In one of the most informative sessions at the recently concluded Digipub World (convention on online publishing, hosted by afaqs!), Kedar Gavane, vice president, comScore, Inc. (a cross-platform measurement company) spoke about the journey and fate of web publishing in India.
First, a quick recap of the last 7 years...
When Kedar joined comScore back in 2010, there were close to 40 million internet users; today, that number stands at around 230 million. "During this period," he said, "the underlying ad ecosystem has changed in multiple ways, what with ad exchanges, ad networks, SSPs (supply-side platforms), DSPs (demand-side platforms)..." At the other end of the spectrum, the content publisher continues to thrive, in most categories, anyway.
Kedar shared that back in 2010 or maybe earlier, most of the "catalysts" - (sites or categories which brought new users to the internet in India/helped keep existing users in place) - included classifieds (Infoedge, Shaadi, Monster) and portals that typically had one central landing page (such as Yahoo, MSN, Rediff). At the time, the reach of portals was synonymous with internet usage itself. That's how frequently netizens visited portals on a daily basis.
"Portals were a form of distribution of news, sports, entertainment content," said Kedar, "Then, around 2014, there was a wave of retail which brought in a lot of new, incremental users onto the internet." This was when retail went 'mass media' as price sensitive users came online to make the most of e-commerce (Flipkart, Snapdeal) discounts.
Today, we live in what Kedar dubs calls "the Game of Thrones-Narcos age", one in which players like Hotstar and Paytm have helped bring a lot more new users onto the internet over the past eight to 12 months. Aggregators - news and beyond - have also played a large role; examples include Dailyhunt and UCWeb among several others. "Newer forms of aggregation and distribution have helped too - like Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP Pages, Facebook Live. They all disseminate news better than the publishers themselves do," he said.
Now, on to web publishing...
News has been the most transformative, pivotal category as far as India's online and offline content goes, Kedar reminded the audience. Also, news, one of the most well graded categories, happens to be his "favourite".
"Indians just love to read news... that's partly why India is one the few markets where print continues to grow," he stated, going on to classify the evolution of news into four stages: It began with the "enablers" - the national or regional dailies that created websites that reproduced their offline news, online. "There was nothing additional, there was no separate news desk or sales team..." explained Kedar. The idea was, quite simply, to be digitally present. Engagement time was really low (less than a minute per day, per user).
Then came the phase when online news started becoming an "independent" business. Event-based content creation began to take place. Content across genres, like finance, sports and entertainment, was now being created specifically for the online versions of newspapers.
Closer to 2015, news started to become less of the kind one saw in "the day-to-day world and in newspapers"; news started to include more specialised content. "People were reviewing cars, writing articles about health... the kind of content one didn't see in newspapers or on TV. 'Coverage' went beyond the regular news desk. It was more about 'social news'," he explained. And that's how social media, as it played a large role in distributing this social news, became the focus area.
The last 18 months have been purely about distribution. Kedar added, "Back in the day, I remember NDTV was one of our publisher partners that crossed five million unique visitors in 2010, and the person there wanted to publicise that fact because that number was more than any newspaper circulation or readership figure at that point in time. Today, each of the top five news sites reaches over 50 million internet users every month... if they were present in any other market - US, China - they'd still be in the top 10 there, in the news category..."
Where will the growth come from?
"From publishers who are born digital, those who've never had any association with an offline newspaper," Kedar predicts. Examples include Scroll, Wittyfeed and Quint (winner of the prestigious Website of the Year - English title at Digipub Awards, by the way), among others.
Two "publisher categories" that are high on engagement are entertainment (time spent is massive: 500 minutes per user, per month) and technology. In the case of entertainment, almost 81 per cent of total time spent is on mobile. "You need, not a mobile-first, but a mobile-only strategy. There is no doubt about that," he said.
The question facing web publishers is: How do I improve monetisation on the mobile front? A large part of the solution lies in helping the advertiser feel more confident about this medium. "There hasn't been enough work done by publishers, individually or as a group, to show them (advertisers) that it's the same audience that's accessing the content on a desktop. And of course, measurement must improve. Without measurement, even distribution - something Indian web publishers are extremely good at - is going to be a funny game," he cautioned.