Angad Bhatia, Business Head (Times Lifestyle Network )at Times Internet has been leading Time’s digital properties like IndiaTimes, iDiva and MensXP since 2014. He was earlier the founder of MensXP before the website was acquired by Times Internet in 2013. At TIL, he formulated the Times Lifestyle Network and led it through a growth phase, from 4 million to 25 million unique users in one year. Integral to the turnaround was repositioning the digital properties to make them more accessible to young audiences. He speaks about the social strategy, native advertising, the impact of new age media organizations like Vox and Buzzfeed and the road ahead for Times Lifestyle Network. Excerpts:
It has been about a year since the revamp at Times Lifestyle Network. What was the reason behind this and what has been the impact?
We used to reach 3.5 million monthly unique visitors. This number has now gone up to nearly 20 million unique visitors across devices. We wanted to be more relevant as we felt that we have lost connect with our audience. This involved everything, right from the way the content was being packaged, the aesthetics of the web properties, etc. So we went about completely repositioning ourselves, which included changing the editorial team and reengineering the entire business model. We are the largest publisher on Facebook with more than 75 per cent coming from it.
Isn’t it risky to be so dependent on one platform?
At one point of time, we were all dependent on search traffic; now it is social traffic. It is risky but our core philosophy has not changed. It is still about stories that matter, it is only the distribution method that has changed. As long as we keep creating compelling content, we should be fine.
Apart from Facebook, is there a focus on other platforms?
For now it is primarily Facebook. We are still trying to figure how to use Instagram and Twitter but currently more than 90 per cent of the content goes on Facebook. Instagram might be an interesting platform for us in the future but we have not had phenomenal traction on Twitter.
Can you tell us about the video strategy at Times Lifestyle?
We have tinkered a lot with video and we understand the consumption trends and the mindset of the audience. A lot of TV players are launching their own digital streaming platforms and exploring new avenues. This is something we are also doing. However, I would like to stress that we are not a MCN (Multi-Channel Network). That is not a model we will follow. We have already started our own video unit, which we will be expanding but it will not be about nurturing talent though we do not mind working with them. It is all about creating great, episodic and super premium content.
Times Internet has been pushing to develop its in house advertising and ad tech platform. Where do you fit into this strategy and how important do you foresee content marketing and native advertising becoming for the company?
Times Ad Centre is our unified media platform. We have just added the Columbia Traffic Network (CTN), which is the native advertising technology platform, similar to Outbrain and Tamboola. We will soon be opening it to other publishers too. So, publishers who are serious about performance marketing can target a website like MensXP. There is this whole set of advertisers who want to be a part of the collective consciousness. Take, for example, Red Bull, Mountain Dew, etc. This is where branded content comes in and where we have seen most of the traction. We have worked with about 100 advertisers over the last year through our internal team. CTN, branded content and in-stream ads can all co-exist. For example, some of our content for Pepsi has outperformed our native ads for the same brand.
We started out with a very small team (for branded content) and we are seeing this becoming the primary driver (60 per cent+) for our revenue.
You mentioned earlier that you are approaching the advertising bit cautiously.
What people have forgotten is that the ad is still information. Somehow we have gotten into the rut that any messaging that a brand does is evil. What we want to do is create content that is meaningful. We don’t want to be superficial. We don’t want to create a mockery even when it comes to banner properties. We might have done it earlier but we are serious about creating good ads.
The model behind you seems to be what companies like Vice, Vox and Buzzfeed are doing. Also, is that the trend in terms of content consumption that you are generally seeing?
The content ethos is aligned to Vice. The way we function is much more like Buzzfeed. We approach the whole thing very analytically. We have set up our own data science team in-house.
There is a lot of noise about short form content and ‘Lists’. The consumption habits and formats are evolving. We now have things like “Microlists”. There are so many products that are coming in but the user need for quality content will remain. This will never change. 80 per cent of our consumption happens on mobile. On Indiatimes.com, there is no more agency content, it is all created in-house.
From an advertising perspective, will native and branded content remain the most important avenue?
Native and video advertising are the two big keywords. We want to create avenues for brand engagement in the future. We are doing a lot of interesting stuff in the news space. We are also going to start creating mini-documentaries.
Can you tell us more about this?
Our video team is going to be producing a lot of mini documentaries and video content. Like I mentioned, these will be about stories that matter to our generation. Maybe we will have our own news show, but in a more informal setting. For example, there is currently a drug called Meow Meow, which is affecting colleges in Maharashtra. Maybe we can have freelance, non-professional reporters with cameras going out to these colleges and doing a story.
Currently we have 4 people in the video team and we will be expanding this to around 20-25 people by March. In the next 12-15 months we can become one of the top 3 publishers (including video and written content) in the country.