Times of India: let’s grow the market together

Talk with India media executives is always instructive and fascinating. Few weeks ago at the INMA Congress in Beverly Hills, I sat down with Bhaskar Das executive president of the Times of India in charge of marketing.

The Times of India is the largest English language newspaper in the world: 4m copies for 16 editions. Revenue of Times Group is about $1bn, 85% from print, mostly the TOI. The company is extremely profitable with a net margin above 30%. The Times of India serves a huge market: 1.2 billion people, approximately 220m literate in Hindi, and only 28m English readers. Of the latter fast growing segment, the TOI manages to capture 4m readers. Combined with the vitality of the Indian economy (around 8% GDP growth), the Times Group is adding a nice 25% to its core business each year. Times Group is also the publishers of the main business broadsheet, the Economic Times.

Unsurprisingly, advertising provides most of the revenue. In fact, the price of the Times of India is set just above the value of scrap paper, it ranges from 1 to 3 rupees (1.2 to 4 cents). Therefore, increasing the revenue by raising street price doesn’t make sense. Instead, the real upside lies in expanding the pool of advertisers. A few years ago, the executives of the family-controlled TOI came up with an original idea: “the private treaties”.

The principle is simple and clear: the TOI spots good and growing businesses, and delivers the following pitch: “You need to grow your business, to impose your brand, to expand your reach. Here we are, the Times Group, with our huge newspaper, TV and radio stations, internet sites, outdoors display. Here is the deal: we take a 1% to 15% equity stake in your company, in exchange, we sign an advertising deal at a discounted rate, and you have access to our media system”. As we say in French, it is “fromage et dessert” for Bennett Coleman & Company Ltd, the family owned mothership of the Times Group. Not only it increases its advertising revenue with a predictable stream of money (competitors of enrolled advertisers are also prompt to react), but also it is building quite a portfolio of roughly 200 small to medium size companies. The amount invested and the current values are not exactly known. The Indian business paper Mint (a JV with the Wall Street Journal) is estimating the value of BCCL’s private treaties assets to about $1bn for an initial investment of about $300m. That would make the Times of India one of the largest private investor of the country. As if this was not enough, Times Group announced this Saturday the acquisition of Virgin Radio UK for GBP 53m. In a way, the revenge of the former colony.

User experience — Microsoft Buying Love

Silicon Valley VC-dom is having a grand time watching Microsoft. It always did, in fear some time, with hope the Bill Gates would buy ingenious or annoying startups at other moments, always with respect for the giant’s impact on the high-tech industry.

Lately, the respect has turned into puzzlement. Because of, to simplify, Google and Vista. Google has exposed Microsoft’s inability to have any significant impact on search, advertising and, more generally, Cloud computing.

Vista surprised everyone, myself included, by how immature and uninteresting it is. To the point where Ballmer had to call it a “work in progress” — this five years after the previous version, Windows XP. So immature that many large organizations have decided against upgrading and launched a campaign to “save XP”, to force Microsoft to keep it available indefinitely. The market reaction to the new 2007 version of Office has been similar: Why bother?

I’ll hasten to say Microsoft is still hugely profitable: just Office made it more money in one quarter than Google in an entire year. But, last week, puzzlement turned into something else: a mixture of incredulity and worry. Is this all Microsoft has to offer to take Google down from its number one position?

“Microsoft is going to pay us to search!” said many stories. Not quite. It’s more complicated. When I search for a Nikon lens in Microsoft’s new Live Search site, I get offers from selected merchants. When I buy, Microsoft gives me a small percentage of the purchase price, 2% to 4%. So, I set up the Microsoft rebate money to go to my PayPal account and off I go, looking for the Nikon 85 mm 1.4 lens of my dreams. (Don’t go to Livesearch.com, that’s another company, they’re probably holding out for a better offer from Redmond.) For a lens worth about $1,000, live.com gets me 6 stores with discounts in the 2% to 4% range. Out of curiosity, I try Goggle. In one instance, the same merchant, B&H, offers the same lens for less than on live.com, in an “imported” version. And when I do research on the other Microsoft-offered merchants I won’t name here, I see slightly lower prices. But… a bit of research shows the sellers are labeled as crooks or worse by dissatisfied customers. Google also reminds me Amazon offers the lens for $999, free two-day shipping and no doubt about integrity. I try another search, for an inexpensive camera this time. The results are similar: the lowest price is from a company with an ugly reputation (and recently sold to another entity). For $10 more, you buy from Amazon. No complication, no paying one price and getting the discount later from Microsoft.

Let’s review. Microsoft Live Search: not really cheaper, not safer, not simpler.
Speaking of safety, it is fair to point out that some of the merchants featured on the right-side of the Google results page are known bait-and-switch artists. Also, several “shopping engines” on the same list are honey traps working for the scammers just mentioned. The good news is two minutes of googling gets you plenty of data on these schemes. Caveat emptor.
The other news from Microsoft is Per Action pricing. The advertiser only pays if the customer buys, downloads, makes a reservation. Much better than Per Click pricing, no? No. Merchants continuously evolve statistics measuring the conversion of clicks into action. In other words: How many clicks to get an action, a purchase. As a result, they already bid the clicking business with the Per Action cost in mind.

Is this how Microsoft is going to lift themselves from their 9% share in search (vs. Google’s 60% and growing)? Probably not. That’s why they’re still angling for a deal with Yahoo! Buying their search business only this time.

For more, a niece piece by Henry Blodget in Silicon Alley Insider: From the VC perspective, here, it’s hard to avoid ambivalence. Yes, this is quality entertainment. But how does this lead us to healthy start-ups? Even a “less than Google” search engine will get you a long litany of Microsoft fumbling attempts at gaining a meaningful share of the on-line business. Do we have a Satan IV (an old sci-fi novella) questions? Will the “new Microsoft” of the on-line world be as domineering as the old one was in the PC business, draining much of the resources, much of the money out of the domain?
In plain(er) English: how much oxygen left after Goggle inspires? – JLG

conglomerate — When accumulating, coherence turned to be key

Pendulum swing. Until recently, Barry Diller, founder and chairman of InterActiveCorp (IAC) was seen as the epitome of the digital media mogul, having accumulated something like 60 specialized brands, from Ask.com to a site called College Humor. Disparity was the trademark, and it was a probably Diller biggest mistake. Thirteen years into the IAC adventure, at the age of 66, he is up to a major turnaround. In an excellent profile published by Condé Nast Portfolio Magazine, he openly admits his error, explaining the dismantling of its assemblage (once valued at $19bn). “[Diller] now realizes that he was wrong from the start, writes Portfolio. Diller says he’s utterly committed to the idea of an anticonglomerate, blowing up IAC and leaving the company’s disparate parts to operate on their own. “We decided, ‘Enough of this integrated-conglomerate pretension.’ We were kidding ourselves if we thought we could pull off an integrated conglomerate that acts like G.E. or P&G in anything less than 10, 20, or 30 years”. Time to rely on the traditional business plan rather than serendipity-driven acquisition frenzy.

Outsourcing the making of banners

This is the last fear of the media sphere: the progressive transfer of jobs to emerging countries. A year ago, Reuters began to outsource some financial data treatment to India. That remained anecdotal. Now, the digital advertising sector is setting up a pipeline of banners and various animated graphics in countries like Costa Rica or Eastern Europe. The Wall Street Journal tells the story of all big players joining the fray: Publicis’Digitas, Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi.

Blogs: the emergence of democratic publishing

In its last edition, Business week ran an updated version of a 2005 story about blogging. “What changed?”, asks Business Week “Two big things: technology and media”. BW recalls the hero of its 2005 article : ” A smart and hyperactive PR guy with a blog could actually be a leader in tech coverage. (…) Since then, megablogs with paid staffs, such as Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch and Om Malik’s GigaOm, have become titans. And sites like Techmeme
and Digg aggregate the hottest news—much of it from the megablogs. These are New Media champions, and they come from outside Old Media ranks. Some of them, it could be argued, wield more power than large metro dailies, or even magazines. Go to the Technorati search engine and see how many blogs link to TechCrunch, the leading source for dealmaking in Silicon Valley. Links are only one measure of influence, but a vital one in the blogosphere. The number is 170,908. That’s more than (gulp) BusinessWeek.com”.

Google traffic : comply or ignore?

Each and every media gathering those days includes one subject: how to deal with the increasing traffic derivated from search engines, should our sites be “optimized”, just “compliant” or “aggressively attractive” to search? Of course, Google is at the epicenter of the debate since it commands a market share for search ranging from 60% to 90% (depending on the country).

Search crawlers have given to our business a peculiar dimension. This Fall, managers will experience a queasy feeling as they fire up the spreadsheets and begin work on their ‘09 budgets. Search engines bring 40% to 60% of their traffic to be converted into revenue. How can they make sensible bets on revenue streams and forecast their expenditures when depending so much on the opaque workings of search engines? How to deal with such a level of inpredictability?

At stake is the ranking of a site when a user performs a search. The higher the site shows up in the response page, the likelier it is to be clicked on. And, in this matter, winner takes (almost) all since users generally don’t to look beyond the second page of results.

How to get to the top of the page? The first parameter is depth of content ; search crawlers give a better spot to rich sites rather than to shallow ones. Second is contents optimization; SEO (Search Engine Optimization) has become a (black) science; most of the work is done on structural aspects: internal linking, recursive contents, archives accessibility. Third is a more controversial approach: SEM for Search Engine Marketing, SEM involves the acquisition of keywords more likely to be searched by users. If I’m a lawn-mower manufacturer, I’ll do my best (means: pay a lot) to retain keywords associated to my business ; if I’m running a news website, I’ll try to react swiftly enough to see when a news item is likely to be hot in order to capture the biggest chunk possible of search requests on a particular event or developing story.

Let’s review and assess the three approaches.

First, let’s not forget there is some fairness in the increasing dependency to search: the better a site is in terms of content and user-friendliness, the better it will naturally perform. The search system uses a ranking algorithm, PageRank, based on the popularity of a site

Second question, should sites spend time and money to be optimized for search? Of course they do. I my view, there are at least two good reasons to do so:
a) Traffic is traffic. Media buying agencies tend to look at the bottom line: how many page views and unique visitors a month a site is harvesting. When a visitor lands in your site through a search engine, it is likely to stay for a very short time (one, two pages, no more) before bouncing elsewhere in the cyberspace. Actually, this behavior is on the rise, as shown by a recent study: in four years, the proportion of users accessing a site via its home page dropped from 40% to 25%. That’s the way it works, if you don’t like it, try newspapers. Once again, if the content is interesting, if an article is surrounded by cleverly arranged related links, then the visitor will tend to stay on the site and perhaps will bookmark it — then, bingo.

b) Reviving the long tail. One of the nicest things on the Internet, is its ability to revive its inventory. Undoubtedly, an optimized site helps to value old stories. That leads to the deep-linking policies. An increasing number of English language websites become more open to deep linking, even in their paid areas. For them a visitor searching for a 2006 article is a potential subscriber, rather than the mere purchaser of a $2.00 article. The reasoning escapes many French news sites, which remain stubbornly opposed to any open deep-linking policy.

Third big question, what about Search Engine Marketing, i.e. keywords acquisition? The answer depends upon your taste for mind-altering chemicals. SEM is a good way to improve your stats. But: a) it is very expensive, and b) the remanence of purchased traffic is low. You get a high, but it is a fleeting one. A major French newspaper is said to have spent E100,000 a month on keywords acquisition, a ridiculously expensive habit. Of course, from time to time, when you feel able to outsmart the market, you go for a one-shot deal. But doing so as a regular operational matter makes no sense. Plus, gravity always prevail in the end. One day, media buyers will take some time to have a closer look at the client’s statistics and will be able to discern the strong, sustainable, solid traffic from the elusive SEM-generated flow.

Last question — which is key in my view. Should editors and publishers remain stoic facing their increasing dependency to search engines? Of course not. We all know that slight alteration of search algorithm by Google has pushed many companies out of business. Applied to the news sector, it means that a 45% rate of traffic coming from Google can plunge overnight because of the mathematical tweak of a geek in Mountain View, California. The only way to mitigate such risk is actually to talk to the geeks. Media execs should send the following message to Google: OK guys, we’ve been able to develop a great business together — you bring us traffic, we send you back advertising revenues –, but in order to preserve this great relationship, we should manage better our dependency on your clever algorithms. In a nutshell, let’s find a way to work more closely to avoid Google affecting our business when your are fine-tuning your search process. We won’t interfere with your math wizards, but we need some guarantee that they are not going to mess-up wit our business. Of course, it won’t be as simple: SEO/SEM wizards try their best to cheat the Google system, which, in response adjust its algorithm to preserve some fairness in search results. The idea is simply to avoid collateral damages.

No doubt that, for the sake of preserving its “Don’ Be Evil” motto, Google will listen. Even in its position, the search giant cannot afford a PR offensive from desperate medias.

The Plaxo deal and the Facebook/Goolge clash

Two significant news items last week in the social network fray. First, cable giant Comcast bought Plaxo the n°3 social network behind Facebook and MySpace for a reported $100m (euro 64m). Plaxo sports a 40m members base (and a 50 people staff – I kind of like the ratio…) Why is Comcast doing this? According to New York Times tech blog Bits, “Comcast was a natural partner since Plaxo was already providing the Philadelphia-based cable giant with software to help integrate its cable TV, phone and Internet services into a common platform”. The integration is a bet on the inclination of TV series’ fans to congregate. It will be interesting to watch. The second item is the launch of Google Friend Connect. The service is of the typical Google everything-on-it kind. It enables every site to add a social network layer — and, here is the catch, to tap into big social networks such as Facebook or MySpace. As the state of the art now demands, it is a plug-in anyone can easily paste on their site. (To understand how it works, go to the Google video) or to read this description. Predictably, social networks giants are not elated. Three days after the Friend Connect rollout, Facebook decided to ban the new Google service from linking into Facebook. In a detailed statement on its developers site, Facebook is invoking privacy, the butcher touting veggie food. This is just the beginning of the showdown between the two giants.

South Korean Telecom’s American expansion

By Pierre Joo*

Virgin Mobile USA, one of the biggest US Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) confirmed preliminary talks with Korea’s largest wireless carrier SK Telecom “to explore possible strategic opportunities.” These are surely related to Helio, another troubled US MVNO that SK Telecom controls through a 69% stake (Earthlink being the other shareholder). One possible scenario according to mocoNews.net, which first broke the news, would be for SK Telecom to buy out VM, inject some fresh cash in the newly bought company, which would in turn buy Helio in an all-share transaction. SK Telecom’s move comes as no surprise. Sure, Korean high school kids switch cellphones every four months, and probably represent the earliest of early adopters of new mobile applications. Yet, the Korean giant can expect no exciting future from a saturated market of only 42 million subscribers, more than half of whom already are frenetic 3G, or 3.5G users. SK Telecom’s future growth obviously depends on overseas expansion. SK Telecom launched Helio in the US market in 2006, expecting that its superior technology (among many other innovations, it was the world’s first carrier to launch 3G, or broadcast TV on mobiles, significant investment capacity, and local partnership with well-established Earthlink, would give it enough competitive edge to attract all the tech savvy, high-ARPU driving users, starting with the Korean American community. Yet in a mature market such as the US, it was simply not enough to convince users to massively switch to Helio. With a mere 200,000 customer base, Helio has not been able to lure enough users, in spite of significant investments from its shareholders (last September, SK Telecom threw in another $270 million). SK Telecom lacked two key assets: a larger customer base to start with, and its own network. Last year, it approached Sprint Nextel, the very carrier which sells wholesale airtime to Helio, with a USD 5bln bid along with PE firm Providence Equity Partners, an offer Sprint turned down last November.

Virgin Mobile appears to be SK Telecom’s second pick, but can it be the right one? A Helio-VM merger could make sense: both run on the Sprint network and target different users. VM has focused on prepaid services aimed at young users different from the tech-savvy crowd Helio has been busy luring with high-end handsets and innovative services inspired from those offered in Korea. Yet, VM is badly hit by the US market downturn and experiences increasing pressure from investors: the company has lost more than 75% of its IPO value a year ago, and its earnings are heading south. Some would argue that taking advantage of VM’s shrinking market cap is a good opportunity, but can two troubled MVNOs make a right mobile operator? — Pierre Joo

*partner at Attali & Associés specialized in asian affairs

Bloomberg hires a press veteran as content chief

Out of the blue, Bloomberg LLC, the financial news service giant created by New City mator Michael Bloomberg, created a new position to fit the size of its new recruit: Norman Pearlstine. The man is a veteran editor: 22 years at the Wall Street Journal (including 9 at the top news executives) and 11 years as the editor-in-chief of Time Inc where he oversaw 154 publications and acquisitions of two portfolios worth $2bn. Another particularity of Pearlstine is its career in the private equity business. He joined the Carlyle Group in 2006 where he worked in the media and telecommunication division.

Why bringing up this résumé? Because it fuels further speculation that Michael Bloomberg could buy the New York Times, and combine its operation with Bloomberg (see Monday Note’s special report about the battle of newspapers in New York). As New York Times Dealbook put it, “Mr. Pearlstine’s hiring — and [Bloomberg Press release] talk of “growth opportunities” — might signal that Bloomberg LP is more apt to be a buyer than a seller these days”. Rupert is watching closely.

media finances — Shareholders pressure and the bubble

The examples stated above epitomize the increasing pressure of shareholders activists. The CBS/CNet deal has been, for a large part, prompted by an angry campaign led by the investment firm Jana Partners LLC. Jana criticized CNet strategy and called for a complete overhaul of the board. Actually, more and more media companies are facing shareholder actions. In past Monday Notes, we described the New York Times under attack by the Harbinger-Firebrand combined hedge funds. The Deal.com, a financial website, reviews the scope and the reasons behind such activism.

The flurry of deals in the Internet sector raises another question: are we facing another kind of Internet Bubble? In a lengthy article, the Wall Street Journal tells the story of financial bubbles in general, from internet to Chinese stocks or the US housing market. Here are some clues: – “Bubbles don’t spring from nowhere. They’re usually tied to a development with far-reaching effects: electricity and autos in the 1920s, the Internet in the 1990s, the growth of China and India. At the outset, a surge in the values of related businesses and goods is often justified. But then it detaches from reality.” And therefore, it is extremely difficult to go against the tide of optimistic investors. Until the tip of the curve. – Then, “When a lot of borrowed money is involved — as it often is in a bubble — once prices peak, the speed of their fall is intensified as investors sell urgently to pay down debt”. – Finally comes the “trading signal” : “At the height of the tech bubble, Internet stocks changed hands three times as frequently as other shares. “The two most important characteristics of a bubble are: People pay a crazy price and people trade like crazy”, says one of the researchers

Interestingly enough, this excellent WSJ story details the sources for its research. The Princeton trio the article refers to had been hired by current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who was at the time head of Princeton economics department. The team was made of foreign born students (Chinese, Vietnamese and German) ranging from 32 to 39 year-old. This speaks well of some American Universities’ vitality and cross-pollination with the public sector.