In the current landscape of unpredictability, news media publishers are looking for comprehensive solutions that translate into real revenue for their businesses.
Times Internet has developed a publishing and monetisation platform in-house that ensures seamless ad and content rendering while providing significant speed and viewability. This has resulted in lower operating costs along with increased revenue and engagement.
So how did they do it?
In a live Webinar on Thursday, INMA members heard from Arjun Satya, co-founder of M360 Times Internet, as he laid out the company’s strategy for digital publishing and its ecosystem for driving ads and monetisation.
Times Internet is the third largest digital platform in India, second only behind Google and Facebook.
“We had to lay down a foundation in-house for what kinds of tools and technology we would have to build to cater to such tremendous traffic,” Satya told the INMA audience. At the same time, the team had to look for an effective monetisation strategy.
Evolution of the platform
The development of the Times Internet platform evolved through three phases:
- Phase one, 2015: third-party vendors to in-house ad platform.
- Phase two, 2017: content and ads rendering.
- Phase three, 2020: turnkey platform and beyond.
The idea for the platform germinated due to the dwindling publisher ad share.
“Small publishers were losing — the intermediate ad networks also,” Satya said. “A bunch of publishers were getting commodotised. A lot of spend by advertisers was not reaching the publishers because in the entire ad supply chain, every player in between had a share of what they were doing.”
Eventually, the publishers were getting less and less of each advertising dollar spent.
That led to Times Internet beginning to build its ad and content platform. The company started with building an in-house data management platform (DMP), and the first step of that was understanding their users.
To that end, the team created a detailed user behaviour graph that was then easy to use for optimisation across the Web site for both advertising and content.
“First we have to understand what kind of users are coming across our network — their interests, behaviours, demographics,” Satya said.
That user graph led to phase one of the initiative in 2015. The team understood walled gardens such as Facebook were thriving because they all had their own ad tech stack built atop their publishing platforms.
“So we understood that we had to build a full-scale ad tech stack tailored to Times Internet,” Satya said.
The company also needed an optimisation engine for the ad campaigns, an ad server, mediation platform, billing automation, data exchange, self-serve, pricing and business intelligence, and marketing tools. This needed the ability to create custom and look-alike audiences and work across different devices.
There were three major benefits to building their own ad tech stack, Satya said:
- Publisher ownership of data and inventory.
- Direct relationships with advertisers and agencies.
- Publisher has the “first look” at its own inventory.
“The premise behind this is to keep us in the driver’s seat of our monetisation,” Satya explained.
By 2016, however, the team realised walled gardens were again growing, with a strong underlying technology that was driving personalisation and, in turn, user engagement. Publisher traffic was dependent on these walled gardens, and — particularly with Facebook’s changing News Feed algorithms — this resulted in dropping traffic.
For Times Internet, the company knew this meant it would have to go above and beyond just focusing on its advertising revenue, but also on content and increasing reach and user engagement.
Content + ads personalisation engine
This led to the investment in creating a proprietary, in-house content-plus-ads personalisation engine, which brought in signals from all possible channels with the objective of increasing revenue and user engagement.
“The underlying premise was that if we are trying to give something like a feed experience, we need to have a personalisation engine,” Satya said — particularly important in the mobile environment.
This feed experience would use editorial rules and personalisation to render a user experience that combined content and advertising in a seamless view. This required both a science and an art, Satya explained.
“While you are trying to optimise for different marketing objectives, the high-level look and feel of the platform should not go haywire.”
With both editorial and advertising working in tandem on this dynamic feed, the personalisation was giving a boost to areas like Google Analytics, while editorial rules were keeping check on content and product positioning.
The team does a lot of A/B testing, across categories and in both English and Hindi. This has worked very well for Times Internet. In one example called NewsPoint, the team ran one test that was editorial rules driven against another that was static and not dynamic.
“Once we deployed that we saw drastic improvement in very important Google Analytics metrics,” Satya said. These included metrics such as screenviews per user and time spent per user.
“We saw that because the platform was learning about the user and about the content continuously, the graph was always upward trending. The benefit was so much that we deployed it across the app.”
Benefits, challenges, and results
Clearly, building this platform had benefits for Times Internet, but Satya explained that there are several challenges as well:
- Not all publishers have the resources to develop an in-house, all-encompassing platform.
- Tech advancements are always happening on all fronts of digital publishing.
- New business models are always evolving that require evaluation, from podcasts and newsletters to micro-payments and paywalls.
Those challenges led to the creation of M360 at Times Internet, which would be a turnkey platform for all its publishing needs. M360 can:
- Create: headless CMS, across devices and media formats, AMP/FBIA/PWA, premium news wires, newsletters, audience segmentation.
- Optimise: reduced IT costs, better site performance, ad viewability, overall page eRPM, video ads rendering, user engagement and retention.
- Grow: content promotion, rich media ads, push notifications, Google Ad Manager 360, mediation engine, paywalls, and programmatic.
“Having everything in this platform definitely improved all the things that are very important for any digital publisher out there,” Satya said.
This is especially important in 2020, which has been a rough year for everyone. IT costs are reduced, and everything is served from a single platform which leads to drastic improvement in Web site performance.
Not only were the costs reduced, but revenue increased. Times Internet saw more control over revenue and fewer third-party vendor costs.
“The platform is well-integrated and covers all factions of the business,” Satya said. Essentially, this gives Times Internet a 360-degree view of its business at all times, in which the entire organisation can log in via this one platform.
Direct ads are the way to go in terms of keeping a larger share of ad revenue, he added, particularly if they are served in engaging formats.
“We have very interesting ad formats, and we’re constantly evolving and iterating in terms of what’s new out there and how to resonate best with your audience. Then we incorporate that particular ad format as part of the platform ecosystem.”
Through just a few clicks, that ad format campaign can be deployed across the business. Engaging content is next to non-intrusive ads, which leads to better ad viewability and performance.
“That is a very strong value proposition,” Satya said.
Web site performance is also drastically improved. Times Internet saw a meteoric rise in page views at 260%, as well as a 20% lift in average time spent on a page. Overall, there was improvement in every critical Google Analytics metric.
The platform is able to handle at a very large scale, with 550 million Times Internet users per month, 20 billion impressions, and in 14 languages. The publisher also has a lot of readers outside India with the Indian diaspora, and it handles that, Satya said.
“This kind of platform gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of what should be the content, what should be the ad, and test out much more effectively, while have a direct relationship with top advertisers and top agencies.”