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Evaluating opportunities to go behind paywall for all verticals, says Puneet Singhvi of Network18 Digital

In a conversation with, Puneet Singhvi, President, Digital & Corporate Strategy, Network18, says publishers should go behind the paywall only if the offering is enticing enough. He highlights the massive growth of the group websites and how they are being monetised

Puneet Singhvi

At the time when several Indian publishers are planning to put their content behind a paywall, Network18 Digital, which runs websites such as FirstPost, MoneyControl, CNBC TV18 among several others, feels that going paid to increase monestisation isn’t as simple as it looks. 

“We actively evaluate opportunities to go behind the paywall for all our verticals but it is not as simple to get the product behind the paywall. One should have an offering that is enticing enough for users to pay for the product,” said Puneet Singhvi, President, Digital & Corporate Strategy, Network18.

“MoneyControl lends itself very well there. We might look into other vertical in future but not on an immediate basis,” he added.

Talking about the increase in content consumption ad revenues (34% increase YoY) in the last quarter, which came on the back of big ticket properties such as IPL, World Cup Cricket and elections, Singhvi said, “It was a big quarter for us from audience growth as well as from the advertisers’ front. We got a fairly significant leg-up and traction.”

Singhvi said that the launch of the news app in 11 different languages strengthened News18 position and helped them grow at an industry-leading pace, with 46% QoQ rise in viewership.

“Advertising opportunities are opening up and advertisers are looking at regional languages and willing to experiment. So, those are the focus areas to look at it.”

Currently, Network18 digital takes the second position in the digital news/information category with 166 million unique visitors. On election counting day, Network18 Digital is said to have beaten Times Internet by having 56.2 million users against Times’ 55 million users.


Network18’s digital revenues grew 34% YoY. What has helped the platform to boost revenues amid a tepid environment?

It was a big quarter for us from audience growth as well as from the advertisers’ front. We got a fairly significant leg-up and traction from advertisers on the back of key events such as the World Cup and elections.

Advertisers were interested in our network particularly because of the massive regional footprints that we have across 10-12 languages, so the reach was pretty significant. Television amplified the overall brand across the platform and gave that additional coverage during events like counting day. All of this added to the growth and the sales teams also planned several initiatives to get reach during the big events such as election and World Cup. We were actively conversing with advertisers for almost three to four months leading up to election season, so all those combined efforts gave a significant boost in the quarter.

 Another thing that worked for us is that we did give an interesting combination of ad space, we didn’t just stick to inventories. We offered a combination of inventories, branded content and several other innovative IPs. All this gave us that momentum and further ended up giving us a quarter, which is solid all around. 

Do you think advertisers have finally started taking digital seriously?

Yes, if you look through micro lens, digital is now in double-digits, it is around 10-12% of the overall advertising pie. So, it is starting to get significant, it is also one of the fastest-growing media in terms of advertising. If you look at the print, we all know print has its own challenge and so compared to other mediums, advertising on digital is catching up really quickly. Also, now given the combination of advertising that we can do, which is far beyond the standard display banner, more clients are getting interested. Looking at the current circumstances where people are looking at ROI very keenly, digital works very well for them as they are able to get the best of both worlds in terms of brands and performance. It is also driving adoption, especially for large national and regional advertisers. There is a certain sector that is still a bit traditional in their choice of media but I think it is the process of evolving and getting there.

Also, earlier digital was limited to the desktop but now 85% consumption is on mobile so it is a very agnostic medium and people are aware of the stuff that can be done on mobile. So, it isn’t as alien as it was three to four years ago.

The market has witnessed a dip in display advertising, which was the original component of digital branding. What kind of response have you seen for display advertising?

We continue to see growth in display advertising revenues. Obviously, it is not as robust as it used to be over the last couple of years but the premium publishers will continue to get premium display. I think what is changing on display is the way it is bought, so if you restrict display to direct-sold display advertising then their growth is slightly less. However, a lot of displays are now getting programmatic through platforms like Adex and if you aggregate all that, then there is growth.

What scope do you see for programmatic ads in the digital news platform? 

 Programmatic will continue to grow. What is happening in the space is, there is a clamour for efficiency, more importantly, there is a clamour for a like-minded audience on the basis of their reading habits, interest and intent. This is made possible through programmatic and the platform that enables it. In the industry, across the board, it will continue to grow as it becomes a channel of advertising that puts publishers like us on the same level as that of Facebook or Google, which has lot more data about their users. However, in our case, the reading habits increase the interest level on the basis of the articles they read. Programmatic is an interesting indicator to the advertisers and therefore they buy that instead of the standard trade tactic that continues to be there. I think it is a healthy combination that is evolving now.

How are you tackling the issue of lack of third-party measurement?

In digital, we don't have that challenge because from the audience side of thing, Comscore is very well-established third-party measurement standard for benchmarking sites and destination on the basis of their visits, unique visitors and traffic. It is a very standard currency for all the digital advertisers and clients.

What do you think about BARC’s EKAM?

EKAM as an idea is a good one but since media consumption is increasing and the way of consumption is evolving, the platform boundaries are blurring. There is no longer a TV only or a digital only market, it is increasingly getting toward the intersection of users’ consumption habit. So, if there is user data that gives us a more consolidated view of the audience it helps and I think it is a good start. For eg: today, OTT is taking away a huge chunk of TV users and so it becomes very relevant for TV channel owners to see that the audience extension happening on their OTT destinations. If there is a solid robust cross-platform measurement benchmark or third-party source, it definitely helps the industry as there is an increase in cross-platform advertising. Comscore does some of this in other countries. They haven’t started in India yet, EKAM is one thing that people are talking about but there are challenges around currency for those things, it is a matter of working out details. But it definitely helps the industry in positioning itself in front of advertisers on how the audience is moving and how consumption is getting a little bit agnostic to the platform.

What other challenges do news platform face?

In general, the news space is a commodity space. There is nothing new we can do in terms of news coverage. Secondly, most of the news publishers, except big ones like us or Times, have heavy dependence on Google for their traffic. But what differentiates us from them is the voice that we bring in through our journalists and reporters who work for us and our treatment to news and how we are seen as a trusted source of news. Fake news is a huge problem, which is why people try to stay with the brand for news consumption. Also, the way of presenting news is important. We cannot just do news for the sake of doing it and reporting articles through wires. Putting up interesting articles will continue to be challenging in terms of guiding real growth.

For us, in terms of credibility, CNBC TV18, which is fairly new property for us, has been doing really well, though it is one-and-a-half years old. So in terms of the credibility of the brand to drive readership on our platforms, that is one of the examples. Even in terms of long read, FirstPost has tremendously increased our score, as people now increasingly want to read long-form and want to read about culture and environment. So, it is also the format of content that is working for us.

Last year, News18 digital launched a news app in 11 languages. How did that initiative fare? Which language has offered high traction?

We are either number one or number two player in all the languages that we have launched and only in three markets, we are in the third position. If we look at Comscore data, every language that we launched has worked very well for us. If I have to select then Marathi, Bengali, Telugu and South languages have done well for us. Others have also grown and it is credible for them to reach the position that they have because each of these languages we are up against big regional publishers who have print and local events. Also, this is where our television network has helped us to get the initial kick-off and on the back of that we were able to go very strong.

Any plans on launching apps in other languages? Going forward what are the plans to increase News18’s standing?

I think we have pretty much covered all the languages. There are two or three languages we might launch this year. But, I think the focus is more on consolidating and becoming a large language player on an aggregated basis. Also, advertising opportunities are opening up and advertisers are looking at regional languages and are willing to experiment. So, those are the focus areas to look at it. It is more about consolidation and growing strong readership, and then we will take it from there.

Are you planning to take your product behind the paywall?

MoneyControl has been a leader in the finance and business category for a while, both in terms of the audience that we drive and revenues on the platform. MoneyControl was largely advertiser-based monetisation. But we launched two or three revenue streams, which have worked very well, last year.

MoneyControl Pro is a premium version of MoneyControl and it is ad-free on the app. It has got additional insight, in-depth data, analysis, special content where experts write about markets and result analysis. So that is doing well. Currently, we are the fastest-growing subscription-based finance news site and we are around 4X to 5X of the competitors who have been in the market for a much longer period of time. MoneyControl is our flagship product and it will be our main focus area as it is very strong and is doing well for us. So, overall there is a diversification of revenue that we are actively doing on MoneyControl and it is on the back of the audience growth and insight we have on advertising.

We actively evaluate opportunities to go behind the paywall for all our verticals but it is not as simple. One should have an offering that is enticing enough for users to pay for the product. MoneyControl lends itself very well. We might look into other verticals in future, but on an immediate basis, I don’t think there is any plan for other verticals to go behind the paywall.

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