President | 01 Feb 2004
There was a time when all over India and more so in Silicon capitals like Bangalore, we found highly disproportionate ratios of hoarding and ad space of other medias that was taken up by dotcom companies. Though CIOL did its fair share of advertising, we were nowhere close to what some others spent.
With almost nineteen years of experience in the IT industry, of which over a decade was spent at Cyber Media, Abraham Mathew wears several hats within the organisation. He has earlier served as the VP Marketing for Cyber Media. Alongside his present role, he also functions as the Chief Editor for BioSpectrum, the group’s biotechnology magazine. Besides this, he continues to be involved with the IT magazines of CyberMedia in the role of Consulting Editor. In his capacity as President of CIOL, E Abraham Mathew 'Abey' spear-heads the Internet business activity of the CyberMedia group. Having successfully driven the IT venture during the dotcom era, he has now put it in a leadership position amongst IT and other knowledge sites. In this exclusive interview with Shubha Kumble, he shares a few tips on how to keep a niche dotcom venture in the black even as he contemplates going fully paid.
Q. Could you please give us a brief history of CIOL?
CIOL was set up in 1996 as a division of Cyber Media Ltd, in August 1996. We were probably one among the first ten or twelve professionally set up Internet properties in the country. Since we had a very early start, we were seen as a sort of pioneer in the Internet industry in India. We were certainly the first one to set up a site in a specialty or niche area irrespective of whether it was an IT or non-IT area. Since then CIOL has progressed considerably and should continue to do so in the coming years. We have strategically changed our focus during the dotcom boom and subsequently after the bust and today we are an extremely healthy and profitable site.
Q. Speaking of the dotcom boom and bust, you are one of the very few online ventures to not only survive, but also grow impressively. How did you pull that off?
Since we were clearly the first to enter the market, we maintained our leadership despite international and domestic competition. One of the primary reasons for our leadership position is the over two decade IT media publication experience we have in CIOL. We have staffers with over 10-15 yr experience. Cyber Media at present holds 55% of the market share and is in itself a clear market leader. So we leveraged the experience we got from them and extended that into the Internet business. Coming to the part of how we survived the dotcom bust, offering up-to-date content on the IT sector has always been our focus. Another significant point was expenditure. Several players in the market then got carried away with their expenditures. But we did not waste our money on stuff that ultimately ate into our own growth. We clearly maintained that if we had to do what we had to do we needn't spent the kind of money others did. We had our share of expenditures which today can be called unnecessary, but at that time people said we were underdoing it!
Q. Give us an example please…
Well, one of the largest components of expenditures during the dotcom boom days was in advertising. Internet companies spent a frightfully large amount of money on it. There was a time when all over India and more so in Silicon capitals like Bangalore, we found highly disproportionate ratios of hoarding and ad space of other medias that was taken up by dotcom companies. Though CIOL did its fair share of advertising, we were nowhere close to what some others spent.
Q. How do you take on competitors?
The competition we face is fragmented. We compete with similar sites, as well as other Internet sites, which have a fairly high, IT component and news, like IT Nation. We also face competition from technology channels of regular portals. How we face them… well certainly not by comparing ourselves to what they do but by having a very clear strategy for ourselves and focusing our energies on achieving these strategies. Its not that we don't analyze competition, it's something we all have to do. But we are not lead by competition. We follow our own strategies of where we want to reach and that's how we have managed to remain leaders.
Q. What do you think is your USP?
Our USP is in the fact that we are the most comprehensive Internet property, if you want any info on IT, whether u are in India or any part of the world, we offer it. I'm talking about information on IT in India, we don't necessarily provide the best info on the global front. That is our single biggest USP. And our traffic is growing because our visitors believe that we are giving them value through our content.
Q. How indicative is traffic on an online site to its success?
Traffic is always useful as it is the first step in helping us identify and build a community. Once that is done, we initiate the second phase where we try and address the content and service requirements of the community. As far as content is concerned, we are clearly the kings and in the next 2-3 years our focus will be on providing services for the content that we offer.
Q. Whom does your audience consist of?
Our audience can be segmented in three or four ways: One of the major segments we are addressing is the enterprise user. We have a very large number of enterprise visitors who come to CIOL. We have a very prestigious product of the name Enterprise Connect where we have the top 1000 CIOs of the country participating in a tube channel called Enterprise Connect. We started this in July 2002 and it proved to be a major success and we are now planning to organize a very exclusive CIOL meet at Goa where 100 invited CIOs are called for a two day event. Our second segment is the developer community where we address all the technology-oriented people who are working in software related companies in India and abroad. We are constantly building this community. Apart from these two segments, we also address what we call the enthusiast community who are interested in knowing the latest about gadgets and related areas.
Q. What is your current subscriber base?
At present around 300,000 subscribers make use of our newsletters. And this number is growing every month.
Q. Banking on your popularity, why don't you go paid?
We have some paid services both in terms of newsletter, content and many of our magazine sites today are paid sites. Over a period of time we believe that certain channels on CIOL can go paid. Maybe not currently but definitely in the future we will be able to make that transition. In fact we were one of the first people in India to make Internet sites paid. We know that by doing so we will not see returns in the immediate future but we believe that our content is valuable and therefore deserves it.
Q. But with most people taking free online material for granted…
We believe in our content. Like I said, we have no immediate plans for this, but when such a move will be made, we are confident that the bulk of our subscribers will stand by us.
Q. CIOL is constantly reinventing itself, be in introducing sites in regional languages, or bringing out new offerings. What's next on the charts?
We are in the process of building our SMB (small and medium businesses) community and we have also worked on a forum. All our energies are focused on building this community at the moment. SMB is something that most IT vendors are targeting because everybody sees a big potential in providing IT goods and services to the SMB community. Apart from that we have a few other ventures planned for 2004-2005, but it's too early to comment on them.
Q. Is online advertising popular enough amongst media planners for a site to survive on it?
I think your own organisation, exchange4media, is a good example in showing that niche sites focusing on a particular community actually targets a high number of advertisers. This is simply because advertisers believe that there is less wastage by advertising on these sites. CIOL is also on a similar platform. Since we are an IT focused site, people who come to advertise on our sites are ones who are interested in IT, IT products and services. We offer minimal wastage and advertisers are very happy with CIOL.
Q. Do you think online ventures are tempted to alter their layout to help reduce monotony in online advertising?
Advertising monotony is not restricted to the online medium alone. You see monotony in television and print ads too. But that hasn't dampened the growth of TV advertising and the same thing will happen to the Net medium. Yes, it will be a challenge for the creative guys, advertising agencies, media planners and holders who need to constantly innovate.
Q. Can you give us a list of people who advertise with you?
Very easy, any of the companies with an interest in the IT sector advertises on one or the other of our divisions or services site.
Q. Given your commercial success and the recognition you have received through various awards, what do you think makes an online venture click?
You should be clear about which communities you are targeting. Once you are clear on that, you should be sure that you are providing them with excellent content, and if your online property is not very content driven then you should offer them those services that they are looking out for. Above all, the retention of leadership depends on the quality and service that you provide. And if you place your moneys strategically, and don't waste it, there is absolutely no reason why a dotcom venture should not come up.