He spent the last 18 years of his career building Digital brands in Silicon Valley, and when he arrived in India to head the Digital team at Hindustan Times, he began to infuse a lot of that expertise into the newsroom there too. While HT’s newsroom in Connaught Place, New Delhi may have undergone a revamp a year before he came in, Rajiv Bansal, Chief Digital Officer and CEO of HT Digital Streams, has managed to give it his ‘digitally ready’ touch.
Talking about it, Bansal says, “We have a great tech infrastructure. Certain spaces in our newsroom look straight out of Silicon Valley. We created systems that integrate the content flow in the Print version and on the website. So, when a Print reporter creates a story, it becomes available in a centralized content management system. From that system, we can rewrite the news for Digital or Print. Unlike our competitors, we don’t need a different set of Print reporters and Digital reporters. We have been able to make use of all of the thousands of people who have been covering the hyperlocal nature of news for us.”
The company is believed to have put in investments to the tune of Rs 100 crore in integrating Print and Digital at HT, when Bobby Ghosh was the editor, but later embarked on a severe cost-cutting spree which resulted in the laying off of several journalists even from big bureaus like New Delhi and Mumbai.
When Bansal joined Hindustan Times, Digital-first may have become the mantra, but the structure to execute that in the organization was still not in place. It was Bansal’s mandate to form the right team and give it the right strategic direction. Explaining how he went about it, Bansal says, “Having built a lot of consumer products in my life, to me it comes down to what the consumers want. We combined user research with the analytics and formed a strategy for ourselves. For the first few months, I was very focused on strategy; the next few months were about getting some key leaders on board. We now have one of India’s best CTOs in Anish Nair, who was with Jabong earlier, Nilanjana Jha, a top digital journalist who built Times Internet and NDTV and Rameet Arora, the only one who precedes me, one of the best in the country as far as brand marketing and business operations are concerned.
Now that we have a strong team, we are just starting to fire on all cylinders in terms of execution. The next few months and years will be all about execution. We are not imitating our competitors; we are letting our consumers guide us instead. We have a coherent strategy and are on the path to winning the digital market.”
While HT’s online platforms are growing, it is a big challenge for Bansal to make Digital count in an organization where the bulk of revenue still comes from Print properties like Hindustan Times, Hindustan and Mint. Commenting on it, Bansal says, “I actually play two roles in the company. I am the CEO for Digital properties, while being heavily involved in the Print operations because I run the horizontal technology, Digital marketing in product teams. And so I have a good view on both, in terms of depth of the Digital business and how it goes vis-à-vis Print.
When I first joined HT, a person who lives next door came to me and said, ‘You kids, don’t take away my newspaper’. So there is this core audience which really engages very deeply with the newspaper and that audience will continue to do so. But, clearly, when you talk about 18-year-olds, they are very heavily into Digital, not only in terms of text formats, but also with regard to very rich Digital formats. From that standpoint, Digital is going to continue to explode in the future. But, that is by no means a reflection on any lack of confidence in Print. We feel fairly confident about the Print business even in future.”
But how soon does he see Digital making a mark on the revenues of the Group? “I think Digital is already making a mark on the revenues. We are outpacing competition on every parameter. It has seen a fairly high amount of growth. In fact, we are staying away from those quick-fixes which would just give us very high growth right now and are instead investing in areas which we know are going to give us lots and lots of returns over the next five years and beyond,” Bansal states.
One aspect of HT Digital Streams we seldom talk about is its branded content business. But it has done wonders for the company, according to Bansal, and the size of the branded content business last year actually doubled. “We have our own brand studio run by an eclectic set of 8-10 people who are extremely passionate about content. The goal is to double the business again this year and it’s coming from a fairly decent base size. So, we have got an exploding branded content business,” Bansal says, adding, “Since we are a media company, inherently story-tellers, we do that really well. Then, we have got a fairly large syndication business where we don’t just take content coming from our core products, but also push content from 250 other publishers. We power not just an Inshorts or a Dailyhunt, but also Factiva and some other big closed terminal services. We also do corporate content where we work with publishers on one side and corporate partners on another to make sure the depth of their website is strong. So, it is a fairly diverse set of businesses. When I came on board, the team wasn’t quite operating in conjunction with one another, but in silos. So the biggest challenge was figuring out our core strategy and then re-orienting the different things we do in one coherent manner to act on that strategy.”
HT Media, which handles the Print arm of the Group, namely Hindustan Times, Hindustan and Mint, has seen a great surge in profits this year, despite ad revenue going down. So how different has the advertiser response been for HT Digital Streams? Bansal explains, “Advertisers are seeing a lot of merit and response on Digital. Also, while our display ad business is growing, we are seeing a shift to programmatic, which is an industry-wide phenomenon.
But again, more than the medium, the format makes a big difference, and our branded content format has really taken off. For example, our Aviva campaign generated great results for the advertiser. We use very different metrics to measure advertiser response.
We are betting heavily on branded content within Digital.” Bansal believes that vernacular languages hold the key to growth of Digital and it is not just restricted to news but all content, by and large, and it would be an area they are planning to invest in heavily in the near future.
Meanwhile, they also have content tieups with platforms like The Print, Bansal says. “Right now, we have a combination of different types of tie-ups. We actively participate in some platforms which are news aggregators like an Inshorts.
We also have tie-ups on the content end with 250 other publishers, where we take their content and proliferate it not only on third party platforms but also on our own. What people are looking for is credibility at the end of the day. So, even if we are putting content on our channel, which is not from our newsroom, it is still going through some level of scrutiny. That’s very different from a startup, putting something on a random website or an app. We do triple fact-checking,” he explains.
But will HT Digital Streams take inspiration from a popular start-up like Inshorts, for example, which provides concise news on the go, considering HT’s efforts to woo the younger generation that consumes Digital news? Bansal replies, “There are certain categories which we don’t cover as well as we would like to, for example, technology. We are trying to deepen our capabilities in it and cover it in a broader way. But, in some cases, this might not even come out of our newsroom, it may come out of third party content. Some of the publishers we have on board talk to consumers in a voice different from ours.
Take Sportskeeda – it has a very different take on cricket than we do. Dataquest has a very different take on technology than we do. So, giving consumers an option to consume either the type of content that we don’t cover, or the voice that we don’t talk in, is going to be critical to us. But are we going to look at becoming a standard news aggregator? Not necessarily. In a lot of cases, we will become a platform for consumption of content, a large portion of which won’t come from our newsrooms. Of course, the core of consumer engagement is going to come from our core brands,” Bansal asserts.