Hindu Group experiments with digital subscriptions

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States


The Hindu Group knows where they want to go but are still discovering how to get there. 

“I do believe we can do it and will acquire the capabilities, even if we don’t have it now,” Chief Executive Officer L.V. Navaneeth told INMA members.

Over the last 21 months, The Hindu has grown both its digital subscriptions and digital revenue.
Over the last 21 months, The Hindu has grown both its digital subscriptions and digital revenue.

He shared the current landscape in which The Hindu operates: In India, readership and circulation were stable pre-COVID. There was a healthy top-line contribution from advertising sales, yet limited reliability. India news publishers also have one of the lowest cover prices globally, causing a revenue risk on realisation.

“Ad revenue for many publishers in India is 80% plus,” Navaneeth said. This means high economic risks in expanding assets to enter new markets.

Digital demands spark growth

On the digital side, there is a growing demand for credible news. “Many Indians seem to have skipped the desktop stage and gone directly to mobile,” he said.

However, there is mass demand for what he called “ABCD” content — astrology, Bollywood, cricket, and devotion — which does not fit in well with The Hindu content model. Other publications have offered digital news for free until recently.

The Hindu is also experiencing a declining yield from programmatic ad sales.

“Because advertising drives the business, we are dependent,” Navaneeth said. “We want to keep the physical business but chase our digital dreams.”

He shared The Hindu’s digital aspirations:

  • Sustaining the business without compromising on its purpose.

  • Preserving past and present learning to serve as wisdom for the future.

  • Sharing worldview through the Indian prism to the global audience.

  • Getting buy-in from their audience to fund the value created for them.

“I believe that as interest in India increases — and hence, a worldview from an Indian perspective — this will be a worldview in years to come,” Navaneeth said.

Guiding principles

His team has developed a set of guiding principles to go along with, and achieve, these aspirations:

  • Attain a healthy mix of reader revenue versus ad revenue.

  • Use high-tech solutions to archive and refer to data.

  • Have a global ambition with reader revenue.

  • Offer best-in-class content, tech stack, design, UI, and UX.

“We have made some progress in each of these, but a lot of work needs to be done,” he said. “Digital news in India has been, for the most part, free. I believe we’ve given away too much, for too little, for too long. If we put a small price on ourselves, we can increase the price [gradually].”

Leading the way online

In 1995, The Hindu became the country’s first publication to launch an online version via its Web site. It started the digital business as an experiment, moving in small measures. The app for non-subscribers features ads, along with a CTA for subscriptions. The paid product is ad-free, and it also offers an e-paper. The paywall currently has a metre of 10 articles. 

“I personally believe metred paywall is the way to go because information should be democratised,” Navaneeth said. “People who are paying are helping to fund people who aren’t subscribers.”

He added that The Hindu’s journey into digital has been quite exciting: “The last 21 months have really been unique. We’ve seen a 2.5 increase in unique subscribers. Someone who buys a bundling item generally buys three or more products.”

India is a unique market, and the e-paper is extremely popular, he added: “They think the e-paper is a well-curated product. The demand for the e-paper is one-and-a-half times the demand for the Web site and apps.”

Today, 50% of The Hindu’s digital revenue today comes from subscriptions, and 50% from ad revenue.

Navaneeth shared his team’s learnings from digital subscriptions.

  • Think global, but act local.

  • Channel resources and efforts for the potential, not for the status quo.

  • Embed a customer-centric culture across the organisation.

  • Rapid decision-making: fail fast, learn fast, and move on.

  • Focus on retention as much as, or more than, acquisition.

  • Prioritise talent while keeping tech as the core part of the strategy.

  • Leverage relationships and transfer knowledge.

  • Proactively manage investments and team morale.

The Hindu has learned many new insights from its experiments with digital subscriptions.
The Hindu has learned many new insights from its experiments with digital subscriptions.

“Digital is largely an exploration of new frontiers, and one needs a culture of experimentation,” he said. “What’s worked for us is incremental investments. Move at speed, even though incrementally, because it gives you time to make big investments.”

About Shelley Seale

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