With a mission to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder, Sesame Workshop is using a WhatsApp Chatbot to provide engaging educational content for families across Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Built on Turn.io, The Sésamo Chatbot is part of Sesame Workshop’s efforts in Latin America ( Sésamo is Sesame Workshop’s local brand name) to “reach the right person with the right content at the right time” and works alongside other efforts such as WhatsApp Groups, media broadcast and community outreach. It reinforces the role of messaging as an educational platform.
Families and caregivers can easily access free learning resources, including play-based learning activities, audio clips, ebooks, professional and caregiver development support, and much more. Filled with videos, playful learning activities, and ways to support families and caregivers, the Sésamo Chatbot menu items include Smile of the Day, Healthy Tips, Video of the Day, Song, Storybooks, Activities and Learning from Home.
Tell us a bit about your work with Sesame Workshop and how you go about reaching “the right person with the right content at the right time.”
BRENDA: At Sesame Workshop we develop educational content and programs that reach children at scale through mass media, but through direct engagement at the local level in partnerships with schools and community centres, and other places where communities gather. We do this with experiences that support children to learn and develop.
It is the emotional connection with our characters that makes our content very special. Characters such as Elmo and Cookie Monster are very popular, and they really create a powerful bond with the children and families, but there is also rigorous work and research behind them. So the Sesame model includes the production, which is the creative force, the education component that responds to children needs in different contexts — how do we address the most pressing needs for children? Then the other side of the model is research. Everything we do goes through analysis, both to understand the requirements and test — is the content relevant? Is it going to help children learn? And, of course, researching the impact of our programs. So it is an intense and rich process. But it’s also so much fun. I guess that is why I like working with Sesame.
What has changed in the way you are engaging with audiences over the years?
BRENDA: We deeply care about content development and reaching the children and families where they are right now. At the beginning we were mostly on television, of course. Then we started to evolve and develop content that could reach families in schools or community centres. But more and more cell phone access has grown, and we’ve been using WhatsApp now for some years — even before COVID-19 hit. We saw that in our educational programs in schools, working with governments, teachers already had a connection with families using WhatsApp groups. So it was an excellent way for us to tap into those existing networks. To engage more with caregivers and distribute content to them through teachers. That’s where we started testing with WhatsApp, and it worked! In the past, we’ve tried other platforms and consistently tried to create these groups with user and teacher experiences, and you know, they were not successful. People don’t necessarily go onto a new platform. We saw that people were already on WhatsApp. That is how we started — how can we tap into existing networks to distribute the content?
When we think of Sesame, we often envision longer format video on television. How has that changed, and what does the range of content look like now?
BRENDA: So we have content in many formats, we have, of course, video, including our TV episodes. But we also have shorter video formats like PSA’s or short messages. So we could make them available through a chatbot, but we also have a plethora of content that is not video — which is audio-based or graphic-based. This can be infographics, comic books, or storybooks.
BRENDA: It started to grow, and we created our own Sesame broadcast group, and without any promotion, it grew to 11,000 users — just organically. There was a need and people want to get content, and then when COVID hit, we felt that we needed to expand the way we reach to families directly, specially now, when parents were so much in charge of children’s learning at home. We wanted to make sure that the tools that we develop we're getting to them. That is when we started using the WhatsApp Chatbot.
BRENDA: So we are able to distribute that type of content through the Chatbot. This is ideal as we need to consider that many of end users don’t have a lot of bandwidth and access to the data. So it is about content that could be accessed with very limited access to technology — which is often not the best or newest phones. So we rely on the graphics and some audio files, and some short video formats.
How would you like to improve the Chatbot, and what are your main challenges?
BRENDA: It has a lot to do with the data we can access. By this, I don’t mean personal data. But it is crucial to see how the users are engaging with the content. Understanding if they are returning and how are they navigating through the Chatbot. I wish there were a way for us to get some of that information and learn the pathways people are using while engaging. That will be something more for the backend and our technology partners to get solved.
Another challenge ensuring uptake - which happens with every platform and/or distribution mechanism. This includes promotion, but also how could we make uptake easy, for example, that not everyone scans QR codes, so they need to add the contact centre manually — it just adds another step, and that could become a barrier.
So it is just a question: how can we get the word out and make it easier for people to access the Chatbot? We are still learning, and we are just launching a promotional campaign through community outreach and with our partners, including television and radio.
The other challenge is, how do we retain them once they are on the platform? For this, we are starting to explore some behavioural concepts on how to nudge them through the design and language of for example, the menu, to come back. We want to make sure that we create a chatbot design that makes people want to come back.
Those are the things that are exciting to think about. We’re trying to take it on, you know it is an exciting challenge to solve, and I’m sure that other partners have the same questions.
There are various tools out there for creating chatbots. How did it come about that you are working with Turn.io specifically?
BRENDA: I think it’s the way in which we work with you. We share similar values and interest in learning. An openness to keep exploring and learning as we go ahead. Like sharing lessons learned and how to help each other overcome challenges. This is important for us.
The Chatbot also includes privacy and terms and conditions and makes use of a two-pronged user acquisition strategy — through the Chatbot’s link and specific keywords and a television episode-based unique text back code that responds with associated learning materials.
Simon de Haan, Turn.io CTO
On privacy and designing within constraints
Since launching in April 2020, the Sésamo Chatbot has had 8,610 registered users, with an engagement of 251,134 messages. Sesame Workshop reports that the Chatbot’s messaging interventions show promise in helping engage adults 1-on-1 — and get the right message to the right person at the right time. The Chatbot intervention is currently being evaluated for its potential to help with distribution challenges in programmes across the world.
Fast-paced development — Providing crucial information at scale
Combining social work with technology — Empowering family caregivers