Aishwarya Ramesh

The way forward for monetisation - is it a profitable strategy for publishers?

In the first ever virtual edition of Digipub 2020, a panel discussion attempts to unravel the challenges publishers face when it comes to monetising content.

Digipub Week is an online avatar of Digipub World – the first conference which was specifically developed for all publishers, both online and legacy ones alike. Digipub World has been running from 2017, and 2020 marks the beginning of a new phase – one which is entirely online, accessible and filled with insights.

The first session talked about ad revenue and publishers’ attempt to monetise content. It saw participation from Abhishek Marla, customer success manager (channel partner Asia), Chartbeat; Puneet Gupt, COO, Times Internet; Puneet Singhvi, CEO – digital, and president - corporate strategy, Network18; and Ritu Kapur, CEO and co-founder, Quintillion Media.

The presenting partner of the discussion was AdPushup, the cloud security partner was Akamai Technologies, the technology partner was Quintype, and the associate partner was Chartbeat.

Sreekant Khandekar, co-founder and director of afaqs! was the moderator of the session and began the session by harking back to a time in October 2017 when ad rates were quite low. “But we believed that if we could scale up our websites, one day we would be rewarded – even if the reward was to finally stop losing money,” he said.

Over the years, that view, however, has changed as ad rates have dropped precipitously and a few players have changed the game in advertising in this field.

In the last 3-4 years, how has the view on pay changed?

Gupt of Times Internet started by pointing out that three years ago, paywalls and monetisation were part of board meetings, but now, they are part of planning and strategy development meetings.

“We have come a long way - both the willingness and the ability of people to pay has improved significantly. Micro-payments from the Play Store and transactions on e-commerce have made people more willing to pay for content if they see the right value in a product,” he says.

Gupt opines that the question now is how to create content that a customer thinks is worth paying for.

Kapur says that it is important to have a multi-factorial approach and conversations on monetisation were certainly of paramount importance to Quintillion Media, especially seeing the success of BloombergQuint’s monetisation model.

“But I don’t think it’s all going to pivot to pay. The (Coronavirus) pandemic has brought many more people looking for the digital ad dollar, which has led to dropping ECPMs (effective cost per mille or the hybrid cost of a click.) Monetisation is a complicated process to start strategising over,” she explains.

Kapur adds that there was a situation where advertisers were unwilling to place ads next to COVID-related content. According to her, factors that need to be taken into account are - why would somebody pay for a publisher? What is their core value proposition? What makes a publisher’s offering so distinct and unique that somebody would be willing to let go of their personal data?

Network18's Singhvi started the discussion on monetisation by adding that in some form or manner, on multiple occasions, people have discussed the famous New York Times digital subscription model.

“But when it comes specifically to India, I don't think it's a replacement strategy to a revenue stream. It's at best an augmentative strategy, which will take its own time to scale. An Indian publisher, who monetises, will not see the same level of scale because their audience sets are different,” he says.

Singhvi agrees with Gupt’s point about micro-payments encouraging the digital payments landscape. He says that if publishers are able to deliver value in a product, there is a propensity for a user to subscribe and pay for the product.

However, Gupt says that there is conflict in the DNA of monetisation – which arises from conflict in the newsroom and in the mind of the product manager. “What’s the main focus of your newsroom? Is it creativity in writing? Is it speed? There are different factors because people want meaningful journalism,” he explains.

He adds that there has to be infrastructural backup for monetisation, including factors like how fast the site loads and how smooth the payment infrastructure is. “The value of the work a journalist does can be seen in how much customer retention there is on the sites (referring to the amount of time a person spends, reading an article),” he says.

Singhvi talks about how the news landscape itself has become a challenging one for journalists.

Quintillion's Kapur says that there are challenges, but she is yet to have difficulties with payment. “With a niche product like BloombergQuint, we have seen that there is a greater propensity to pay. Good journalism can be seen on the time spent on the site,” she says.

Marla of Chartbeat talks about news aggregators like Google News. He mentions that in the case of aggregators, who host multiple publications on their platform – there is loyalty towards the platform itself and not towards any single publication. “When we look at acquisition spends, it is important to look harder at retaining our customers and not necessarily on acquiring new ones,” he opines.

Gupt approaches aggregation from a different angle – that a unified paywall can make it easier for a user to complete a transaction and sign on at one go. Times Internet uses this model – granting users access to publications like Economic Times, Times of India and many more newspapers at one go. He adds that they have an active paying customer base of more than two million.

Talking about mobile apps and the role they play in customer retention, Network18's Singhvi says that an app is an important first step in encouraging users to pay for the product.

“In this case, consumer behaviour can be seen in intent, loyalty and frequency of use. When someone opens a website on a browser to visit, they are loyalists. However, if they are using an app to read, then there is more incidental traffic. They might open the app when they get a notification. They’re not necessarily going to be loyal in this case,” he explains.

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