His website introduces him as: ‘Sanjay Trehan is a new economy guru and shares his corner on the web on his art works, poems and articles on the internet economy, human relationships...’. Author of a published poetry book, he is currently the business head – digital content and syndication of HT Media. He rejoined the organisation six months ago from Microsoft, where he was head – MSN and MSN Apps India (2009-‘15). His had first spent time at HT from 2001, as the chief of internet.
Trehan’s digital journey began 18 years ago with Jaldi.com – an e-commerce portal. Yes, they did exist back then. Admitting that it was much ahead of its time, he says what attracted him to it is its egalitarian and empowering nature, while also being challenging as a medium.
“It (internet) deals with content and community, which is close to my heart,” he explains. Sitting in his Gurgaon office, Trehan is upbeat about the promise that the internet holds for the country, and hence, company. He says, “HT is aware of the tremendous monumental shift that is happening in the digital and mobile landscape in India. The company is keen to make HT ready for the future, and for the younger generation of our consumers.”
‘Leap of faith’
Trehan underlines that the whole organisation is going through a reinvention of sorts, including its various brands that are readying to become mobile-first and digital-savvy products. There is renewed focus of the company’s leadership on reinventing HT in the digital space. To this end, HT is in the midst of creating ‘one of the largest’ converged newsrooms with a centralised pool of resources at its head office (Connaught Place, Delhi).
Trehan observes that the journalists of Hindustan Times, Hindustan, and Mint would sit together on a single floor with the mandate to file a story as and when it breaks, irrespective of platform. The journalist shall file for mobile, digital, and print unlike before, when they used to file their stories once a day. This gives HT the advantage of immediacy, making its products on mobile and web more real-time and contemporary, he contends.
“It is a giant leap of faith, which is getting actioned as we speak,” Trehan says. While this may put more pressure on journalists, Trehan is positive that HT is doing it the right way. “We are not just mandating this from the top but also ensuring that they are up-skilled and are enthused by the new opportunity.”
“We are building upon our diverse brand platform with a view to expand our reach globally. Beginning a ‘Digital First’ culture with a view to drive breaking news as well as localised news, we plan to build scale through convergence of efforts in the print and web spaces. The opportunity landscape is not just limited to English. Hindi language web too, offers significant opportunities, which we plan to capitalise upon,” explains the digital evangelist.
When asked about the incremental change in page views, Trehan says that there has been a steady growth, thus far, and expects to build on this for the next couple of years. He emphasises HT’s vision to emerge as a leading player in India’s rapidly growing digital landscape with a strategy to deliver relevant digital experiences across information, education and entertainment. Until date, HT has not introduced a pay model for its any of its internet products. Online advertising including native, display or banner continues to be the revenue mainstay. Despite digital being the buzzword, Trehan points out that the single biggest challenge is monetisation.
“One big challenge that is behind us is the audience traction. Revenues, however, have not grown with the same traction as the audience. While we are definitely seeing shift of advertising dollars to digital, they have not happened at the speed with which audience has moved,” he says.
“A sizeable investment is being made in an integrated digital newsroom with best-in-class content management systems and facilities. A slew of transformational initiatives across content, user experiences, traffic generation, apps and newsroom innovation are part of our plan to reinvigorate hindustantimes.com, livemint.com and livehindustan.com,” Trehan claims.
The ‘monetisation engine’ is still behind as far as Hindi audience is concerned. But Trehan points to some of the company’s competitors seeing large audiences on their Hindi websites, adding that Hindustan is also in a process of ‘scaling up dramatically’. “We are still not getting the ECPMs (effective cost per million) on Hindi website,” he rues.
Quoting studies that indicate that 25 per cent of all advertising spend will move to digital in the next three to five years, Trehan says the numbers augur very well for digital players.
Trehan has also worked in advertising. He began his career with Lowe (then Lintas) after acquiring a Master’s in History from St Stephen’s College. He insists that the client and agency learning curves need to be enhanced. He elaborates, “They are used to buying slots on broadcast media – and it’s an easy buy for them. Digital is performance-oriented medium. It is more demanding because it is more granular – both in terms of buying and measuring response. Thus, to some extent, it also requires different kind of understanding.”
He is quick to add that most agencies have started putting in their best people in digital. Calling it a positive movement, he expects this movement to get consolidated in next three to five years in a big way. HT Media too is bracing itself for the coming wave, incubating HT Brand Studio, to offer innovations brand solutions.
Calling the internet a ubiquitous medium, Trehan says that HT is very keen on continuously revamping its mobile products. “We are focussing on app-ification of all our products, and will continue to build on it. Apps are part of solution of our digital solutions in a native digital ecosystem,” he notes, adding that apps would remain an important part of the brand’s strategy going forward.
Currently, the percentage of digital audience that consumes HT’s content only on mobile is in excess of 50 per cent according to Trehan, who also takes care of syndication business at HT. His team of close to 80 people is in expansion mode.
Calling himself a student of the internet, Trehan has been credited for developing MSN.in as a digital content platform. He was also central to the plans of NDTV Convergence (2007-‘09) to build synergy between TV channels, the internet, and mobile space as its founding CEO. He was VP, broadband and web 2.0 at Times Internet from 2005-‘07.
He, however, agrees that despite various start-ups and investments in the Indian digital ecosystem, the level of disruption has not kept pace. Calling ‘me-toos’ the nature of beast, he foresees only few of them surviving in the long run.
On HT’s pace in a digitally charged environment, Trehan insists that his team is focused on developing new audiences and content platforms, leveraging all types of emerging advertising opportunities, and opening new markets for syndicating premium content. “We will be incubating new digital properties in the next three years,” surmises Trehan.
(This article first appeared in the 13 November 2015 issue of Campaign India)