A few weeks ago, Indiatimes* quietly rolled out two new social features, to increase engagement on its properties: MyTimes and TimesRewards.

On MyTimes

MyTimes is a profile page for each user, that lists their activity on the Times of India online, and emulates a social network by sharing activity feeds from other readers. It integrates with Facebook and Twitter, allowing users to share activity feeds, and more interestingly, to follow specific topics. The integration of topics to follow, is particularly interesting, and something I feel I am most likely to use.

MyTimes feeds into three tendencies that social networks currently cater to – firstly, voyeurism, allowing us to see what others in our network are doing, and in this case, reading. Facebook has done the same with publications creating social readers. Secondly, the fear of missing out, and not being on top of what is going on, and what people are talking about, something which twitter trends address.

Thirdly, the fear of not being aware of the latest topics that you’re believed to have expertise in, or knowledge about, which is something that social networks can’t address. With users being inundated with information, MyTimes appears to create a page that allows you to take a slightly more organized approach to reading. This is a role which is also played by RSS feed readers, with access to a wide variety of resources, and I wonder if either of the two things can be done by Times: firstly, the ability to allow readers to integrate external RSS feeds, and secondly, an application that allows discovery of news while on the move.

If you see this as a competition for news discovery between social networks and publications – they complement, but also compete for both, the user’s time and advertiser’s spends –  this is perhaps a step to get readers to spend a little more time discovering news on Times of India owned properties, as opposed to discovering content from external sites on social networks. While it’s not that people will stop using social networks because MyTimes exists, the time-spend might shift a little because of better discovery of news. No “trending topics in your network” on MyTimes yet, though.

On Times Rewards

What I found more interesting, is the launch of TimesRewards, a loyalty program which essentially leads to the gamification of a reader’s interaction with a news site: you get points for reading, sharing, commenting, connecting, frequently reading, and being recommended, among other things. It encourages readers to interact more with other readers, share TimesOfIndia content, and while it’s not clear how a user might benefit from this, badges are source of bragging rights in communities.

Note that the TimesRewards page mentions that “Points accrued on the Times Rewards program will soon be redeemable against exclusive deals on the Times network.”  Speaking with MediaNama, Indiatimes CEO Satyan Gajwani said that “The idea will be- as we get a better understanding of users, we’ll get them to actively engage. Airlines have money to give back to users, but here, when you read an article, we can’t give rewards on a scalable basis. As we understand our users better, we can try and activate them more. Right now we’re trying to make sure the program works.”

We wonder if this works better with advertising – would advertisers want to target their advertising to particularly influential users, and does this program allow the TimesofIndia.com to identify more influential users on their network? Gajwani doesn’t think that advertisers really care if users are loyal or not, and that right now the focus is more on encouraging engagement. “You’ve got very different user sets who are active, and how do you get more active people to be even more active, and also get less active users to increase activity? There’s inherent value in more engaged users.”

On rewards, Gajwani says that for most people, badges are sufficient, but with time, they will look at more tangible rewards, giving them access to an event, tickets, even just thank you mails. They could get some of the users to be content creators. “The only difference between the data we get now and what we used to get three months ago, is that we used to look at averages of data for engagement over a time period. This now helps us to understand that we have different types of users, and different engagement metrics.” It’s worth noting that the points aren’t permanent, and for lack of activity, users can lose points. This helps make the consumption of content more addictive.

At present, TimesRewards is integrated with Times of India online and Times Blogs, but “One of the fundamental reasons to integrate Economic Times.com, Gaana, Box TV and others, is that there are economies of scale in a loyalty system, and more the touch points, the more compelling it becomes. There’s an economies of scale which is very hard for others to emulate.” At present, the Times Internet group of properties lack a single sign on, and Gajwani says that they will be careful about how they roll out TimesRewards and MyTimes across group properties, because this is just the beginning, and the whole model is being tweaked.

It’ll be particularly interesting to see where Times Rewards goes from here.

Opportunities

– Branded badges: there are possibilities of contests and brand related badges that the winners can sport for a period of time. For example, a Pepsi badge for someone who wins a contest related to Cricket. It allows the brand to increase visibility, and gives the user bragging rights.
– Offline Integration: Perhaps each key story in the Times Of India newspapers could come with its own code, which when messaged to 58888 could lead to the story being shared with the user’s linked social network. This could help the publication identify users who buy or read the print publication, and at the same time, allows for the sharing of content. At present, it’s not very easy to locate online, an article you’ve seen in print.
– Gaana and BoxTV integration with concerts and TV shows: special offers to engaged readers to attend concerts or visit the sets of certain shows, as part of a promotional campaign.
– Highlighted comments: for some of the more evolved commenters, for example, for those with the WordSmith badge.

Note: This conversation took place before Gajwani was announced as the CEO of Indiatimes

Disclosure: Indiatimes is an advertiser with MediaNama