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by Shyam Somanadh

Guest PostIndian media has had the good fortune of being in a market reality that is different from the ones we see in the west. Empowered by our third world status, we have a market that is still far from being saturated and playing on potential than actuals, we have had it good for a while now. The past five years has been a time of extreme prosperity in the segment, with everyone and their uncle (or aunt) starting a publication or a television channel because the uncle (or aunt) next-door has one.

Quite a few of these entities were built on the ‘invest-now-reap-the-benefits-later’ school of thought that is the cornerstone of a bullish market. When the industry as a whole is trending upwards in its vitals, almost everyone wants in on a piece of the action. Losses are glossed over, since at least some money is coming in and ‘it is just a matter of time’ before the huge chunk of change comes in. Which is all fine when the going is good. Trouble is that the going is not that good anymore.

Internet

If there is one thing that has marked the eight-plus years that I have had the good fortune of being a part of this industry, it is the perpetual promise of a better and bigger tomorrow. The number of times you hear “when the market opens up” at any industry event is always greater than the sightings of companies actually having a clue about what they are trying to accomplish in the long run. I have written at length on this topic before, so i won’t subject you to more of the same torture and we’ll look at the possible solutions:

1) Cut content creation costs: Let us face it, 80% of content across the majority of the media websites are pretty much the same. The troubling aspect of that equation is that every year it gets more expensive to produce this content, while the returns on it decreases every year. With the advent of the new traffic brokers like Google, Digg, Fark and a multitude of other aggregation points, it is extremely important to get the outlay of effort (between original and non-original content) right.

Content in this age and time is very much like data in consumer internet these days – not all of it is created equal, nor should it be treated equally. The takeaway from this being that you cannot put equal amounts of effort across your content segments. Content needs to be treated in accordance with the returns you receive on it. Well-performing content does not add much to existing numbers when you work on the quality side of it. You need to work the quantity side on those to make a difference.

Ill-performing content needs to be kicked out of the system. Any content created within the organization costs money, time and effort to produce. If you do not aggressively extract good returns on that effort it is easy to lose your way and wind up doing stories that nobody reads either directly or through the search engines. This content is as good as still-born, showing up only as flab in annual reviews, much like loan officers approving loans to people with bad credit records, just to make up numbers.

Wages are the other part of the equation. Would you really want to get your highly-paid workforce to better content segments that are already doing well or would you want them to work on content segments that are doing badly? It is a simple question that addresses a very complicated problem. But answering it right will make the difference between struggling to grow at lower costs and exhibiting steady growth at lower costs in the days to come.

2) Set clear RoI for Traffic Acquisition Costs: TAC is a term that a lot of people in the content side of the business have not had to deal with till recently. Unlike the early times, content discovery is not a brand-oriented process anymore. It involves a variety of sources like SEM, organic search traffic, content syndication, widgets and aggregation sites. Of the lot, other than organic search traffic and link backs, the rest involve cash outflow, be it in terms of real cash or virtual by means of barters, but there is always a cost involved in it.

As is the case with content creation, traffic acquisition efforts too can’t be painted with the same brush. You need to target each activity and each campaign according to the partner site and the target demographics. One-size-fits-all here will make it incredibly difficult to measure these efforts with any credibility or dependability.

3) Engage your users better: Traffic on media properties is event-driven. Deaths, victories and other newsworthy events always produce a spike in traffic. On the flip side, rewards on uneventful days are not often commensurate with the effort that goes into producing content. Linking this up with (1), the fact is that creating additional content to deal with this uneventfulness is a model that just won’t scale. Even with extremely cheap cost of content production you will soon wind up with an assembly line of workers mindlessly producing content.

One way out of this quagmire is to engage the users better. Indian media, quite like its counterparts in the rest of the world, has been guilty of dealing with its users as an afterthought. The end result is half-baked and half-hearted efforts to involve, and, to an extent, indulge the users who participate in your content. A well-engaged user base can easily offset the lack of events on a dull a day and push you over previous highs on a good day. But it takes long-term nurturing and concerted effort.

4) Learn how to read data: You would be surprised to know how little knowledge there is in the industry regarding audience or product segmentation. While most online products present a single front, there is always multiple segments and sub-segements to each product. Not every part of a product works or contributes equally to the end result in terms of the final performance. Some components may take more man hours to create, while others may take less. The returns on such efforts are not always proportional.

Learning to read and make sense of raw data is a skill and worthwhile investment. While there is always the risk of reading exactly what you want to read, or to mistake the top percentile spikes (black swans arising from confirmation bias, as Taleb would have said) for an actual and sustainable trend, when you get neck-deep in numbers, the total neglect of numbers too can lead to significant problems. The average of an aggregate and the average of an aggregate of averages are two different things and it really helps if you know the difference between the two.

5) Know your technology: The state of technical knowhow within Indian internet companies is not much to write home about. Technology teams are ghettoes that see little interaction with the outside world and senior management’s grasp of technology almost never goes beyond Flash, Ajax and XML (hint: those are tools and not products by themselves). There are a million ways in which a particular thing can be accomplished on the internet, all key stakeholders in the organization need to know why one option works better than the other before critical decisions are made.

Even as it has gotten cheaper to bootstrap in terms of technology, at the higher end it is still quite a costly affair to run. Getting invested too deeply and heavily into a platform can have long term effects that could potentially compromise your ability to grow and diversify in sustainable manner. Getting invested in the wrong platform (just because ‘it can be done,’ which is a different cuppa from ‘it can be done for n*20 million at the same cost levels) and the team to support it is a mistake that is made way too often. And we are not even counting the snake oil vendors in the equation.

6) Know your audience: We are also often guilty of not knowing why their products fail, but even worse is the fact that we don’t know why some of our products succeed. Ignorance of what you are doing right is something that stands in the way of your going forward a lot more than ignorance of what you are doing wrong. Having that knowledge allows you to know the limits of horizontal and vertical spread that you can accomplish and aim for.

© Shyam Somanadh, Principal Architect, Web18. Reproduced with permission from Fatalerror.in. Views expressed in this article are the authors, and not representative of his employer, or Mixed Bag Media.