In an interview with Sreekant Khandekar on the second day of Digipub Week, Bahl spoke about The Quint’s strategy, subscription revenue versus ad revenue and the rise of video content.
“When we set up The Quint in 2015, my call was that by 2025 all the news content will be consumed on a handheld device. So then my call was that we should be competing to be where we will be in 2025,” said Raghav Bahl, Founder, Quintillion Media, in an interview with Sreekant Khandekar, co-founder of afaqs!, on the second day of the Digipub Week.
Bahl started his career with television news and soon set up Network18 in the early 1990s. During his two-decades-long time at the network, he expanded it into one of India’s biggest media conglomerates. He exited it in 2014 to venture into a completely different medium, digital, with Quintillion Media.
Introducing Bahl to the audience during the session, Khandekar said, “Two things make him unusual in a country which has a lot of media entrepreneurs. One he has tried his hand at and succeeded in the biggest medium of them all, television, and now he has been working aggressively over the last five years in another medium. The other thing is that unlike many other media entrepreneurs who may understand audiences or viewers well, he understands finance also.”
Bahl speaks about The Quint’s strategy, subscription revenue versus ad revenue and the rise of video content.
Khandekar: When you moved from television to online you must have had certain expectations of what it will be. Has the medium turned out to be what you thought it was?
Bahl: Although we had assets in digital, like Firstpost and Moneycontrol, we were a predominantly broadcast media group. The DNA of Network18 was broadcast and therefore my focus was largely broadcast. I didn't quite understand digital as much as my colleagues did. So in 2014, when I stepped away from broadcast, I frankly didn't know what digital was and whatever exposure I had, was limited to desktop digital.
Khandekar: But what surprised you the most about it?
Bahl: The use of embedded technology is as endemic to how content is consumed. When you start doing mobile first digital, then you realise that technology is almost as important as how you purpose the content or how you serve it to the audiences.
Khandekar: Soon after you exited your television business, you invested in a bunch of startups - Youth ki Awaaz, The News Minute, Quintype, and Owlet. Why did you do that at that time, and since then I don't think you've made other investments?
Bahl: When we started getting into digital, our own ventures were The Quint and Bloomberg Quint. As an entrepreneur I realised that there are ventures that you run yourself and then there are ventures that you invest in with good founders, provided they are strategically in this in a synergistic space. These are all synergistic growing businesses and they need capital. So we've done a second round, and some we are planning a third round, so that these businesses acquire heft. Everyone is now talking about doing a bit of social commerce, or gamifying some of the content. For all this you require investment. We’ve decided this is our corpus and we will build them into large properties. And we'll invest in the growth of these companies.
Khandekar: There’s so much competition online that it's hard to say whom you're competing with. But if you look at what you consider your closest rivals, would they be online born websites ventures like yourself? Or would they be legacy print businesses? Or legacy TV businesses? Where do you think you stand in relation to them?
Bahl: When I started Network18 in the early ‘90s, I never planned for a large business. I would be happy if it were to become a Rs 100 crore company. But I had no clue that it would become a Rs 5000 crore revenue company. This time since we had the ability to plan a scale we decided our strategy. When we set up The Quint in 2015, my call was that by 2025 all the news content will be consumed on a handheld device. So then my call was we should be competing to be where we will be in 2025 and we will not be competing with a digital player in 2025. We are coming pretty close to it because today 68% of all news and information consumption in India happens on the handheld device and 80% from social media. If we build ourselves multi-content multi-vertical and give sports, gender, youth community, hard political news, opinion and health, we will be a large content diversified digital platform who will then be competing with the likes of The Times of India and NDTV in every vertical. In 2025 they will also be competing largely on the digital platform.
Khandekar: The Quint’s turnover for last year was Rs 22 crores. If we add BloombergQuint, The News Minute and the others it would be more. In the future do you think more of your revenue will come from pay or from advertising?
Bahl: I think it depends on the product. In BloombergQuint we've already seen that though we get a lot of advertising revenues, subscription revenues have become a significant part of our overall revenue pie. That's a business news website people are willing to pay for some of the proprietary content. We've also experimented with the hard paywall model. In America, Bloomberg never went for that, but in India we made some stories available only behind the paywall. And that's the biggest conversion point. On The Quint, we haven't gone behind the paywall yet, because we believe that is a more general, younger audience product. And therefore The Quint gets almost its entire revenue from advertising.
Khandekar: Do you think that digital publishers, including yourself, are discounting older people? They have been brought up in an environment in which they paid for news far more than the younger people. But it seems that the orientation is towards the younger people to pay. Wouldn't it be more viable if you target older people?
Bahl: When we started most of our audiences were young. Then we started getting a pretty sticky audience in the 55+ age group because by then they had gotten onto Instagram and WhatsApp with their grandkids. Then there was massive digital stickiness in the 40-55 age group, who were not big digital consumers, but then they had so many other pulls and pressures on that time, that they were very diversified.
Khandekar: For every million unique visitors to a site such as yours, how many people would have a propensity to pay?
Bahl: As we stand today, it's very low. I wouldn't put it at more than one to two per cent.
Khandekar: Do you see that rising?
Bahl: The number of people logging in and registering on the site with an intent to become a subscriber is going up rapidly. The conversion is still slower, but it's catching up. But I still think that you should not pitch yourself for more than two or three per cent. I think that's the max. Which is why advertising revenue will be an important component of digital revenues.
Khandekar: You are going towards deeper reporting and video reporting. How well does video work compared to text from the search point of view? Does the market value such deep and hard hitting content?
Bahl: Video may not work as well as text articles do on the website. But video is very powerful in the distributed platform universe. And those are now monetizable properties. So video is a very powerful component. You will miss the woods for the trees if you think of video only as that consumed on the website. That's only a tiny percentage of video consumption on distributed platforms.
Khandekar: How does being listed on the stock exchange work in what you intend to do.
Bahl: We are growing at roughly 70-75 per cent. So I expect that this year we should be closer to Rs 35-40 crores in the top line. And this is only The Quint. Our board is looking at the option of consolidating all businesses into the listed entity.
The event, powered by Akamai Technologies, with AndBeyond.Media and Zee Digital acting as the associate sponsors, was held between September 27 to September 29.