mdhilmDhil is a digital health company which creates and provides content related to health to Indians. Core topics for the company are reproductive health, family planning, women’s health, diabetes, diet, among others. We spoke with Nandu Madhava, founder of Mdhil about his business, and how Indians are consuming health content on SMS and Video, Monetization, Brand engagements, Venture Capital in India, among other things. Part 1 of a two part series below, along with separete (short) podcast. Subscribe to MediaNama on Soundcloud here.

mDhil Content on Mobile and Web

MediaNama: How are people consuming health related information?

Madhava: In most of the developed internet markets, health has been one of the proven areas of interest. If you are around 15, it could be questions around puberty. If you are 22, it could be around family planning. If you are around 28-30, it could be around stress. If you are 35, it could be around child rearing. If you are 42, it could be diabetes and so on. Irrespective of age, all are involved with something health related always. We see our content evolving around similar lines. We are also expanding to also include more lifestyle related content. Now in India, we see a huge number of audience below the age of 25.

MediaNama: What are some of the things that surprised you with respect to consumption of health related information over the internet in India?

Madhava: People have this misconception that health is only a challenge at the bottom of the pyramid. It is the poor and the uneducated that do not have access to health related information. Everybody else is fine. This misconception was brought home when we were working with doctors and talking to them about maternal health and breastfeeding. If you go to higher end hospitals, mothers there think want to buy formula products for babies because they have the money. But the best food for an infant is exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. So health information is a challenge across the pyramid in India.

MediaNama: What are the services that you offer on the mobile?

Madhava: We started off doing lot of SMS services. Airtel is one of our biggest partners. We also work with Idea and Docomo to a smaller degree. Now, we are trying to distribute our services with video content across mobile web with the same partners. Two years ago, we could see that 3G was going to be a huge benefit for this market. We could do articles, images etc. We have made this available across our platform. This has increased our traffic from mobile. Our content is also available on Youtube.

MediaNama: What are the services that you offer on the web?

Madhava: Our web services are mostly content related. But I want to make a clear distinction that we are not just a content company because that is probably one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about us. I really see mDhil being a platform that we use to make people understand a topic. We also want to become more of a platform that helps people help understand and manage a condition. It is a bit of an evolution for our company because at the outset, we focused on content. But I look at us becoming like Khan Academy.

Medianama: How are you trying to cater to the bottom of the pyramid because most of your solutions seem to for the urban or educated audience?

Madhava: All are videos are free. Some services with carriers require that you pay and download the video onto  your phone. Two years ago, 95% of our traffic came from the top 5 cities in the country. Today it is 70%. Now we see more traffic coming from places like Mysore, Lucknow. In 5 years, our traffic will definitely come from more places that won’t be called as tier I with wealthy consumers. There will be more first time internet user accessing our services over Rs 1000 phones with internet access at Rs 2 a day. It is going to take some time but we are here for the long term. 

MediaNama: What do you see as the point of differentiation between mobile and web as a medium for content? What drives your choice of medium?

Madhava: When we started off, it was clearly a SMS story. Then, there wasn’t a lot of mobile web stuff happening in India. Now we see 65% of our video traffic coming from mobile. Two years from now, it is going to be 90%. I think people have been struggling to figure out what is going to work in India’s 3G environment.

MediaNama: How do you think your choice between web and mobile is likely to change in the future?

Madhava: I see some of our longer form content being web oriented and more shorter form content being mobile oriented. Mobile may serve as a medium for discovery. Shorter, snackable content like 2-3 minute video on mobile seem to work in India and in all markets. It is unlikely for you to sit and watch a 20-30 minute video on your mobile phone. The other limitation is that lot of people don’t use 3G yet. So you can’t make a 20 minute video and expect people to watch it.

MediaNama: Why do you think video is working?

Madhava: This is where coming to India during so many summers has given me context. In the Indian society in the past, we had only one TV, one screen. Suddenly, with mobile, you have a screen that can take you anywhere. It is yours and very personal. That is one of the reasons why video is working in a big way. Second reason is the topics that mDhil seeks to address. One of the topics that is popular and uncomfortable for a lot of people to discuss is menstrual health. Our video series on menstrual health education for teenage girls is popular because there is no other place to get this information and it is embarrassing. So we give accurate, factual information that you can get in the privacy of your phone, delivered to you with a sense of empathy.

Monetisation And Venture Market for Digital Health

MediaNama: How do you monetise on the web?

Madhava: From a small seed funding in 2009, we have grown our business, revenue, services, partners and users every year for the last three years. Revenue is the lifeblood of bringing in cash and growth to our company. But there is also a fundamental problem in the Internet ecosystem in India with disproportionate emphasis on monetisation instead of the user and social utility of a product. In the Silicon Valley , monetisation is probably going to be the tenth question put forth to you about your startup. In India, it is the second question. This is the reason for the disproportionate emphasis on ecommerce.  The ‘easy to understand’ monetisation model of ecommerce describes why so many investments are made in ecommerce. Some of the amazing internet companies like Google, Facebook, Youtube, Pinterest, Twitter, are all free and focus on social utility. To me, that is valuable. It makes me sad that not many companies in India are thinking about that.

MediaNama: Why do you think there is a huge emphasis on monetisation?

Madhava: There are structural problems in the VC market in India. The big problem in the Indian VC market is that a lot of VCs are sitting on large capital without any exists to point to. They are hoping to raise another fund after collecting their 2% on the capital without any success to point to. There is a strong push from VCs to monetise because that will hopefully help them give enough reasons to their limited partners on why these companies should raise more funding. Part of the reason is also timing. The internet has reached a critical user mass may be over the last 12-18 months. Enough time hasn’t been given to define user behaviour or what will thrive on the internet. Do you expect 100 million users to wake up and go looking to buy a pair of chappals online? It is not really a problem. But it is a problem when I’m a teenager who can’t find information on birth control. Going back to your question, I’m not indifferent to revenue. As a company, we have made a decision, that short term revenue is not important compared to building a brand and solution that makes sense for this market.

MediaNama:  Are you telling me that you have not monetised the web?

Madhava: We have grown in revenue every year. Monetisation might not be through our website but may be with a partner, a brand. If you are trying to connect with an audience especially with respect to a health topic, we have solutions that can help you. We have generated some valuable customer data but we won’t ever sell that.

Brand Engagments

MediaNama: Do you have partners over the web?

Madhava: Yes, we work with MSN, Yahoo. But we have also started working with brands. If you are trying to communicate your product, we can bring a great audience and help you target that audience in a very good way.

MediaNama: How does your brand partnership work?

Madhava: If you are a major brand with a health product. Let’s say you are trying to improve toothpaste sales. There is a very good chance that I can bring you far more targeted audience online than anybody else can.

Medianama: How do these brand partners target the audience through you?

Madhava: We experiment with ads to some level on Youtube. Buying a banner advertising is the lowest common denominator of what we can do. Many of our projects tend to be custom for a company. Brands can really understand the consumer’s pain points through us. Some of these services incorporate SMS while others incorporate video. But it is all focused around what the brand is trying to communicate.

Medianama: How does it work for brands who want to understand the problem of their audience through you?

Madhava: It’s like once you use a health care product like sanitary napkins, you use it for life because there is no option better than a that. We could look at a variety of products like this. We can help populate a micro-site with information, videos, provide direct traffic to the site even from the partners we work with and help people understand that it is a great product.