WaPo Unleashes Bot Army

No surprise The Washington Post, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is betting big on bots, including automated chat programs  to interact with readers and facilitate internal communications. That's according to WaPo director of product Joey Marburger, who showcased some of the more novel ones in a presentation to the International Symposium of Online Journalism in Austin.

One bot, simply titled “Feels,” bowed 30 days before the 2016 presidential election and invited the user to answer a simple question: “How do you feel about the election?”

Users could respond by selecting one from a number of emojis, with the ultimate goal of checking in to register their feelings once a day for 30 days straight. The results were displayed in charts every morning.

Marburger said the Feels bot had a relatively low user count, at around 10,000, but very high engagement, with over 65% of those who participated responding every day. WaPo also used contributions from users to help drive social engagement, creating social media cards based on the bot to highlight the best responses on Twitter.

Another bot, the “Virality Oracle,” used WaPo’s proprietary artificial intelligence program for traffic prediction, to alert editors and journalists when a particular piece of content appears to be going viral on social media, allowing them to quickly amplify it across social media channels and elsewhere in order to maximize its viral impact.

The Virality Oracle algorithm automatically analyzes audience and sharing figures 30 minutes after the content is published to determine its viral potentia. It, also issues a prediction for total audience 24 hours later; all data is accessible to WaPo staff via a Slack bot on one of the newspaper’s internal Slack channels.

The bot emails managers a digest showing the life-cycle of stories.

According to Marburger, the bot processed performance data about 300 stories a day over a year to fine tune the machine learning behind it.

WaPo’s internal communications tools also include the “MartyBot,” named for the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Marty Baron, which fittingly, serves to bug reporters about impending (and past) deadlines, based on the newspaper’s internal WebSked publishing scheduling system.

The process of making bots is getting easier, thanks to Amazon’s proprietary technology, Marburger said: “Amazon has a tool called Lex, which – point-and-click, you can build a pretty robust bot without any code.”

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