The elegance of the design consisted in augmenting the toll-free number already in use by people for reporting stories with the WhatsApp API, so that our outreach team could tell budding citizen journalists to either WhatsApp their stories to us if they had internet and a smartphone, or to call us if they possessed only a feature phone with cellular connectivity.
Any image, audio or video submission to our WhatsApp chatbot is treated as a story that our editors fact-check and publish online. Once these stories are reported, we use the 24-hour window that opens up to send them our popular stories of the day, which they can respond to with emojis. We also allow users to seek out a particular reporter’s story by simply sharing their contact card or hear stories reported from their district by sharing their location.
In the first month of deployment, 236 stories were submitted by users, of which 126 were fact-checked and published online. What is particularly exciting is that we received 37 video stories, which is a marked change from the toll-free number that only allows for audio submissions. We also validated our impact journalism model on WhatsApp as 2 impact stories were reported saying that the problem they reported had been resolved after being published online (out of a total of 45 such published grievances).
We see many other services that newsrooms can provide their audience via WhatsApp, such as fact-checking false information floating on closed networks, letting readers give story leads or providing relevant stories to those who request them through keywords or sharing of a location.
Devansh Mehta is the Director of Research at CGnet Swara, which was founded by a former ICFJ Knight Fellow.