The BBC has been experimenting with chat apps to reach new audiences and connect with people around local stories for a few years already. Its teams covered the Indian elections on WeChat, used WhatsApp to provide public service alerts in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, used Line for BBC Hindi services, and set up a Viber channel in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake in 2015.
Yik Yak also came up on their radar. The app enables its users to post anonymous messages that can be accessed based on a user's location – this has, at times, landed it in hot water for bullying allegations when used on school or university campuses.
The BBC found Yik Yak an interesting proposition for three reasons, James Morgan, social and audience engagement lead, BBC News, told Journalism.co.uk. Firstly, Yik Yak's userbase is young, with 98 per cent of it part of the millennial generation – "the youngest of any chat apps," said Morgan.
It's local, and also anonymous, although users can now register Yik Yak handles. “Yakkers typically only see yaks posted within a few miles of their location. This lends itself to intimacy and engagement. We wondered if this anonymity would encourage users to share more openly, on topics they might shy away from on Twitter or Facebook."
The BBC first tried Yik Yak as part of their coverage of the Canadian elections in October 2015, posting questions on the 'Herds' page.
"We were quite nervous. We wondered if millennials would even care. Yik Yak told us they were pretty uncertain too. After all, this was a 'serious' news topic. They couldn’t promise we’d get any worthwhile engagement from a snarky college audience. We might even get trolled – not a great prospect for the BBC.
"In the end, we actually had tens of thousands of posts by young Canadians telling us what issues really mattered to them, and which leaders best represented young people. And of course this was the Justin Trudeau election, so I’m sure that helped us."
Some of the highest rated, or 'upvoted', comments were collated into a feature on BBC News.
"Essentially we used Yik Yak as a direct channel to young voters we might never have found through traditional means," said Morgan.
An experiment in the UK followed, with the team engaging with Yik Yak users as part of the BBC's Mental Health Week in February. The idea behind the project was that young people who might be afraid of talking publicly about mental health on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, might be more likely to open up under the anonymity that Yik Yak can provide.
The subject line was kept open, a simple "Let's talk about mental health," enabling users to decide which topics to highlight that were most relevant to their experiences.
"We had some really touching responses – young people sharing on depression, anxiety, and the embarrassment around mental health. And their peers upvoting them in support.
"These Yaks inspired a whole feature on social media and mental health on our Newsbeat platform by my colleague Felicity Morse."
Newsbeat is soon to be closed under the BBC's cost-cutting measures, as the broadcaster plans to integrate Newsbeat-style coverage into the main BBC News output.
As for future collaborations between the BBC and Yik Yak, Morgan told Journalism.co.uk there is scope to continue experimenting.
It is difficult to say how Yik Yak could benefit news organisations in ways that other chat apps such as WhatsApp or Snapchat might not. But Morgan's guess is that topics that might be taboo but are very personal and relatable to young people are the best ones to approach within Yik Yak.
The team hopes to continue using Yik Yak as it is gaining more users in the UK and growing in importance as a debate channel in the run up the US presidential election.
"The big takeaway is: don’t underestimate millennials. Just because humour and gossip pervade on chat apps doesn’t mean that’s the only thing young people want to engage on. Ask a serious question and you will get a sincere answer. And perhaps a more candid answer, being on the platform where young people feel more at home."
- James Morgan will be speaking at Journalism.co.uk's newsrewired digital journalism conference on 20 July. Join us to hear more about the BBC's experiments with chat apps and more trends and techniques in online journalism.
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