Talking in tongues

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on September 04, 2018

Clear vision Thanks to Internet penetration, digital players are seeing a surge in rural demand   -  pixelfusion3d

The stars of hi-tech, e-commerce and entertainment are going regional to reach out to the next 100 million customers

It’s all in the numbers. And the numbers show Internet use is exploding in small-town and rural India. In 2017, India had around 481 million users and the bulk of these — 295 million — were city dwellers compared to 186 million Internet users in outlying areas. But by 2021, that urban-rural divide will flip, projects Ernst and Young, and out of 829 million Internet users, 429 million will be from small-town and rural India while 400 million will be in the big cities.

This forecast demographic reversal is a game-changer that’s forcing firms to double-down on targeting people in remoter areas. In essence, India is at a “digital tipping point,” explains Ernst and Young, and with audiences in outlying regions growing fastest, this will radically change the type of content being consumed.

Grappling with challenges

On the front-lines, grappling with these challenges, are the e-commerce and OTT entertainment companies seeking to win new customers in parts of India hitherto largely overlooked. (OTT, by the way, stands for Over The Top, and refers to a way of distributing content over the Internet via streaming).

But while Internet connectivity makes it easier to reach out to more far-flung regions, there are also significant hurdles. For instance, companies really need to speak to buyers and viewers in their own regional language. Notes Uday Sodhi, Sony Picture Networks’ digital business chief: “Our focus (is) on curating regional content” as“75 per cent of the emerging Internet users consume content in their local language.” Another network executive sums up the changed linguistic priorities, declaring, “regional is the new national.”

The e-commerce giants, for their part, have noted many new users are more comfortable using voice assistants that can convert speech to text and are acquiring the technology to do just that. For instance, Flipkart’s bought, a three-year-old artificial intelligence company which says it can handle speech commands in English and nine regional languages, including Hindi, Tamil and Bengali. Of course, south India is a big market for regional content with demand greatest for Tamil and Telugu. Other important languages for content providers are Marathi and Bengali.

Flipkart’s rival Amazon, which sees India as a crucial market, is also moving swiftly down the same path. It has just launched a Hindi version of its mobile website and app for Android users and a company executive said, “Hindi is a critical step to actually address the next 100 million customers.” It is also looking at offering other languages and will be on other mobile platforms. India was the fourth country, after the US, the UK and Germany, to get the company’s voice assistant, Alexa, which has been trained to understand the trickier aspects of pronouncing Indian names. So far, Alexa’s only mastered Indian English and some key words in vernacular languages, but the company’s looking at training it to understand more languages.

The e-commerce companies are looking as well at ways to lure back customers discouraged by their first online retail experience. One study suggests nearly 54 million people, mostly rural Indians, have made only one Internet transaction and never repeated the experiment.

Merely attracting these customers back online could boost sales considerably. Also, in rural areas, it seems women are less likely to buy from an e-commerce site. Changing their shopping habits offers huge growth headroom. Still, a lot of confidence-building work is needed because, as a Bain report notes, it seems a substantial portion of the population don’t trust the Internet for buying products.

TV channels fine-tuning

India’s TV channels, meanwhile, have long known Hindi’s spoken by 65 per cent of the country and that this leaves a massive chunk of people, particularly in the South, who’d rather watch entertainment in another language. Sony’s found when it comes to OTT platforms, 93 per cent of viewers watch programmes in the language in which they’re most comfortable and that — after Hindi — Tamil and Telugu have highest language content viewership.

SonyLIV has over 400 shows in regional languages, including Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali. Meanwhile, another OTT platform, Voot, launched a Marathi channel last week and 18 multi-lingual made-for-the-web series. “Regionalisation will increase going forward. Before you were constrained by technology,” says Ashish Pherwani, media and entertainment sector leader, Ernst and Young.

The crossover into regional programming has also created huge demand for a constant content stream. Last year, SonyLIV launched its first Marathi web series and followed by an original Gujarati serial, Kacho Papad. Says Sodhi: “We’ve content spread across various regional languages like Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam (and) across formats like web-originals and films.”

Jio effect

But there’s another important catalyst driving digital growth and that, of course, is Reliance Jio, which slashed data charges to a fraction of what they were two years ago. Cheap data and 4G’s spread has turned India into a nation consuming vast amounts of video online. One executive sums it up, saying: “India’s in the midst of a data/video revolution.”

The E&Y study reckoned the online video audience would jump from 250 million in 2017 to 500 million in 2020. And by 2020, video is expected to account for some 72 per cent of mobile-services consumption. Data usage in India has almost reached first-world levels and by 2020 India’s forecast to have the second-largest online viewing audience globally.

The world’s top tech companies like Google and Facebook also are seeking ways to reach larger numbers of Indian users. Google’s working, for example, on the range of services it offers employing text and voice assistants. Google search now offers nine languages. Google Maps users can access voice navigation in six Indian languages in addition to Hindi. Doing all this means heavy reliance on advanced artificial intelligence. Facebook and Google share over 60 per cent of India’s digital advertising market.

The entertainment companies, though, have a leg up-on e-commerce firms as they’ve done all this before. Says Pherwani, “TV reaches about 680 million people. That’s a huge number. It’s only reached that because it’s in regional languages and it’ll keep growing as more content happens in different languages.” One thing’s for sure: the years ahead will be vastly different for e-commerce and entertainment companies — and all of them will be using the same playbook titled “Disruption.”

Published on September 04, 2018

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