Online publishing in India has been built on the back of advertising. Many question whether this is sustainable. What will it take to get Indians to pay for content?
At Digipub World 2018, a panel of experts discussed what has now become a hot subject in the Indian web publishing space - will Indians pay for content? The session was moderated by Colin Morrison, who co-runs Flashes & Flames, a media blog.
Rohin Dharmakumar, co-founder, The Ken, a two-year-old subscription-based, business news site, says, quite simply, "If Indians don't pay, we don't have a business," as all his content has been behind a pay wall from the beginning. "It took us a while," he admits, as the first three to six months were about experimenting, talking to people about their willingness to pay for their kind of content (The Ken covers business, technology and healthcare) and understanding the general attitude towards paying for content.
"I can say with certainty that there's a fair number of Indians, across segments, who will pay," he says, answering the question in the headline. It helps if what one is selling is original, exclusive, and not available elsewhere. It's a mistake to compare the size/scale/percentage of people willing to pay for content with those who prefer reading it for free, he cautions. "There will always be people who just want news and will not pay for it... and there will always be a small, but profitable, intelligent, indulgent audience that will pay for it," says Dharmakumar, declaring that that's the audience his company is going after.
Dharmakumar's current model doesn't have any room for ads, but he is open to the possibility of turning ads into a means to take his content to people who can't afford it (students, boot-strapped entrepreneurs). This is the "old construct" of advertising - it will help make his product available to new a set of people; the objective is not to help the advertisers take their messages to more people. "I agree with the philosophy of a third party subsidising the cost of creating original news, but not with the idea of advertising being that construct..." he clarifies.
Sanjay Sindhwani, vice president, digital products, and business head, digital and mobile, The Economic Times, says about his "pay wall product", that was launched few months back, "Initial success has been good. Indians are a value-conscious audience. If they see value in what they are paying for, then they don't mind paying." In a business scenario, the value proposition is easy to articulate. The questions, especially when compared to the way free media is consumed, are: How many will pay? When it scale up?
Sindhwani's argument extends to advertising as well; if an ad adds value to someone, then he/she won't mind consuming it, provided it doesn't ruin the user experience.
Shivendra Gupta, executive vice president, Business Standard (the content went pay around two years back), says, "... When it comes to opinions and analysis, there is an audience that's willing to pay. Advertising alone will not work for serious journalism oriented products like ours..."
Answering the moderator's question about dis-aggregating content that readers are paying for (that is, giving the paying reader a choice between buying one story versus a few pieces versus the whole lot, etc.), Gupta says, "... for subscriptions, the price points are so low... trying even lower price points for single article readership will make it completely unviable... also, a lot of work still needs to be done on the payment mechanism side, especially when payments are of the recurring kind..."
In the context of web publishing, he likens the present day pay market to a cottage industry. To grow the number of paying readers/subscribers significantly, publishers must invest in both, the content and tech aspects of the product. Often, the psychological barrier to paying for web content has more to do with one's reluctance to share one's credit card details with a newspaper than with wanting or not wanting to pay for that content in principle.
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Audience question: When will the Indian market be fully open to paying for content? "... it's a long haul... I don't think it's something you'll see over the next three-four years," predicts Gupta, hazarding a timeline.
Event partners - Timesnownews.com (platinum partner), Akamai and Facebook (silver partners), and Freshworks, Vidooly, comScore, Quintype, Times Internet and 24 Frames Digital (bronze partners).