Big boats don't make sharp turns

I was in India twice in the last couple of months, and reminded of how different are the business models of newspapers around the world. Indian newspapers are paid-circulation broadsheets but at very low prices. For revenue, they are overwhelmingly dependent on display advertising -- "classified ads" on the American model just aren't a factor. They're big, really big, with national and regional titles published in localized editions around a country with four times the population of the United States. And, until now, they've been mostly sheltered from the disruptive influence of the Internet.

All that is changing. 

It had been ten years since my last trip to India, and much has changed in that time. There are still poor people begging, trash in the streets and streams, and clusters of tents and shacks alongside roads. But there also are gleaming new rapid-transit systems, widespread 4G wireless networks, mobile phone shops on every corner and thousands of schools teaching software development and artificial intelligence topics. A rapidly growing middle class aspiring to material wealth is changing the retail landscape, and Amazon advertising clutters the satellite TV channels and pages of the newspapers. English is still the language of the business classes, but there is a boom of literacy in the 22 other languages commonly spoken in India, resulting in big growth of print publications in Malayam, Kannada and Marathi. Yes, you read it right: Print is growing.

An Indian newspaper today is like a dream from the 1980s, full of advertising but with stunning color reproduction, wide pages, and pure white paper.

But for how long? The young, upwardly mobile people I saw riding the Metro in Hyderabad and Chennai are no less focused on their smartphones than their counterparts in the United States. They're not reading print. They're looking at their screens.

I looked at a lot of Indian news websites and mobile apps. In many ways they reminded me of US sites 10-15 years ago -- in the best possible sense. That was before hedge funds and bankruptcies and poor management stripped resources from our digital efforts. It was when US sites were doing their best work. Today the world leader is Manorama Online, a Malayam-language newspaper based in Kottayam, Kerala, India, a place you've probably never even heard of. Spend a little time looking at their site.

This won't last, and the Indian news executives I met on my journeys are acutely aware of that. They know that the economics of online advertising are brutal, and that they'll need to develop multiple revenue streams from multiple products, and that reader revenue has to be an important part of the mix.

Big boats don't make sharp turns, and these are all big boats. Going after reader revenue requires smart strategic planning, huge marketing efforts, a hell of a lot of technology that isn't in place today, and complete organizational focus.

In a report for the American Press Institute, Damon Kiesow described some of the changes that are required:

  • Data collection: We must identify, collect and store the relevant reader data and understand its importance.
  • Data analysis: We must analyze this data and develop insights to support business decisions and activities.
  • Data action: We must eliminate internal business silos and streamline our operations to let data drive our decisions and to reduce the time to market for new products and features.
  • Make reader revenue the top objective: Everyone in the business must be aligned around a core vision, goals and incentives that support reader revenue growth.
  • Provide a better user experience: We must improve the usability of our websites and apps to increase reader loyalty and engagement.
  • Test and measure: We must deploy tools to test, market, and measure the performance of our subscription programs.
  • Establish a reader-first culture: We must recognize that technology is only part of the solution and take steps to enable the cultural changes necessary for us to put our readers first.

These are internal changes, some requiring organizational restructuring, some requiring new skill sets or new technologies, and many requiring a willingness to drive stakes through the hearts of some existing revenue generators. Those ad networks? Those Taboola and Outbrain teasers? Those pop-ups and interstitials and background takeovers? They're all experience-killers and deadly to the proposition that a website is worth paying for.

The two biggest hills to climb, though, are external.

One is the poor frequency performance of your website. (I've written many times about this issue.) Filter your traffic stats. Drop out everyone who visited fewer than 20 out of 30 days. The ones who remain are your easy subscription candidates. They're not enough. Take a hard look at your content and your marketing of that content, and focus your energies on developing reader habit. If you can't get them to visit frequently when your site is free, how are you going to get them to pay for it?

The other is the widespread notion that news is free. This is not an insurmountable problem. There are hundreds of free broadcast and streaming video services. Millions of people are paying subscription fees to Amazon, Netflix and cable companies? Why? Because of quality of content and better user experience. And because they've all spent decades persuading potential customers that they have better quality of content and better user experience. We are supposed to be advertising experts. Are we truly committed to advertising and marketing our own content and services? Get the product right, and sell it.