by Kevin Anderson, on July 31, 2012
• Take advantage of low-cost digital development
• Invest in what makes your product distinctive
• Give your product a strong launch
• Be as creative commercially as you are editorially
• Measure and evolve
In a little more than a year, India’s Firstpost has been able to break into a crowded digital news market with a mix of original reporting, curation and “breaking views” – sharp and smart analysis and comment.
It has achieved this success by starting with a small, focused team of journalists and building up a network of contributors and stringers. Use of social media, including Twitter and Facebook, has exploded in the last few years, and Firstpost has not only positioned itself at the centre of the news debates of the day, but also leveraged its social media presence into a revenue opportunity.
The genesis of Firstpost
Network18 Founder Raghav Bahl has successfully built a media empire by launching joint ventures with many of the world’s most well-known media brands, including CNN, Forbes, CNBC and Viacom, but in 2010, he wanted to create a brand of his own. More than that, he wanted this new brand to be digital.
Firstpost would be launching into a very competitive digital market; Indian newspapers and television stations all have their own news websites already. Firstpost had to differentiate itself not just from competitors, but also from news sites already in Network18′s portfolio including that of news channel CNN/IBN and CNBC 18′s MoneyControl, the leading financial portal in India.
So, with a market awash with news choices and a portfolio of existing news websites, Firstpost decided to focus on “breaking views”, smart analysis and opinion, rather than breaking news to attract an audience and appeal to advertisers.
“We needed a product that would stand out. We knew it had to have the qualities of the web. It had to be based on the principles of curation and social sharing,” said Durga Raghunath, vice president of products for Web18 and executive news producer for Firstpost. “If you look at the most read stories on the web, it is not often the most reported,” she said, adding that instead the most read stories are often sharp opinions and smart views.
In addition to standing out in a crowded market, the challenges of financial sustainability are different for a pure digital product than for a newspaper or broadcast news organisation. Although digital costs can be much lower than print or broadcast, digital revenue models are still being developed. Put simply, digital news projects might be cheap to launch but often find it just as difficult, if not more so, as traditional news operations to make money.
The digital advertising market in India, which includes not just display but also search, video, classified and rich media, is currently estimated to be about $410m, according to the Indian e-tail report. That’s relatively small considering the size of the Indian economy, and it only represents about 7% of total advertising in the country. A news site can tap into video, display and classified advertising but, of course, search advertising goes to digital players like Google.
“Start small and build”
To meet these challenges, one of the key pieces of advice from Raghunath is to start small and build with each stage.
Digital development, maintenance and distribution costs can be much lower than newspaper or broadcast products, and Firstpost took full advantage of the possibilities of these lower costs. Based on her experience at Wall Street Journal Asia, Raghunath thought that the open-source content-management system (CMS) WordPress would be a good fit for their website, and because a developer on staff was familiar with it, they did not need to hire an external development company.
Raghunath believes that you should focus your investment on what makes you distinctive. Instead of spending a lot on the CMS, they invested in a modern design that set it apart from the cluttered look of other Indian sites.
Staff and content make up the bulk of the costs for a site like Firstpost. About 20 to 30 percent of the content for Firstpost comes from newsrooms in its network, such as CNN/IBN or CNBC 18, but Firstpost isn’t as integrated with its broadcasting partners as the web newsroom of a broadcaster or newspaper would be.
Original reporting can be expensive, so they needed to find a way to choose carefully which original stories they would produce, and then do so without huge costs. The site launched with a small core editorial team of less than 20. Firstpost had to balance the need for original reporting and content with the revenue that it could reasonably make.
Those decisions are paying off. A little more than a year after its launch in May 2011, Firstpost has been able to both create a small investigative reporting team as well as pay stringers for original content.
“There are some stories where you have to have boots on the ground,” Raghunath said, citing as an example the coverage of a deadly riot at a Maruti Suzuki automotive plant in July 2012.
The site wraps the news of the day in its breaking views analysis. Social media and participation are central to the site. Borrowing the idea of trending topics from popular micro-blogging service Twitter, the biggest stories of the day are highlighted using another feature of Twitter, hashtags – keywords preceded by a #.
Like many other sites, Firstpost has found that live blogs are a popular feature with audiences, and it regularly produces live blogs on news and sporting events, including the current London Olympics.
With Firstpost being a social media fuelled, discussion-driven site, they have attracted a highly engaged audience; as a result, more than half a dozen members of the Firstpost community have also become contributors, said Raghunath.
To give the site a strong start, it launched with an advertising campaign that emphasised the site would be social and focused on participation, using iconic images of Martin Luther King Jr., the Arab Spring, Gandhi and India’s own struggle for independence.
This year, they took a poke at India’s powerful newspapers and told audiences to read today’s news today on Firstpost as opposed to the day after in newspapers.
To help build its audience and make its content findable and shareable on social networks, the site uses a mix of smart, search-engine and social media friendly headlines.
The revenue mix
To make Firstpost a success, it also needed a strong business to support its strong voice.
From its launch, advertising was always seen as the main source of revenue. Raghunath explained that in India, apart from business content, very few paid-content strategies have been successful.
However, while advertising is the focus of revenue for Firstpost, the team is experimenting with a range of digital advertising techniques. “Advertisers want compelling experiences not boring banners,” she said.
Raghunath said that Firstpost’s revenue is split between volume- and brand-based advertising. Volume-based advertising is based on advertisers who want to reach a large audience, and brand-based advertising is based on advertisers who want to be associated with the media brand you create.
To attract volume advertising, the site first needed to hit a million pageviews per month based on comScore statistics before they could have a seat at the table with the big budget advertisers. The traffic target will vary market to market, but it is important to know what you have to aim for to get the attention of major ad agencies and advertisers where you publish.
Raghunath said that Firstpost was always about building a media brand – a brand with “presence and voice that keeps its promise of being smart and sticky.” That has allowed the site to attract international brands, such as European car manufacturers, looking to tap into the Indian market.
As the site has grown, advertisers have also started “buying audiences” – advertising bought to reach a specific audience. This is only possible because Firstpost’s sales team has built an audience profile using web metrics services, such as Google Analytics and comScore, and social media metrics services, such as Facebook Analytics and Klout, which measures the influence of social media users. They have also worked to understand their audience not just online, but also offline through reader surveys.
Raghunath stresses that Firstpost is constantly evolving. Since the launch, they have explored sub-brands and niches, such as real estate, that could help bring the site new revenue.
The team has used social media effectively not just to keep the site at the centre of conversations, but also to leverage that success with their advertisers.
The micro-blogging service Twitter is hugely popular in India, and just as Twitter is trying to generate revenue through sponsored content, so is Firstpost. Firstpost has developed its own sponsored updates system on Twitter, letting their audience clearly know which tweets are sponsored by including the hashtag #advertiserlove.
“The reader should never feel that (advertising) has been stuffed down their throat,” Raghunath said. They are experimenting with sponsored posts on the site, but Raghunath says they are doing so very cautiously. Audiences are very sensitive to sponsored content, and she said that they have developed very clear guidelines to govern its use.
One of the more successful experiments has been Firstpost debates, in which two writers take opposing positions and audiences vote for which one they found more persuasive. Thousands of Firstpost readers have voted in the debates, and the site’s sales team is now looking to develop revenue streams around this popular feature.
This experimentation with new forms of advertising is helping Firstpost meet both its editorial and business goals.
As we said last month, the launch of a digital product is the beginning, not the end, of its development. Firstpost has been constantly evolving during its fast-paced first year. Raghunath’s advice for other digital news ventures is that it is important to start small and with a reasonably sized news staff: “Never staff for your end goal, but optimise your staffing stage by stage.” And when you are launching, and your resources are limited, you should always invest in what differentiates you from your competitors. Firstpost’s distinctiveness has been key to its success.
Disclosure: I was involved with the launch of Firstpost and until recently was a writer-at-large for the site.