Sanjay Sindhwani, CEO of Indian Express Digital, is of the firm belief that customers today don't mind paying for experiences and that's exactly the reason why he decided to move the Indian Express ePaper behind a paywall.
“There is a dedicated set of users for the ePaper who mostly come directly to the website. Their usage frequency is high, engagement is much higher than an average web user. On the web, you get a lot of lateral traffic from search, which is not very loyal. But people who come for the ePaper are among those who are most engaged," Sindhwani told BestMediaInfo.com.
Sindhwani said the first set of subscribers are the ones who are the brand champions and won't mind paying Rs 499 quarterly for the ePaper subscription.
"We think the first wave of subscribers are brand champions. Who support the cause of great journalism. At a time when fake news and integrity of some sections of the media is being questioned, there are people who want to support media brands that stand for true and free journalism, the journalism of courage as practised by The Indian Express. And for a lot of people, when they move to locations where the print does not reach, they yearn for the feel of the print edition," he added.
Sindhwani said the advertising-led business model is not sustainable in the long term and a lot of other leading players are also likely to move to a paywall.
By making its ePaper paid, Indian Express has joined the likes of The Hindu, Business Standard among others who have already made their digital news offering paid for readers. Others such as Mint are likely to follow suit soon.
Why do you think ‘now’ was the right time to move the ePaper behind a paywall? Considering that one of your rivals The Hindu has been doing this for a long time, aren’t you late? Or is it like you are choosing this model after it was tried and tested by them?
There is no right time to launch a pay-walled media product and frankly we didn't really ask an astrologer. Before launching our first subscription product, which is the Indian Express ePaper, I personally have been studying the possibility of launching subscription-based or pay-walled media products since the year 2000. But for a good 14-15 years, the eco-system and market size were a challenge. Net connectivity was pathetic and expensive; online payments options were limited and few people were comfortable doing online transactions; and even the idea of consumers having to pay online content was difficult to sell.
The market for pay-walled media products fell in place in the last 3-4 years, when the eco-system challenges relating to reach, penetration, payments, and access got sorted. After that, it was a question of each individual company taking that call and deciding when they were ready to roll out pay-walled products. If you know, I had rolled out ET Prime, in my previous stint more than a year ago.
I joined Indian Express Online Media in April 2019 and once I settled in, understood the product and its audiences. We decided it’s time for us to launch our own pay-walled product. Anant Goenka, our Executive Director, was very confident that there is a huge following for Express’s journalism and we should get good support from our readers.
It took us a couple of months to tie up the loose ends, put together the tech, payments and CRM pieces together and we rolled out our ePaper subscription model. Yes, the fact that The Hindu had done something similar and was gaining traction gave us further confidence that we are on the right track and that consumers are ready for this. And, let me stick out my neck and say more and more media companies will follow this lead. It is merely about ‘when’, ‘what’ and ‘how’.
The content available on ePaper is also available on your website for free of cost. Why would a reader subscribe unless he/she finds some difference?
Consumers today pay for experiences. The movies that one watches in a theatre are available on torrents for free. One can create a theatre-like experience at home. Yet people go out and watch movies in a theatre. The same goes for food.
So ePaper is a very different experience from a typical website.
In addition, we think the first wave of subscribers are brand champions who support the cause of great journalism. At a time, when fake news and integrity of some sections of the media are being questioned, there are people who want to support media brands who stand for true and free journalism, the journalism of courage as practised by The Indian Express. And for a lot of people, when they move to locations where the print does not reach, yearn for the feel of the print edition. They also don't want to wait for the Dak Edition to come in the next day. So different people will have different reasons. Some will subscribe to see the advertisements and notifications for instance.
The way we look at the ePaper or the newspaper is that it is an “editorially curated, uniquely packaged edition of the web specially crafted for the readers picking out the most important and relevant stories out of the hundreds that get published on the web through the day”.
Having said that, this is just the beginning as we grow our subscriber base we will add more offerings in the bundle. But I can't share those details at this point of time.
Is there any insight about readers’ habits that encouraged you for this decision? Habits on print and digital are different but are the habits different on digital between ePaper and website?
Yes, there is a dedicated set of users for the ePaper who mostly come directly to the website. Their usage frequency is high and engagement is much higher than an average web user. On the web, you get a lot of lateral traffic from search, which is not very loyal. But people who come for the ePaper are among those who are most engaged.
Would you remove your ePaper from aggregators’ apps available for free or would that also go behind paywall?
This has already started. In some cases, because of the agreements we have, it has not happened as yet. It would be highly unfair for us to charge one set of customers while making available the same content and experience available free to others. So yes, all ePaper access will move behind paywall across all platforms and access points.
Do you think your move will help strengthen the subscription-led revenue model for the ePaper? Won’t it require all the players to adopt the same model?
I know for sure, many other players in our industry are toying with the idea of subscriptions. Different players will take a different approach. New models will emerge and be tested. The approach may also vary from brand to brand within a media house. All I can say is that publishers will keep moving in this direction, as an ‘advertisement-only’ business model is not sustainable in the long run. And sooner the publishers move to a paywall, the better chances of success they will have.
Business Standard took all of its ‘premium content’ behind paywall long back. Are you planning to do the same anytime in the near future? If so, by when? Because that could drive your subscription-led revenue model better.
As I said earlier, this is just the beginning. We will engage with our readers to figure out what adds value to them. Our future strategy will be dictated by the needs of our audiences and what they value.
This model has started kicking off in India, albeit a bit slow. Readers are paying for quality content. Why are the publishers not that confident to pull it off?
I don't think publishers are not confident about their content. When publishers chase an ‘ad-led’ model, the content strategy revolves around traffic and page view growth, publishers chase eye-balls by doing content that is popular and trending. There was a certain amount of momentum built in that chase. For a paid content strategy, one needs to steer the ship in a different direction, by offering differentiated content, as against populist content. This requires a change at multiple levels in the way people have been running the editorial operations.
Then in some content categories, the market may not be ready for paywalls at this point of time or it may be too small. Again, at the cost of repeating myself, different brands within a publisher’s portfolio may follow different timelines in going behind a paywall.
TOI and ET have launched their Prime versions on digital as paid publications. Is IE considering launching such a niche product and park premium content there?
I don't think copy paste models work. When we (when I was at ET) decided to launch ETPrime as a niche product, there were strong reasons and research to take that route. And there was roadmap on how to grow from there on. It would be inappropriate of me to disclose that strategy here. That strategy was right for ET at that point of time. But it may not be right for IE. So we will chart our own course after studying the user behaviour, doing user research studies and assessing the environment.
We can see layered subscription plans starting quarterly @Rs 449. How do you come to these price points? Why are there no ‘monthly’ or ‘pay per story’ plans for not so regular reader?
For ePaper, the pricing starts with the cost of the print subscription as the base and from there you price the digital version. As you would have noticed, the current pricing is an introductory offer at a discount.
We wanted our most regular and loyal readers to get the best deal and hence we launched with a discount. It is easy to launch monthly, daily, pay per article, pay per use. There are so many cuts and payment models. But it is equally important to keep the offering simple. So, we decided that initially we will just keep 2-3 options and then as we feel the need to create more options, we will think about it.