Benita Chacko

News websites pushing readers to pay: What’s driving the shift?

In the first panel discussion of Digipub Week, we explore the challenges and opportunities the shift to pay will bring.

Since the COVID pandemic began last year, many mainstream publications have upped their focus on pay. The dwindling ad revenues during the COVID-induced lockdown forced many of them to look for other revenue options. While some put their content behind paywalls, others appealed for reader support through donations.

In the first panel discussion of Digipub Week, a three-day-long series from afaqs! about the intricate business of web publishing, we explore the challenges and opportunities the shift to pay will bring.

Sreekant Khandekar, co-founder and director, afaqs!, moderated the session. The panelists were Durga Raghunath, digital head, Times Internet (TIL); Puneet Jain, CEO, HT Digital News; Sanjay Sindhwani, CEO, The Indian Express Online; and Deepa Parikh, senior presales leader at Akamai Technologies.

Khandekar started the discussion by tracing the evolution of news websites. He observed that though the conversation around pay has been around for a long time, in the last year, he has seen it being talked about far more seriously than before. He asked the panel to highlight, what they felt are, the reasons for this.

Raghunath of TIL talked about three trends that she has observed in the post-COVID world. “I have seen enormous interest in staying informed. The reliance on experts has increased and people don’t want to rely only on social media. Finally, there is an enormous ease with payments,” she said.

Jain of HT Digital News said that the industry now has the scale and the overall infrastructure to build subscription-first businesses. The user behaviour towards paying for digital content has escalated in other industries, and that has had its influence on digital news as well. It has been 18 months since HT launched its subscription journey. Jain shared their learnings from it.

“There is a clear product market fate - there is an audience out there willing to pay for credible news in the areas of their interest. Habit formation is extremely important in growing the overall number of users. The content strategy, paywall strategy, pricing strategy, and platform strategy will have huge bearings on how you drive the habit among users. You need to give best-in-class product experience, with superior UI/UX to the users, as they now have high standards because of superior content available on other platforms,” he added.

Sindhwani of The Indian Express Online said there are three things driving the push to pay - the consumer is ready, the ecosystem is ready, and global business models demonstrate that it is possible to make it work.

Since Akamai has a global presence, Khandekar asked Parikh to shed light from that perspective. She said that though the trend started in the US and the European countries, it's now visible all across Asia.

“We are looking at a very small targeted audience, but that audience is also looking at more personalised and curated content. We are trying to see how we can marry technology, and give them more curated and personalised content,” she added.

Speaking about the role of mobile apps in the subscription model, Jain said that apps becomes a far more important pillar for this business than the ad revenue model. "Subscription is best lead by your most loyal users. Though the app doesn't contribute much to HT's traffic yet, when it comes to subscription, it plays a very important role. Those who have an app are by design a higher-engaged user. It also allows you to engage with the user multiple times in a more personalised manner. Hence your ability to extract your app users and convert them to a subscriber is far higher," he said.

"Our app user reads about 20 stories per session. Converting that kind of user into the TOI plus program or ET Prime program is much simpler for us than converting the casual user. 80% of our conversions is through apps. When you have a substantial app base converting that user is a very low hanging fruit," Raghunath added.

The panel also spoke about the difference between the ad revenue model and the subscription revenue model and how they function together. It also touched upon the tech and security issues involved in the subscription model.

Digipub Week, which will be held between September 27 to September 29, is powered by Akamai Technologies, with AndBeyond.Media and Zee Digital acting as the associate sponsors.