Are WhatsApp's Channels a potential game-changer for news platforms?

Although news platforms are actively leveraging WhatsApp Channels to expand their reach and explore various content strategies for engaging with their audience, experts are issuing warnings regarding the presence of purchased and fake followers on the platform

Sakshi Sharma
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Are WhatsApp's Channels a potential game-changer for news platforms?

Introduced in June 2023, the WhatsApp Channel has swiftly emerged as a robust platform for news organisations to disseminate news and connect with their audience on a personal level.

However, amidst the advantages, there are also drawbacks to consider. Similar to the issues faced on other social media platforms, experts are raising concerns about the authenticity of the audience growth experienced by news companies on WhatsApp channels. This raises questions about the presence of fake followers, purchased audiences and other such issues.

Presently, several prominent news channels and platforms, such as News18 India, Aaj Tak, ABP, The Times of India, Zee News and CNBC TV-18, have substantial followings on WhatsApp Channels. News18 India boasts 11.6 million followers, Aaj Tak has 10.7 million followers, ABP maintains a following of 6.5 million, The Times of India garners 6.2 million followers, Zee News has 3,90,000 followers and CNBC TV-18 has 3.6 million followers.

The pros

WhatsApp channels help news platforms engage with audiences in a personalised manner, build audience loyalty, expand the reach and send breaking news alerts.

Rohit Chadda

Rohit Chadda, President and COO- Digital Business, Times Network believes that WhatsApp's introduction of the 'Channels' feature represents a significant leap for the media and news publishing industry. While other messaging apps have already embraced this concept, WhatsApp's new offering has now provided content creators and news organisations with a powerful and official tool to engage their audiences.

“We have been making concerted efforts to build our digital prowess, catering to an expanding user base across platforms. Times Network News and Entertainment brands have effectively harnessed this feature to connect with a vast user base, fostering deeper engagement and enhancing the delivery of valuable information,” he added.

Anindya Khare

Anindya Khare, Marketing Head of Zee Media Corporation, said that WhatsApp business provides a direct and instant channel to reach the audience. One can send breaking news alerts, updates and other important information directly to their subscribers, ensuring that they receive the news in real-time.

"You can engage with your audience on a more personal level. WhatsApp allows for two-way communication, enabling you to respond to queries, gather feedback and build a stronger relationship with your viewers," he added.

Khare also said that sharing multimedia content such as images, videos and audio messages, can be valuable for delivering news in a visual and engaging format. Moreover, building a WhatsApp subscriber base can help foster loyalty among your audience.

Pranav Bakshi

Pranav Bakshi, Head - Digital Video Strategy and Partnerships, Network18 pointed out that they have just started leveraging this new feature and the network is expecting to learn from it and leverage it in terms of getting a completely newer and more engaged user base.

"We are the first one to cross 10 million subscribers on WhatsApp Channel for News18 India, now the numbers have crossed the 11-million mark. While all this is happening, there is a fair bit of learning that we are going through regarding the kind of content to share, the kind of content people are interacting with, etc. So, these are very early days currently but it adds to the new way of distributing content," Bakshi said.

The cons

On the other hand, a highly placed source told BestMediaInfo that there is a growing belief that news channels may have started purchasing subscribers for their WhatsApp channels, similar to the way it's become a common practice on Instagram. If it is to be believed then this could lead to a situation where the number of subscribers may not accurately represent genuine interest.

Additionally, industry experts have raised concerns about the functionality of WhatsApp's Channel feature. “When you subscribe to the top profile on your list, it may not remain visible there, and another profile or channel is automatically pushed to the top spot. This has left many unclear about how the algorithm works,” he added.

Pawan Agarwal

Striking a similar tone, Pawan Agarwal, Deputy Managing Director, DB Corp, pointed out that as of now, there’s nothing fundamentally different about WhatsApp Channels which makes it better for either the news publishers or users compared to all the channels that exist today.

 "We are observing WhatsApp’s new Channels feature and trying to gauge how it is different from the multiple other platform offerings by big tech platforms which leverage news publisher content directly or indirectly and engage their consumers without compensating the news publishers back or helping them monetise and create a sustainable business,” he added.

He also hopes that WhatsApp is actively working to become more transparent and fair in sharing revenue with publishers for all the content consumed on their platforms.

“There are regulations and laws being passed in multiple countries for the same and we believe India will also move in the right direction on the same soon. WhatsApp has the opportunity to do the right thing for news publishers from the get-go and we really hope they will do that,” he added.

News publishers focusing on deeper content engagement

One concern is that users might only view headlines on WhatsApp Channels rather than visit the main platform. On being asked how are publishers planning to address this potential challenge and ensure that users engage with their content beyond just headlines, Chadda said that people need to view Whatsapp Channels as a new touchpoint to sample the brand’s content.

“User engagement with any Channel hinges on the type of content shared with them. Our brands, including Times Now, Times Now Navbharat and Zoom, are active on WhatsApp Channels, providing a range of content formats that encourage users to sample the brands and route them back to the brand's main platforms. We have focused on tailoring content to user preferences, aiming to facilitate more substantial and meaningful interactions beyond mere headline consumption,” he added.

Bakshi pointed out that the key distinction between this platform and others lies in its primary focus on the intended user's journey.

 “Even if the user doesn't click immediately, we provide various content formats, including snippets, headlines, links, videos, and potentially images. The core idea is to attract those who wish to delve deeper, offering them well-researched and comprehensive content. It's not merely a promotional tool. Rather, it serves as a means to expand our audience and entice some to return for further reading. We don't anticipate a high conversion rate, but we do expect to engage some of WhatsApp's extensive user base. Ultimately, it's more about reaching and connecting with the audience than purely driving users to our website or platforms. We already have a substantial presence on external platforms like YouTube and Facebook, and this functions as another channel in our distribution strategy. In essence, you can view it as an additional distribution platform for our content,” he added.

Khare emphasised that this is not a universal phenomenon. He believes it is an individual's prerogative to just browse through headlines/breaking news or get into the detailed context of stories. It largely depends on the engagement quotient of the content and whether the audience finds it worthy enough to follow it to the source.

Using WhatsApp Channels to fight fake news

Chadda highlighted that it's the first time that news platforms are present on WhatsApp in a big way. This will help users tap into credible brands' WhatsApp Channels for their news.

“Our news brands, Times Now and Times Now Navbharat are built on a legacy of offering the fastest and most credible news, ensuring accurate information reaches our audience and this helps users to distinguish the authentic brands. While it's still early days, it's imperative for the platform to authenticate and categorise Channels presenting themselves as news sources to prevent the spread of fake news through this feature,” he added.

Khare said that Whatsapp Channels would be in the name of the official media house name and so there would be two-pronged benefits. Firstly, subscribers will get credible and authentic news from validated sources. Secondly, they would rely and consume less on random forward texts or unreliable sources.

Agarwal said, “It is critical for credible news publishers like us to be available on this channel so that WhatsApp users receive verified, trusted news instead of the ample amount of fake news they receive on WhatsApp groups - even if there is no way to get a fair share of revenue for their content - for the good of society, it is crucial that verified news directly from publishers is at least available there.”

News publishers hope to see certain enhancements in WhatsApp Channels

Bakshi said, Currently, the support for content genres primarily revolves around creators, with a significant influx of content producers, including news creators. To enhance the credibility of news content vs content circulated on WhatsApp, we expect a structured verification system. This might involve introducing an editorial mechanism in addition to the existing verification checkmarks. Furthermore, our focus extends beyond news into other content categories too”

“Additionally, we are expanding our reach into regional and hyper-local content, recognising that much of the content on platforms like WhatsApp is locally oriented. We already have brands like Local18 catering to hyper-local needs then we also have brands which are regional. So, if they also come on WhatsApp Channels, they will also become a verified source of information, ensuring that trustworthy information is accessible at the grassroots level, not limited to national or major stories,” he added.

Chadda highlighted that currently, WhatsApp is focused on messaging and needs an increased focus on content consumption to make WhatsApp Channels mainstream. Introducing features like categorised channels and verification tags would greatly assist users in discovering channels of their interest while also differentiating authentic channels from fake ones.

“Additionally, the availability of APIs for integration with various web and third-party platforms, an option for web login and the ability to allow multiple users to access the channel hold significant potential to support businesses and media publishers,” he added.

Khare emphasised that the analytics and insights that WhatsApp business provides can help in tracking the effectiveness of messages, understanding user engagement and making data-driven decisions for content distribution. Also, introducing interactive news games can be beneficial.

“We can Develop simple news-related games or quizzes that subscribers can participate in for fun and knowledge. This can help create a sense of community and engagement,” he added.

Agarwal highlighted a few enhancements that he hopes to see in WhatsApp Channels going forward including, enabling publishers to connect with their own audience and also manage their private data directly, different ways for publishers to generate revenue including fair platform revenue sharing based on the engagement generated and different ways for publishers to monetise further via subscriptions and direct ad revenue models.

news publishers news channels Dainik Bhaskar Zee network Channels DB Corp news genre WhatsApp channels news platforms Times Network ABP Zee News WhatsApp Network18 CNBC TV-18