Crossing The Digital Divide

Simon Kemp | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on August 27, 2015


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There is big business opportunity in bridging the gap

William Gibson, the Canadian author who coined the term ‘cyberspace’, famously commented: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Nowhere is this uneven distribution more apparent than in India, where a clear divide exists between urban and rural populations

There may be a number of reasons for this divide, of course, but as long as it persists, it limits the potential of the entire nation.

Numerous studies have shown that the internet provides a powerful catalyst for social and economic empowerment. In its report on the Value of Connectivity, management consultancy Deloitte highlights the wide-ranging benefits of internet access across society:

“In developing nations, the internet has the potential to … create new ways to communicate and socialise, new business models and industries, and more efficient ways for firms and workers to operate. These innovations [have not only] impacted productivity, economic growth and business creation; they have also changed the way in which public services, healthcare and education are provided and shared.”

We Are Social’s previous studies into digital, social and mobile use in India (2011, 2012 and 2014) have all indicated that mobile internet access holds the key to breaking down this digital divide, but the availability and adoption of mobile internet services have not grown as quickly as one might expect.

Critically, less than half of India’s population owns a mobile phone, and one in seven Indians live in areas deprived of cellular phone reception of any kind. Even for those with internet access, fewer than half go online via mobile devices.

This may be related to the types of phone handsets in use across the country, with fewer than one in four Indians currently using the kind of smartphone device that delivers a comfortable and compelling mobile internet experience.

However, with the number of internet users in India increasing by 44 per cent in the past 12 months, there is clearly a large, under-served appetite for digital services in India.

Over the past year, three Indians used the internet for the first time every second, but even if we could maintain that rate, we would need another three years before even half of the country’s population has access.

The business opportunity: India’s government already has a number of policies and initiatives in place to address these challenges, but businesses also have a vital role to play in making ongoing, widespread internet access a reality for the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens.

The opportunities aren’t just limited to telecom companies and internet service providers, although these companies are best placed to help with improving internet access, and benefitting from its subsequent adoption; even consumer goods brands can help.

For example, organisations such as Pepsico could offer single-use mobile internet access codes with their products: ‘Enjoy 15 minutes of internet access while you enjoy your drink’.

Similarly, organisations such as Unilever or P&G could provide an hour of mobile internet access with each product – an hour that begins with a web page or video offering a beauty guide or healthcare tips featuring one of their brands.

Retailers could benefit from a model adopted in Indonesia too, where 7-Eleven has increased patronage amongst millennial consumers since introducing free Wi-Fi in its stores.

The Missing ‘W’

Over the past 25 years, the world has grown familiar with the ‘www’ abbreviation of the worldwide web, but another ‘w’ remains a distinctly unfamiliar sight on the web in India: Women. Even on Facebook – where We Are Social’s regional figures for Asia-Pacific suggest that usage should be relatively evenly balanced between the sexes – women account for less than 25 per cent of India’s user-base.

This ‘secondary divide’ is a real cause for concern, as it further limits women’s access to other forms of empowerment, such as education, healthcare and community support.

The lack of digital access amongst women should be cause for concern amongst marketers too, particularly those in consumer goods companies whose frequently evolving product portfolios require regular communication with widely dispersed, mass audiences.

The business opportunity: By helping widen internet access to women, businesses would be making not only a hugely valuable societal contribution; they would also be creating new opportunities for themselves.

By making it easier for women to find the information they need so that they can make better-informed purchase decisions – particularly via mobile internet services when they’re at physical world stores – marketers can help their brands stand out in India’s fiercely competitive marketplace, and also forge long-standing meaningful, reciprocal relationships.

Talk has value

Improved internet access can also help with that most elusive marketing outcome: Favourable word-of-mouth. Most marketers already understand the opportunities for consumers to follow and interact with their brands in social media, but it is the opportunity to inspire and fuel organic word of mouth – highly persuasive, peer-to-peer conversations – that holds the greatest potential.

As with everything in India’s internet story, however, social media access isn’t what most marketers might hope.

The country is already home to the world’s third-largest social media community after China and the US, but barely 10 per cent of India’s population used Facebook – the country’s most active social network – in the past month.

Once people start to use social media, however, they quickly become a central part of users’ daily media habits. Data from GlobalWebIndex, a research company that regularly surveys India’s internet users aged 15-64, show that Indian social media users spend an average of more than two-and-a-half hours every day using social media – 30 minutes more than they spend watching television. Social media also account for a significant proportion of the time India’s internet users spend online, and that share is creeping up as people use an increasing number of social platforms.

Facebook still dominates in terms of monthly active users, but WhatsApp is quickly gaining share across the country too. Despite the company’s plans to close the service in the near future, Google+ remains very popular with India’s netizens, with four out of every 10 GlobalWedIndex respondents claiming to have used the platform in the past month.

LinkedIn use is particularly high in India too, a finding that is of added interest to governments and education bodies in the light of economic empowerment.

It’s also worth highlighting that mobile social media use is more widespread than one might expect given the low figures for mobile internet use in general.

More than 72 per cent of the nation’s social media users logged in via a mobile device at least once in the past 30 days, and mobile-dedicated services such as WhatsApp, WeChat and Snapchat are the fastest growing in India’s social media scene.

The business opportunity: By making it easier for people to access social media more broadly, India’s businesses will create a wealth of opportunities to engage people throughout the consumer decision-making journey.

From introducing their brands to maintaining a dialogue with audiences who want to know more about a company’s products and services, social media offer a range of marketing tools that India’s businesses are only beginning to harness.

By listening to the conversations on social media – whether those are the conversations with them on their Facebook pages, or the organic discussions about them on Twitter and Instagram – marketers can identify new insights that can disrupt the entire marketing mix.

(Simon Kemp is the Regional Managing Partner for Asia at We Are Social, a global creative agency. He will be speaking at the IAA Silver Jubilee Summit in Kochi on September 4, 2015.)

Graphics by We are Social

Published on August 27, 2015
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