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How Local French Journalists Used a Facebook Messenger Bot to Engage Readers on COVID-19, Elections

David Grant

Accelerator Program Manager

Mathieu Fritsch

Facebook News Partnerships, France
Truly listening and taking action on reader questions is easy to say and harder to do. In France, regional newspaper company Groupe Centre France created Facebook Messenger chatbot Bonjour Marianne to break down complicated themes (like municipal elections and the local response to COVID-19) in a conversational manner.
“As a local outlet, we really wanted to be useful to voters and explain why it was important to vote. We want to continue to interact with our readers, include them and involve them in the news, and I think the bot is a good tool to do it,” said Romain Coulangeon, a journalist at Centre France’s main newspaper La Montagne who worked on the Bonjour Marianne project.
Three months before France’s municipal elections in March 2020, Groupe Centre France launched Bonjour Marianne in partnership with Coulangeon, La Montagne’s editor for engagement Julien Bonnefoy and Newspayper, a company that builds chatbots for a variety of industries and a member of Groupe Centre France’s startup incubator, La Compagnie Rotative. Marianne chatted with readers across the group’s central France publications to provide information, gain insights and publish stories on the upcoming elections. The constant feedback they received helped their newsrooms drive coverage on these important topics. The campaign was so successful that it earned the publisher the Grand Prize for Media Innovation Strategies 2020.
Then, COVID-19 hit and France was thrown into lockdown immediately after the first round of elections. Groupe Centre France saw an opportunity to keep the momentum going, pivoting Marianne’s strategy to keep audiences engaged, informed and connected during unprecedented national stress.
“This was journalism as a public service," said Bonnefoy, "and an important part of democracy.”
Results
  • 15,000 people signed up for discussions with Marianne during the elections
  • 10,000 more people signed up during COVID-19 coverage
  • 8,000 website visits from Marianne’s article recommendations during the elections
  • 5,000 website visits from Marianne’s article recommendations during COVID-19 coverage
Results provided by the publisher.
Challenge
A common problem with Messenger bots is that talking to a bot can be painfully obvious: A reader attempting to converse with a clunky bot becomes very aware that they’re interacting with a machine. To get past this, three journalists, a marketing manager, a UX designer and the Newspayper team mixed the automation with a carefully paced rhythm of questions and humorous GIFs. The result: a functional, engaging bot that interacts with users like a real person.
“You have to write with the bot in mind, which was a challenge for us as journalists because it’s not like writing an article you can scroll through in five seconds,” said Coulangeon. “You have to parse the information, separate it into different branches and build a conversation from start to end.”
By the time the pandemic lockdown came into effect, the Centre France team was well prepared to switch Marianne’s focus from elections to the health crisis. Even though the publisher had already ironed out common chatbot challenges, they were up against a host of new obstacles and questions — mainly how to support and provide value to a community going through a period of heightened stress and anxiety.
Strategy
Bonjour Marianne allowed a local news publisher to get input from many more local readers than it would have been able to with staff alone.
News stories drove Marianne’s sign-ups: The week before the voter registration deadline for the local elections in the spring of 2020, the team installed the chat plugin on the website, posted about Marianne on its publications’ Facebook Pages, and shared useful stories about how to register on the electoral roll or check the result in your city. As a result of these efforts, 3,500 people signed up to connect with Marianne in the first four days after launch. The team used similar efforts to drive sign-ups when Marianne’s focused shifted to COVID-19.
Marianne’s discussions prompted the journalists to produce stories on areas of major reader interest: Leading up to the election, Bonjour Marianne started a conversation with registered users every week. She began with a question about a single issue such as the environment, security or gender parity, and invited users to share their opinions.
Then, based on user responses, Centre France journalists wrote stories they’d be interested in. This sparked stories on topics such as why some mayors refuse to run again, or what mayors can do for the environment.
Marianne helped distribute Centre France’s journalism: Marianne ended each conversation with a link to an article the newsroom had written about the same topic. Each week, the newsroom planned 10 stories for Marianne to share in her conversations.
“Our first objective was to have moments in the bot where we crowdsourced data and asked for people’s opinions, and the other objective was to highlight content we had already produced,” said Assen Lekarsky, co-founder of Newspayper.
In addition to answering questions, the bot also suggested resources on how to check if you’re registered to vote and how to have someone vote on your behalf. Leading up to election day, Marianne let people know where to vote and, eventually, which candidates prevailed.
The team kept a sense of humor: “We had three different users ask the same question which was, ‘Is my son registered to vote?” Coulangeon laughed. “Another person thought she was speaking with the real Marianne from 1789.”
Groupe Centre France didn’t collect data about user demographics such as age or gender. But at a high level, the team noticed “younger people tried to mess with the bot whereas people over 40, which represented a lot of the users, behaved more respectfully,” Lekarsky said. “Since the questions appeared in a constrained time frame, people expressed themselves more freely.”
Marianne became a source of support, information and connection during COVID-19: Marianne donned a mask with the rest of us, transforming into an information hub and communication source when COVID-19 hit. Through conversations with users about their experiences during the pandemic, Marianne collected feedback on user behaviour, quality of life, mental and emotional well-being and their ability to stay connected with family and friends in isolation. Marianne also offered tips for how to make day-to-day activities safer for everyone, spot fake news online and steer clear of information overload.
Bonjour Marianne became so much more than a go-to resource for COVID-19 news and updates. She gained valuable insight from readers on how local news outlets can support the public during a crisis. This change in direction for the chatbot attracted a whole new audience, exponentially growing Groupe Centre France’s readership, and showed how talking and listening to readers allows publishers to better serve them.
Up Next
“Bonjour Marianne has helped us to create a community of active readers. For instance, we integrated their behaviour and feedback into our strategies to test our future app,” said Coulangeon.
Bonjour Marianne continues to live on, chatting with readers about COVID-19 and other major stories. Groupe Centre France plans to test the bot again during the 2022 French presidential election.
All results from the publisher.


The Accelerator Program
The Centre France team produced Marianne while a part of the French Subscription Accelerator program. If you’d like to learn more strategies for reader engagement with an eye toward driving digital subscriptions, see the full results of that program here.
The Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator Program helps news publishers build sustainable businesses. Funded and organized by the Facebook Journalism Project (FJP), each Accelerator includes a three-month period of hands-on workshops led by news industry veterans, grants administered by non-profit journalism organizations, and regular reports on best business practices. The Accelerator’s executive director is Tim Griggs, an independent consultant/advisor and former New York Times and Texas Tribune executive.
For monthly updates on the Accelerator Program, sign up for the FJP newsletter.
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