Photo: Military-constructed roundabout in Mawlamyine, Myanmar, reminding citizens to get to work

Myanmar has continued to open up for business following its democratic transition starting in 2012, but the country’s independent media now face growing economic challenges.

The country is evolving into a mobile-first media market, dominated by Facebook’s Free Basics. While its carrier partnerships bring affordable mobile internet to most of the country, Free Basics renders as paid content the digital media environment outside Facebook’s brands, which greatly reduces audience appetite for it. Mobile users count their kilobytes and avoid slow, heavy news websites when they can get content quickly and without cost via Facebook. Publishers face growing demand from their audiences to put all of their content inside the Facebook environment, which is a risky audience strategy and currently hard to monetise.

Compounding this is the apparent strengthening of relationships between state, research groups and media buying agencies which keeps much of the estimated USD 200m annual ad market away from independent media. Nation-wide campaigns are directed to a few large media groups, with the smaller media needing to find creative ways to edge in via intermediaries.

So how is Newsgain helping?

Our first task has been to evaluate current performance, comparing our partners to benchmarks we’ve established from analysis of our news publisher partners globally. This is the foundation for audience growth and improved user engagement. We then mentor our partners in being data-driven, gaining new audiences, making technical and editorial adjustments, forging commercial partnerships and creating diversified revenue sources.

In our recent 9-day trip to Myanmar, we assessed numerous avenues for growth, including those in print and broadcast. We focused heavily on digital development as this is where independent media there are furthest behind the market. Our one-on-one consultations brought together stakeholders and staff, achieving on-the-spot technical improvements and behavioural change, setting a path for growth that might otherwise take many months to achieve. We captured baseline organisational and digital performance data and set a course for traffic growth, improved user engagement, technical improvements, ad sales strategies and new innovations. The aims are simple: expand audiences and monetise.

Based mostly in Yangon, we also travelled across Kayah and Shan States between meetings, offering us valuable insights into regional business in those areas. As outsiders, it can be hard to imagine how far away from a thriving media environment some areas of Myanmar are, despite the country’s rapid rate of development. On a four-hour drive, we saw very few branded businesses that could take the step of advertising to fuel growth.

Our involvement is part of the Internews implementation of business management and digital media development components of the USAID-funded Civil Society and Media Project, for which FHI360 is the lead organisation.

In addition to its commercial operations, Newsgain works with organisations that strengthen independent media in some of the world’s most challenging environments.