EXCLUSIVE | Suresh Vijayaraghavan – The Hindu Group’s Tech-driven Growth Story

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Pavan R Chawla connected with Suresh Vijayaraghavan, Chief Technology Officer, The Hindu Group, for his views on the latest trends in the Indian media and publishing industry, and how technology is redefining news and content delivery to a burgeoning, digital-savvy reader base. Vijayaraghavan, discussing The Hindu Group’s technology-led growth strategy, also shared why it chose Oracle Cloud for its digital transformation, and more.

What are the latest trends in the Indian publishing industry?

The publishing industry has reached an inflection point. On the challenge side, the industry has seen growth stagnate, mostly for the print media, in the last few years. However, on the opportunity side, there is so much innovation and focus on driving digital transformation. This is propelled by the need to not only stay relevant, but also fuel a fresh growth phase for publications.

Though most publications have had their online/digital presence for years, revenue for this stream was largely driven by digital advertising – which in itself was a very small component of publications’ revenue compared to the overall advertisement revenue generated from print publishing in India.

The trend that’s gained considerable traction is that quality and rich content is not free for readers anymore. By moving their content behind a paywall, most publications are offering subscription models that readers can choose from, based on their news appetite and preferences.

In the next few years, we will see this trend continue to solidify. We will see a clear, significant tilt towards digital, paid subscription models. Several leading publications are at various stages of their digital journey, as they look to transform into a digital content business.

Digital subscription revenue will account for a major share of contribution to publications’ top and bottom lines by cultivating new audiences and creating fresh demand in the coming months.

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How are publications modernizing their business?

Our readers today have plenty of choice, given their wide exposure to a vast digital news ecosystem. To cater to this demand and also develop a loyal digital reader base, publications need to develop strong capabilities to create content in a media-/platform-neutral manner and deliver it through a channel and device of readers’ choice – and at the same time ensure all performance metrics are on track.

Digital storytelling is fast becoming the de-facto trend that content creators and publications are moving towards.

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How is The Hindu Group, considered by many as a historically traditional media organization, transforming into a digital-first business? What has been The Hindu Group’s technology-led growth strategy?

While The Hindu Group is known to be traditional, we have a proven track record of reinventing ourselves to remain relevant and push the envelope in delivering a superior experience to our readers.

Our penchant for early adoption of newer technologies has been very helpful in this journey. We’ve had many industry firsts and key accomplishments in this regard. We established our online presence way back in the late nineties. We were also the first to go behind a paywall and start our digital subscription journey well ahead of other publications in the local market.

Sustaining the newsroom in a digital future requires a carefully planned and well-executed strategy, driven by a deep understanding of readers and the evolving digital ecosystem. From a publication’s standpoint, internally, this transformation must happen across 3 pillars: People, Process & Technology.

Building a strong technical/technology foundation to enable creation of media/platform neutral content is the key. The goal is that by design, all content created may be published to any audience, channel, or device.

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We must build the capability to reach the audience through any channel of their choice – web, epaper, native mobile app, social media and probably through wearables and smart TVs in the future.

Ultimately, from a value-exchange perspective, delivering what, where and how our reader wants is the key. And we at The Hindu Group are doing just that.

Apart from being a content provider, we also understand that we provide a service and an experience to our readers. As the adage goes, if content is the king, then customer experience is the queen. So we place equal emphasis on both. We focus on generating content and delivering it on any channel.

In parallel, we are constantly looking to provide a more personalized experience on our digital offerings for our readers. Based on either explicitly declared preferences by readers or by building insights based on readers’ past behaviour, we recommend content in areas that would be of interest to them. In short, we focus on engagement and quality of our reach.

Why did you choose Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI) as part of your technology modernization journey?How customized/apt was OCI for your organization?

Our IT ecosystem is a mission-critical environment. It needs to be up and running 24x7x365 at a certain scale. Our previous hybrid IT setup spanned some infrastructure that resided in our own data centre and we were using some cloud services as well.

That’s when we decided to build our future on the cloud, so that we can focus better on strengthening our core competency – which is content creation and publishing – and let a trusted cloud infrastructure provider like Oracle manage the IT infrastructure part of the equation.

Moreover, the ability to scale up and down on demand and support various initiatives that we are undertaking were critical. So we started evaluating various cloud infrastructure providers on aspects like price and performance, breadth of services offered and alignment with our business requirements.

We also considered factors like elasticity and scalability, transparency and predictability of costs, security and high availability. We found Oracle’s secure, enterprise-class, next-generation cloud infrastructure best suited for our business needs, and at the right price point.

Oracle’s extensive range of cloud services was an added benefit, so we didn’t see any reason to engage multiple cloud providers.

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How much time did the actual public deployment/migration/go live take?

We performed a proof of concept (POC) using our Digital Asset Management (DAM) system, after which, we took the test, production and disaster recovery (DR)environment live in just about three months.

The entire print-production system too went live in just three months – which again included test, production and disaster recovery phases.

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What has been the measurable impact of using OCI? Please list out the quantitative business benefits. And how do you expect your partnership with OCI to impact your end-reader experience?

By consolidating onto OCI, we anticipate cost savings to the tune of 25% over the next few years, vis-à-vis our previous IT setup. As per initial estimates, our technical teams have observed better application performance using OCI to the extent of 1.5x to 2x in certain cases, leading to faster turnaround time for complex processes.

More importantly, by using OCI, we’ve developed a faster innovation runway, helping us streamline our IT management.

On the reader impact aspect, while it’s still early days, we certainly expect this partnership to augment our capabilities to introduce new, intuitive offerings quickly to our readers, elevating their experience to a whole new level.

What is The Hindu Group’s innovation roadmap?

Deep understanding of the reader base is very essential for the success of any digital business. We are keen to understand what our readers are thinking, feeling and seeking at any given point in their journey with us, so we can better personalize their experience.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) have huge potential to transform the publishing industry in this regard. By profiling readers’ behaviour, ML engines can help identify stories that are most relevant to a reader.

At the same time, AI can also help with content aggregation and identify related stories. This provides much-needed context for a customer who is coping with information overload. This also helps strengthen the customer-publication relationship by adding value.

We are looking to adopt augmented AI technologies that are always working in the background and in real-time to continuously learn and enhance user engagement.

Another interesting thing we are looking to pursue is to use conversational AI for voice-activated search on our website. Compared to text-based search, conversational length will provide more clues needed to understand the context of the search.

The results can be more accurate, driving more engagement. If this is applied to archived content, it can create a new revenue stream with ample monetization opportunities. If suitably aided with data gathered from subscribers’ reading behaviour, conversational AI can help customers discover more of our content that is very apt for them.

AI-leveraged bots and voice assistants can also be used to help subscribers on the ‘Path to Purchase’. If linked to reader profiling engines, it can be used to promote new products or bundles. It can be used to build self-service subscription management.

We are looking to actively pursue some of the above, in addition to many more innovative initiatives in the next few months.