Expecting 50% revenue growth in 2018-2019: Azim Lalani, Business Head, Firstpost, one of the oldest digital-first news brands in India, is not only competing with new digital brands but also standing against traditional media. It's also open to experimenting with the paywall mode. BestMediaInfo spoke to Azim Lalani on measurement, revenues, challenges and growth of digital-first publications

BestMediaInfo Bureau
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Expecting 50% revenue growth in 2018-2019: Azim Lalani, Business Head, Firstpost, a digital-first analytical news portal from Network18 group, is banking on its Hindi and other languages platforms for the next phase of growth. The portal, which is considering launching a paywall model for its premium content, expects that cheaper data and high rate of people migrating from feature phones to smart phones would fuel the readership and the revenue growth. The news portal is hoping to grow its revenue by 50-55 per cent in the next financial year.

Azim Lalani

Azim Lalani, Business Head, Firstpost, said, “From the period between 2013 and 2017, we have grown about 10 times in revenues. Our next target will be to grow by 50-55 per cent in the following year. We have invested in new technology to understand users and analyse the traffic. We will grow in terms of reach and audience, but the strategy is not just that. The better strategy is to deliver content in a more interesting, engaging and personalised manner.”

Firstpost is a part of Network18’s digital play, which also includes MoneyControl, and a few other brands. As per the Earnings Release for Q2, 2017-2018 released by Network18, the digital revenues of the company have grown 19 per cent YoY to Rs 31 crore. The company is completely dependent on brands for their revenues as advertising and branded content are the only means of generating revenues. About two years ago, the company had also launched Firstpost Studio, its digital video arm working for clients to create content and IPs.

Lalani said that the studio is looking at doing newer content and not repeat humour and fiction, which is already done to death by good players such as TVF, AIB and Arre. “I might do it only if I find some connect with the brand and if I am solving some problem of the client. I might not do it as a content strategy, because high-quality fiction work on digital is highly unsustainable.”

Speaking more about the brands and advertising revenues, Lalani said, “On our studio division, we have already worked for over 100 brands for branded content and brand solutions. If you see the top three to four traditional players in digital news, they are dependent on display ads, which constitute about 80 per cent of their revenues. Now, when display is hypothetically dying, these guys are trying new revenue streams. On the other hand, the digital-first platforms depend more on brand solutions/ branded content and social which constitute to about 75 per cent per cent of their revenues. They are always evaluating options to get advertising beyond content. We do all – content, events, creating intellectual properties (IPs), brand solutions, content syndications and display too.”

Firstpost generates about 60 per cent of its revenues from display and programmatic advertising, while all the others contribute anywhere close to 40 per cent. “In fact, we work so closely with some clients that people think that we handle their digital mandate,” mentioned Lalani.

Launched in May 2011, Firstpost has generated close to 30 million average monthly visitors. As per the annual report of Network18, the average monthly pages consumed on the mobile have exhibited a growth of 37 per cent over the last quarter of FY 2016, even though the average monthly users went up by 10 per cent over the same time.

According to Lalani, unlike the other digital-first publications that get over 60 per cent of their traffic from social media, Firstpost gets only 10-15 per cent of its traffic from social. “So, for example, whenever Facebook changes its strategy, everyone is in a fix and will need to redo their strategies too, but we are in a safe zone since our dependence is very low. We are constantly on No. 4 in desktop reach for the last one year, as per ComScore data. It’s easy to get reach on the back of a marketing campaign but to sustain it on the back of engagement is a bigger challenge. Our time spent has been No. 1 for about six to seven months now. For engagement, you need to have the quality and strong analysis on stories.”

Other digital-first publications include portals such as Scoopwhoop, Scroll, Storypick and others.

The digital platform clocks about 65-70 per cent of its readers from mobile phones, while the rest is desktop. Which means about 20 million out of the total 30 million is consuming Firstpost on mobile. The company had also launched its Hindi platform, Firstpost Hindi, about a year ago, which now clocks about six million monthly viewers. The Hindi portal has 15-20 people based in Noida, while it has the same sales team.

Big Hindi publications such as Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar have also launched their online portals in recent times.

Lalani shared an interesting observation here. “The next level of growth is going to come from regional. Even players from Hindi platforms are getting huge traffic on social. A minimum of two years is a gestation period and we are being patient with the Hindi platform. Success is not completely dependent upon you, it’s also about the environment – the data getting cheaper, increasing connectivity, access to smartphones and many such things. A lot of people have migrated from a feature phone to a smartphone, bypassing the ‘desktop’ level of connectivity. Markets like UP are very interesting in this sense that they have never used a desktop. They jumped that step.”

With such strong sense of content and credibility, the company is also not shying away from looking at introducing paywall. “A lot of subscription models already exist in the market. We are analysing how to go about it – freemium or complete paywall or a hybrid plan! We are doing some research and based on that, we will be soon launching a unique proposition (a mobile app). It is not really a paywall feature, but lies in the same area. We will first test waters with this and then decide. This might not bring immediate revenues, but we are in a space where we have to keep some money aside for experimentation. We can’t expect monetisation out of everything immediately.”

The company reached break-even some time back, but investment has not stopped. “When we saw that the product has more potential and can reach better heights, we started investing more in it. We launched Hindi, Firstpost Studio, Showsha the entertainment destination, First cricket and many such things,” said Lalani.

About two to three years ago, players like The Quint, Huffington Post and The Wire were launched in the same category featuring analytical news pieces. There are rumours about Huffington Post pulling shutters down on its India operations but Firstpost still has competition to take care of. The monthly visitors on The Quint and The Wire are in the range of 3-5 million.

Lalani said, “They are not our competition. It’s not only about owning that space, but also about having an impact. You have to balance both – reach and quality.”

The company is competing with legacy players like TOI, Indian Express and NDTV.

Lalani further added, “News is a difficult business to run in this market, we have sustained for long and we are in a comfortable position which tells something about our quality and credibility. When you have legacy players, most of their content is coming from their offline arm with very little original content on digital. When you have digital-first approach, you need to have good writers, you will have strong opinions and a lot of user-generated content (UGC). We have to handle all of this, while standing up with the big traditional companies and be ahead of the new digital-first companies.”

There have been a lot of instances where ComScore data has been questioned. Not just that, just like TV channels, this data has been sliced and diced to various cuts and used by various players to prove that they are leading in some or the other TG/ region. How far can ComScore data be trusted then?

“Every such third party data provider – be it for TV or digital – is based on extrapolation and there is a math to it. With extrapolation, not everyone is happy with the data. In terms of the newbies like FP, their calculation is very different than that of an older platform, say based on the age of the platform, the users it has, the tagging and sample size that it has. It is a unified tagging and the panel. While people are claiming the top spot, I think it is okay to do that. Even we claim to be No. 1 in engagement. Why do we have such third-party data? It is to show the market, where exactly we stand. The game is how do you project the data. If say The Hindu has a strong position in South India, why wouldn’t they flaunt it?”

Firstpost Azim Lalani