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Doubling down on key audience loyalties to grow

The Indian Express has been busy transforming its newsroom to a truly digital-first organisation while also taking a hard look at what drives its readers down the funnel and gets them to become subscribers. Brian Veseling reports

At last week’s Digital Media India conference in New Delhi, Nandagopal Rajan, editor – New Media & Business Head for, described how they have gone about both parts of this process and how it’s now paying dividends. Among the oldest news brands in India, Indian Express was founded in 1932. “It’s a trusted brand, and that’s something we take very seriously,” Rajan said. “Our only business is credibility, and it’s something we cannot lose at any cost.”

Indian Express is frequently called IE both inside and outside the company, and for many that IE stands for Investigative and Explanation, the two styles of journalism for which the brand is well known, Rajan noted. The publisher also launched one of the earliest news websites in India, back in 1997. Interestingly, their print and digital products have two largely different audiences.

Print & online: Two very different audiences

In print, IE is not a big circulation brand, Rajan said, but it is seen as a paper of record and read by the country’s elite and intelligentsia. Online, however, it has a far broader appeal with some 60 million visitors to its site each month, which reached nearly 100 million a month during the pandemic as people sought out explanatory information.

Even with the dip to 60 million a month, Rajan noted IE is “consistently among the top five websites in the country for many years now, and in fact, we are among the largest websites in the world.” Furthermore, IE’s online reader profile more closely mirrors the demographics of India. For example, more than 50 per cent of their online readers are under the age of 34, he said.

Nandagopal Rajan speaking at the conference. Photo: WAN-IFRA

While that 60-million figure is obviously enormous, relatively few of these readers are “brand lovers,” or readers with a strong loyalty to the IE brand who are likely to pay for it. “It’s very good at the top,” Rajan said, “but a lot of those users stay at the top. And every month you get a completely different 70 per cent who don’t come back.” “We have all been very focused on growing the top of the funnel,” he added. “If you want to grow your traffic, grow your users. But that doesn’t really help you from the perspective of pushing users down the funnel.”

Increasing the number of ‘brand lovers’

Looking at those users who make up the loyal base, one sees quite a different picture, Rajan noted. “We are looking at a small percentage number when we are looking at the brand lovers,” he said. These users visit the site an average of 15 times a month, or every other day. Increasing the number of these users – and getting them to pay – has become a focal point for IE.

While some publishers might view their news products as single entities with loyal readers, Rajan said the reality is they likely have dozens, or even hundreds, of different areas of loyalties.

“It is not one loyalty because you have the loyalty to the brand, but you also have loyalties which are, I would say hundreds of loyalties,” Rajan said. “So you have the biggest loyalty to the brand. And then you have maybe loyalty to the bylines. You have loyalty to sections. You have loyalty to your coverage of certain cities, and certain topics.”

Recognising this, IE began working on a few hypotheses. “One is that we have core readers. A big chunk of those readers are very aligned to what we think is core to Indian Express,” Rajan said. At the same time, because a lot of IE’s growth has been online and on verticals that are not part of their print product, such as entertainment, technology and lifestyle, they believed there were loyalties to be found in these areas as well, he said.

“Instead of looking at one bucket of users, we thought maybe there’s an opportunity to look at multiple buckets of users,” Rajan said. “We started looking for these pockets of loyalty.”

Four key areas

IE decided to focus on four areas where they had market advantages.

Explain, or the explanatory journalism they had long invested in. This had been especially important during Covid, but as the pandemic began to wane, “we realised that we acquired a lot of users who come to Express every day to get their explanation of what’s happening around the world,” Rajan said.

Opinion. IE features a lot of opinion content every day. “Again, one of our very core segments with a lot of bylines which have dedicated readers,” he said.

UPSC. This is an annual civil services exam, and something that IE is seen as a primary authority on. “It’s a consistent funnel,” Rajan said. “Every year you will have new users coming in, the people who are trying to get into the exam for many years. We knew this was one of the areas that we had to tap.”

Cities. Indian Express has 10 cities where they have bureaux and provide extensive coverage.

Next step: A truly digital-first strategy

While Indian Express had been working towards a having a digital-first organisation for some time, with their new plans, they found this became even more crucial. “We reimposed a digital-first strategy across all these sections,” Rajan said. “We started moving the cities across digital first. We started moving all our explanatory journalism to digital first. And a lot of opinion now happens digital first.”

In addition, he said, IE started to create more digital-plus content across all these verticals. This process was not pain free, and Rajan said there was a period of adjustment to help staff to see the need for changes. “People need to understand the importance of pushing out news when it is needed,” Rajan said. “We really had to put a lot of effort into moving people to this kind of thinking. And this has worked and has now started showing us results.”

Using social to increase engagement

Likewise, increasing engagement with readers has also been an ongoing process. “And again, this is not an easy thing to do because the needle moves very slowly here also,” Rajan said.

IE had a special social segment for their four key areas so each of them had their own separate communities and engagement.

For example, most of their cities have separate Twitter handles and Telegram groups, he said. They’ve also made use of WhatsApp. On a daily basis, they often get 50 or more requests for explanatory coverage of various topics. In some cases, Rajan said, these are for things they’ve already recently covered that a given reader missed seeing, but these exchanges are also very useful. “This funnel keeps giving us ideas of what people want to read about,” he said.

Subscriber benefits

Interestingly, while they have taken many steps towards building their subscription offer, much of The Indian Express’s editorial content actually remains freely available. For example, Rajan said IE publishes about 400 stories every day, but only 10 of those are behind the paywall. And they have no immediate plans to increase that number, he said. Likewise, they have a very high paywall, which is set at 55 stories, which they also plan to keep.

“Most of our conversion is happening purely on the power of the 10 premium stories we do every day,” he said. However, subscribers do get a number of other benefits. For example, they get early access to special features, such as investigations.

“A lot of our investigations are released to the subscribers initially or behind a paywall for the first half-a-day or one day, and then opened up later,” Rajan said. In addition, they have access to IE’s archive, and daily sudoku and crossword puzzles. They also get invites to Express events.

“We do a lot of events through the year, and subscribers are invited to most of these events,” he said. 

Pricing experiments

Moving to pricing, Rajan said that despite the fact that India is a “price sensitive” or “value conscious” market, IE decided against dropping their subscription prices too low. For one thing, IE is finding their most loyal users “are not really bothered about the price. They will actually buy at whatever price because they know the value, they know the promise of Express,” he said.

“We have had occasions where we were experimenting with the price and the discount was not showing, so we have full ticket pricing, which is very high because it’s mapped with the print price, and people bought at the full price.” Noting that IE does a lot of decoy pricing aimed at nudging users to go for the full year pack, or the two-year pack, but they’ve found many people will actually buy at the decoy price. “And the monthly pricing is very high, but they don’t care,” Rajan said. He also encouraged all publishers who are new to subscription models to experiment to figure out what price point is their sweet spot.

“What is the price where your numbers shoot up? This is something that we do every few weeks, and we know for each of our products where the spot is,” Rajan said. “We don’t sell at that price. It is the one we keep for when we want to push the numbers up, but we don’t want to show that as our price all the time.”

Regulations against automatic renewals pose challenges

One difficulty that is somewhat unique to the Indian market is that because of regulations against automatically renewing of subscriptions, IE has largely steered away from monthly offerings due to the complications involved.

“It’s not easy to do recurring pricing in India even now. So we’ve kept it for only annual and two-year pricing for most of the time,” Rajan said. However, recently, they decided to experiment with monthly pricing because of discussions with some users who were only interested in short-term subscriptions. “We have switched on monthly now with a lot of pain and a lot of failure rate, but this has suddenly opened up a lot of users who had a price sensitivity.”

Process starting to bear fruit

Overall, the change process has been “very slow,” Rajan said, but they are now beginning to see many positive developments. In addition, all of their newsroom teams are now in different stages of moving towards full digital strategies. “Suddenly you see that in the past quarter we have started hitting a lot of traction with the engagement of subscribers,” he said. “All of this is helping us acquire new users but also keeping the paid users very happy, because again, this is what they converted on, and we need to keep giving them more of what they converted on.”

“It is not where we want it to be because we have very high expectations from subscriptions. But it is quite heartening to see what we’ve been able to do. It’s useful for the first year of our subscription business,” Rajan said.

(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. The writer is senior editor, WAN-IFRA.)