Small talk: Aftonbladet, Expressen adopt chat features to engage audiences

By Jens Pettersson


Stockholm, Sweden


1995: mIRC

1996: ICQ

What on earth do these cryptic letters have to do with audience engagement? For those of you who are in your mid-40s and older, these are two very nostalgic names related to the breakthrough of digital chats. Let’s connect them to what is going on in the 2020 Swedish media scene.

Building stronger relationships to paying and non-paying readers is a crucial component when forming a journalistic strategy focused on engagement and loyalty. Here is a short story of how the chats are being used today to create recurring conversations in daily newsroom work for the largest digital players in Sweden.

Chat features have been around for decades, but they are seeing a resurgence in popularity due to COVID-19.
Chat features have been around for decades, but they are seeing a resurgence in popularity due to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has been a gamechanger in many fields this year. The surge for reliable information at a fast pace has been tremendous.

The tabloid Aftonbladet, Sweden’s largest digital daily, has been using the format of live reporting to cover the development of the pandemic through its “corona live” work. This mixes short and fast news reporting with the opportunity for readers to post questions and get fast responses from on-duty reporters.

This is a refined use of its broader concept “super news,” which has its own section on the site and is separated into three pillars: latest news, ask us, and video. “Ask us” is an area for absolutely every kind of question.

“We have increased the chat strategically in 2020, both in connection with live reporting, where a reporter answers questions during an ongoing news situation, and pure chats, where readers talk to each other about more simple subjects like the weather,” said Hanna Olsson, head of breaking news at Aftonbladet. “It’s a way for us to increase engagement amoung readers. It contributes to a warmer feeling on the site, it is a way to keep readers on the site, and helps us to do better journalism when we know what readers have on their minds at the moment.”

Competitor Expressen also tries involving readers with the chat concept. “It seems like it’s a revival for reader dialogue this year. People are turning to us and wants answers to their questions,” said Karin Skogh, head of digital publishing at Expressen. “The situation on COVID-19 increases the need to get correct facts and answers to many questions, but we also see the need for people to just get someone to talk to.”

The most typical subjects for Expressen’s chats tend to be breaking news items, like the development on COVID-19. But everything that people typically talk about is accommodated within the tabloid offering.

“Based upon the current big interest, we will keep on testing new stuff ahead,” Skogh said. “We have tried chats on Christmas Eve before, and we will surely do that this year as well. We have also been doing some chats in combination with TV during the programme Your Questions, where the readers have been able to post their questions and get answers from decision makers.”

For Aftonbladet there are three categories for chats, Olsson said:

“The first one is in breaking news mode, when we live report on something, such as a snowstorm or a COVID-19 development. Then the chat is included in the live reporting. It can be about the readers contributing to the news reporting or asking questions to the reporter. 

“The second is when we want to talk to readers about something that creates buzz, for example when the liquor ban was introduced in Swedish restaurants due to COVID-19. Then we opened a virtual restaurant where readers could engage in entertainment.

We also chat a lot about feature topics such as cooking and economics, then readers can get answers from an expert, which is the third category.”

When asked for the outcome and how they measure success on chats, both Olsson and Skogh focus on spent time and the number of questions posed and answers delivered.

“We have a super large interest for all kinds of chats right now — above all, on COVID-19,” Skogh said. “Our latest news reporting is one of the most engaging articles, day after day.”

Of course, digital conversation as a subject is not that spectacular. Sending messages in Slack and Teams has been standard for many years, and in COVID-19-distanced newsrooms, it’s the new normal for every reporter. On the reader side, they are used to exchanging thoughts, pictures, and amusing GIFs via Messenger and WhatsApp all day long.

But, for a long time, the open digital conversation has been transferred to social media platforms, at an arm’s length distance from the news platforms. It’s quite interesting to now see that the conversation also seems to be moving from the more private zone with your closest friends, or subject-specific groups on social media, to the more open town square provided by news sites.

In Sweden, this is shown not only by the fact that more newsrooms have reintroduced article comments, but also in the chats, where everyone happily talks to unknown people. Perhaps the opinion bubbles in social media have become too small at last?

It’s perhaps understandable that citizens are searching for correct answers on important matters related to COVID-19 and, therefore, dare to get into public conversations like these. But now it seems like the talkative behaviour also spreads to other areas. The latest trend in Sweden is to do it on more casual subjects.

As mentioned, Aftonbladet, for instance, took on the bar conversation on Saturday evenings when bars were forced to be closed by 10:00 p.m. It prioritises the content and puts the chat in the prime position on the Web site.

Expressen tried its chat luck with a media celebrity celebrating the first of advent and invited readers to get in the right Christmas mood with her.

“We also use the chats to highlight our profiled reporters, creating an opportunity for the readers to discuss and ask questions on the stories. It’s really strengthening for the relationship, and it’s a good way to display our profiled reporters,” Skogh said. “It seems like it’s a revival when it comes to connecting to the readers. There is a large engagement and demand of this from the readers. It will be interesting for the future, when it comes to credibility and loyalty.”

When asked about its ultimate chat subject, Olsson didn’t hesitate to respond: “Simple. Sweden is free from corona: What is the first thing you should do now?”

“Everyone longs, above all, for the chat where we can state that COVID-19 is behind us and we can look ahead, whenever that will be,” Skogh said. “Two external dream chat guests for us are the soccer player Zlatan and Greta Thunberg.”

It seems like the chat is back, and it’s not just for fun. It is an important tool to create yet another important piece of the puzzle of journalism economics.

If the north star for your newsroom brigade is to maximise consumption of your great journalism, of course you have to ensure reporters produce the right stuff. Steering your newsroom with sharp content analysis and the right KPIs is essential.

But to take a step further to create long-lasting bonds (aka maximising customer lifetime value), you also need to make sure listeners and subscribers get closer to your brand and feel that the conversation is not one-sided.

For this purpose, it seems like there is an obvious tool to help, which never goes out of style. The chat is back. We’ll see for how long this time.

About Jens Pettersson

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