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Credit: By kiwanja on Flickr. Some rights reserved
The BBC is using private mobile messaging apps to engage with their audience in India around this year's general elections, the first phase of which begins on Monday.

Starting today, BBC News India is sending updates to users of WeChat and WhatsApp to distribute BBC content, engage with the audience and source user-generated content (UGC).

"A lot of these apps have huge, huge audiences," Trushar Barot, assistant editor of the BBC's UGC and social media hub, told Journalism.co.uk, "so the potential is definitely there as we figure out an editorial product that fits with the platform."

Figures from February estimate the number of global WhatsApp users at 450 million, while WeChat claimed a total 355 million users worldwide in March.

The first messages from BBC News India included stories in Hindi and English, an introduction to users as to how the app process would work and an invitation to share "thoughts, comments and experiences of the campaign as well as their pictures and videos".

WhatsApp users will receive three messages per day as push notifications, while the capability is limited to one message per day on WeChat.


The number of updates per day will be kept intentionally low, said Barot, so not to appear intrusive, as many mobile users feel private messaging services are more personal than other forms of social media.

"Anything you post as a push alert on WhatsApp or WeChat gets pinged directly to the mobile phone, usually with a direct message, and often gets read in the first few minutes," he said, unlike on Twitter or Facebook where users are less likely to see see all updates from an account they follow.

"You almost have a 100 per cent hit rate, which is potentially a very powerful mechanism but with that is a heightened level of awareness in not spamming people."

Barot described the process as "a pilot" as the news team experiments with trending topics, types of content, call-outs for engagement and broadcasting BBC content shaped to be more suitable for the medium.

We're reaching a very broad demographic and in certain parts of the world the people who use WhatsApp are actually quite poorTrushar Barot, BBC Global News
WeChat already has a "web-based, dashboard publishing tool" for brands or organisations to manage content and analytics in a "similar way to other social media", Barot said.

The simpler, more private nature of WhatsApp, however, meant the BBC held conversations with the app makers to allow the organisation to exceed the number of recipients for messages, normally limited to 250.

"In terms of getting people to connect we have to promote the mobile number for the account but also encourage people to send us a message," he said, adding that this enabled the corporation to to build a database of contacts to send content to.

The BBC first used WhatsApp in the Philippines for coverage of Typhoon Haiyan last year, and as the platform has proved popular for pre-election campaigning in India, Barot said it made sense to explore the possibilities of messaging apps in a more thought out manner.

"One of the things we realised is we're reaching a very broad demographic and in certain parts of the world the people who use WhatsApp are actually quite poor," Barot said from Delhi, where he is helping to set up the system. "That's a demographic that we don't generally tend to reach through traditional social media."

The majority of users aren't going to have big data plans to process videoTrushar Barot, BBC Global News
The "technology barrier" for messaging apps is much lower than that of other social media as well, he said, as users can sign up more quickly and send content more easily than on other platforms.

"The majority of users aren't going to have big data plans to process video," Barot said, "but we knew there was a very big constituency of people who would have a minimum level of data, which is all they need to use WhatsApp and send as many messages or pictures as they want to each other.

"It's trying to hit that level of media in terms of what we produce and how we interact with them that we're really going to test out."

The technological barrier to some of these platforms is a "huge differentiator" in terms of other social media, he said, so this was a matter of meeting the audience where they already are to interact with them in a more effective manner.

"Although we're in an experimental phase we're not dipping our toe into a very small pool," Barot said, "because a lot of these app have huge, huge audiences."

Correction: This article was updated to state general elections, rather than presidential elections.

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