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Many publications have overspent on digital, investment must be measured to be profitable: Anant Goenka, Indian Express Group

In an interview with BestMediaInfo.com, Anant Goenka, Executive Director, India Express Group, said that the Indian market offers scope of growth for both print and online and none of them would grow at the cost of another. He said Express Online was expected to grow at 30% annually, both in terms of revenue and unique visitors

Anant Goenka

In the last four years, Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express, has been able to transform the traditional newspaper group that includes brands such as The Indian Express, Jansatta, Loksatta and Financial Express into a top online news platform in the world with a reach of 120 million unique visitors a month. The online revenue of the group is likely to soar to around Rs 75 crore in the current fiscal and the group is expecting an EBITDA of 15%, making it one of the few profitable online news platforms.

Speaking about the future of the online revenue model, he said that it is largely going to be advertising and not subscription, as the focus was more on expanding the reach. Goenka said independent online-only news platforms were a niche segment and digital in India provided space for such products.

Talking about the ongoing 'decline of print because of online' debate, he said that the penetration of newspapers in India was not even 20% and there was already enough potential for growth. "Print is dying in the West because the market penetration is 80% and the cost structure is different. Why do we think in terms of ‘versus’? India is a huge country and every market is constantly exploding," he said.

Goenka said he was both hoping and praying that the digital ad rate would grow soon.

Excerpts:

Express Online is one of the leading news platforms with a reach of 120 million unique visitors. Are you thinking of starting a subscription model?

We are one of the largest online news sites in the world. The Times of India, NDTV and we are counted among the largest in the world. The revenue stream so far has been advertising-led and I don’t see majority of the revenue stream changing for a long time to come. We have a long way to go in terms of maximising our ability to monetise our reach with advertising.

I would like to focus on digital advertising and advertising-related solutions, more than the other and that’s what we have been doing all this while.

Publications such as The Hindu and Business Standard are working towards having substantial revenue through the online subscription model. ET has launched a niche product called ET Prime, which is subscription-based. Can you also do a similar experiment in the future?

There are some rare experiments. We also had evaluated something around subscription. But I don’t think we should de-focus from our core business of expanding reach and monetising with advertising.

You said advertising would be the main focus to monetise online. Are you planning to have ad formats beyond display advertising?

We are far from understanding the programmatic space and we have a lot of optimisation to do there. We have to do much more in the brand solutions space. We have been doing some of it, but it’s a long way to go. Advertising is as broadly as you can define it.

You have separate teams for online and print. How do you synergise both the mediums?

The management across the company is very digital-oriented. A large part of our success on the digital side has been due to our understanding of ‘to what degree we should integrate’and ‘to what degree to keep it separate’. It’s a constantly changing framework. We are doing a lot more integration with the print newsroom than we used to do earlier – and that’s also because our Digital CEO Durga Raghunath brings tremendous experience from the news and content side with her.  We have, for instance, we started an interesting suite of audio products, podcasts, to tap into the growing demand for audio content and some of that’s done by the print and digital teams together.

Do you think the online ad growth of media companies hasn't been as per expectation as a major chunk of advertising goes to platforms such as Google and Facebook?

The online ad growth has been quite explosive from the small base that the industry was at five to six years ago. For the online ad industry, it’s tough to grow faster than the current growth rate of 25% year on year. As an industry, if you are able to clock around 30% YoY and also in our individual P&Ls, it is a good number. Growth faster than this might be difficult to sustain. Indian Express Digital has been growing at around 40% YoY in the last six years. A lot of publishers have done some interesting work in the news lateral space, BloombergQuint for instance, has a fabulous whatsapp broadcast service. The Ken’s newsletters too have become quite the habit for me.So we have to constantly keep expanding our reach, there are still a lot of low hanging fruits,rwhether it is about working with aggregators or technology companies to push our content, we should do more and we keep doing it.

Is there a number to how much growth has online shown vis-a-vis the print revenue of the company?

Digital is a small fraction of print and we will keep growing as the industry grows. We clocked revenues of Rs 53 crore last year and we look at achieving Rs 75 crore this year. We should maintain an EBITDA margin of 15%. Our current traffic is 120 million unique visitors/month as a group. We were at less than 100 million this time, last year.

With increasing pressure on print with rising newsprint prices, do you think online is getting more focus from the publishers?

It already has a lot of focus, but I don’t see one coming at the cost of another. There are different readers and advertisers. The Indian Express readership has grown in the last six years, even in the New Delhi, the Indian Express readership has grown; and at the same time our digital has grown from four million to 40 million unique visitors/month between 2013 and 2016. Why do we think in terms of ‘versus’? India is a huge country and every market is constantly exploding. The print penetration is not even 20% in the Indian population.

If you look at our Marathi website’s growth and Loksatta’s growth, both have grown independent of each other. While a person reads Loksatta at home, he/she is on the phone as they step out and Loksatta continues to be in touch with them. Print and digital are – in that sense -- completely different user experiences. 

This discussion comes about because of the American context and other western countries. But it is a very different market. Newspapers died there because of multiple reasons like –it had reached 80% penetration, each region had three large newspapers and the cost structures were incredibly high. The cost of acquiring every new reader in America was too high.

Newspapers, in India, are already a niche product. We have a lot of scope to grow in our own niches. The market is large enough.

Are you expecting digital rates to go up?

We hope and pray and a lot of the onus of that falls on the ad agencies. India is possibly the cheapest market in the world to advertise. All we can do is to do better in the branded content space and deliver more differentiated content than others. But we have to stick to our guns of being a premium product, which news (especially English news) is. I think advertisers are now understanding the difference between relevant and irrelevant online platforms, and the gap between the respective ad rates will only increase.

Will advertising be enough to pay for huge investments companies make in their digital platforms?

Investments are to be measured. I think a lot of publications have overspent exorbitantly on digital. For every problem they found, they have tried to solve it by throwing money at it. But that seldom brings a solution. The strategy has to be thought through.

How different is it from the global markets?

Global markets have the advantage of very high ad rates, which we don’t. The New York Times for instance sells ads at above $15 CPM. Most mainstream sites in India will struggle to go beyond $3.5 CPM. So, investments in the global markets are justified and the RoIs seem to be better thought through.

How difficult is it to monetise mobile advertising?

It seems as if the rates are reducing, but what’s actually happening is that the desktop reach of most online content players has plateaued, which means that it is growing only at 5%. Against this, the growth on mobile is at 25-30% and historically, the rates on mobile have been lower than those on desktop. This is why the average ad rates seem to be decreasing, but in reality that’s not the case. In fact, ad rates on mobile have only increased for premium publishers like us. 

Yes,there is lesser scope of advertising on mobile screen, but every screen has its pros and cons, so the mobile screen brings with it some very interesting ad formats that generate a lot of dedicated engagement with the user.

Do you think display advertising is dying sooner than we think?

No. It is not showing any signs of dying. Yes, one can argue that it is interfering, but that is where we have to be smarter with our user experience. No ads should be interfering as much as they should be complementary to user experience. If you see the newspapers, they are cluttered with ads, but it is still consumed every day as a habit. You must make sure that it is not interfering, but how else is a brand going to create brand awareness if not through display advertising.

You can’t keep writing stories about it. That can be complementary. But the main advertising spend has to be display. It’s like that across the globe. Consider New York, which is the most cluttered city in advertising, sayTimes Square. You will be inundated with outdoor ads that scream, but every couple of years, you see that there are just more and more ads. It is also with the advertisers to have more creative ads and make sure that they are not seen as interfering.

If it is a right creative, by a right brand for the relevant audience, it does grab attention. If you look OPPO’s beautiful banner on our homepage yesterday when it was launching its new product, it grabbed attention, and even complemented the page.   Amul is possibly the best example of how display advertising has succeeded for over 15 years. The person who finds an ad cluttered is the person who is not looking for that ad/that product.

Do micro products such as auto and real estate websites make monetising easier? ET and Network 18 have it.

Owning a niche allows you to address the problem of ad rates. We have a website – expresscomputers.in – and its traffic would be much lower than that of our mainstream site. But it has more relevant audience. We can then ask for a rate that is probably 10 times of Financial Express because of the relevance.

How differently do advertisers look at digital as a platform?

It’s a different medium with different reach and ability. It’s about a half page front page ad of an automobile brand, versus a banner ad on the same online publication, versus an article on the mobile site that says 10 weekend drives around Delhi. You have to use all three. It’s like saying if you are on TV or radio, don’t use outdoor. It doesn’t happen like that.

What do you think about the future of independent news platforms such as The Wire and ThePrint?

That’s another niche and the digital space allows such niche. I don’t know if they are really making a lot of revenue, or if they can really be very profitable but they have successfully raised money which funds their operations I guess. I do however think that in the internetspace, the more quality, original content players the better for the entire ecosystem. 

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