Western publishers can learn a lot from their counterparts in the fast-changing South East Asian markets. Media organisations in countries such as Vietnam and Singapore are innovating across mobile and other platforms; with Cambodia being no exception.
Best known as the home of the stunning Angkor Wat the country has changed dramatically in the decades since it was ruled by the now notorious Khmer Rouge. The capital, Phnom Penh, is an increasingly vibrant city and two-thirds of the country (65.3%) are under 30.
This youth skew inevitably impacts on the work of media organisations; as does the speed of internet growth.
Although only 25% of the country is online – below the global average of 49% – We Are Social notes – that internet take-up in Cambodia grew by a staggering 414% in the past year. This number may, they suggest, be exaggerated by more accurate reporting, but nonetheless the rapid internet adoption curve in the country is clear.
More widely, they observe:
“APAC countries recorded 180 million new internet users since last year’s report (January 2014), meaning we’re seeing more than 1.25 million new users each month – that’s more than 5 new users every second.”
No wonder this is a region to watch.
Cambodia’s Media & Tech Markets
A Pittsburgh native, Josh moved to New York after graduation where he worked for the New Jersey Herald and The Star-Ledger, as well as Patch when it was run by The Huffington Post; launching the news agency’s Newark site and covering local crime and politics. After completing a Master’s in Emergency Management, from Metropolitan College of New York, he moved to Cambodia Daily in late 2011.
“The media landscape changed a lot in the last year,” Wilwohl told us, “print consumption is down whilst digital circulation is increasing more and more as people in cities turn to digital.”
Newspapers, he suggested, are undergoing the disruption experienced 6-7 years ago in Western markets, but at a more rapid pace due to Cambodia’s young – mostly mobile – society.
“3G is available everywhere,” he notes and mobile penetration is well over 100%. “A lot of Cambodians have more than one phone and SIM,” (one for work, family, friends) and increasingly ”everyone has a smartphone.”
Wilwohl spoke of queues around the block for new iPhone releases, even when Apple didn’t have an official distributor in the country with fanboys having to shop on the grey market for the latest handset.
In a country where the World Bank reports (2011 figures) over 40% of the population live on less than $2 a day, an unlocked iPhone 5 selling on the grey market at $800 is clearly out of the price range of most Cambodian consumers. Samsung, Huawei and other brands are more affordable, but still too expensive for many Cambodians.
There is a “big disparity between rich and poor in Cambodia,” Wilwohl acknowledges, but there is a “growing middle class [and] that’s the market for media, they’re the ones buying electronics and demanding Western-like services,” he says.
For publications like the Cambodia Daily this is where much of their focus for growth lies. Mobile readers are about 50% of total digital readers, up from a third in the past 12 months.
A rapid digital journey
Cambodia Daily’s first website launched, using WordPress, in October 2012. “The Daily had been so focused on the print product that digital fell by the wayside,” Wilwohl admits.
Since then it’s grown and developed at an astonishing pace.
Wilwohl recently worked with a developer in India, Puneet Sahalot, to develop the paper’s unique paywall system; introducing this model of digital subscription was made all the more challenging when less than 30,000 people – out of a country of 15 million – have a credit card.
The Daily’s solution was to to create subscriber cards, which can be purchased at a minimart.
The same size as phone credit cards, users input the code on the back of the card to get access to the site for a month.
The benefit of this, Wilwohl explains, is that “people without credit cards can still pay for your content.”
Launched in March 2015, this approach has “already paid for paywall development costs,” Wilwohl says, “generating revenue which pays for all digital expenditure at the paper.”
A legacy operator just two decades old
“The Daily has been around for more than 20 years, so like most legacy publications print makes the most money.”
“Transitioning advertisers and subscribers is our next task,” Wilwohl says as part of a wider drive for more digital growth.
The impact of this on the day-to-day business can be discernible.
When he arrived at the Cambodia Daily, the team was still using Macs from the early 2000s, Wilwohl cheerily admits.
“Money from [our] paywall enabled us to purchase chromeboxes and chromebooks,” he says, with the team now using “the cloud and Google Drive to manage our workflow.”
“Reporters can work and file from anywhere, we can easily track edits, and we soon will use Lucidpress to layout the paper in the cloud.” These changes have all happened in the past six months. “Previously everything was very archaic,” Wilwohl concedes.
The team hard at work. Image: Ben Woods
The importance of social and SMS
“A lot of Cambodians are on social networks, so advertisers will reach a much larger audience through social media,” Wilwohl told us.
However, because “people are seeking out news,” it’s just as important for the Cambodia Daily to be active on social channels as their Western counterparts.
“We use Facebook and Twitter,” he says, although “Twitter is not popular and Facebook is the only social network of any popularity in Cambodia.”
“We update our Facebook page every hour with a different story and a link to it. Engagement we’re still working on; encouraging people to go beyond the headlines provided by social.”
The newspaper is also active on WhatsApp and Line.
“You can share articles via Line, and we are looking at creating newsgroups to push out headlines,” Wilwohl says.
More recently, in the past month, the publication has launched a new text alert service (right).
Working with a local telco, the paper provides twice daily news alerts plus breaking news.
Unlike the approach taken by many Western publishers, for the Cambodia Daily this is a potential revenue source.
Subscribers have to sign up for alerts, and pay for it, something which is made easier by the fact that Cambodia’s mobile market is predominantly pre-paid.
Alongside this, the team also launched email news alerts – the Cambodia Daily Morning Report – last September. They’re currently adding 10 new subscribers a day.
That might not sound like much, but that’s akin to more than 3,500 subscribers a year.
“One of the benefits of the Daily is [that we are] small and that allows room for experimentation,” Wilwohl observes.
“There’s many things we’ve tried to do before which have failed, but we’re still light years ahead of the other news outlets for digital in the country and in the region.”
“Print is where advertisers still turn to first,” Wilwohl admits and “advertisers pay more for print.”
Nonetheless, he believes that differentiating between the print and digital products – the two currently offer the same thing – will help to boost subscribers and digital advertisers.
“We’re targeting a niche market foreigners, NGO workers, diaspora and politicians,” he notes, and this is an audience tailor made for premium content and a certain class of advertisers such as “airlines, real estate and high end hotels.”
The digital team of Josh and two Cambodians working on the Khmer language site, is lean compared to 40 people working on the main paper. But it also means “less bureaucracy” and opportunities to “quickly do something, test it and see if it works.”
Finding local hires with the right technical skills is arguably Wilwohl’s biggest challenge, but if these issues can be overcome, then he has a clear idea of where he wants to go next:
“We’re looking at customisation, once you log in [to our site] you get a dashboard and can save articles. We have to differentiate to encourage payment and if they’re paying for it, people want more than just access.”
Plans currently being developed include different homepages for different subscribers based on their likes, what they save in the dashboard, their searches.
Our approach is “we know what you like and we’re going to serve it to you,” Wilwohl says. “Like everyone else, we see the changes in media that are happening and know that if we don’t change then we’re going to fall behind.”