Building a super niche media

Building a super niche media

Learning more about niche media with AFK Gaming

Ankit : 

My name is Ankit Dikshit. I'm CU at Medluit Labs and today we are going to discuss how to build niche media and as you all know that it is not easy to build a media company at the 1st place. It is even more difficult to engage your audience. If you have taken a chance to build a media company it is really difficult to engage the audience and it is near to impossible to monetize this audience. Today we have a very special guest with us and you know who has not just launched and worked their passion into gaming, into a media company but has also engaged millions of audience for the last decade and now you know has also cracked the monetization model. So ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Nishant Patel, CEO of AFK Gaming and Rakesh Ramchandran as Chief of Product, Technology and user experience who are with us. They are going to share their experience of building a niche media company AFK gaming so Nishant Rakesh, how is the feeling?

Nishant : 

Thanks for having us Ankit. Very excited to be here and to share whatever we've learned so far. Always the pleasure of conversing with you, so looking forward to this chat.

Rakesh : 

Yeah, likewise, hello everyone. I mean Ankit Anas, we we chat almost weekly, so it'll be one of our other weekly chats but for an audience. So looking forward to this one.

Ankit : 

Great. Likewise I'm looking forward to it too. Nishanthan, Rakesh and always great to have you know have insights from both of you and also you know from from the larger AFK team. So before we move into this discussion deeper Nishanth, Rakesh would like to know from you that you know how you decided, why gaming niche media. 

Nishant : 

So the truth is we didn't really start off as a business, right? To give you a little bit of background, I started off as a pro gamer. I did this during my college years and at some point at around 2000 and five, 2006, sorry, 2010 eleven, I decided that, you know, maybe there's an opportunity on the other side, which is rather than playing, can we get on the business side of things and make a career out of it. 

Step one in that direction was to start a forum. So F gaming.com initially just started off as a basic PHPBB forum. Use help from a neighbour to build it out.

The idea there was, you know, can we build a community of like minded people and it really wasn't meant to be a business, it was just meant to be a site version, right?

Along the way, Rakesh came on board. Rakesh actually came on board as my first investor turned pro founder and you know, around then we decided that, you know, maybe there's a real business opportunity here. Can we turn this into a full time thing?

We tried everything right, so from a forum, we tried organizing tournaments, we tried running teams, we tried content creation, we tried everything right and at some point we realized that content creation is out for day and our area of expertise and it's what excites us the most. So we doubled down on it and said can we build the world's go to destination for quality sports and gaming content.

So I would say this is more of an outcome rather than a punches decision that the media is the best opportunity. It's just something we enjoyed the most and decided to follow that path.

Rakesh : 

To add on to that, there was also a problem that we needed to address right back in 2008 to 2012, where, you know, when avid gamers, right, we always knew that there was a gaming scene out there in India, but we always struggled to find information. For example, Nishanth is a pro player. But other than his close circuit of 30-40 friends, nobody, nobody knew that hey, there are these great players out here in India. And then we decided, OK, you know, our generation has passed and then at least the future generation of gamers, there needs to be somebody to tell their stories, right? Like if there's accomplishments happening, if the events happening in India, if there's cool stuff happening in the region, right. There needs to be a voice that's spreading that message to the masses. And that's when it started off as a forum and then eventually you become a publisher and the last 10 years has been the journey of that.

Ankit:

Great, great. Rakesh and Rakesh, would you, would you also like to talk about you know how was the journey of audience building from scratch where there was nothing you know so how did you decide that this audience is going to work? 

Rakesh : 

So I'll be a little candid here, right? There's a lot of cluelessness in the FK journey for the first four to five years, right, which we just knew that, you know, we, we had a core vision or a core philosophy that, you know, we need to, we need to be the guys who are taking the message of gaming to the masses, right. In terms of the audience, we didn't have a clear cut view, right? Like we were not as mature of a business as we are today. Back in 2010, like 10 years ago, our core principle was, you know, build it and they will come. 

And then, you know, we built it and then we first started out with Dota and then we saw some good reception back in the day. I think a lot of attraction came from social media, like Facebook was really big back in the day. And then we got a lot of love from our audience on various social media platforms. And from there it was slowly trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together to find out, OK, you know what, if you're going to do this as a business, right, there needs to be a lot more focus and there needs to be a lot more effort put into.

Of segmenting your audience, figuring out who wants what. And then, you know, two data users don't want the same thing, right? And then from there, slowly we chipped away little by little trying to say that, hey, guide content is for this type of audience. News content is this type of audience. Some audiences just want gossip and interviews are interesting for some audiences. So that's how we kind of really found our path. I would say we did a little bit of everything and then from there we kind of doubled down on what worked to a point where I think we're in a good place today.

That we have a good mix of content across the board. And then we diversified from Dota, we started doing CSGO coverage, then when mobile esports started becoming a thing, then we expanded into mobile esports. So as and when the gaming industry matured and the next generation of gamers came, they wanted different things, right? And staying on top of understanding what the user wants, what the user wants to consume, we slowly figure it out piece by piece. But it was not like happening on day one, OK, Now this is what we need to do. This is how we need to do it. It was a very slow and gradual process over three to five years.

Ankit : 

Makes sense, Rakesh. So if I've understood it correctly the focus was not not to you know so you have not started keeping the audience in mind but you kept the game in mind and then created various use cases for that audience over the time you tested it. And once you found that OK these things or these narratives are working better for you, you double down on those you know on those lines absolutely I mean we started.

Rakesh : 

We started out as gamers, right? We didn't start out as businessmen and as gamers. We went out as pure as possible, right? Like we kept the game in the center of things and we said that, OK and what as gamers, we felt that this is the, this is what other gamers want, right? And we made a lot of mistakes along the way, right? We doubled down a lot of things that the audience didn't really want. And then slowly I think over three to five years, that mindset shifted from going from content first to audience first to consumer 1st and then we started analyzing the data.

There was a lot more emphasis on looking at analytics and then we realized, OK, you know what our internal biases or what we believe is supposed to be working is, is not always putting out the best results. Sure, you know that there are some points we take which pay off. But the focus on the audience was what kind of made the big shift from you know being a microscopic or a really, really small publisher to kind of a decent sized one that we are today. 

Ankit: 

In my opinion, Rakesh, the journey of zero to 100,000 users is the most difficult one. So how was your journey, how did you scale this, you know?

Rakesh : 

So, yeah, I mean, I, like I said, right, it, it was little by little, right. If I had to redo it all over again, I think that journey would be much faster, right. Like with what we know now, we could probably have achieved it in 6 to 8 months, right. But in the beginning, we kind of get the content in front of it. We said that, hey, do tasks really big in India, so let's kind of focus on data. And you have to keep in mind that on the back of all this, you're working with some really limited resources, right. We're not like a heavily funded startup or anything. So every decision that we made we have to kind of keep in mind, you know, how can we do this with little to no money. So with that in mind, you know with what limited rights and a lot of our writers back in the day were either freelancers or people who just wanted to do this because they were passionate about the industry. So with that in mind, right, we just started putting like little blocks of stones together until it became a formidable size and then we had enough data to kind of analyze what's working, what's not working. It was, I'll tell you the first like you said, getting to the 1st 100,000 users, it was the hardest part, right? For the longest time we stagnated around 20,030 thousand. You know, there would be a one off month where we do some coverage about some really happening event and then you know we'll see big spikes of 50K70 can, you know we'd all be jumping up and down like yes, we did it.

I mean it, it just seems so naive back now. I mean it, it was cause for celebration back in the day. But, you know, with our knowledge today, things would have gone a lot smoother. But that's the startup life, right? You're doing something for the first time. You're doing something you've never done before. Everything is new and scary, right? And then little by little, we figured everything out.

Nishant : 

Just to add some color around that, we started out like I mentioned as a forum. The first thing you did to promote the forum was we picked up microphones and started commentating games at the community playing. So that was a live stream right now. That live stream got us some viewers who then said, hey, what is app Gaming, can we go check out the site and the phone.

That was our journey from I would say 100 to 1000 users and then we have to replicate things like this all the way up to the 1st 100,000 users. So like Rakesh said, you know, we did a lot of things, you know, purely that stemmed from our knowledge of what gamers would possibly want to see in Europe and that's kind of how we iterated over and over again. But work was 100K users and over time we've gone from looking at, you know, hey, how much traffic did we get in a month to how much traffic did we get in a week. And now we're looking at how much traffic we are in real time and can be optimized for them.

Ankit : 

So Nishant if I have to give you a choice to choose one channel you know that can help teams who are building a niche media to choose from. So which channel would you recommend to the, you know, budding media entrepreneurs?

Nishant : 

That's a tough one, right? I think it would really depend on what genre of content you're doing, what region you're targeting. So to give you an example, for us, we categorize different game titles as separate brands altogether, right? So FK gaming, Dota, for example, is a separate brand, which has one identity. If your mobile esports is another one, CS go is another one. Now within each of these games, we know that, for example, Dota has a larger audience in Southeast Asia and in Southeast Asia, the preferred channel is social.

And more specifically Facebook. So it really came down to, it really boiled down to identifying which audience lives where and what social media or what channel works best for them. There's no one-size-fits-all answer. I think it's largely about knowing your audience and you know, understanding where they're consuming content outside or in other genres as well, and then trying to reach them and get your content in front of them.

Ankit : 

Got it.

Also I'll stay on this zero to 100,000 user journey and will emphasize more on this. So Nishant and what do you suggest or from your experience whether focusing on quality or quantity like which one you know is a better proposition.

Nishant : 

Again, I'd say that it depends largely on your business model. I don't think you can ignore one or the other entirely, right. But in a space where ad revenue is very hard to be your only source of sustainable income quantity is, is probably not the best way to go. We realized a long time ago that you know there's tons of people that can put out lots of lots of stories in any individual genre, but there are very few that can actually add value to the end user of the reader.

And that only comes from quality content. For us it's always been a game of on the need, they're donating users, can we get, how many loyal users can we get who will eventually find enough value in AFK to say that, hey, I want to go one level deeper, whether that is through a subscription which you know we haven't launched yet but we might at some point or whether whether you know they want to associate affiliate with the AFK brand associated with the brand little more closely through merchandise purchases or something along those lines. So it's always been a quality focus for us. We don't believe that you know, there's much value to be added, but just doing generic large volumes of content. There's definitely got to be something that sets you apart from all the other publishers and UGC that you're essentially completing without any interview, so quality is the way to go for us.

Ankit : 

A great, great Nishant and from quality, if we can move to the next level from acquisition, let's move to the engagement part. So engagement I believe is really difficult. You know, you have to build a loyal audience. You have to bring you know, build brand lovers over their time, people visiting you over and over again. So how was, how was your journey so far to build brand lovers and what do you think has actually translated your casual visitors into grand lovers.

Nishant : 

A couple of things, right? One is each, so our content on the side is diverse right? 

Take a particular author will do SEO content. A particular order will be breaking news content. Each author has the freedom to explore all kinds of content. Right now, what this does is it incentivizes or offers to chase traffic polls, which comes through a mix of volume and SEO content, and then also Chase brand building as their own individual as an author in this space, right? So they'll write exclusive interviews. They will chase breaking news stories. They will try and, you know, get exclusive stories that no one else is getting out there. Which eventually adds to their reputation and by extension AFK’s reputation. 

Overtime, people start to associate that particular author with quality content and therefore they keep coming back for their content rather than just saying that, hey, I saw this on my feed and therefore I'm going to click on it. So it's always been a question of, you know, can we get each author to have their own individual persona and voice and can that voice then be utilized in a way to make loyal users to both the author and the brand? Engagement has been a direct result of that. I would say it's, it's, it's been.

Rather than saying that you know, you click on it, you click on a story that showed up in your feed. You've also got people that are now saying, hey, this story has been written by so and so author, and therefore I should click on it and read it. Or maybe I go to afpgaming.com because I want to read what so and so author has written today. That's in a nutshell how we've tried to approach this.

Ankit: 

Got it. And Nishant, we have as you know we have together tried to build the shareability factor in the content. So by design you know if content can be written keeping the shareability factor in mind. So would you like to talk about that as well?

Nishant : 

Sure. So.

I think we've discussed this at length, right? You're writing for if you're writing for traffic, you're writing for two broad buckets, right? One is either writing for search traffic, which is useful, content utility based content guides, etcetera, or you're writing for someone to click through and say that, hey, this is something that caught my attention and therefore I'm going to do. It's not intent based, but it's something that showed up on a field and then it got your attention and you went through and clicked on that, right.

The shareability factor I would say is largely a variable for the second-half of that content. So your content that is written for Google discover for social media, it's something that we've learned a lot about over the last few years. So everything from optimizing your titles to actually having an in-house design team that sits and optimizes each thumbnail or cover image for each story, right. This is something that we've taken very seriously for.

Fault shareable content for shareability of content. And unlike a lot of publishers, one of the approaches that we've taken is, you know, we try to stay away from just using generic images in our stories. We actually have a design team that will for almost every story we will have a design team that will, one, source the image to add some design to it and three, add an AFK layer of branding on it. So we now reinforce that message that you know one, this is a piece of content that's come from AFK because of the branding and two, the visual that goes along with each title is very relevant and very clickable and shareable. So this is kind of the approach we've taken to shareable content, optimizing titles and to and optimizing thumbnails and cover images. But beyond that, you know, topic selection is something we leave entirely to the authors. With a little bit of guidance from our supervising editor, we believe that authors know best of what's happening in their own individual spaces. It's very hard for us to, you know, force our expertise into, let's say, a Dota writer or CSV writer. They're the ones that are on the ground. They go to the ground. We kind of rely on them and we trust them to find something that is most interesting for the readers.

Ankit : 

Quite, quite interesting you know and I think the audience should also learn a lot from this part that you know how you break the process and you know focus on shareability and especially you know differentiation that comes with unique brand elements. I think that also helps in creating a long term you know long term perception and a unique proposition about the brand. 

Let's move to Rakesh a bit and I would like to discuss about you know the product side of the things you know so, so Rakesh how has been your journey and you know evolution in terms of choosing the the product stack for and you know technology stack for the, you know for the business.

Rakesh : 

OK. So first when we started out, we kind of like I said, right?

We're still figuring out what to do with the website, with the technology, everything. So we kind of built our own custom website. And then we knew that if you're going to be a gaming publisher, right? Somewhere very early in the journey we figured out that we want to be a gaming publisher. And we knew that we knew what we didn't want to do, right? We didn't want to be a WordPress website. We didn't want to be another website. We wanted to stand out of the crowd, right? We wanted a website that's customized that has an AFK feel to it. And just sticking on a WordPress theme and then calling it a day wasn't the route we wanted to go. We knew we wanted custom, but we didn't know what it would look like or what it would feel like. And that's essentially for the last five to six years I've been working on. And those are the challenges I've been trying to solve, right? So how we started off, we started off with a custom website. We very naively tried to build our own CMS and we succeeded in doing so for about three years.

We ran an operation with a custom built CMS and things worked like everything was good, like from a technical standpoint our stack was always JavaScript stack, right. For those people. I'll just briefly touch upon the high level stuff behind the technology about the product. We had React in the front end, Node in the back end and SQL for the database right and with these three elements were able to kind of build out an application which was quite robust, I would say it was not very feature rich, but it got the job done right. We were able to write articles, we're able to publish it and we had a good custom front end that provided a reader with a moderate experience. I would say it's nowhere close to what happened once we migrated to Quintype. Around 2017, 2018, right. We got access to a little bit more funds and then we started and we learned quite a bit about things about ourselves and then whenever we said that. We want to upgrade our custom CMS. We wanted XYZ features. We realized, OK, now this is going to take quite a long time to build. We just went out and looked at what market solutions are there and few things happened in parallel and then we came across Quintype, we evaluated a few other CMS and couldn't have felt like the right fit. And since that time there's been no turning back, right? You've been working with Quintype CMS has pretty much everything a publisher needs, like it can take you from zero to pretty much as big as it goes. So once we kind of partnered up with Quintype, things were a lot more smoother, right? So the back end was taken care of, the Infras managed by Quintype. So the only thing we needed to focus on was the problem that we set out in the beginning.

How can we give a good custom experience to the reader, right? How can we build a cool website that stands out of the crowd on the Internet rather than the millions of websites on the Internet? And essentially, directly or indirectly, when you're visiting a website, you are pegged against some of the best websites in the world, right aspect of what content you're reading. The experience still resonates and carries on with the users, right? So you need to kind of be able to match up in terms of the reading experience, reading experience in the user experience with every single side of the world. And yeah, that's what we've been doing. And the conscious decision to have different teams for each individual title, pretty much every element on the page that you see today at afkgaming.com.

It's been designed, deliberated, and a lot of front and back. And then you know those elements have, they are where they are today and they will continue to evolve, right. Like very recently, like a couple of months back, we're having conversations within the team, hey, we started this back in 2010 and we understand what the gamer of 2010 is like, but what is the next generation of gamer looking like? A lot of the audience now is pretty young in age and they're consuming content on their mobile phones and we need to adapt. I mean it's been a while since we have not been a desktop first experience but as time evolves, being mobile first becomes more and more relevant. 

Trying to cater to the younger audience right? Like the founding team we are. We are in our 30s now right? Like we need to be able to understand what the 18 year old, 20 year old gamers of today are thinking. You know how they are wanting to consume content? Clearly with the advent of some social media, the attention span of the reader has gone significantly down right? And the consumption of video content is packed up really high, but we still see, you know, our numbers are still growing and we primarily put out written content on the website. So there is an audience. So this is about marrying 2 ideologists together. Like how do we cater to the younger audience, how do we, how do we cater to the newer generation of gamers who want to consume it in content and how do we still stand out of the crowd and how do we still have a good brand positioning while doing all of this. So those are the challenges I have been tackling for a while now. 

Ankit : 

And Rakesh you have been always a custodian of reader experience over monetization over revenues over anything else. So I think this is the fantastic you know ideology and you know like we need more people like you in the founding team or or you know in the larger media teams. So maybe if you can share this ideology with the larger audience I think it would also help keep them you know focus on the reader first.

Rakesh : 

Yeah, I feel that in every company that anytime you're building anything B to C, right, there needs to be one person who's hell bent on caring what the user wants, right? There absolutely has to be like, if there are two Founders, 3 Founders, 4 founders, how many of the key team is there needs to be at least one person who cares about what the user wants. Now, fortunately, unfortunately, I have taken up that responsibility here, and by doing so, you kind of ruin a lot of friendships along the way because clearly other founders.

Like, where's the money? You know, the, you know, let's put 12 more ads in this page and, you know, let's put 4 pop-up ads and, you know, let's do this, let's do that. You know, it's all more revenue as like, yes, it's more revenue, but you know, you want to build a core audience, right? You, you need to be able to visit AFK gaming yourself. And when you close the site, and hopefully you don't, but when you close the site, you walk away with the feeling that, hey, this was a good website, right? I will definitely come back here again. And when you're trying to do all sorts of stunts like this, right.

You kind of chip away at the user experience. Like on paper, everything looks good. Yes, more ads is more money. You know, let's send a pop up after 15 seconds to collect their email. We can do so much with email, but you're getting their email. But you're never going to get their attention back. They're not going to come back to ask. And there needs to be one person in every company. I mean, this is my personal, firm belief that there needs to be one person who cares about the customer. Like, you know, within AFK Gaming, I have taken the responsibility of speaking on behalf of my readers.

Because I feel like the day you become irrelevant is not when the user has a bad experience. I think the day you become irrelevant is when the user stops caring about you. They come to AFK and they don't have any feelings when they leave the website. It's OK even if they're happy and they're like, OK, I had a good experience, but I think you become irrelevant when people stop caring about you. And it is somebody's responsibility to ensure that that never happens.

Ankit : 

Very, very valid point, Rakesh. And I'm also, you know, completely aligned principally with this. But I want to move to Nishant and want to understand as a CEO, Nishant, how do you balance, you know, the monetization side and the user experience side together?

Nishant : 

Yeah, that's I think this really ties back to Rakesh's point right. Like while he's got his eye on the user, right, our second or third co-founder Siddhant, he's got his eye on the revenue complicated and I've got my eye on one eye on this on the other side. 

So like I said we were not very funded startups or anything, right. We kind of found a way to survive on our own and it's very difficult to do that in the media business to do that you know you have a bunch of options. One is like you said you could, you could stuff a page with ads, ruin the user experience and make the most out of each user that comes to the site. But you know that's a very short sighted way of looking at things. It's unlikely that the user is going to come back and you'll be able to monetize them again or retain their attention again.

I think what we did is we found a nice middle ground, which is that while we figure out the right way to turn the site into self-sustaining machinery, can we put that knowledge that we have as content creators, as these sports enthusiasts, to use for potential clients, right? And that's where Siddharth really picked up. I'd say you picked up the button and he sort of took the charge on that where he's taken all of our skill sets and knowledge as if we turn that into a commodity or a monetizable product and take it out to the market as the go to destination for any sort of content that that people need on their pages as well. So we use that skill set to sort of find a middle ground while we balance user experience and monetization on the side. And now as traffic grows and as you know the advertising nation gets a little more efficient without ruining user experience where we're finding ways to catch up and on the BTC side. So it's it's it's like you said it's a constant balancing act. We were fortunate enough to find an alternative revenue stream to buy us time, to not be able to sacrifice user experience. And I think that that's probably the playbook for every publisher out there, right? You probably need to find a way to survive and sustain until you have the scale and the right balance of user experience and monetization to be able to say that hey, I'm a fully functioning publisher right now with a well monetized BTC side without sacrificing user experience.

Ankit : 

Right. And so as you know that ad revenue only ad revenues might not be sufficient to run even you know, you know the editorial operations. So would you like to talk about you know, the monetization model, you know or different different streams that you have experimented and what has worked, what has not worked?

Nishant : 

Sure. So we have tried everything under the sun to make money as AFK right. First, like Rakesh mentioned, we were a naive lot of people, we were not really business persons. We were just a bunch of gamers that said hey let's do content and eventually you know since everyone talks about ad monetization being so successful and and and you know bringing in so much money. We said hello, we're done with ads and we'll make money. You know this was the very 2010 way of thinking when you're a startup. But very quickly we realized that you know ad monetization is not for, is not necessarily for niche media. It's probably.

You know, you can probably see those ideas, you can probably do some sort of sponsorships, but if you want to turn this into a really scalable machinery, you need to have a sizable amount of traffic coming in. And in addition to a sizable amount of traffic, you also need to have a really strong sales proposition that sets you apart from traditional advertising channels, right.

Like I said, we found a way to monetize through an agency model of sorts. So we took so while you have authors, while you have video editors, while you have project managers that are all required to run a publication, those same skill sets can be packaged as a service for other folks in the industry that are not competing with your business. So for example, in our case, we work with tournament organizers, we work with teams, we work with drinks, and essentially what we do is we use our concentration and sports domain expertise to package content and marketing.

And just for them to utilize via their channels in essence we're saying hey we understand these both audiences we understand how to do content creation. Let us put together and execute a content strategy for you to help you achieve your goals as a brand or as a team or as atonement companies. That's essentially the bridge that got us you know time and and and I would say bandwidth to be able to think about how to turn a publication into a profitable business.

I'm also personally a very big proponent of user monetization, right. I feel like the Holy Grail for any publisher is if you can create content and create a destination that is so good that people are willing to pay you money for it, you reach the end game, right. We've seen a lot of brands do this successfully across the world in different genres. I think the front runner of this would be the New York Times when it comes to politics and any sort of deal. You know how writing journalism and then on the sports side we used, we saw the athletic doing something similar. We're seeing a bunch of others like.

Post coming up and doing similar content outside of just business and politics genres, we believe that there is a play to be made for user monetization for niche media as well and honestly in a space where your audience size is limited. There's only so many sports fans. There's only so many games that are going to consume written content in English. The ad monetization model may not be, you know, is definitely one player that you should use to support your business, but it's not necessarily the only pillow. You need to find a way to monetize your skill set as well as your users directly. So we're big proponents of that being the next level of AFK. We monetize our skill sets, we monetize our page views. Can we now monetize our loyal audiences, whether that's through subscriptions, whether that's through some other negative means that's a question for the future, but it's definitely something that we're thinking about now.

Ankit : 

Got it. And how about new monetization models, so let's say subscription could be one, I will not call subscription a completely new model, but yeah it could be considered as an additional way to monetize your audience. Maybe another discussion we had was around an ecommerce model - the very loyal audience and you know let's say creating a marketplace of sorts would also make sense if you know monitor and obviously in that case you will.

Let's say if you are getting maybe a dollar one annually from your existing users, you may make it 5X10X very comfortably. So what is your thought on those lines? Or let's say if you're restricting yourself then what is the reason for restricting on you know in that direction today?

Nishant : 

So there's definitely a lot of things to explore, right. Like you mentioned, the ecommerce model is one that does make a lot of sense for publishers there, especially publishers like us that have a direct relationship with our readers. But you know, we've done a lot of thinking about these things and and you know, the question is, OK, you know, we can enable ecommerce, but what do we sell? Are we going to sell someone else's products? If yes, why wouldn't people just go to an Amazon or Flipkart and buy from are we going to sell health care home products? Do we have a large enough base of brand levels to be able to do that today? So these are the kinds of questions we don't have convincing enough answers for to be able to dive into this Skype first, but at the same time, you know, we understand that to get to any one of these solutions, whether that's ecommerce, subscriptions or even, you know, pay-per-view for for stories or for for exclusive access, right?

Step one is you need to have really good content on your side. Step 2 is you need to have a lot of loyal users consuming that content.

We are still at step one right now, you know, and step three is then figuring out how to monetize it. So we're still thinking through step one at the moment when we get to step two and three, I think you know these questions become a lot more important.

Rakesh : 

I'll add some context to what Nishant just said, right? Like, back when we started 2010, 2012, like, you know, once we were going to evolve from a forum into a publisher, right? We actually sat down and listed down all the things that we wanted to do, right? And then we listed down everything. Like, we'll be a publisher, we'll be Ato, we'll make our own video games, we'll sell merchandise, and then we'll make movies. We'll make anime. And then we wrote down all these things on a piece of paper. And then when we started making plans and business models around this is like ohh no, we can't do these things. So I think one of the things that's worked very well for us, either by luck or by design is that all three of us, Nishanthi and Siddant agreed that we'll do one thing and we'll do it right. I think shortly before Nishant said the decision to switch to a subscription model is you need to be good enough. So the way at least we think about it is so the first principle was there already, right. You need to do one thing and you need to be really good at it. Now what is good enough? The good enough is obviously you know internally we have several metrics like brand loyalty, brand levels, the amount of direct traffic, the number of returning users and that will determine when we flip the switch to do OK, we're really good at this. We can take this to the next level and the next level of being a good enough publisher is you're able to monetize your audience the next level from - once you're good enough at that next level of that is, let's do something else right now this is a problem that we set out to solve, we solved it and we're successful. And if this keeps running as it is, it will make us a lot of money. The second step is, OK, what ecommerce. Rather than looking at ecommerce as an additional way to monetize the user. At least the way I think of it, it's a separate business vertical because it has little to do with the publishing world or writing content about esports and it comes with its own set of challenges and then we say.

OK. Let's do a new vertical where we're doing ecommerce and then we'll see how the publishing side and the ecommerce site can draw synergies from one another. So there are a lot of good enough checkpoints that we need to cross before we think about ecommerce. That's the thinking here.

Ankit : 

Got it Rakesh.

Very interesting to focus on one area. Also would like to understand the analytics side of the thing from both of you that you know like how has been your journey in creating let's say the editorial side of the analytics, marketing side of the analytics and what do you suggest to the budding entrepreneurs starting the business that that should they focus on analytics from from starting or you know how does it should work with them?

Nishant : 

And yeah, sure. So I think a while ago Rakesh and I were having a conversation about something very similar, right and Rakesh wouldn't be quite astute. We are I, I would say that we are data aware, not necessarily a data first or a data-driven publisher to be data-driven. We think that we've got a long way to go. We've got a lot more, we've got a lot of data on our hands that we just don't understand how to analyze today and you know when we're not able to turn those into actionable insights. And I think that's the dilemma.

The small publisher, right the moment you plug in a tool as simple as Google Analytics, you're flooded with so much data that you know you're not really sure what to be able to do with it. At a very surface level, you know everyone looks at page views, everyone looks at users. But then when you start diving a little deeper, and when you start making custom segments, when you start generating your custom reports, you realize, wow, this one is actually a lot more powerful than I initially thought.

We've tried to have data guide a lot of our decisions but you know at least personally I'm a big believer of following your instincts and your intuition as well. I feel like data is 1 tool that helps you make better instinctual decision decisions and the fact that you know I don't think it's fair to say that you know you can use data to discount years of knowledge and experience that you've got on the ground in a particular industry right. If I were to give some sort of piece of advice to upstart publishers, right. I definitely look at data as one of many tools that you have. But don't let data be the only decision making tool that you use in your skill set, right? There's a lot of time when the data is just telling you something, but your audience wants something entirely different. And especially when you try to analyze data from subjective sources like comments or, you know, users' responses and service a lot of time, you know?

The customer either doesn't know what they want or, you know, there's a vocal minority that's asking for things like Super investigative journalism and extremely, you know, deep dive content. But that is only for the vocal minority and it's not necessarily going to turn your business into self-sustaining. So I think you've got to find that balance between trusting the data and trusting yourself.

Rakesh : 

Yeah. So to add on to that, right, I feel like the way to look at data is, you know, if you're going to make any reliable decisions based on data, right, you need to look at the data deep enough. For example, if you observe that in a three month period, a specific segment is doing better or a specific category or even a single story is doing really well. Like look at the analytics, the page use and then metrics will be right at your face, right. You won't struggle too hard to find this information.

Happens then if you're able to explain with data why it did well. That's when you're able to validate your beliefs, right? If you're able to say that a category did well and you're not able to explain, with data, I mean it can't be a subjective feeling that hey, you know what, if I cover XYZ topic, it will do well and then the data says it did well. That's it. It kind of borders towards confirmation bias, right? You need to be able to explain with data, or at least to a large degree you need to drill down to 3 levels deep into the data to understand why it did well.

So that is the first facet of looking at data. I mean, especially if you're starting out right, don't just look at data and say, hey, this did well without being able to explain why did this well, why did this? Well, this second thing is to be able to replicate that success. If you're confident that you look at the data you looked at 3-4 levels deep and then you're able to say that this, this piece of content or this category or this campaign of mine did well because of explicit reasons, can you do it 3,4,5,10 more times and replicate that success?

If you're able to do that, that is when you are truly taking data-driven decisions if you have.

A lot of times I come across articles and even listen to other people speak when they say that, hey, we are, we are data-driven and where data is sent with data that it's just that.

There's a lot of circumstances that lead content to do well or lead content to do poorly that the data is not clearly explaining. It's either due to a lack of looking at data deep enough or it's other factors other than what you had initially imagined. So if you're not able to replicate it, that means the data is just the data is not lying right. It's just that you're not looking at the other data points, you're not looking at the data deep enough to make meaningful insights out of that. So I'd say.


The biggest litmus test for when you're looking at data and making decisions is if you're able to replicate success. That for me is a big thing. And apart from that, I think Nishanth with the other two points that I wanted to make right, be data out there and not data-driven like data is, is a tool that helps you to make decisions, but you're not making decisions solely on the data.

Ankit : 

Yeah, analysis like analysis paralysis is also not, you know, not suggested. Nishant and Rakesh and what do you suggest like you know, let's say they like if some expertise is not there internally in the team, do you think that those expertise should be outsourced or or do you think that the capability should be built internally over the time?

Nishant : 

That's a direct factor of how much money you have to work with, right? To put it very bluntly, if you can afford to do everything in-house, you know, sure, consider doing that. But in the real world, you know, money is a finite resource, and even more so for publishing companies.

It's probably best to just focus on two things as a publisher, right? One is the, the, the content that you're creating and of course that comes with its own extended focus areas like audience needs and wants etcetera. And the second is the consumer experience, right, which is the technology side of it in the product section. Everything else is probably best to just be outsourced to experts that are doing this as a day job, as a living life.

I think you know if I were to jump back to the discussion about technology there was a time when we thought hey you know why don't we just build everything in-house and very very early on we realized that you know it's a lot. It would be a lot more efficient if we just took the help of experts like Quintype and managed to and and you know utilize our bandwidth to optimize and and you know push the envelope a little more when it comes to user experience while while someone that will type handles all the tech heavy lifting on the back end right. Similarly with you guys right.

Maybe we've, you know, we have an option to try and set up in-house SEO teams and our performance marketing teams in House you know, data data analysis teams. But all of that would have been so expensive we probably have to do a fundraiser or you know make some crazy bonanza sales to be able to afford all of that. Anyway, you guys have commoditized that. You guys have protests and you come with, you know, years of experience doing this right. It would be foolish to not lean on your expertise and similarly not lean on the expertise of folks like Quitype when they're experts in their wins. Definitely a big proponent of, you know to summarize, I'm definitely a big proponent of outsourcing to the experts.

Eventually, you know for critical areas, you know for critical areas. If your businesses cannot function without, consider finding a way to enhance.

Rakesh : 

Yeah, I think this, this it's also important to add the flavor about working in a startup, right. Like generally in big businesses, you know, they have a tendency of doing core business in house and then all the support and auxiliary functions are outsourced. And this is very largely, I'm just generalizing here or over generalizing here. But when you're a startup, right, you don't even know all the elements of your core business, right. I would consider writing content, managing a website and the associated marketing and sales along with it to be the core business.

For publishing websites right now, even between these three elements, there were large gaps of knowledge and understanding within our team and it's not that we couldn't invest time and figure it out, but in a startup time is also as valuable a resource as money right now. Does it make sense for us to invest three months, six months, nine months into setting up data teams, optimizing them and then making sure that those problems are solved in-house? Or does it make sense to kind of rely on experts who've done this for 10s of years and lean on them to kind of augment the there's like a core business which is the writing, the content, the marketing and the technology, for business, which is the content and the audience right now, we kind of redefined the core business into such a small piece that we say that hey, let the experts worry about the other things. And along the way we learn these skill sets and kind of be able to help ourselves if it's needed. And by doing so, we have kind of struck some wonderful partnerships like Nishanth was saying with Quintype and with Medluit, and those are the people now. Those are our go to people. Whenever we have technology problems or whenever we have marketing problems or data problems, we work collaboratively with you guys. And then we find solutions to problems and that's how we move forward every time.

Ankit : 

Great guys. So last piece of it before we move to the question and answer session. Last piece of advice you want to share with founders who are building niche media. So Rakesh, first let's start with you.

Rakesh : 

Oof.

I know I always say this, I mean this is obviously because that's my role here. I said keep your customer in the center of the focus your, your because the customer is what's going to make or break your business right. Like you can believe that you have built a really cool product. You believe that you have a really cool offering but you know if in the end the customers don't take.

There's only so much. I mean it's just your belief in the end of the day right. The proof is in the pudding here right. So I think my fundamentals like going back and reading like a graduation level marketing. I think all the knowledge is already there, like reading a code, let textbook right. I think no one is better than him. If you do the basics right and if you keep the customer at the center of things you. I mean that's like 70% of the problem solved. That's what I'd say. That's one biggest take away from me.

Ankit : 

So customer centricity is what Rrakesh says. And what about you, Nishant?

Nishant : 

I agree with Rakesh, but just to add on to that right specifically for publishers, know who your customer is.

And, you know, this is it, it's counterintuitive, but your customer is not necessarily just your leader. It's also the person that's opening their wallets and giving you money, right, so that in many cases is possibly an advertiser or a white label content partner that you've got on there. So it's always about, as a publisher, servicing 2 separate sets of customers. One is making sure your readers are happy who will eventually turn into your paying customers. And then the second is make sure that you know you're delivering value to brands and privatizers on the back of these customers that have already been kept happy, so yeah.

Ankit : 

You serve 2 customers that way. One is your readers and second are your sponsors.

Nishant : 

Very much.

Ankit: 

Makes sense. OK. So we are moving to the questions and we have first question here which says so. So how do you, how do you make a balance between traffic? You know Google has opened new avenues like you know, Google discover is there, you know Google search news and there are multiple channels that Google has opened. So how, how is your content strategy aligned to, you know, service all these different, you know, platforms that Google has?

Nishant : 

So I think I touched upon this a little earlier, right? You're writing for essentially 2 buckets of content consumers, one is people that have an intent to find something. So they're searching for how to fix this problem in the game or which team won this tournament or so. And so, right. So that's content with an intent to find an answer, which means that you're writing utility based content, things like guides, things like responses, things that you know essentially show up in a Google snippet and then encourage someone to go a little deeper. And then the second side of it is content that the consumer didn't know they wanted, but now that they've seen of it. They want to, they want to go deeper into it. So that is your content that's found via discover, via social feeds and you know, violent posts and so on and so forth. So I think just keeping that in mind that there's two big buckets of content consumers that we need to service allows you to build a strategy around each one, right, so. You could have certain resources dedicated towards writing for high intent consumers, and then you could have another set that is on the ground trying to find breaking news and interesting content.

Rakesh : 

Actually, I'd like to hear from you, Ankit. I mean, you've worked with several niche media brands yourselves, right? And then you asked us the question, what's the, what's the one piece of 1 take away for a new niche media builder to kind of take away from? What would be your answer to that same question?

Ankit : 

To me, I think focusing on your audience, knowing your audience is the key. So if you and I mean you can start with the hypothesis that let's say this is my audience and you know over the time you write content like you're exactly like you guys did. I think that's the best way to start where you define a broad level audience that OK let's say this is the demography, this is the interest level audience that we have and start from there, you know throw some content through some you know, features, products etc., and test that what is, what is working, where people are responding, very important to keep your you know like goal intact. So you should have your success metric defined whether it is let's say, whether it will be CTR. whether it will be page views, whether it will be you know repeat audience and so on. Very important to have that goal post in mind and once you have that I think, this strategy of keeping goal in place keeping audience on the other side and you know build bridging this gap in between and you know doing it continuously over over the course of you know let's say one year two year, three years. I think it will definitely give you the idea on the product market fit. So in my opinion this product market fit and in parallel concept market fit are the two things that the media entrepreneurs out of focus initially and obviously they will also have to fix the monetization bit in parallel, but in my opinion these two are completely, you know, different problems altogether. So right now I'm focusing only on the, you know, PMF side of the thing.

Rakesh : 

I mean, yeah, I think you speak to any founder who has spent years building a startup and they would all default to, you know, the audience answer. But yeah, I think the product market fit comes, I mean, I agree with pretty much everything that you said, right. Like having a good fit is directly a result of having a good product for your audience. And then the next puzzle piece to solve is how we're going to make money out of this, right? You have some money to burn, but at some point you need to start making money. Yep, I agree with your points.

Ankit : 

Yeah, initially I think even for monetization you can choose the audience accordingly. So let's say you know theoretically the audience which has the highest CPM in the market can be your audience and obviously on the other side the site should also be decent enough. I mean if it is like if your total addressable market is in a few thousands, it doesn't make sense. So it has to be a couple of million you know a large wide audience in one place. And then you know, so that you also take, you know, you also take some time to reach out 200% of the time over the time.

Ankit :

So I think we have a question. So OK, let's take this with the younger generations' attention now shifting to content consumption habits like short videos and short form content. So how do you think will be the overall impact on websites that are currently writing long form content like detailed articles? How do they adapt to it?

Rakesh : 

So I think this, this same question came to me first two years back and then very recently, right. And then I brought it up in our internal team call and then I said, hey, you know what, we've all been gamers back in the day, but we understand what the gamers of today are doing. Like who are they watching? What are they playing? What content are they consuming? I mean it's going to feel like saying the same thing over and over again. But to answer the right question, it's trying to understand for the 18 year old of today, what the 22 year old of today is, is doing on the Internet, right? What are they playing? You know, if they're watching like why do certain content creators, be it live streamers or Youtubers, why do they pop off, right? Like why do they become so successful? What is the success formula in their content right in the video and what piece of their content is appealing to the younger generation? And there are definitely some takeaways that you take from short form content, video content, live content.

There is some personality element or some branding element or some success factor over there that kind of translates to things across the Internet. Like it's not just social media that's blowing up. Like you see massive audiences even inside Slack Reddit, right where there's little to no video content. But you see these sites also having a large number of users who are constantly engaging and discussing things in text format. And you see publishers also growing like writing short form content or long form content. And to kind of directly appeal to this audience, we just need to find what's working with the audience of today and if that is your audience, even if the 18 to 24 demographic is your audience today, we need to have a good understanding of what is it that excites them, what is it that's interesting for them. 

Like gamers, we understand that different parts of their gaming journey have different pain points. And a lot of times, you know, they're Googling for solutions, right? Like, how do we get on top of those Google, Google search pages, and then once we bring them to the site, how do we engage and retain them? Those like studying those things more in depth, more in detail, understanding what those users are doing will kind of help us crack the puzzle.

Nishant: 

Yeah, just to add on to that, I think contemplation is an extension of communication, right. So some things can be communicated through a tweet or short form video. Other things cannot be communicated unless you write that document or let the articles about. I think each, each thread of communication has its own place, has its own style of being distributed to the masses. And just like you know, when you're in a group, sometimes a WhatsApp message surprises you, other times you need to send a long e-mail to get your point across. I think that that's still true.

Applied to content regardless of age, regardless of what generation is considering, right? So I definitely think there is a lot of content that used to be created. As you know, stories are written stories can now be served as video content, and especially now that video content is a lot easier to consume due to technological improvements. But at the same time, there are certain things that are best communicated through an article or through a written story, and that's never going to be. 

Ankit: 

I think Nishant just to your point. So here I think you know, the entire, you know, entire media consumption pattern is shifting. So earlier, you know, long form content was working really well, but I think now the generation is moving towards capsules or you know, things that are written only for me. So even like customization, personalization within the same piece of content, so even I think the latest trend.

And I am, you know, I am seeing an event like myself being a heavy content consumer that I am even looking at angles. So if there is information and that information has 20 angles to look at. So I would just like to look at those two or three angles that make sense to me. And I think the next generation is going to be where you know you are, you are solving the angles from the same information. So information is going to be there, but who is going to curate who is going to, define those angles you know are going to own the audience and it is going to break into very, very small cohorts over the time. But the value would increase and I think that's where the next four or five years are going to be.

So fantastic and I really appreciate both of you for knowing how to keep your time out today and talking to us, talking to me, talking to our audience and sharing all your experiences. And I know it is very difficult to put you know your 10 years journey you know in an hour session. But I think we all have found insightful content from this session and look forward to having many more sessions with both of you.

So thank you. Thank you, Nishant. Thank you Rakesh. Thank you. Lovely audience for this session and we will meet you in January too.

Quintype
blog.quintype.com