MANISH MAHESHWARI, CEO, NETWORK18 DIGITAL
Keeping editorial innovation and business ambition at its core, Network18 Digital has set out to disrupt the online news media space with its flagship products, News18.com, Firstpost and Moneycontrol. Manish Maheshwari, CEO, Network18 Digital and Santosh
BUILDING NETWORK18 DIGITAL IN 18 MONTHS
Though Network18 Digital (formerly called Web18) had its digital properties up and running for a very long time, it is the last 18 months that have been the most crucial in terms of key management changes, consolidation of properties and regional expansion of Network18Digital, the online hub of Network18.
According to the most recent
ComScore data, Network18 Digital is the third most visited digital media network in India after Times Internet and NDTV, with over 50 million unique visitors across brands. The growth story of the company has been two-fold, says Manish Maheshwari, CEO, Network18 Digital. “We have an editorial ambition and a business ambition that complement each other. Our biggest priority was working towards establishing a future-oriented company and therefore we rebranded ourselves from Web18 to Network18 Digital. Today, Digital is not just about web alone, as it encompasses a gamut of digital services. Mobile, machine learning, programmatic ad buying, AR, VR, etc., are digital realities that are at the heart of our business and our name had to sum it all up,” he explains.
THE BIG EDITORIAL AMBITION
When Santosh Menon took over as Chief Content Officer, Network18 Digital, digital was only a mere online destination of the Network’s TV channels and the most important task was to script a digital-first identity for the company. “Moneycontrol was earlier just a landing site for CNBC. Similarly, IBN Live and News18 were also not more than landing sites for CNN-IBN and later CNN-News18. Today, things are vastly different. We are using digital to transform the TV newsroom as well,” says Menon. In its ambition to enhance content, the company has roped in editorial experts and writers across beats such as Santosh Nair, Editor, Moneycontrol, BV Rao, Editor, Firstpost and Praveen Thampi, Editor, News18. com. The string of esteemed writers also includes political analyst and author Sanjaya Baru, cricket journalist Prem Panicker and film critic Anna Vetticad who contribute regularly. “Establishing a strong editorial camp was part of the plan, the other was to make digital the platform for breaking stories. Today, we break stories first and TV picks it up. We did the same with the Assembly elections last year. Facebook had just about launched its ‘Live Video’ and we leveraged it with a five-hour digicast called ‘Decode 2016’ which was an industry first then,” Menon adds.
STRENGTHENING THE BRANDS
The biggest task at hand for Maheshwari and the new team was to pool in their individual expertise and the resources at their disposal to reinvent the brand and take the competition head-on. Moneycontrol.com was revamped and launched with a new logo, while Firstpost was launched in Hindi and got a new in-house studio. The boldest decision, however, was clubbing all the news websites under the banner of News18. com. “To strengthen our brands, we had to make some bold changes and one of them was consolidating all our digital news properties under one banner. This wasn’t easy because when a company makes such a gutsy move, it can be perceived as an internal downfall. For us, that was not the case. After a tough quarter, we managed to surpass our previous best and take News18 to No.2 position. We also launched Firstpost in Hindi with a firstof-its kind in-house digital newsroom, Firstpost Studio. Moneycontrol was given a new logo and content was given a 360-degree boost,” says Maheshwari. To bolster business value, the company also appointed seasoned business heads for all three brands within a year. While Rajiv Singh, Business Head, News18.com joined from Flipkart, like Maheshwari, Azim Lalani was elevated as Business Head of Firstpost and Gautam Shelar was handed over the business mandate of Moneycontrol.
KEEPING MONETIZATION IN MIND
When the new management took over, monetization was the biggest challenge as the properties weren’t performing well. To get the attention of advertisers, an entire new plan was put in place that created newer monetization avenues than before. “We realized that plain display ads weren’t going to work any longer as our clients wanted much more than just media reach. We had to craft and create a new model that incorporated inventory buying through programmatic platforms and also offer branded content solutions. So there was a union of tech and content that worked in tandem to get the advertiser attention we wanted,” says Maheshwari. A landmark transition in the business was the inclusion of a subscription model for Moneycontrol that produces business research and
stock reports for a small premium. Moneycontrol is also placed ahead of Economic Times and Yahoo Finance in readership and downloads for its market news (ComScore Data). Talking about the future vision for Moneycontrol, Gautam Shelar, Business Head, Moneycontrol says, “Our portfolio and data bind millions to the platform. In June, we crossed record usage, beating well established competitors. In the coming months, we are launching an advanced version of our portfolio and introducing a Mutual Funds transaction platform. The aim is to consolidate our leadership position in the business and investing community.”
The story for News18 and Firstpost has been positive too. While there has been no mention of subscription for either, the regional expansion into languages and addition of sub-brands have added to the monetization arsenal. “From the single web inventory, we have moved on to monetize our mobile presence and apart from the three mother brands, we are leveraging our sub-brands like CricketNext that generates its own sponsorship and further adds to the ad revenue that comes with the News18 app. We also have Compare India where we do comparative analysis of consumer electronics and forward the leads to several e-commerce sites. Faking News and Tech2 have their own set of advertisers that gives us multiple opportunities to add revenue,” claims Maheshwari. REGIONAL EXPANSION & VIDEO CONTENT
Apart from English and Hindi, News18.com serves content in three regional languages - Gujarati, Urdu and Bengali. The plan is to further expand the property in 13 languages that will give its growing regional advertiser base a shot in the arm. Speaking on the regional expansion plan, Rajiv Singh, Business Head, News18.com says, “For the News18 brand that commenced only a little over a year ago, we have been steady in holding our No.3 rank in terms of unique visitors as well as time spent on the platform across the five languages. Very soon, we aim to bring engaging news, information and content in 13 languages, thereby making News18 the single multi-language hub.”
Following the same trajectory, Firstpost was launched in Hindi last year and further regional expansion is on the cards. Video content has also been a prime focus considering the avenues it opens for brand integration. Talking about the importance of video, Azim Lalani, Business Head, Firstpost says, “Emerging as one of the top 10 digital news publishers in the country, it is significant that we are striking the right chord with our audience. Taking our expansive content portfolio a step further, we launched ‘Caroake’, the Bollywood carpool this year, which involves Bollywood stars getting into a candid conversation with our journalist, leaving our viewers thoroughly entertained.”
THE CHINA WALL WITH RELIANCE INDUSTRIES
Asserting zero interference from the parent company, Reliance Industries, Menon does acknowledge the presence of a strong China-wall that separates journalistic diligence from the larger business interests of Reliance. “There are several checks and balances at a policy level that give us the freedom to operate without any inhibitions or restrictions. There is a China wall between Reliance Industries and Network18, which means they will treat us as any other media company and we will treat them like any other corporate, it is as simple as that. Corporate investment in media is a global phenomenon, which has made it a level playing field and we are no different. What we aspire to emulate is the same ‘Western class’ that keeps other business interests completely out of the media venture and to ensure that we have some immensely experienced people in our senior leadership that have worked across the world and are familiar with the complexities that come with the business,” says Menon.
There is a China wall between Reliance Industries and Network18, which means they will treat us as any other media company and we will treat them like any other corporate, it is as simple as that SANTOSH MENON Chief Content Officer, Network18 Digital
THE WAY AHEAD...
Maheshwari claims that Network18 Digital has witnessed a three digit increase in traffic across platforms with corresponding growth in revenues, making it an ideal time to scale operations and increase brand value which currently stands at 8% of Network18’s total value. Cementing its associations with top media agencies is another key focus area for the company. “As mentioned earlier, we are a future-oriented organization and to live up to our vision, we have created many revenue lines. We have created a central agency team within the organization that reaches out to the top 10 media agencies in the country to ensure we have a preferential arrangement wherein we provide them access to all our digital properties at one stop instead of striking individual deals with different properties. To sum it up, this year has been great for us and our revenues have been growing despite demonetization and GST, which is a testament to our aggressive plans,” concludes Maheshwari.
Rajiv Singh, Business Head, News18.com
Azim Lalani, Business Head, Firstpost
Gautam Shelar, Business Head, Moneycontrol
Santosh Menon Chief Content Officer, Network18 Digital