Update: A video of Gajwani’s talk is up on YouTube:

If Pepsico’s Shiv Singh’s presentation at AdTech pointed towards a growing trend of brands becoming digital publishers, and consumers not really caring who the content is being created by, the presentation by Satyan Gajwani, Director, Business Development, BCCL (the Times of India Group), explained how the media company is re-imagining its digital business to address media fragmentation online by putting consumer data at the core of its offerings.

Leading up to AdTech, Times Internet Ltd* (Indiatimes), the digital media business from the group, announced a spate of new initiatives – a social financial site called ET Speed, a weekly magazine called Tweek, and the integration of its music property Gaana.com with the Facebook News Feed. During his talk, Gajwani announced two more initiatives:

BoxTV, a Hulu like video content offering, something which is the video accompaniment to its music business Gaana.com. BoxTV will focus on providing super premium content to Indian consumers, and look to stream content across devices. “It’s a rich, premium experience – white space, broad graphics, in a way that we’re saying that the web is not really a cheap space. Evey individual clip and video can have rich metadata, each movie has clips associated with it. In the player itself, there is a lot of functionality, you have a lights on and lights off mode, and with subtitles. We’ve got a global language filter. No matter matter which page I’m on, so I can see the page in the language,” Gajwani said. The company hasn’t yet finalized a date for the launch.

– Times Points: essentially, the gamification of consumption across Indiatimes properties, with badges and loyalty points for usage: this helps upgrading casual users and passerby’s into registered users, and, according to Gajwani, “What excites me about this is that, we can extend a loyalty program off the Internet, to Times Now, Radio Mirchi. We’re not there yet, but to me this is a direction we’re going in.” Rewards for consumers could be including giving exclusive access to events etc.

During his talk, Gajwani spoke of several trends that are defining the company’s approach towards the otherwise apparently disparate product launches:

– Three things matter in entertainment consumption: storage on the cloud, which gives consumers access to million of songs and thousands of movies; discovery is via algorithms and especially recommendations, which are now at an unprecedented scale; and consumption across devices. In terms of consumption, smartphones are growing, but the Indian market is still very heavily web, laptop and PC based, and the problem with the mobile, tablet and the (potential) connected TV market is that there are too many platforms and a huge element of complexity with the fragmentation. “HTML5 is the one saving grace, it mimics what an app does, but it’s not there yet. As devices fragment, and there will be more fragmentation in India than any other market. Having that (HTML5) will be a crucial part of our success,” Gajwani said, explaining how the company implemented HTML5 for Gaana.com.

– Advertising moving to Engagement: “Because Gaana is about the web (but in a tablet format), we have had to become innovate about how we integrate advertising, beyond ad spots. One idea was, where Colgate was been able to take over the search button. If you think about where advertising is moving in terms of brand engagement, it’s less about what’s the spot and what’s the price. How do you we create engagement in a way that you’re happy with it?”

– Super Premium Video Content: “Indians love video. With 6.7% Internet penetration, we’re the fourth largest consumers of video, despite low bandwidth.” On the hierarchy of content being consumed, Gajwani said that “You have this huge influx of user generated content, then there is made for web content, and at the top end you have TV, movie and music clips. The way we’re looking at the world now is there is this fourth category called Super Premium Content, with domestic and International sports, a rich experience and movies movies.”

Alongwith the announcement of BoxTV, Gajwani mentioned that Season 3 of the Indian Premier League had 18 million viewers online, with 72 million pageviews, 30 minutes average time spent. The IPL was co-distributed with YouTube. This year, the company has a video scorecard, which allows viewers to see the main events in a match without leaving the page, and an IPL Battleground, allowing supporters to applaud their team and throw (virtual) tomatoes at opponents. Indiatimes has also worked with the NBA, English Premier League and the Commonwealth Games for premium content.

– Future Of Ecommerce & Offline Brands Going Online: Gajwani said that 2012, for e-commerce in India, will be about consolidation – a perform or die environment – and about building the supply chain. Indiatimes Shopping, once just an online marketplace with zero warehousing now has two, and plans to expand to eight warehouses by the end of the year. “Horizontals are big, but you’ll see niche verticals. The under-discussed story is of offline brands going online.” He added that partnering with brands for their official stores, like for Nokia in India, will be a key part of the strategy. Gajwani feels that the future of e-commerce is about linking offline shopping with online, providing new avenues for discovery online, and integrating content with commerce. He gave the example of a live stream of a fashion show, wherein users can purchase products with just the click of a button.

– How Technology Is Changing News Sites: “News consumption as an idea is moving across platforms. We’re focusing on trying to be faster: we put a quick headline on our website, make sure in 5 min that they’re across all devices, we look at what people are looking at, and start creating more content,” Gajwani said. Indiatimes is using heatmaps to design its pages, doing a lot of A/B testing to try different layouts for each story, and measuring data for better clickthrough rates, and better ad clickthrough rates. “The old days of gut-feel are over. The art is important but there is an element of science.”

The company is also personalizing the interface on the basis of source of access: “If you’re coming from search, you’re looking for something very different, and are a litte more of a transactional user, and there’s a little more advertising; while if you’re coming from ToI.com, you’re looking for different stories, so the page has more related news,” he said, adding that they’re also looking at geographical personalization, with international users more interested in sports and entertianment, while those from India looking for local news and lifestyle. “The holy grail is about what personalizing to each users needs, and we have the luxury of knowing that,” Gajwani said.

– Social by design, Channel Strategy: “We have a lot of opinionated readers – a million comments a month, 7 million likes and dislikes, and we’ve done a couple of things more interesting. We launched a newspaper called the speaking tree, and looking at the web product around that, we tried to create it as a community centered around spirituality. Speakingtree.com was about engaging with spiritual masters, watching live video satsangs, meaningful blogging and activity from our readers. What’s the eventual long term vision, is less than a master follower plan, and let the community take over.” Gajwani said that this is an example of a product that is social by design – there’s a need to integrate a social experience into the products from the beginning – and they extended that philosophy to the launch of ET Speed (our review here). He also pointed towards a channel strategy, and the launch of multiple verticals  from Indiatimes – luxury, zigwheels, technoholik**, and that Indiatimes.com too is morphing into a site that has more opinion, has edgier content.

– Challenges of Transitioning To Digital: “The challenge that every media company faces is with transition: we have web centric teams, with print supplements, but we try and drive it with web centric journalists and web first, who are two-way with their conversations, and the long gterm goal is to get them to expose others to it. It is something that we are thinking about, and to be fair, one of the perks in India is that we get to see what is happening around the world. Our journalists are more receptive towards adapting.”

Quick Take

Gajwani strung all these initiatives together by saying that it is about knowing the customer: intelligence on customers – what music he is listening to, videos he is watching or news he is reading – which allows the company to recommend what to consume next, and build a more intelligent system around advertising, and provide commerce recommendations. This is where Times Points also comes into the picture, tracking consumption habits across the Indiatimes ecosystem, and also another product from the company that appears to be on the backburner – 5888 follow – which could help identify user interests and increase consumption. What the company also needs to do is implement a single sign on across its properties – and that also includes its classifieds business currently under Times Business Solutions.

This appears to be a direction that most digital businesses will have to take: look at the businesses that Google and Facebook have built around collecting user information. Why should media businesses be any different?

*Disclosure: Times Internet Ltd is an advertiser with MediaNama
** Technoholik.com covers segments similar to MediaNama, hence competes with us.