The Hindu shares 5 key learnings from its digital subscription business model

By Jessica Spiegel


Portland, Oregon, United States


With so much news available these days for free, convincing readers to pay for subscriptions can be challenging — but it’s not impossible. L.V. Navaneeth, CEO of The Hindu, shared insights from their journey toward subscriptions being at the centre of their business model.

At the INMA News Media Subscription Summit in February of 2022, Navaneeth said The Hindu presented its digital aspirations and the guiding principles to achieve them. Prioritising digital subscription growth plays a key role in accomplishing most of those goals.

“We’ve been consistent in terms of where we want to go,” he said during the recent INMA South Asia News Media Summit, “but getting there is completely different. That requires course corrections” along the way.

L.V. Navaneeth, CEO of The Hindu, presenting at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in February 2022 about the company's digital strategy.
L.V. Navaneeth, CEO of The Hindu, presenting at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in February 2022 about the company's digital strategy.

Success factors and the way forward

Navaneeth shared five “key learnings” and the practices The Hindu Group has in place to support them.

For instance, THG’s north star goal about subscribers, and monthly average users is the vision that drives the entire organisation. A vision that’s about subscribers “can’t be held just in the subscription department,” he said; it must be something every department is invested in.

The Hindu Group shared five success factors of its digital strategy.
The Hindu Group shared five success factors of its digital strategy.

“If I wake up anyone on our teams in the middle of the night and ask what the North Star goal is,” Navaneeth quipped, “nine out of 10 would be able to tell me.”

The vision must be backed “with investment and energy disproportionate to the current size of the business,” he said. Even if print is still the largest part of the business, it’s critical to invest heavily in digital growth or “building up the digital side of the business won’t be possible.”

Another key is to “stick to brand value, irrespective of the medium,” Navaneeth said. It may be “tempting to have different value propositions” for print than for digital, but having a single value proposition helps to build a business around digital subscriptions.

It’s also important to constantly revisit your guiding principles on insourcing vs. outsourcing and update them as needed, which leads into what he said is the “single most important thing” for THG: building a culture of experimentation.

“We’ve run a newspaper for 145 years,” he said. “We know how to do that. But when we’re expanding into a digital business, it’s important to encourage experimentation at all levels. Organisations may have a hierarchy, but ideas do not — good ideas can come from anywhere.”

The very nature of experiments means that sometimes things go wrong. But Navaneeth said when that happens he never asks, “Who did this?” Instead, he asks, “What was the set of hypotheses on which we based this experiment? Can we do better at gathering data to build those hypotheses?” This, he said, gives teams the freedom to “experiment without fear.”

Mistakes to avoid

On the topic of things going wrong, Navaneeth shared four “missed opportunities” THG has run into, hoping others could “make different mistakes and share your learnings from those.

“We should all be building a robust subscription model, and anything we can share with one another helps all of us.”

The Hindu Group shared four of the missed opportunities from its digital strategy.
The Hindu Group shared four of the missed opportunities from its digital strategy.

One of the missed opportunities was paying far more attention on acquiring subscribers than retaining them, which leads to “running harder to stay in the same place,” he said, “or even to fall behind,” since the cost of acquisition is so much higher than the cost of retention. By improving subscriber retention, you end up with more money to do other things including acquiring new subscribers. At THG, there are now some teams that are focused solely on retention.

Another mistake Navaneeth shared was overinvesting in in-house instead of taking advantage of faster outsourcing solutions, which led to slower digital growth compared to THG’s peers. To address this, they now revisit and revise their tech plan regularly to stay up to date with a rapidly changing landscape.

By contrast, THG’s lack of an in-house data structure to give them insight into their audience led to the creation of an in-house data team concentrated on user, business, and content analytics needs. 

Finally, a “high dependency on retail subscriptions” exposed THG to higher risks. To mitigate those risks, they’ve redirected some resources to more “high-value and sustainable sources of income” like B2B digital subscriptions. Selling products to specific organisations and institutions helps diversify subscription revenue streams.

Roadblocks and mitigation plans

Even when missed opportunities are identified, there can still be roadblocks to success. Navaneeth outlined four of the roadblocks facing THG and the news publishing industry — plus mitigation measures for each.

The roadblocks The Hindu Group faced included the high cost of scaling content.
The roadblocks The Hindu Group faced included the high cost of scaling content.

1. High cost of scaling content: Increasing the number of articles is expensive, and the revenue that comes in as a result may not be commensurate with the expenditure. Instead of just trying to produce more content, Navaneeth said, the strategic focus should be on high quality content.

While lots of lower quality content “would get you more eyeballs, and might help the advertising business, it won’t help with the subscription business.”

It’s about depth vs. width, he added, about “developing depth in the areas readers are willing to pay for.”

2. Lower attention span of readers due to information overload: Readers are inundated with multiple forms of digital content today, and reading newspapers has gone out of fashion among younger audiences, Navaneeth said. Campaigns to make reading news “fashionable and essential for holistic individual development” can be helpful to combat this.

“There’s great merit in bringing home the value of curation,” he said. “Lots of media to choose from means lots of noise. Many readers trust news publishers to curate content for them.

“It’s the job of the industry to educate readers.”

3. Resistance from readers to pay for online content: Online content has been available for free for so long that audiences today baulk at the idea of paying for a news subscription.

“We have ourselves to blame for this,” Navaneeth said. “As an industry, we’ve been giving away too much for too little for too long.”

One way to deal with this issue is to improve and highlight content that is distinct and exclusive for subscribers, such as premium content or benefits. The question to ask, he said, is “to what percentage of the audience does a piece of content appeal, and to what extent?”

If 100% of the population only cares about something at a 20% level, he continued, they probably won’t pay for it. But if 20% of the population cares about something at a 100% level, they’re much more likely to.

4. Stagnant prices for digital ads: Oversupply for advertisers, Navaneeth said, has led to stagnant ad prices, which is one of the reasons THG believes their future is more subscriber revenue.

To help deal with stagnant ad prices, though, he suggested “limiting focus to fewer strategic partners with symbiotic relationships and operating with premium placements at high prices.”

About Jessica Spiegel

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