Anant Goenka was the most frank and forthcoming interviewee at our recently concluded web publishing conference Digipub World.
In an on-stage chat with Sreekant Khandekar, curator of this event and co-founder of afaqs!, the Goenka scion, a fourth generation leader at The Indian Express Group, spoke about the highs and lows of taking his legacy print brand online, a journey that began in earnest in 2012, when he joined the group, in his mid-20s.
Presently, he is designated as executive director of the 87-year-old news media company.
News brands The Indian Express Group comprises include The Indian Express (English daily), Financial Express (English financial daily), Loksatta (Marathi daily) and Jansatta (Hindi daily); this list excludes magazines.
The Indian Express is the fourth largest English national daily, as per the IRS 2019, after The Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Hindu, in that order.
About 80 per cent of the group’s online revenue comes from its flagship brand The Indian Express.
Trivia: When he joined the company, the digital revenue was Rs.1,12,00,000. Lots more where that came from.
Khandekar: Express has a smaller presence on-ground compared to other big papers, but online is an equaliser. What's been the exciting - and frustrating - part of taking Express online?
Goenka: The (aim) was to be a mainstream, centre-of-market, news brand. Yes, we may not sell as many copies on-ground as Times of India or Hindustan Times, but for some reason, the Indian Express brand has a certain recall...
When we started our digital journey, I began by saying - we should be the first paper to charge for content online. I, very quickly, decided that's never going to happen - India was never going to pay for content online. Maybe now we can revise that, but seven years ago we said - that's not going to happen. And I was right in jettisoning that idea at the time; it would’ve been a big distraction.
But we realised that if our stories, even the most commoditised ones, show up on a Google search and are ranked high there, then there's something about the Indian Express brand that will make people want to click on our links versus those of other news brands. We've inherited credibility; the idea was to use that to compete, online, with the kind of volume a Times of India or a Hindustan Times has on ground.
There have been lots of ups and downs. On the print side, the gap between us and the TOIs and the HTs is so vast; but on digital, for us to be doing 2X or 3X of what some of the competitors are doing, is a huge achievement. Digital for us has been about being able to exploit this brand, that has been built over the last 80+ years.
"It's a bit of a joke, the kind of revenue digital actually ends up earning... but the Indian digital economy is still nascent, so we're optimistic."Anant Goenka
Khandekar: Has this shown on the revenue side of things? Say, over the last five years, how much has revenue gone up?
Goenka: In the digital company, revenue has exploded, but does it warrant all the time, energy and effort we've put into it? No, certainly not. It's a bit of a joke, the kind of revenue digital actually ends up earning... but the Indian digital economy is still nascent, so we're optimistic.
We will have to diversify revenue streams; it can’t just be advertising led. And that’s where there’s a lot of nervousness, because none of us knows how to do anything except… you know, I can’t even say we, at the Express, know how to sell advertising well – we’re quite pathetic at that! All we do well is good journalism. But selling advertising is our core business. Anything beyond that… we don’t really know. And outside of selling advertising, be it subscription or e-commerce, there isn’t any precedent either. It’s quite a graveyard out there… a scary war zone with no winner. But we don’t have a choice; something has to work.
Anant Goenka and Sreekant Khandekar. Watch the full session here.
"Outside of selling advertising, be it subscription or e-commerce, it’s quite a graveyard out there… a scary war zone with no winner..."Anant Goenka
Khandekar: You have four very different news brands. Like offline, are there economies, online? Shared costs, perhaps, or something else that makes it more viable?
Goenka: Online, the way it should be – that’s not the way it is right now – is a solid CRM, CMS and multi-media asset library common to all. Each brand, then, should have its own direct audience/traffic target, and should be driven by an editorial mindset. But the user data processing and advertising pipe should be common.
"We've inherited credibility; the idea was to use that to compete, online, with the kind of volume a Times of India or a Hindustan Times has on ground."Anant Goenka
Khandekar: Pay based publishers need depth, as opposed to advertising led ones that need width. How does Express, a brand that wouldn’t typically do click-bait type of stuff, deal with this? Isn’t there a conflict?
Goenka: Yes, theoretically, there is a conflict. But if we’re reasonably true to our roots and if we’re okay letting some traffic go...
…if we’re not okay letting it go, then maybe there’s a decoy brand to collect that traffic and make revenues with programmatic…
There’s a list of things we don’t want the Indian Express brand to be associated with, like the stuff our competitors do in the entertainment section – the kind of stuff that won’t even open on some office computers because the software thinks it’s porn.
"There’s a list of things we don’t want the Indian Express brand to be associated with, like the stuff our competitors do in the entertainment section – it won’t even open on some computers because the software thinks it’s porn."Anant Goenka
Khandekar: But finally, it’s down to what you serve on the homepage - do you agree?
Goenka: Yes, but that’s being defensive. I think brand is crucial. Even if someone comes to a page sideways, your masthead is there… it can still hurt your brand.
Khandekar: You mentioned going beyond the traditional business of ‘printing information and getting ads for it’ as it were. What are the areas of diversification you’re looking at? Are they necessarily media related?
Goenka: Ideally, they're things we already have a high volume of traffic for. For example, education – our content in this area gets a lot of traffic, so… can we use that audience to do more than just surf that one article?
We thought of creating a ‘supermarket’ for finance products, because our personal finance content gets a lot of traffic; we didn’t do it. It’s about taking clusters of audiences and monetising them in better ways than just an ad. Anyway, advertising – because of the agencies – is being reduced to simple performance or programmatic…
We haven’t done anything successful as yet. We’re still at it, we’re still trying to diversify revenue…
Khandekar: Do you think about pay?
Goenka: We do, a lot.
Advertisers respect the fact that a ‘paid consumer’ is more valuable than a ‘non-paid consumer’.
Khandekar: That’s paradoxical…
Goenka: I’m not saying I won’t put ads on the page. I’m just saying I’ll charge you to consume the article. Then, I should be able to sell the ad on that page at a higher value. Advertisers respect consumers who have an ‘intent to consume’ that’s high enough to pay.
Hand on heart, we’ve failed at being able to create news of the production level and quality that people will pay for.
"Hand on heart, we (as an industry) have failed at being able to create news of the production level and quality that people will pay for."Anant Goenka