One of the perks of working at Merkle is that I get to visit the most awesome events in our field. Last March, I went to SXSW for a week of immersion in a program full of inspiration, knowledge and networking. For the uninitiated: SXSW is the largest digital festival in the world, in Austin, Texas. The festival is known for its fantastic program. It’s the best place to catch a glimpse of upcoming trends before they get mainstream and it’s a great event to catch up with likeminded people.
Having one week at SXSW is great for me, but how do I share my insights in a way that’s easy for me and interesting to those with whom I’m sharing? I decided to try something new and ended up using a little-known feature in WhatsApp, called Broadcast. I wanted to explore its ability as a channel for storytelling. Here, I’ll share how Broadcast works, why I picked it and whether I’d use it again for future events.
Broadcast has been in WhatsApp for ages, but I never paid real attention to it. I guess I was scared to send out a message bomb to all my contacts. It wasn’t till I did more research that I came to see the potential of the feature.
So, what is WhatsApp Broadcast? Broadcast allows you to build a list of contacts. You can compose messages for these contacts like you would in any other WhatsApp chat, and share it with each contact individually. Lists can contain up to 256 contacts. Only contacts who have you as a contact will receive the messages you share through Broadcast. The people on your list will see the message as if you shared it directly with them. You, on the other hand, can see which of your messages were sent through Broadcast.
When you send Broadcasts, only you can see that they're Broadcasts
Why use WhatsApp Broadcast?
My relation with WhatsApp is complicated. In an ideal world, I’d get rid of the platform; it’s a time sink. At the same time, it allows me to stay in touch with friends. It’s a truly personal communication channel, providing direct access to most of the people I know.
At SXSW, my goal was to reach co-workers, as well as friends and family in a personal, but efficient way. WhatsApp meets these requirements, because it allows for instant communication. A chat is like thinking on your feet rather than crafting a perfect message (like you would for a blog post or an email).
An early form of broadcasting
Of course, I could have opted for a more common channel such as a newsletter. I didn’t like that because newsletters tend to end up in a sea of unread messages. Compare the unread count of your email inbox with WhatsApp and I bet I know which one is more likely to have zero unread messages. 😉
Preparation: Creating the list
There were three ways I invited people to join the Broadcast list: I’d ask them in person, I would send them a link on WhatsApp, or I directed them to a landing page where they could sign up. I shared this landing page on the message boards within the Merkle Group and my LinkedIn network. After sending out the invitations for my experiment, I ended up with a list of about 75 people. Pretty neat, and a bit scary too. I didn’t know half of them…
Reporting with Broadcast
Reporting was a breeze. WhatsApp makes it really easy to share updates. It’s great that people can reply directly to you (rather than to a group, which sounds horrific — I’d leave). Fortunately, not everybody would reply at once. I was worried I would be starting 75 conversations every time I’d send an update, but that wasn’t the case.
I found that having 1-on-1 conversations after a burst of updates did create a personal connection with some of the people who followed me. It allowed them to ask for more details, or to share their interest for an upcoming session I would attend.
Broadcast once and reply to individual responses
While I experienced very little technical issues, I struggled to get comfortable with a good format. It was hard to strike a balance between the time difference, the diversity of people I was communicating with and the richness of my experiences throughout the day. The hectic schedule of SXSW didn’t help either. I sometimes skipped a day.
It’s difficult to summarize the full SXSW experience in a few messages without becoming too general. Sharing things was effortless, but coming up with the things I would share wasn’t. I kind of cheated by sharing recordings of the best sessions, along with a written recommendation. All in all, I think I’d have to do this a few more times to find the content strategy that suits me best.
Should you use Broadcast to live report events?
Yes. At least, I will use WhatsApp broadcast again. I am absolutely sure that some of the people I sent Broadcasts to now have a better feeling of who I am. Throughout the week at SXSW, I got a lot of value from the conversations with people I did not yet know.
There is another reason why I found WhatsApp ideal for this type of storytelling. I expect WhatsApp to gain additional interaction elements in the not-too-distant future, much like Messenger already has. These new features will allow me (and the clients we advise and build experiences for) to scale storytelling beyond this manual Broadcast experiment.
Receiving Broadcasts is just like reading ordinary messages
If you want to be successful in thinking about new possibilities, nothing beats firsthand experience with what you’re trying to achieve. In the case of WhatsApp Broadcast, it’s easy to see where you’d automate parts of the content you share, or how you could further engage with the people you’re talking to. This experiment certainly helped me shape how I think about storytelling through messaging.