Network 18 Digital CEO Manish Maheshwari on how media businesses are keeping up with the 'feverish' pace of digital disruption in India

Manish Maheshwari, CEO Network 18 Digital: Content is being reimagined in India and government is acting as a catalyst through D

Media businesses all over the world are facing disruption from changing consumer habits and channel fragmentation but with the Indian Government putting investment into accelerating digital usage in society, for broadcasters like Network 18, transformation is essential to succeed.

Network 18 is one of India's biggest media conglomerates and Network 18 Digital is the digital wing. The Drum spoke with Network 18 Digital CEO Manish Maheshwari to discuss the Indian digital landscape.

How much do you think the Indian digital landscape has evolved?

Users are spending more and more time on their digital devices. Advertisers are noticing that and, consequently, advertising budgets are shifting to digital. Share of digital in total advertising budget is expected to grow from around 12-15% today to around 25% by 2020. Growth of digital advertising until 2020 is expected in the range of 30-35% CAGR.

Two major evolutions are particularly profound and worthy of being called out. The first is regional. The next 100 million users coming online are local language users. There has been a 10x growth in ‘local language’ searches over the past one and a half years due to increasing availability of Indic keyboards and keypads on smartphones. The highest India searches were for ‘News’, ‘Bollywood’, ‘Religion’, ‘Social Networking’, ‘Education’, and ‘Jobs’. More content is now available in regional languages across platforms and portals. Watch time for ‘Tamil’, ‘Telugu’, ‘Kannada’, and ‘Malayalam’ content on YouTube more than doubled in 2016. Some 30% of job portal users want to see content in local languages. Hindi content consumption on websites is growing 5x faster than English content. Over one third of search queries are coming from outside top 20 metros.

Our own News18.com property, which offers content in all major Indian languages, it has witnessed exponential growth over the last year. Today, it is the leading local language content site with highly popular sub-domains such as hindi.news18.com, urdu.news18.com, gujarati.news18.com and bengali.news18.com

The second is video. There has been a significant growth in consumption of videos online, with improving handset capabilities and the lowering of broadband tariffs. Users are watching instead of reading news and other content. some 32% of internet users view online videos to stay up-to-date with trends. There has also been a 54% growth in watch time for ‘technology’ content on YouTube; consumers are looking for reviews of latest mobile phones and laptops, with ‘Unboxing’ being a big trend. There has been a 210% growth in watch time for ‘Hindi news’ in the last year.

With our DNA in television production and broadcasting, we are very well-placed to capitalise on the growth in video consumption online. On all our major portals such as moneycontrol, Firstpost etc, we have added significant video content and we are seeing tremendous uptake.

Network18 launched a CricketNext app. Is sports investment a success for you?

These are early days for our CricketNext App. We are seeing a very encouraging uptake. During the ICC Champions Trophy, we had second highest number of users among all cricket properties. And we were barely a month old. I see tremendous potential in the sports realm as things start becoming digital end-to-end. There are some very interesting things you can do digitally such as layering on the social graph and enabling digital interactions on top of real-time updates and scores. In addition to advertising, some of these things can also be monetised through subscription.

In terms of innovation, how well has the Indian digital realm fared?

Innovation is happening at a frantic pace given the size and diversity of audience. The speed at which new users are getting added, particularly outside the metros and the growth in video consumption with the launch of Jio [low cost 4G network] is adding further to the feverish pace. Furthermore, Government is acting as a catalyst through its focused pro-digital policies such as Digital India and Startup India. What we are witnessing in India today has no parallel in any other country.

Content is getting re-imagined. Several players have emerged to create internet-first shows optimized for mobile, replacing longer linear programming optimized for TV. Publishers are connecting directly with their audience through OTT apps and social media. In terms of monetization, publishers are getting into branded content and native ads to diversify revenues beyond display advertising sales.

In our own properties, we are doing several innovations.

Moneycontrol is proud to be one of the first platforms in the country to be available on Facebook Messenger in a bot-sized package, allowing users to simply chat with Moneycontrol to get the latest updates on Indian stocks and market news. It was also lauded at Mobile World Congress for being the first to have an in-car app (installed in Jaguar). It recently won the award for the best mobile app for business at the GSMA Asia event in Shanghai.

Firstpost has continued its stellar performance with solidifying its presence as a quality digital news and opinion destination. Facebook recently lauded Firstpost as the only Indian example in a global case study on eight global publishers who have found great success with Facebook Live. Through innovative use of technology, Firstpost used the tool to cover the assembly elections live from five states. The coverage ran uninterrupted for four hours live, and engaged a total of 1 million users.

Any plans to expand Network18 globally?

At this time, we are focused on India. It is a big market and we have barely scratched the surface if you also include the local language users who are coming online for the first time. For international markets, we continue to be open to partnerships and alliances.

Will we see Network18 integrate AI/ VR/AR soon?

These are emerging areas and we are keeping a close eye on how they evolve and what potential applications emerge. These are early days but things may evolve quickly within a year or so. We continue to be excited with new things we may be able to do digitally with AR and VR. For example, we have been using 360 degree camera for our auto shows for digital shows on News18.com.

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