As mentioned in my previous post on messaging apps, one of the biggest gaps is a lack of support for broadcasting messages to large groups of people. This makes it very difficult to use them to communicate with communities, such as displaced people in a camp.
Market leader WhatsApp for example limits the number of people who can be reached via one broadcast list to 256. Many other applications have similar limits. If you want to reach more people, you manually have to divide your contact list into different groups/lists and repeat your message for each of them. This is hardly an efficient way to work and increases the risk of errors. In large refugee camps like Zaatari for example you might potentially have to manage a dozen or more groups if you manage to roll out a successful CwC programme.
A while ago I noticed that one of my local newspapers offers a daily WhatsApp newsletter with links and the headlines of the day and I was pretty sure that they are not manually sending their newsletter to 256 people at a time. A little more digging revealed that they are using WhatsBroadcast, a German service provider that helps customers send broadcasts to large groups of people on WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram and Insta.
I wasn’t able to test the service in great detail, but here are some of the positive things that I found during my brief test. I also spoke to their customer service people:
- You can send broadcast messages to very large numbers of people without having to worry about the limits imposed by the services. WhatsBroadcast manages the distribution lists for you in the background and hides the different groups from you. This means that for you, it looks like you have a single big group, but WhatsBroadcast is splitting that list into multiple groups and addresses them individually in the background. It’s a typical case of a service hiding from you how the sausage is made and leaving you to focus on your core tasks.
- Messages can include both text, images, audio (up to 5 mins), video (up to one minute) or PDF documents (up to 5 MB). I particularly like the ability to send audio messages since this can be a good way to reach groups with poor literacy.
- Messages can be scheduled.
- You can send broadcast messages to all four supported messaging services through one interface.
- I briefly tested non-latin script and it seems like the service renders it correctly. But this is just my best guess and you’d have to properly test it yourself. The backend is available in nine languages, including Arabic.
- You can create very simple polls. (add-on; costs extra)
- You can define keywords that trigger pre-written responses. Calling this a “bot” is an exaggeration in my opinion. (add-on; costs extra)
- You have the option to respond directly to replies to your newsletter. These replies are put in a private chat and not visible to the whole list. (add-on; costs extra)
And here are some issues:
- As mentioned above, WhatsBroadcast dynamically splits subscribers into different groups. In some cases, this means that different subscribers will be communicating with different WhatsApp accounts (i.e. phone numbers) which you manage seamlessly through one interface. WhatsBroadcast hides this mess from you, but it potentially creates another problem: since WhatsBroadcast dynamically generates groups and phone numbers, you cannot communicate a single WhatsApp number to your audience on posters or flyers! Instead, WhatsBroadcast relies on links or widgets that automatically place a subscriber in a bucket. When I asked WhatsBroadcast about this issue, they suggested the use of QR codes on printed materials. While this is a workaround it’s not ideal. Interestingly, WhatsBroadcast told me that the switch to a new phone number is not directly linked to the group-limits imposed by the messaging service. Apparently, a new number is being activated for every 800 to 1,000 subscribers.
- WhatsBroadcast offers a free trial and the basic package starts at 49 € per month. However, it can get expensive rather quickly (click here for pricing). Additional subscribers cost extra, enabling one-to-one chat costs extra, having a lot of one-to-one chats costs extra, polls cost extra, etc. All things considered, this can easily cost you as much as an SMS program. On the positive side, WhatsBroadcast offers a 50% non-profit discount on the basic package without add-ons, so it’s quite cheap to set up a pilot program and give it a shot.
Whether a messaging app, SMS, billboards or megaphones are the best way to reach your target audience depends a lot on the context you are working in. I can see messaging services as being particularly interesting in camp settings where people frequently have access to wifi, but may not be able to afford to top-up their SIM cards. In these cases, testing a service like WhatsBroadcast could be very interesting (and I’d be happy to help you run the pilot!).
I have been looking for competitors to WhatsBroadcast, but haven’t been able to find another company that offer a comparable service. If you know of any, please leave a comment below!
Please also take a look at “How Messaging Apps Can Support Disaster Response” if you want to know more about the opportunities and risks of using messaging apps as a channel.