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Whatsapp Channels one year on: Top news publishers ranked

Big US publishers have the most followers while UK sport publishers are seeing the most engagement.

By Bron Maher

A little over a year on from launch, millions of people have signed up for updates from publishers via Whatsapp Channels.

Press Gazette has found publishers account for 74 of the top 150 Whatsapp Channels by follower count, with The New York Times leading the way with more than 12 million subscribers.

But away from the most-followed newsbrands, the distribution format appears to be showing promise for publishers looking to build smaller, engaged readerships around specific subjects — especially for sport.

What are Whatsapp Channels?

Launched in June 2023, Whatsapp Channels are a one-way content distribution system built into the main Whatsapp app.

Unlike Whatsapp Communities, which can have a maximum of 2,000 members, Whatsapp Channels can be followed by an unlimited number of people. It is not possible for anyone but the Whatsapp Channel owner to post, making it effectively a broadcast-style distribution mechanism.

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Significantly, Channels are simply presented as a feed showing the most recent content and allowing users to scroll up to find older posts — meaning content delivery is not mediated by an algorithm.

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Channels are centrally discoverable in Whatsapp, which features a leaderboard of the most-followed Channels and allows users to search for them by topic and name. Previously only available to Meta partners, now anyone can create a Channel.

One drawback of the medium for publishers is that, unlike Communities, Whatsapp Channels do not automatically send notifications when new content is posted — users need to manually turn notifications on for each Channel to which they subscribe.

Another is a lack of direct monetisation opportunities: most publishers using the platform at present simply drive traffic to their sites or use Whatsapp to build engagement and community.

[Read more: Whatsapp for publishers – How Reach is driving millions of page views via messaging app]

A view of the Channels section of the Whatsapp app, displaying a mix of news, lifestyle and sport publishers.
A view of the Channels section of the Whatsapp app, displaying a mix of news, lifestyle and sport publishers. Picture: Press Gazette

Although followers of a Channel may not post into it, they can react to posts using an emoji, in the same way that is possible in chats with friends.

Users usually respond with the Whatsapp default emoji options of hearts, thumbs up or a “crying laughing” face — although since the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel, Palestinian and Israeli flags frequently appear underneath content of no direct relevance to Gaza.

Who are the top news publishers on Whatsapp Channels?

The Updates section of Whatsapp allows users to access a leaderboard of the top 150 channels on the app. The leaderboard appears to be global, as several of the top channels communicate in languages other than English.

The top ten channels are mostly run by football clubs, with appearances from brands or personalities like Netflix and Shakira. Further down the list, however, news publishers are common.

Despite Whatsapp's relative unpopularity in the US, as of late June the seven most-followed news publisher Whatsapp Channels were all American: The New York Times (12.2 million), CNN (9.6 million), the New York Post (9.1 million), The Wall Street Journal (5.2 million), Newsweek (4.4 million), National Geographic (4.3 million) and The Washington Post (4.3 million). The New York Times was the only news outlet to feature among the top ten channels overall.

The top non-American publisher is the Daily Mail — but, notably, not for its all-purpose Daily Mail account, which has 580,000 followers. Instead, the eighth most-followed news account on the platform is named "Daily Mail | Kardashians News", which has 2.7 million followers.

The success of the Mail's Kardashian Channel speaks to a broader trend on Whatsapp Channels that sees Channels with narrow focuses receive the most engagement.

Posts by The New York Times, for example, usually receive a few hundred reactions each, only occasionally breaking above 300. The Mail's Kardashian Channel, in contrast, often breaches 500 reactions, despite having a quarter as many subscribers.

The most popular topic focus is sport: 30 of the 74 publishers on the list above cover either sports generally or one sport, team, or sporting professional specifically. One football-specific publisher, 90min, has 11 channels in the top 150.

Other highly-engaged topics include culture (Vanity Fair and British Vogue), cooking (Tasty) and internet culture (Buzzfeed, Know Your Meme).

One of the most highly-engaged Channels Press Gazette found was The Sun's Christiano Ronaldo Channel. Posts on the Channel, which has 739,000 followers, rarely receive fewer than 2,000 reactions.

In part this is because of a different content strategy. The New York Times exclusively uses its channel to promote articles, which are typically linked to alongside a story excerpt. In contrast, posts to The Sun's Ronaldo Channel usually do not link to an article: instead, quotes, images and copy from the website are repurposed for consumption on Whatsapp directly.

Phil Harman, The Sun's head of audience, told Press Gazette: “We’ve sort of treated Whatsapp as we have with newsletters, and pushed to reach those direct audiences.”

He said the publisher had early on decided that its approach would be to go "very niche" on Channels.

"That paid off with huge followings," Harman said. "They grew very fast in the first few months, and many are still growing now, and we know readers really like them...

“We can see really high levels of engagement across those niche interest areas, and that’s really important. Traffic’s decent, but we know that it can often be quite seasonal — club accounts will fly during the transfer season and when there’s lots of live football.”

Whatsapp Channels provide 'direct relationship' in volatile sector

Harman added: "It’s so important to have that direct relationship with our readers when other referrers are so volatile."

Amid the well-documented decline in referral traffic from Whatsapp sister platform Facebook and unpredictability at search giant Google, the simplicity of Whatsapp Channels' chronologically-ordered feed appeals to some publishers.

Speaking at the WAN-IFRA World News Media Congress in Copenhagen in May, Reach plc engagement director Dan Russell said Channels had allowed the Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Manchester Evening News publisher to take "control" of its distribution.

“We’re sending the content how we want to send it, how we want it to look, with what headline, with what picture. We don’t have to mess around with key words… it is entirely up to us.”

Reach has embraced both Whatsapp Channels and Communities, and told Press Gazette in October that its 100,000 subscribers across 80 Communities were delivering millions of page views per month.

Speaking in May once its Channels had had more time to bed in, Russell told the World News Media Congress that its Channels were less impactful for traffic than Communities: "On Whatsapp Channels we have two million members… however currently we’re only getting about a million page views from those people" per month, he said. In contrast almost every Community user reads at least one thing a month, he said.

Posts in Whatsapp Communities appear in a user's feed of chats, alongside messages from friends, whereas channels need to be sought out by the user in a different part of the app.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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