Explained: How Vikatan became a contextual content company driven by technology
Reading newspapers and periodicals is part of Tamil psyche. Several legacy magazines have withstood the onslaught of time because Tamils continue to read and love what they have grown up with. A magazine that has been around for 93 years is Ananda Vikatan. This weekly has not only survived, but has also reinvented itself to emerge as a formidable multimedia group.
Vikatan has been ranked number one Tamil weekly by the Indian Readership Survey (IRS). Its TV shows reach 12 million homes. It has 12 million Facebook followers, 8 million subscribers on YouTube, and 2 million followers on Twitter.
Ananda Vikatan was started in February 1926 as a monthly publication. In 1928, SS Vasan, the original media mogul of Tamil Nadu (producer of the iconic film Chandralekha), bought the promoters out and relaunched the publication in February 1928 in a new format. He built it up into a weekly and sales rose. It introduced a new generation of writers who went on to become popular. S Balasubramanian, Vasan’s son, took over in 1956, and was the editor, managing director and publisher of the magazine till 2006.
He, too, mentored generations of journalists and writers. He introduced a student journalism scheme that is still active. It has created 1,500 potential journalists, 500 of them actively pursuing the profession, and 100-150 absorbed by the Vikatan Group. Balasubramanian also launched Junior Vikatan, a biweekly Tamil investigative journal in the 1980s, which broke many stories.
His son B Srinivasan joined Ananda Vikatan as soon as he graduated in 1990. The magazine then was the darling of the middle classes. It was trundling along comfortably, although it had lost its number one position to johnny-come-lately Kumudam. Ananda Vikatan regained top position in the mid-2000s.
“It took me time to settle in. I made mistakes and learnt,” says Srinivasan. In 1998, he launched an evening paper, which was a disaster. He shut it down and moved on. He had to figure out how to target the new young reader, but also satisfy his traditional steady customers.
Couple of years down the line, Srinivasan launched Aval Vikatan, a magazine for women. “The first few years we were promoting it as a magazine for liberated women. It did not take off. Our research showed that homemakers did not like it; they didn’t see it as inclusive. It was a shock. We then corrected our mistakes and repackaged the product, introducing special supplements appealing to all ages. We have gone beyond what is defined to be a women’s magazine,” he says. Now, Vikatan has 12 brands that cover almost all subjects the readers are interested in. It has magazines for children, spirituality history and culture, automobile, finance and investment, farming and healthy living.
Vikatan’s entry into TV space was not planned. After the Gulf War, satellite channels became popular. Sun TV launched a cable channel and was a runaway success. Although originally sceptical, Srinivasan felt the group must put a foot in the medium before rivals stepped in. In 1998, Vikatan got an opportunity to do a TV serial for Sun, and it hasn’t looked back. Its soaps have been some of the blockbusters on TV. “We have done more than 21,000 episodes in five languages. Our serials have mostly been number one on Tamil TV. We have had a great run,” he says.
Vikatan went online in 1997 because its readers outside the state were getting the magazine late due to postal delays. It made sense to put content online for Tamil readers abroad. “Our content was free, and we were putting in substantial investments in infrastructure. By 2005, the experiment was turning unviable. We decided on digital subscription fee. To our surprise, our operations turned profitable in 100 days. Our digital revenues—pay and ad revenues—have been growing by a compound annual rate of 35%. We have advertisers who swear by the response and audience connect on our site. Several of our ad campaigns are response-driven.”
To take the group forward, Srinivasan did something unusual. While attending a digital innovation summit in Germany in 2015, he decided to get an innovation expert to help the group get ahead in print, digital and social media. The UK-based Innovation Media Consulting Group was hired. John Wilpers, who then worked with Srinivasan, says, “We talked to everybody in the group about what they thought was going right and wrong. It took courage on Srinivasan’s part to let employees talk to us without him being present. We got inputs from advertisers as well to work on the mission of the paper. We spoke to 300 people on the change process. It was being done not top-down, but bottom-up.” This process let people take on new roles.
Srinivasan says that after a few early hiccups, the contents of the 206-page document the Innovation Media Consulting Group presented them were implemented successfully. IRS numbers prove that. More than one-third of Tamil magazine readers are Vikatan readers. According to the latest IRS figures, there has been double-digit growth across magazines, with an addition of 1,52,000 new readers.
Vikatan has six active YouTube channels with 8 million subscribers and 7.5 million views per day. Mobile users comprise 86% of the viewers. “We are the first YouTube partner who can sell spots within our channel,” Srinivasan says. Vikatan is collaborating on the first digital soap that is likely to be launched by September. Srinivasan also believes in staying relevant by constantly creating new apps.
In seven years, Vikatan will celebrate its 100th birthday. A market leader, Srinivasan hopes to stay ahead by building an experience-driven, contextual content company focused on technology.