local media insider
Conference round-up

Virginia Pilot Invents a FB Bot

Facebook messenger bot steals the show at the Digital Revenue Conference

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Erica Smith, Director of Digital Strategy at the Virginia-Pilot, and developer of Ginny.

Company: Virginian-Pilot

Key Executive: Erica Smith, Director of Digital Strategy

Initiative: Ginny, the Facebook messenger bot for news and customer service

At the 2018 Digital Revenue Summit, a small band of local media executives had gathered to celebrate the year´s most innovative digital strategies.  

By the end of the conference, most executives  had one thing in common.

They had fallen for Ginny.

To meet her yourself, go to Virginia-Pilot´s Facebook page,  and Ginny pops up. At first it just looks like a typical Facebook messenger prompt,  asking if you want to sign up for notifications.


But if you click on Get Started,  Ginny introduces herself.




I clicked on yes to get news alerts.

Ginny said, “Great! Like I said, I´m Ginny, the Pilot´s virtual news assistant. I´ll get you today´s stories. To read something choose an option from the menu."


She assured me that she would do her best to help me deliver a news tip, a customer service complaint or a photo.



She even added, helpfully, “Remember I´m a (emoji image of a bot) so I may occasionally need a little help and some patience"

So I lie.  

I tell her that my newspaper was wet this morning.

She asks if I'm having a problem.







I say, yes, it was really soggy.

Ginny says, she will pass it on to “people who can take care of it.”





I wanted her. On my website, that is. 

Everyone in the room I talked to wanted a Ginny. 

Smith says that the impetus to create a bot on Facebook was to provide better, speedier service. 

“I have a very small staff,” she said.

To build Ginny, the Pilot used a platform provided by Facebook messenger and an inhouse employee with data skills. 

“Trust the guy with the crazy idea and passion.”

Facebook does not provide a lot of tools. “You have to build a database and decide what to save into it. There are a lot of loops that have to connect with each other."

Another surprise was Facebook´s meager support for building apps in Messenger. For example, it has no test environment.

“Everythng is live. You have to fail gracefully and provide a "way out” of the message bot when things go wrong.

And there are no analytics.

“Facebook is good with demographics, but not analytics. We know most users are females of all ages and men 45 and older.”

Other surprises along the way came from users. "People do not follow instructions and do not remember. You have to remind them that this is a bot," Smith said. 

“Users do not act in a linear fashion. Keep it simple. All they want is yes or no. Do you want us to send you push alerts, yes or no."

Weather alerts turned out to be the most popular.

Is Facebook aware of the bot, someone at the conference asked Smith.

“Yes, we talked to them," Smith answered. "They said the application is fantastic it is what we want, but we are not supporting it right now.”

So the Pilot is kind of  “developing around Facebook. It's part of Facebook messenger and we also use instant articles, but they do not work together.¨

To monitor the information the staff simply checks the messages from time to time.

What about trolls, someone asked. 

“Most trolls get discouraged because Ginny keeps saying I don´t understand. What do you want?”

And yes, she is sexually harassed. “Better her than me," Smith said.  

As yet there is no monetization model, though the company is thinking of developing white label Ginny-type bots for other businesses.

Our take: It is so nice to see local media being inventive. Hats off to Erica Smith and her team. If you are interested in putting a Ginny on your Facebook page, contact Smith at e.smith@pilotonline.com.

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