BBC News reporters first found out about Yik Yak's potential for media as Ted Cruz went on stage at Liberty University to announce he was running for the US presidential elections.

Liberty students, who were told they had to attend the talk or face being fined, used Yik Yak to comment on the event – and make headlines in the process.

What makes Yik Yak stand out from other chat apps is its unique combination of locality and relative anonymity. Messages are displayed to users based on their location, and while people on the app can register a username and build a profile, they can also post anonymously.

The app's userbase is also 98 per cent millennial, according to comScore data. "We are specifically at the moment pushing to find new younger audiences and find ways of reaching out to where they are, and engaging with them is an obvious opportunity for us here [on Yik Yak]," explained James Morgan, social and audience engagement lead, BBC News, speaking at the newsrewired digital journalism conference on 20 July.

Since noticing the app's popularity with a coveted segment of the BBC's audience, the media organisation has been experimenting on Yik Yak with getting young people to discuss politics and open up about mental health.

Morgan and his colleagues found out that Yik Yak's users were keen to talk about more serious topics, as Yik Yak gave them access to backstage data about the frequency of the mentions of names of the Republican candidates during the debates.

"[There were] hundreds of thousands of mentions just on a single night for politics on what we hear about as an app that's really about jokes about dating and frat house bad jokes, and revision."

After successfully connecting with the Yik Yak userbase during the Canadian elections and Mental Health Week, the BBC team felt confident enough to establish a dialogue on the app around the EU referendum.

"Obviously we couldn't let Brexit and the referendum pass without taking this opportunity. We're confident now that we're going to go on Yik Yak, we're going to get some proper serious interest and content back."

In partnership with the app, the BBC posted a prompt to discuss the referendum ahead of the vote on the app's "herds" page, where users can see global herds and trending topics.

Users in the UK even got a push notification to alert them to the introduction of the topic.

"I don't know if that even annoyed some people but we weren't going to say no to that opportunity, and so anyone who had the app and who was in Britain on that day knew that the BBC wanted to hear their thoughts."

The prompt was an open question: "What are your hopes and fears?"

Some of the comments were "predictably hilarious", such as "I hope toilet paper stays the same price". But there was a general theme emerging from the messages – there were not enough facts coming through from both sides of the debate.

"Young people were saying 'we just don't have enough facts here, I see these people, these politicians, and I don't believe the Remain side, I don't believe the Leave side, and look I really want to engage on this vote but I don't have anything to go on here because I don't trust any of these claims that I'm seeing'."

Morgan went to the BBC's fact-checking team, tasked with checking the referendum claims, and together they organised the BBC's first Q&A on Yik Yak. This was a risk, explained Morgan, as the anonymity of the app could have exposed the BBC team to nasty comments and reactions from users.

But in fact the questions that emerged dealt with travel, housing, and even concerns about science funding in the UK.

The BBC was able to "engage factually" and offer information to Yik Yak users, and publish a round-up of their experiences as a feature on the BBC News site: "The EU Referendum questions you were too scared to ask."

"If you are on Facebook or on Twitter, and there's something you just don't get, or even if you're with your mates in the pub or you're at college, are you really brave enough to say 'you know what, what is the Brexit'? Or 'what happens if we vote leave'? Because the cool thing obviously... is to seem like you know what's going on and you've got an opinion.

"And we all know that most people didn't really have a clue or had no real sense of what was going on, but Yik Yak was the place where they could actually be blunt and say 'what's going on BBC, you tell me' and it wasn't going to come back on their social media profile.

"It was great to be able to be on a platform that's unusual for the BBC, and to be able to have the tone and the humour that went alongside the facts and the rigour and the informativeness," said Morgan.

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