Ashwini Gangal

“The consumer doesn’t pay for familiarity”: Rameet Arora, HT Digital Streams

Early this year Livemint, financial news brand from the house of HT Media, was redesigned. The convention of news and static pages was broken to create a new “website with one page”.

On the Digipub World stage, in Delhi last week, Rameet Arora, chief operating officer and head of digital brands, HT Digital Streams, claimed the effort has paid off – “broadly, we’re making three times the money we were making on a monthly basis…”

He chatted with Ashwini Gangal, executive editor, afaqs!, briefly, about the process, one that gave him and his team “sleepless nights”.

Edited excerpts.

Q. Your website is clean and neat, but it doesn’t look like a newspaper. It looks like social media feed. You have cards on the homepage… what’s that about?

Rameet: Many of us tend to be very condescending about social media, because… it’s social media. But truth is, there’s a lot to learn from social media – their ability to personalise, to be dynamic, to contextualise information, to engage us, the way they’ve mastered infinite scrolls…. When customers gave us feedback, a lot of their benchmarks were set by their experiences (on social). From a design point of view, why cards, feed and infinite scroll? Firstly, we wanted to give a simple, yet comprehensive, experience to customers for their needs through the day. Secondly, it makes it possible for them to make informed choices about what they click through – the concept of click-bait just died that minute. Thirdly, a structure like this gives customers relevance.

Also, from a content creator’s point of view, cards give us real speed when we go to market; whether it’s videos, infographics, widgets or ‘first out’ news, a card is a simple, standard format that can get replicated very quickly, dragged and dropped. There’s no page structure and discoverability to be concerned about.

Rameet Arora speaks to Ashwini Gangal at Digipub World 2019

Q. It’s all very well to re-design a site, but none of it makes sense if Google and Facebook don’t understand what you’re trying to do. Walk us through the algorithm challenges – did you learn that the hard way?

Rameet: (smiles) Google’s not dumb… just a little slow sometimes. In this case, we caught them by surprise.

We changed not just the design, but also the content hierarchy, the way we were looking at urls, and our back end. Over the first couple of months there was a huge SEO impact because Google took its time to index us.

The ecosystem – Google and Facebook, others – doesn’t always mirror your desire for design change. Also, AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), FBIA (Facebook Instant Articles), the whole external distribution ecosystem that feeds into your website, simply wasn’t ready from a design point of view to be able to replicate something like this…. it’s been a struggle getting the external ecosystem to work in step with us. The SEO bit can be sorted out, but the big learning on the design front is – while design is about content, tech and users, it is also about managing the ecosystem.

"It’s been a struggle getting the external ecosystem to work in step with us."
Rameet Arora, HT Digital Streams
Rameet Arora with Ashwini Gangal
Rameet Arora with Ashwini Gangal
Digipub World

Q. What’s the better way to classify content on a site – by section or by topic?

Rameet: Users told us they don’t need sections. If I’m getting the news that I want, if it’s easily discoverable, if I’m able to make an informed choice, then I want to be able to contextualise that with everything around that news… and that’s topics. If the site is doing of all this for me, then I don’t need sections. Sections are a crutch. Lack of content within a given topic/s hurts both from a user experience and SEO point of view. Given a choice, we would just stay with topics, but it’s not an easy play. Topics are easier to personalise, though.

Q. Tell us about the scandalous decision to re-design for the mobile first and then adapt that to the desktop. It’s usually the other way around. Didn’t the desktop site look weird initially?

Rameet: (quoted from his solo talk) 90 per cent of news consumption on the internet takes place on the mobile phone. Yet we continue to design websites for the desktop; that design then adapts/responds to screen sizes. We reversed this and built a website for the mobile phone.

Initially, yes, the desktop site was not as pretty. We got a lot of flak. Handful of people of Twitter said “You’ve ruined the site…” Senior internal customers said, “What have you done...” But as the days passed, the desktop site began outperforming the mobile site. And now there are far fewer naysayers. And data suggests it seems to be working.

"Initially, yes, the desktop site was not as pretty. We got a lot of flak."
Rameet Arora, HT Digital Streams

Q. How has this design change impacted revenue?

Rameet: (quoted from his solo talk) The naysayers said, ‘You guys are crazy, this is ridiculous. You’re not going to make money. You’ve got only one page. Where are you going to put your ads?’

But here’s the journey so far: the number of page views went up 2X (and ad impressions increased proportionately), time spent went up 30 per cent, number of visits went up 25 per cent, viewability of ads went up 10 per cent… our ad formats have got limited to some extent, which we’re working on, but all in all it’s been a good journey.

Everyone’s always trying to acquire more and more customers, but we forget that the money, loyalty, affinity, brand, all lie at the bottom of the pyramid, (the part which reflects) users who spend maximum time on the site and give you disproportionate returns – the audience, and the advertising, is of a much higher quality. This whole re-design was done to foster engagement.

When viewability of ads goes up, there’s a premium to it. When ads are more contextual, the click-throughs are higher. And all of that means more money.

Q. Right, but this happens eventually. Did it get worse before it got better?

Rameet: On a per user basis, no. On an absolute basis, yes, for the first two months. But as users began to come back, as search began to work for us, as social found its place again, the absolute numbers grew manifold.

Q. You’ve led brands like McDonald’s and Zomato as marketing head in the past. What marketing lessons from that time help you as a publisher today?

Rameet: During my time at McDonald’s (2010-14), we were moving from the familiar red and yellow to black signages... I was aghast. To me, the red and yellow ‘M’ was telegraphic; it was about a sense of familiarity. I was dead against changing it. But I was over-ruled and we changed it. And I was thankful for it. The lesson I learnt was – the consumer doesn’t pay for familiarity. It’s important to stay ahead of the curve.

(Digipub World is an annual conference for and about the web publishing industry. Three editions have been held so far. It is organised by afaqs!).

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