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Online news subscription business: The new way forward?

According to EY FICCI ME Report Tuning into Consumer 2022, the news subscription business has reached around Rs 90 crore

e4m by Sonam Saini
Published: May 24, 2022 9:19 AM  | 6 min read
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The two years of pandemic have accelerated digital growth immensely, forcing companies to reconsider their digital business strategies. As a result, majority of print companies have begun to build their digital division with a focus on websites, apps, and e-papers.

Publishers are aggressively building digital products to retain their readers and are experimenting with subscription plans that give access to digital content, bundled digital and physical print offerings, or metered content. However, building the subscription business is certainly not an easy task as experts believe that publishers face a number of hurdles, including competition from alternative platforms such as social media and podcasts and the issue of piracy. 

While publishers attempt to position online news as a premium content, monetization remains a challenge with digital products accounting for less than 5 per cent of total ad revenues for most print companies. This leads one to the next obvious question: Whether an aggregator is required to come in and consolidate everything into a single fee?

HT Media Group CEO - Digital Business Puneet Jain says that paywall is an integral part of the digital strategy at HT Media. He believes that the digital news subscription business in India is still in its early stages and that the market will evolve in the time to come.

“We are at a very early stage of this digital news subscription lifecycle and the user behaviour is evolving. There's going to be significantly more innovations on all potential products in times to come. And hence, we're going to see a significantly bigger market expansion. I think it's a little premature to think or evaluate the necessity of an aggregator. We're just scratching the surface,” he opines.

HT Media currently has three digital products offering under subscription plan: Hindustan.com, livemint.com and Livehindustan.com. 

Ashish Pherwani, EY India Media & Entertainment Leader, believes that bundling will be the mantra for now. “I think bundling will be the mantra for the immediate term - with physical print and with data packs. Aggregation will come later.”

EY FICCI ME Report Tuning into Consumer report 2022 estimated that the news subscription reached around Rs 90 crore due to increased marketing focus by BCCL, HT Media, The Hindu, The Ken and moneycontrol.com, among others.

Talking about their business strategy, Jain shares that HT Media’s subscription business model is largely built on four pillars. “First is productization. It involves identifying the products for which we want users to pay. The second most important pillar is creating content for which people are willing to pay.”

The other two pillars, he says, are martech and app. “We have built in-house marketing stack bases that help us create personalized user journeys. Our in-house marketing tech stacks allow us to segment users on the basis of their behaviour and profile, and then nudge them towards subscription.” 

Talking about the app, Jain believes that a direct relationship with the consumer is the starting point of nudging them towards subscription and this is where the app helps. “It allows you to look at users’ content consumption so that you can nudge them towards paying for the news. I think we are looking to scale our app ways to support our subscription,” he adds, while mentioning that they have crossed 1 lakh paying users in a matter of two years.

“Probably the fastest players to hit that mark,” he mentions.

Karan Taurani, SVP, Elara Capital, meanwhile explains why it is difficult to obtain a customer subscription on digital. “There is so much happening on social media, news channels and mobile phones that scaling the number of paid subscribers is extremely difficult unless the publishing house provides very compelling news content,” he says.

“English-viewing audiences may end up paying, resulting in a strong growth in the short term, but digging deep into markets and obtaining a good number of subscriptions will be difficult in the medium to long terms,” he adds.

He reasons that some people will consume paid news content, but that it will be a small group. “In this era of audio video-led platforms that are more interactive in nature, scalability is a problem for most of these platforms. Another issue is piracy, which has long been a problem with video formats. But there is a way to block specific websites. However, because news is frequently distributed as PDFs or screenshots, it is difficult to stop it completely.”

“For the aggregator, I'm not sure how will it work. Aggregators must first work hard to build a customer base. It will necessitate a significant investment in marketing and branding,” says Taurani.

As per the EY FICCI report, the reach of online news grew between 2020 and 2021, touching 467 million across mobile and desktop users of news sites, portals and aggregators. This is approximately 56% of internet users. It also stated that Times Internet, Zee Digital and Network18 were the three news media sites in Comscore’s Top 10 publishers in December 2021, apart from Google and Facebook sites. 

“If you look at it internationally, subscription is the norm, there is no reason why publications would not do the same in India,” said Nitin Menon, Co-founders of NV Capital.

"Even Google has been instructed to pay for stories picked up from various media outlets," Menon continued. “Everyone has their own strategy, particularly newspapers that charge you per month for exclusive curated and researched high-quality stories. Some business papers charge you for their online edition. This pattern will almost certainly continue in the future. Of course, aggregators have plenty of room to grow, and apps like Magzter have already begun to aggregate newspaper and magazine content on a monthly, bi-monthly, and daily basis,” he said.

Menon points out there is another trend now where apps like CRED tie up with media houses, and based on the points you have on these apps, you can unlock a couple of articles per month. “Such transactional news on demand could also pick up in the foreseeable future. Another important point would be the price per month which would be an important factor in this subscription-driven model given how price conscious Indian consumers are.” 

Coming to subscription plans, HT Media has different subscription plans for its products. They also offer a bundle service wherein consumers can subscribe to both newspaper and HT premium content. Livemint, which is the English business news website, has three subscription plans for half year, one year and two years for Rs 1799, Rs 2949 and Rs 5099, respectively. It also has a bundle offering which will have both Mint and The Wall Street Journal content access starting with Rs 2299 for six months. Similarly, Business Standard has two subscription plans- Rs 199/ monthly and 1799/ yearly. Economic Times also has two plans, Rs 399/monthly and Rs 2499 yearly. Additionally, they offer a two-year subscription plan at Rs 3599.

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