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Sanjay Trehan

Chief Executive | 16 Jul 2003

We are in the process of developing the subscription module and payment gateway and in another three months, this will start functioning. The news part will remain as it is. But the interactive content, which is premium in nature, will go pay.

There have been very few people who got hooked to Internet in India much ahead of others. One name that figures prominently on this select list is Sanjay Trehan, Chief Executive-Internet, Hindustan Times Group. He left his advertising career to join Jaldi.com, an etailing portal as VP and was soon promoted to the position of COO. Thereafter, he moved on to India's first reverse auction site for travel, Razorfinish.com as VP. He has been credited with the turnaround of HindustanTimes.com in the last two years.

He holds a Bachelor's and Master's degree in History from St. Stephen's College, Delhi University. Besides being passionate about Internet, Trehan is also inclined towards poetry, contemporary literature, human relationships, cricket, theatre, music - classic rock, opera and classical. Recently, his collection of poems, Appassionata, has been also published.

In an exclusive chat with Luvleena Walia of exchange4media, Trehan shares his views on the state of Internet, online advertising scenario and the future of the new media in India.

Q. To begin with, how has been the Internet scenario in India? And how is it different from the global practices?

Well, I think the Internet is surely reviving but it's not happening at a fast speed. The dotcoms now need to be more solid in their offerings because only those companies are doing well, which have a tangible business plan and have their feet planted on the ground and are running the business like a business, not like a hyper-ventilating dotcom.

There are a number of sites that are doing well, like Baazee and Contest2win. HindustanTimes.com has also turned the corner. But the overall number of dotcoms that are doing well is not very large. They are not even 50! At the most, the figure doesn't go beyond 20. And this, according to me, is a good sign because Internet needs to be seen shorn of all hype. It enables the business to be conducted in an efficient and cost effective manner.

Q. A significant number of brand promotions are taking place on the Internet in the recent past. What are your views on this positive development?

I think, today most of the smarter companies are using the Internet for promotions. And this is because of three reasons. First, it has a positive effect on the brand image, so only smarter brands are using Internet for the time being. Secondly, it is a very cost-effective medium. And lastly, it adds an electronic fulfillment edge to the ground level promotions. You may have a ground level promotion, but you would like the fulfillment to be online. Take the case of an online movie contest where the participation is much easier than the conventional route. The data collection is also better. And it complements the ground level activities.

To look at it from the international perspective, movie promos on the Net are a pretty big business. Almost all good movies from large production houses are not only getting promoted on the web but are also creating huge interactive microsites where one can not only download a trailer but can also source info about the cast of the movie, participating in the online contest, booking tickets, etc. So, it's a very organized promotional activity in the West. Whereas in India, it has started happening in the last six months and it is still tentative at best. It has not yet reached the depth as in the European countries. Having said this, it's surely a good idea and needs to be leveraged more, and Internet being an interactive, multimedia medium allows this to happen.

Q. What about innovations, which are taking place on the Internet?

There are lots of interactive demos of the products that can be shown on the Net as the media allows you to do these kinds of activities. One can gather the market feedback about the launch of a product, like the colour of the car, etc. It's a very cost-effective medium. Similarly, discussion groups on the Internet can also facilitate research. This medium is full of potential and just needs to be explored. At this moment, people are still skimming the surface, yet to view the real thing, perhaps because they are yet to experience the real medium. But now, smarter companies, worldwide and even in India are talking to media planners. There is a major awakening among the media planner in Mumbai about the usage of Internet. The smart companies like ICICI, UTI and Citibank are using Internet in a very big way. They are now dedicating more budgets on the Internet.

Q. Among the recent developments, prominent Internet destinations have begun the Radio and Video services. Is it a step in the right direction at this time?

The future of the Radio on Internet is very bright. In the West, it is a huge success because it has less bandwidth limitations. In the long run, Internet Radio will be successful, while in the short term, it will face lots of challenges in terms of bandwidth. The Radio on the Net whether it is cricket commentary, especially in country like India, will attract a lot of NRIs abroad as they would like to listen to the commentary.

So, Internet Radio is surely going to go up as it's very convenient and not very demanding. One can just log on to the Net through cable at home. This is going to be the reality in most of the metropolitan towns very soon and through ISDN line, one can keep the radio on.

Q. what about live Video Internet?

With Video Internet, there are some issues like the bandwidth constraint and the size of the picture being very small. Even abroad, Video on the Net is not very popular but it's going to change over time. However, Internet Radio will be a bigger application.

Q. Do you also plan to come up with the radio services?

Yes, we are planning to launch Internet Radio in the next six months. It will be one of our huge projects and will be called 'HT Radio'.

Q. What have been the key happenings at HindustanTimes.com recently?

We have just launched a new initiative, "Citizen's News," to build interactivity into not just news reading, but also the news gathering process. Under this, people from all parts of the country, will be able to file in their own stories, which we will display on the site 'in a moderated environment'. This is perhaps the second initiative of its kind in the world. The main aim is that people should leverage the interactive component of the Internet. And instead of having just a one-way communication, it can be a two-way communication.

Q. …and what are your plans in the next few months?

Well, other than citizen's news, we will be launching several new web editions like the HTCityWise.com; HTclassifieds.biz, which would consist of four categories including automobiles, real estate, matrimonials and jobs. We are also looking at launching a web edition of our Hindi daily Hindustan as HindustanDainik.com.

Q. Do you plan to move towards the paid model?

We are in the process of developing the subscription module and payment gateway and in another three months, this will start functioning.

Q. But will it be restricted to few channels only?

The news part will remain as it is. But the interactive content, which is premium in nature, will go pay.

Q. What is your take on the growing bonding between Internet and Mobile?

I think, Internet and mobile will complement each other. The application of the Internet on mobile, whether they are PDA or computer devices will support the wireless devices. A seamless integration between mobile and mobile Internet is a logical development. In terms of its usage, it may not become so pervasive because mobile Internet by definition will be limited to people who can afford those devices, and who feel the need to compute with their mobiles but as an application, merger between Internet and mobile is definitely a good idea. One can also participate in contests on the website through mobile. The mobile can be primarily used to pull information from the web.

I can't say whether in the long run it will be a pervasive application, it might be restricted to the niche audiences but to these niche audiences, it will drive tremendous value.

Q. Unlike traditional media, Internet suffers from the traffic measurement issue immensely. How this aspect should be addressed?

Yes, there is a need to develop a body, which can take the lead and look at measuring the traffic, audiences and the stickiness of the website. I think Internet industry will evolve and come together over a period of time to form a body, which can look at audience measurement and traffic issues. But currently, it is a limiting factor.

Q. But how is the same issue addressed abroad?

Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) takes care of this aspect abroad. There are also other bodies that do this kind of business. But in India, I don't think there is any organization of this kind, as at this moment the market is very small. So, it is just a matter of time that this will improve.

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