Future in bots: Creating news customization

By Hannah Dickens

Travis Bernard is the director of audience development at TechCrunch, a media property focused on technology. He specializes in audience development, social media, web analytics, brand marketing and business development. Most of his career has been focused on or related to analyzing and developing social media.

Travis Bernard

TechCrunch director of audience development Travis Bernard. (Photo courtesy of Travis Bernard)

Facebook debuted Messenger “chatbots” at its annual F8 developer conference in April as a way to connect businesses with their customers and encourage interaction on a deeper level. These bots have been used by news publishers like TechCrunch to provide automated and customized content.

Why did you decide on using a Facebook Messenger bot? What did it have that you didn’t already have for TechCrunch?

You know there’s like 1.6 billion people on Facebook? And Messenger is really the next step for Facebook to kind of build out the same ecosystem. And they’ve really done a good job with it; they just announced a couple weeks ago that they actually just hit, there are now a billion users on Facebook Messenger. So from an impact perspective, you know we really thought there was a big opportunity to hit a lot of people. And you know just having a strong brand outside of Facebook too just seemed to mesh well with what we wanted to achieve. … Our goal with the bot was really to kind of offer up an alternative to a newsletter that you could actually get within the Messenger system. Newsletters have really kind of grown in popularity recently just because everybody has mobile phones now. And bringing that experience within a messaging app is even better because you can subscribe to specific topics.

With using a bot and being able to change how news is delivered, do you think you might grow your audience with the ease of use and personalization?

I always felt that this bot is almost like a newsletter, like an automated newsletter. You know you could basically customize what topics and things you’re interested in and then you could get those specific types of topics delivered, similar to a newsletter. … Our TechCrunch newsletter was an automated newsletter. It was looking at, here are the top stories of the day, and it would just deliver it to you. And then what we were kind of realizing is one, that’s not exactly the best experience and two, that’s pretty much exactly what somebody’s going to get from the bot. So we actually switched over our newsletter; it’s now more like hand-curated so a writer is actually writing it every day versus having it come like all automated. So we’ve basically been able to create two different kinds of experiences.

Have you seen anything else at TechCrunch kind of adapt once Messenger took over or changed certain roles?

The thing I’ve been most surprised by is how quickly it’s caught on. If we think about some of our media apps and how long it takes to grow a newsletter subscription, it takes a lot of time. We think we’ve seen massive growth on this in a really short period of time.

Do you think that’s because people are already using Messenger rather than creating a new app?

If you have something that people are already familiar with and you can put it into a big ecosystem like Facebook, it’s naturally going to take off. I mean obviously it has got to be a good product too, but you have a much higher chance if you’re able to reach a lot more people than if we were just to launch this other stand-alone bot within like the TechCrunch app.

(Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns via Creative Commons)

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