Sandeep Amar , COO , India.com Web Portal Private Limited
Sandeep Amar is the Chief Operating Officer at India.com Web Portal Private Limited, where he is responsible for managing the P&L, strategy, sales, editorial, product management, technology, UI/UX, marketing, finance, admin and general operations of the company.
He has over 17 years of experience in sectors like TV, print, banking, Internet and mobile. He had joined Times Group in 2007 as the Business Head of Simplymarry.com at Times Business Solutions, and later was leading marketing for all divisions of TBSL. In 2009, he was made the Head of Marketing and Audience at Times Internet. He’s also worked with Zee Telefilms, Citigroup, and Hindustan Times.
Amar is an alumnus of Delhi University’s Faculty of Management Studies (FMS). He did his MBA in marketing management.
In this exclusive interview with Ratnika Swami for India Digital Review, Amar talks about the growing importance of the online content space in India, how India.com is trying to capture the younger, social savvy generation and the data based direction that advertising is taking. Excerpts:
Q. Could you begin with a brief introduction to India.com, including some highlights and an overview of your current operations?
India.com is actually India Web Portal Pvt. Ltd., which comprises a set of websites like India.com, TheHealthSite.com, CricketCountry.com, BollywoodLife.com, OnCars.in, BGR.in and we also represent ZeeNews.com, DNAIndia.com and ZeeTV.com as well. We are a joint venture company of Zee Media and Penske Media Company (PMC). The latter has sites like HollywoodLife, and has just bought Variety magazine, so it has got Variety.com. PMC has also bought a lot of Conde Nast properties.
Q. What is the state of the online content driven portals in India? And where do you see the market 1-2 years from now?
The content publisher business in India is strong, and the interest in online is obviously increasing. Right now, I think we are more than 200 million users, and a lot of these users are on mobile phones. Earlier, content used to be driven by the web, but now we see a lot of app traffic also coming in.
The display business is strong but not as much as we would like it to be in India. In digital, a major chunk of advertising is related to search, which mostly goes to Google—though the money is moving to Facebook as well.
If you see a newspaper competing with a newspaper, say, in print, a Times of India competes with a Hindustan Times, but in online it competes with Google and Facebook for advertising dollars, which is a tough kind of play. Similarly, NY Times digital would not only compete with Washington Post digital, it would also compete with Google and Facebook, and that is why the digital editions do not make as much money as the print papers used to. They tried to make it paid also, but paid content is a tough business and I do not think people would pay for content anytime in the near future.
Today, from a comScore perspective, Times Internet is the number one player in India, the number two player is Network 18, and we are the number three player in the market, after beating India Today and NDTV.
According to comScore, in India, Times Internet has around 22-23 million users and Network 18 around 19 million users, whereas we have around 10 million users. NDTV has around 7-8 million and the India Today Group in the range of 8-9 million.
These are the top 5-6 publishers in the game, and the numbers [of users] are increasing, mostly on mobile.
I think content is going to grow, in terms of audiences, but in terms of monetisation, I feel the advertising ecosystem is not putting as many dollars on display as they should. And the core reason is that a lot of people are performance oriented on digital, and on Google and Facebook, you can buy cost per click (CPC); advertising on pure search takes care of some of the performance part of it.
So I think that is a big challenge, and the way we look at surpassing that challenge is the way the Western market is going: the data route. We are invested in data and will be doing data oriented sales very soon. We have partnered with Lotame, one of the leaders in data.
Now, when the opportunity is a data opportunity, we are not just selling ZeeNews or India.com, we are selling audiences. For example, when we talk about OnCars.in, we are selling an audience of 30+ auto-lovers in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, and that we will sell not only on our sites, but we will also sell them across the Google display network and Facebook exchange. So that way, we will give much deeper solutions to the advertisers. And I think advertisers will also be far more excited about the data-based ecosystem.
Q. Would you agree that over the last few years, online has taken over offline as the preferred mode of content consumption?
Well, in terms of offline content sources, magazines are definitely “dead or dying.”Newspapers are still relevant in India, but in terms of breaking news, newspapers have no contribution–for that, there is online or television. Twitter and TV are two places where you see breaking news kind of stories. Content is consumed throughout the day, which is especially driven by Facebook and Google, and this is where, I think, newspapers do not stand a chance.
There is also the concept of the second screen, like even the Oscars website is tuned in to the television. I think newspapers still have some life left in India, as a mode of content consumption. But overall, I think it will be online.
Q. Last month, citing the comScore November 2014 report, you mentioned that India.com is the number one new age content site in India. Could you elaborate on what you mean by new age content?
New age content is a term coined by us and some other players in the market. It generally means content for younger people. Earlier we were only aggregating content of other portals, but then we decided to provide content for the Internet savvy younger audience.
After a lot of research, we realised that for young people entertainment, sports and hard news are equally important. So if you go to our homepage, you will find the latest movie trailers as top news, you will find a football match as top news.
We try to cover that kind of news that young people would want to read. The difference between a news site and a new age content site is that the latter’s priority is not [necessarily] news, the priority could be entertainment or sports. And that is why we compare ourselves with Scoop Whoop. We also compare ourselves with Scroll and Quartz--sites that I think mark the revival of long form, intellectual, personal opinion kind of content, which is also positive, and we also do that.
So we provide a mix of a lot of things which others are not doing. And I would not say that we are ahead of them, we are only ahead in terms of numbers. We are very driven by our audiences. We are totally focused on what young people do on Facebook and Twitter, and we try to cover that. For young people entertainment and sports are top categories, so we cover that. But we also cover hard news as much as anybody else. So that is what I would call new age content for young people.
Q. How would you measure engagement on your site? And what are the parameters that you use to measure it?
There are various analytics, but primarily, the first thing we notice is page views per visit and bounce rate, and the second thing we try to measure is time spent on our sites, which, unfortunately, Google analytics is not very good at, so we use some other tools.
Then we try to understand how people use our sites. We track some mouse movements and use software like Mouseflow and ClickTale for that. This enables us to see where the mouse is moving on the screen, where the focus was maximum, where did a reader stop in first scroll, second scroll, etc. We also use eye-tracking, which we have to do in an experimental scenario. This helps us understand how consumers are engaging with the site.
Q. India.com also stated that you have 2.63 million unique users. Could you please specify if that figure includes only India.com users or ZeeNews.com and other sites’ users as well?
On comScore, in India alone, India.com has 2.63 million unique users. On Google analytics we are 8.6 million unique users worldwide. There is a lot of difference in comScore and Google analytics figures, as comScore does not cover mobile data, they do not cover cyber cafes or people below the ages of 15. If you see worldwide comScore figures, we would be around 3.5-4 million users.
Q. On what basis do you identify a unique user? Can you share with us figures for time spent on your site?
It is generally done through a browser cookie. So if a user logs into a site, the site pushes a cookie into the browser and that cookie is unique. When the user returns the next time and the system again pushes a cookie and if the cookie is duplicated then that means that it is the same unique user.
In terms of time spent, it is a constant process of growth. We have relatively younger sites, and we are working on that, and there are a lot of areas for improvement out there.
We are getting audiences and are competing with some very big brands, which have been there for decades. India.com is a three year old company, but we started out one year back. Right now we have respectable numbers but I think those numbers need to get better.
In terms of time spent, India.com is not doing as well as CricketCountry or BollywoodLife, but it depends, as readers may come for a very specific article which they read and exit the site. Now, Bollywood is a lot of leisure reading, lots of gossip about stars that people want to read, so people spend far more time engaging with that content.
Since we run so many sites, at times a site wise analysis is not right, so we do some section wise analysis. These days opinions fly a lot, and all those debates that happen in comments and on Facebook are pretty exciting. As per my experience what has happened is, when we have taken on brands, wherein the consumer has not been given value, for a BGR king of site, we got 15000 likes on a single article. So what we noticed was that when you represent the consumers in a certain matter, then it is taken more positively, or if you take on a political party then the opposition party sort of takes it up.
We want to be strong on both intellectual content as well as the social media driven content. And a lot of it is done in terms of images, infographics and listicles, as young people have limited time and use mobile phones a lot, and such things help them in comprehending the content faster.
I think content consumption is changing really fast, and a lot of this content consumption will move into video.
Q. What is your path to profitability?
We are thinly a bit negative, and we want to kind of stay in that direction. Scale is more important for us right now than profitability, although we are very close to break-even; we can achieve profitability anytime. India.com is our flagship brand now, and it is contributing significantly to that. For now, we are increasing our revenue, and our losses are on the decline. The key in Internet companies is to scale up revenues at an affordable loss, and we are very much there.
Q. What are your plans for the future?
I think it is important to take on the next level publishers. It is going to be a tough battle ahead. And that is where our focus is right now. We need to fire all cylinders and make it to the next level. The next publisher, which is Network 18, is a distance away. In the recent mobile browser report by comScore, we are neck to neck with Network 18. So we need to see how web + mobile data looks like, and then we need to make sure that we kind of ascend.