Following the tie-up between the Times Audience Network (TAN) and BigAdda, we spoke to Sameer Pitalwalla, Head (Digital) for Zoom Entertainment Network, to get a sense of how the Times group views the online video space; the groups online video foray is an expansion of the mandate of the Zoom Audience Network.  Pitalwalla spoke about their approach to online video advertising, publisher partnerships, why they shelved the practice of bundling banner and video advertising, short form vs long form content online, and video advertising networks:

sameer-pitalwallaWhat is the rationale behind the Times Audience Network?

The Times Audience Network is a syndicated video network, formed with the rationale of leading the groups online video foray. Previously, online video was more like a cosmetic addition  to a particular website – and it wasn’t really integral to monetization. It was more like an enticement for users to come and consume more content.

But online video has significantly different dynamics – it allows you to distribute your content, and regardless of which place you’re distributing it to, it allows you to keep control of your branding and your inventory. Under the TAN, we distribute content for the groups rich media properties, which is predominantly the channels. Zoom is where the concept was created and Times Now has been the second, and we’ll be launching Times Music in a few days. When ET Now comes up, we’ll launch that too.

On the publisher side, we provide our partners with access content like full length episodes and clips, the moment we put them up. All of this content is meta tagged, with reference image files which they can use to populate the video content on their site. The only thing is, it uses our player. After a certain threshhold, depending on the quantum of views a publisher has, the player is co-branded. They have a dashboard with access to analytics on how well the content is performing on their website.

We’re making sure that the Times Group properties are online video ready, but when it comes to distribution, there’s no difference between what our group properties have access to, and what something like a BigAdda has access to. In the next phase, we are opening up our APIs as well, to allow people to build search and other functionality around our content, a Shah Rukh Khan timeline from 2005 to 2009. for eg…they can do all sorts of mashups around this content – both Zooms content, news content from Times Now, and financial news content from ET Now. 

How do you monetize the content? Do you only sell advertising, or do you also get a minimum guarantee from your publisher partners?

No, not at all. The barrier to entry is extremely low, and there are no minimum commitments. Prior to this, we used to ask for commitments in terms of banner space to promote content, or we used to put our adsense code, which allowed us to make money out of banner advertising. Later we realized that it doesn’t make sense for the publisher as well. Most Bollywood publishers rely on ad networks for monetization. Our offering to them allows them to increase timespend, pageviews and user loyalty. At the same time, this business had to succeed as a video only business. The bundling of it alongwith a banner based component is something we didn’t find sustainable in the long run – video advertising is very different from banner based advertising. Bundling both of them was cannibalizing on the value of Video as a whole. As of now, the only revenue stream that we have is advertising. 

When you were dealing only with the Bollywood content, how many of those views were completed? In that context, is there an opportunity for a mid-roll or a post-roll advertising, or just pre-rolls?

Most clips are 3.5-4 minutes long. 100% playthrough is not more than 20-25%. On average, around 75% of the audience doesn’t watch more than 35% of the video. We support all formats – pre-rolls, midrolls, postrolls and overlay ads, as well as something called end-caps, which is text/ image at the end of the video. We noticed that midrolls and post-rolls are low on engagement metrics.

Who have you partnered with for distribution? When you select publishers to partner with – what’s the basic criterion?

Most of our content partners are currently Bollywood publishers – Indiatimes, the mirror websites, Bigadda, Smashits, BurrpTV!, Dhingana, RadioSargam, CineCurry, PlanetRadiocity, Sifymax,  Eros, Chakpak, etc. With ZAN, we used to look at Bollywood sites. With Times, it is publishers who have a contextually relevant offering for which they use video. For example, news sites who have the text, but want news video. 

This also opens up tremendous opportunities for us to leverage various partnerships – if an advertiser wants to have a video on demand component at the end of a video – for example, if an HDFC wants to give a free movie download for its international audience, we leverage our relationships with the likes of Eros to offer that video on demand. 

Long format programming is fairly hard to monetize, and unless it is a franchise. We’ve found that people like to watch 2-3 min short form clips, of which news is the only genre which fits that kind of consumption model currently.  We’ll look at tying up with content partners once broadband penetration grows and episodic content takes up in India, in terms of consumption on the web.

Are you looking at getting more content on board – going beyond the Times Group content?

The reason we would actually go out to acquire content or to get other people to get on board is to increase inventory. We’re already sitting on an inventory pool of 15 million, and are talking to some other big publishers, who are looking at adopting it, because it’s easy method to adopt – there’s no switching cost, no hassle when it comes to ownership. We have Eros promotional content, and they’re also a distribution partner.

So you’ve mostly got your own content, and then promos?

Yes, we don’t want to create a mish-mash of content offerings – we’re not trying to create a destination website. The value is in allowing as many people to use your content in as many ways possible, and enabling interaction with content. Over 65% of Hulu’s viewership happens outside of Hulu.com. The whole embedding phenonemon is extremely potent.

 

Any targets for getting publishers on board?

We have targets in terms of what inventory levels we want to achieve, publisher count is irrelevant. We rather have 100 quality publishers than a billion bad blogs.

What are your key costs?

Pre-dominantly distribution – the bandwidth that we pay for the videos. We’ve also tied up with Ooyala, which is our video management service. We’ve been with them for almost 2 years. Instead of building our own player and have high switching costs, we prefer to work with a partner. We’ve done innovations and they’ve built up their model as well – there has been a lot of customization that’s been done for the Times Group. 

Which advertisers do you have on board? Are you using ad networks…

We have Tata Sky, Nerolac, HDFC, ICICI, TravelChaCha and General Motors amongst others. We propose different engagement metrics for video advertising, which is very different from the current engagement metrics are in the market. Online Advertising is predominantly Pay for Performance and Branding. We have distinguished online video as a branding medium, wherein you watch and ad and watch content.

How do people measure this engagement? We do a percentage play-through. We check whether people watch 5 seconds of the ad or 30 seconds. It’s more important for an advertiser that the ad is watched than clicked on. If a person clicks on an ad 5 seconds into it – does he know what it is about? We give an advertiser the ability to gauge how much of the ad has been watched. It’s an correct measure of time spent, so it is the same as an impression for the advertiser. And the ad is also clickable, so click through rate (CTR) is also a metric. But what we’re trying to push for is for telling people to calculate on the basis of percentage play-through rather than CTR as a metric. 

What about Ad Networks?

We had tied up with VDOPIA for when we first began to explore the opportunities to monetize the video inventory, but that was predominantly because we didn’t have a video sales team of our own. As of now we are selling inventory ourselves and we intend to continue doing so.

We firmly believe that video inventory has to be sold by the publisher, because when ad networks sell the inventory, they tend to bundle it as verticals, as news, sports, entertainment etc. The value of the brand and the audience it delivers is destroyed. Moreover, all valueable data on consumption patterns and viewership is not owned by you. Lastly, there is a fear of having multiple competitive offerings bundled and sold by a third-party clearinghouse. The danger always is that you do-not know where your brand’s value stands, and what inventory you are being given? Are you being sold properly in the first place?

One tends to  confuse value with price, out of an entire inventory pile of varying value, some publishers will always get a differentially better piece of the pie while others will be used as dumping grounds for low-value inventory, where do you as a content-owner stand? Ad-networks also have the added advantage of bearing costs only for the video-ad served, not the entire video unit. Their economics, for content owners or aggregators who do not own infrastructure, are inherently distorted. 

As a network are you in the black? 

As a network, we’re definitely not in the black. We are not rain-forest green, but the Zoom Audience Network posted a healthy profit and that is one of the reasons why we decided to create the Times Audience Network; that’s the reason we decided to scale.

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Related: Times Group Launches Online Video Network; Ties Up With BigAdda