Nation Media Group expands audience, influence with annual event

By Jessica Spiegel

INMA

Portland, Oregon, United States

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Building a digital brand isn’t solely about technology.

During the two-day INMA Africa News Summit, sponsored by the Google News Initiative, Max Okeyo, head of strategy and innovation at Kenya’s Nation Media Group, shared how NMG has used an annual live event to help build their digital brand and strengthen their audience.

When NMG was founded in 1959, Okeyo said the agenda was focused on “social justice, social impact,” and giving voice to the voiceless. It’s grown to become the biggest independent media house in East and Central Africa, with printed newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda. NMG also has a massive digital footprint, with a reach of about 50 million across the different brands.

Transformation opportunities and challenges

As with many news publishers today, NMG has been forced to reevaluate its business model in an ever-changing media landscape, which Okeyo said has spurred the company to transform how it operates. He described several factors they take into consideration as part of this transformation.

Max Okeyo, head of strategy and innovation at Nation Media Group, explained the media company's market footprint.
Max Okeyo, head of strategy and innovation at Nation Media Group, explained the media company's market footprint.

These factors include new revenue stream options like subscriptions through reader revenue, advertising, opportunities for marketplaces, data monetisation along the value chain, and events that allow for growth of audiences and increasing opportunities for partnerships and collaboratins.

There are challenges, as well, which Okeyo called the “wake of a thousand stings” — things like a need to play catch-up due to underinvestment in consumer data and technology, disruptive technologies, an increasingly discerning audience, and a desire to balance partnership with and regulation of Big Tech.

“They’re eating our lunch,” he quipped, “and dinner, and probably breakfast.”

Collaborations are critical going forward, Okeyo said: “Media companies will not survive on our own. We must identify strategic partnerships within our space to help engage new audiences and encourage loyalty in our existing audience.”

Digital brand built on legacy

With circulation numbers declining “irreversibly” since 2013, NMG redefined themselves as a “content company that builds on the legacy of our brand” to create a new digital brand that’s truly pan-African — Nation Africa

The company relies on its history but moves toward its future with its Nation Africa brand.
The company relies on its history but moves toward its future with its Nation Africa brand.

Okeyo acknowledged incremental approaches to business model transformation aren’t necessarily going to keep pace with the rate of change, which he said means “bold and confident leadership becomes much more critical.”

Toward that end, in an effort to “engage consumers more effectively with new experiences, we must not only focus on the highest levels of creativity but also make this commitment to connecting the dots for the consumer through data and technology.”

The opportunities NMG identified to expand their footprint across the continent and also optimise revenue include a subscription model for premium digital content, a deeper understanding of audience segmentation to increase value for advertisers, and a greater investment in events to become a truly Pan-African brand.

“Events help us build a following, a culture, a community that believes in us and our cause,” Okeyo explained, “because it’s not just about money — it’s about social impact, about creating new value with customers beyond the commercial elements.”

Kusi Ideas Festival

NMG launched the first Kusi Ideas Festival in 2019, on the 60th anniversary of its founding, as a “pan-African ideas transaction market” to capitalise on the opportunities and innovations available to Africa. The event received a first-place award in the INMA Global Media Awards this year.

The Kusi Ideas Festival started in 2019 and continues to draw a large audience.
The Kusi Ideas Festival started in 2019 and continues to draw a large audience.

Okeyo explained the word “kusi” is from the Swahili word that means “south” and refers to the southerly trade wind that blow over the Indian Ocean, enabling trade between Africa and Asia. Beyond trade, over the centuries, Kusi and other trade winds made possible cultural, intellectual, and technological exchanges, and considerably shaped the history of the nations on the east side of Africa, its hinterland, and the wider Indian Ocean rim.

He described Kusi as an “issue-related forum” with these objectives:

  • To strengthen the NMG brand.

  • To build strong relationships with clients and audiences we might not otherwise reach, such as policy makers, intergovernmental organisations, and NGOs.

  • To create alternative revenue streams, including from new advertisers that want to be part of the event.

The annual event brings together thought leaders to address issues that impact the whole continent of Africa, Okeyo said, including presidents and former presidents. Discussions cover topics like healthcare, climate change, education, governance, and security, and what comes out of each event are called “moonshots.” 

The Kusi Ideas Festival includes thought leadership discussions, leading to "moonshot" ideas for moving the continent forward.
The Kusi Ideas Festival includes thought leadership discussions, leading to "moonshot" ideas for moving the continent forward.

After one Kusi, for example, a moonshot identified that: “Africa needs a post-COVID Marshall Plan, as was the case in Europe at the end of World War II, helping the continent recover from the devastation of war. In our case, we would need a Marshall Plan that recognizes SMEs and the informal sector, digital gaps, inequality and responsibilities to the environment.”

Metrics and takeaways

Kusi demonstrates “there are opportunities within the digital space” for audience building, even though it’s a physical event, Okeyo said. Then, of course, those digital opportunities can be monetised.

“We create new content value by building personalised ecosystems” for the audience, Okeyo said. Not only do they drive value through advertising, as they’ve traditionally done, they also build marketplace opportunities for suppliers to connect with customers. And the more they’re able to engage audiences in the long-term, the more data they can gather — which also creates monetisation opportunities in the future.

Since the inaugural event, there have been nearly 3,000 in-person attendees and 31,000 virtual attendees. Okeyo said those numbers have grown each year. He also said that the conversion rate for attendees becoming consumers of NMG products is about 5%-7% currently, including both Kusi and the local events they do.

“That’s not bad in the digital space,” he said, “but we can grow it.” 

Complete coverage of the two-day summit can be found here. 

About Jessica Spiegel

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