Charting Out a New Direction: VOA Urdu Service

VOA Urdu

On July 2, 2012, thanks to the advanced Pangea platform and a wide variety of multimedia tools, Voice of America (VOA) Urdu’s proactive approach and new website changed the way that their audience engaged with the content.  VOA Urdu’s Internet Managing Editor Imran Siddiqui and Office of Digital and Design Innovation’s (ODDI) Project Manager Marlene Wright jointly developed a plan that has proven that there can be an exponential—and most importantly, organic—growth of fans and followers in a very short period of time.

How It All Began
“Before this, we were nowhere,” points out VOA Urdu’s Managing Editor Internet Imran Siddiqui, “All we had was just a site where we put up stuff everyday…now we have well defined areas of focus.”  Siddiqui joined the VOA Urdu management team this year.  He had big plans to utilize new technology and to let young Pakistanis drive the content so they had a reason to engage.  According to the UK’s The Telegraph, over 66% of the Pakistani population is under the age of 30.  This is an astounding number, especially since a high percentage of this population is plagued by unemployment, a lack of education, and a lack of opportunity.

Under the guidance of Urdu’s new Service Chief Faiz Rehman, the VOA Urdu Web team, Rohit Kulkarni of VOA South Asia Division, and Marlene Wright from ODDI, a new and improved Pangea CMS-driven website was designed as an outlet for Pakistanis to discuss the issues that matter most to them on platforms that are easy to access—mobile, tablet, or laptop.


Improved Web Design
The new and improved website is no longer static.  The widgets on the page change the content within each focus area (such as top stories or entertainment) so users are aware of other engaging original content that is available.  Without clicking on anything, users are able to see all the major headlines—which makes browsing on mobile and tablets easier than ever before.

“Our users think our site is friendly, they’re happy that things play right, it’s easy to navigate, and it’s highly visual and attractive,” noted Siddiqui, “At the same time—people really like that they can watch or listen to our programs and browse (readable) content all from the same main webpage on the same platform. This is a paradigm shift for our young and savvy audience”.


Top Focus Areas on VOA Urdu

  1. Top News
  2. Pakistan
  3. South Asia
  4. U.S news
  5. Youth and Education
  6. Entertainment
  7. Weather (it’s currently monsoon season)
  8. Urdu Community

“We took time to figure out the topics and categories that the target area would be interested in.  We didn’t just put up stories, we wanted to know where their interests lie,” said Wright.  “It’s paying off,” added Siddiqui, “The areas that we wanted focus on are exactly what the audience is going to.”  Siddiqui and Wright hope that once they figure out a full scope of specific target areas that are of interest on the front page, they can replicate the strategy on other pages of the VOA Urdu site, which is going on as we speak.


Top Web Product of VOA Urdu: Access Point with Ayesha Tanzeem

This show allows Pakistanis to ask questions that they’ve never been able to ask before—such as tough questions about the drone strikes in their neighborhoods.  Siddiqui and his team are currently streaming Access Point live on the website while the show is also live on satellite every Thursday for any affiliate to carry as a free product to air—but the focus lies within engagement online.


VOA Urdu Teaming Up to Put on Community Programs:
Paak Pakistan – With Abdul Aziz Khan and Amina Kamal Khan – Guinness Book of World Records
Paak Pakistan
Paak Pakistan has secured the support of the Guinness Book of World Records and the World Wide Fund for Nature to engage in a World Record Attempt to film 150,000 Pakistanis who will get together in the coming months of October/November 2012 to clean up Karachi, Pakistan.  The campaign is called Paak Pakistan (“Clean Pakistan”) and is meant to be the largest citywide garbage clean up ever done.


Don’t Underestimate the Power of Facebook
VOA Urdu’s Facebook fan count has outpaced that of BBC Urdu.  After taking a look at the analytics, Siddiqui found that users were being driven to the website from Facebook.  The content posts cleanly to their Facebook walls—with colorful images and short descriptions.  Friends then click the link to the article on the website, and then they tend to become fans in order to get updates in their own news feed.  The website is also a source of traffic to Facebook, which means that the Facebook button is prominently placed on the website.
VOA Urdu Facebook


Promoting the New VOA Urdu – The American Way
Wright noted that “(Siddiqui and his team) did not do any promotions to tell people they had changed the look and feel of the VOA Urdu website… all they did was made it more user friendly and made the link to Facebook prominent.”

One might also wonder, what was it that caused VOA to exceed the BBC in Facebook followers?  “We’re more engaging.  It’s basically the American way versus the British way.  We’re in your face and (the British) are more laid back… but being laid back is a thing of the past when it comes to journalism,” explained Siddiqui.  “We had guests on air via Skype that were located in the far fledged north western regions of Pakistan.  This is where the drone strikes were happening.  No one had ever had covered or taken these live guests on Skype because other journalists (discounted them because they thought that) they couldn’t read or write.  But they can use Skype.  In fact, a (representative) from the U.S. State Department was here in studio answering guests from that region.  The Pakistani youth were asking questions in English,” remarked Siddiqui.

Perhaps most importantly, Siddiqui and his team see themselves as 21st century independent journalists and aspire not to be perceived as part of a propaganda machine.  They see the desire for Pakistanis to simply be informed and have a voice in what happens in their region.  “We’re candid, we work with facts, we’re building a global Urdu brand and now we have a platform where people can engage … that’s who we are,” concluded Siddiqui.


On a weekly basis, Siddiqui and his team put up polls on the front page of the website.  “We take the data from the whole week and then write an analysis based on it.

The Pakistani diaspora especially like to pick that up and engage with it.  They want to know how many people are for this or against that.  Some of the Pakistani TV channels and newspapers picked up some of our polls and analysis.  In fact, there was a newspaper in India that picked up our U.S press round up that we conduct on a weekly basis under the leadership of Urdu Radio Managing Editor Razi Rizvi.  The same is with other news outlets in Pakistan but the news papers often don’t give us any credit, but that’s okay, we know what’s going on.”


Syndication Deals
In addition to all the developments above, VOA Urdu is securing major syndication deals with networks in Pakistan and other networks in the region. Syndication includes an agreement with the Pakistani High Commission in the UK and with UK universities include VOA Urdu web content on their websites.  Pakistani audiences and the diaspora often visit these websites, so there is a great chance for an increased readership base and for them to learn how to participate in different programs.


Next Phases:

1. Expanding Blogs—Siddiqui: “We want to (reach out to) the top bloggers in Pakistan and let them be super bloggers on our website.  We’ll have a widget that updates what they’re up to on our website and that’ll drive a lot of traffic.  We want to use more localized content to engage audiences as well as support young and emerging bloggers to work with our more experienced writers and bloggers at Urdu VOA.”

2. User Generated Content—“When users start seeing folks from the target areas actually contributing to the website, they trust it more,” noted Wright.  “(There was) this guy who went out with a camera and started to report on doctors in his community who had been writing fake prescriptions in Pakistan,” Siddiqui explained to show the importance of user generated content ideas.

3. Internet TV—Since further funding for Siddiqui’s ideas won’t be available until he has actionable data to prove that web shows are the way of the future, Siddiqui is coming up with new age and interactive strategies so that he can provide fresh and relevant content to viewers in a timely manner.  He hopes that since his team’s data proves what direction they should go in, and that live video can be sent to the Pangea CMS directly without Ustream as a third-party paid platform.


Siddiqui’s Advice

  1. “Stop standing in creative people’s way,” states Siddiqui, “let the specialists manage ideas … they know the target region. Help them with the technology, help with the funding and help them execute those ideas. That’s where BBG should come in.  Otherwise we will keep hitting walls and won’t get anywhere.  The best example of this was as soon as we were given (the go ahead to build on our ideas) … look at the mind-blowing results.  The web traffic is increasing but that varies and, most importantly, over a million users crossing our social media platforms is also worth noting.”
  2. “The web TV programs are generating more traffic than anything.  This speaks volumes for what the agency should be doing in terms of Internet and social media development.”
  3. “Make sure all satellite TV shows are on demand on the web.  Let your audience access it when it is most convenient for them.”
  4. “Put on programming 7 days a week, even it if it web-only.  If the show and the content is worthwhile, there will be an audience waiting to watch it daily.  Bottom line is, if it’s visually interactive and engaging it’ll be a hit.”
  5. “Data doesn’t lie. Use it to your advantage.”
  6. “Don’t underestimate your audience or the power of the Internet.  Find the best way to marry these two things together, and you wont look back.”
  7. “Be sure to tag and incorporate strong metadata on each page and in each article. People in Pakistan, in terms of restriction of news and analysis…they’re going crazy using all the new technology to get the content they want.  I think the tagging, goggle analytics and metadata within the site has a lot to do with it.”


“The agency needs to put more resources and money into projects like this… this is where we need to go.  There is no limit to what we can do.  We hope we can help the agency chart out a new direction for this century,” concluded Siddiqui.


For more info:

  • VOA Urdu:
  • VOA Urdu on Facebook:


To contact Imran Siddiqui:

To contact Marlene Wright:


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(Thank you to Imran Siddiqui and Marlene Wright for their contributions to this post.)

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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April Deibert

April Deibert

April Deibert is the Multimedia Blogger/Producer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow her on Twitter: @BBGinnovate and @AprilDeibert.

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