China-based UCWeb made a silent entry in the Indian subcontinent in 2011. This was the time when the Indian mobile browser market was dominated by players like Google Chrome and Opera. It was in August 2013, that UCWeb finally grabbed media attention after pushing down its nemesis Opera from top position. Since then, in the last six years, the company has sought to upgrade its positioning in India from a popular browsing tool to a digital content distribution platform.
In India, UCWeb first launched its mobile browser, UC Browser, which ranks today at the topmost position. By the end of March 2017, UC Browser’s share in the Indian market had been recorded as 52.30%, as per a Statcounter April 2017 report, the highest amidst other popular and global third-party mobile browsers, including Google Chrome (29.30%), Opera (9.40%), and Android (1.80%).
UCWeb is currently banking on its localised content and services in India. In the past few years, the company has already launched its international product portfolio which included, app and game distribution platforms (9Apps and 9Game), a mobile traffic platform (UC Union), content distribution platform UC News among others.
Recently, UCWeb also launched the We-Media Reward Plan 2.0, a user-generated content platform in India with an initial investment of $749K (INR 5 Cr). The company is already committed to invest $30 Mn in India and Indonesia over two years for driving content distribution.
We at Inc42 thought to have a closer look at the UCWeb India journey in India, its evolution from a mobile browser to a digital content distribution platform, and its future plans in the country.
For this purpose, we also had an in-depth conversation with Young Li, Head, International Business Department, Alibaba Mobile Business Group. Young Li was appointed to oversee the business of UCWeb, a key division within the Alibaba Mobile Business Group in May 2017. Prior to this, he was the head of UC News and played a key role in spearheading its success in markets such as India and Indonesia.
UCWeb Journey In India
Here is a brief timeline of UCWeb journey and key milestones achieved in India in the past six years.
In Conversation With UCWeb’s Young Li Over Digital Content Distribution In India
The conversation with Young Li majorly revolved around UCWeb’s journey in India, plus the response the company has received for its digital content distribution entities – UC News and We-Media Reward 2.0 plan to date. We also got a brief overview of UCWeb’s plans to deal with the challenges in India such as disseminating content in vernacular languages and fending off existing competition in the digital content distribution space. Lastly, we also tried to get a glimpse on how UCWeb is trying to leverage existing opportunities in mobile and video content distribution market in India.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Inc42: What factors made UCWeb foray into the Indian market?
Young Li: Smartphone penetration is expected to reach 520 Mn by 2020 (Ernst & Young January 2016 Mn by 2020 (Ernst & Young January 2016 report) and millions of Indian users are exploring the internet for the first time on their mobile phones. A mobile browser is now their gateway to internet and its potential is immense. India is one of the largest markets for us and currently drives our growth in the Asian continent. UC Browser is the leading mobile browser in India and Indonesia. We are the leader in Asia and one of the top three in the world. We established our first overseas headquarters in Gurugram five years ago. As of today, internet and its potential is immense. India is one of the largest markets for us and currently drives our growth in the Asian continent. UC Browser is the leading mobile browser in India and Indonesia. We are the leader in Asia and one of the top three in the world. We established our first overseas headquarters in Gurugram five years ago. As of today, we have reached 100 Mn monthly active users, many of whom are mobile-only users.
Inc42: Tell us about the evolution of UCWeb from a mobile browsing tool to a digital content distribution platform.
Young Li: With the changing mobile internet landscape, UCWeb has adopted a strategy of becoming a content distribution platform from being a browsing tool. For this, UCWeb has introduced engaging and aggregating diverse form of content on its platforms, UC Browser and UC News.
With the growth in the consumption of information feeds, non-conventional news feeds including blog posts, independent write ups, imagery feeds, video logs, short video content and more have become a huge hit. In the near future, more professionally-trained content contributors will establish themselves as “We-Media”, a collective term for those who turn themselves into independent media brands.
Inc42: At the time of the UC News launch, Alibaba announced to invest $30 Mn to drive the content distribution wagon in India. How are the funds to be utilised and what is the expected timeline for the same?
Young Li: The funds will primarily be used to tap the huge potential of user-generated content in India via our news distribution and content platform, UC News. In 2017 alone, we plan to add more than 30,000 self-publishers, bloggers and key opinion leaders to our platform, generating over 10,000 articles for UC News, every single day. Users are embracing diverse digital content and their appetite for such content is being met by UC News. Going forward, we are also targeting more diversified and localised content on our platform by the end of 2017 to make the local content ecosystem stronger.
Inc42: How is UC News, the content distribution arm of UC Web, doing in India? What are your plans for FY ‘18 here?
Young Li: UCWeb, in every market, is guided by its mission to connect people. We want to be the window through which people access information, opportunities which make a meaningful difference to their lives. We utilise technology, use data compression to enable faster downloads, and cloud computing technology which facilitates faster page downloads without attracting stiff download charges from mobile carriers. Our focus is to build and enhance our user base in India. The success and adoption rates so far have been encouraging and, going forward, our focus will remain on the localisation of products with a view to driving deeper content and service integration, making UC Browser the super application on a handset.
2016 has been a landmark year for UCWeb’s India journey with the launch of UC News, scores of partnerships, and scaling the 100 Mn user mark. UC News has witnessed astounding success since its launch in June 2016 and is currently one of the fastest-growing news and content aggregator apps on Google Play. The app has crossed 100 Mn Monthly Active Users (MAUs) in India and Indonesia as of April 2017. We are experiencing a fast rise in the average time spent on UC News. As of this quarter, an average user spends over 23 minutes on UC News.
Inc42: What kind of opportunities do you find in the Indian market in terms of content distribution and, more specifically, video content distribution? What are the company’s plans for the same?
Young Li: According to UCWeb content trends, photo and video-related content draws higher engagement and significantly outperforms content without any images. Video content on mobile has seen a sharp surge of 30%, whereas content with a photograph or pictorial depiction has worked 1.7 times better than its counterpart.
Apart from limited bandwidth availability, content distribution and accessibility is the new challenge faced by the industry. The key driver to further growth is the affordability of data. This will crystallise further adoption by new mobile internet users and prompt existing users to utilise more data.
More and more digital content consumers are turning themselves into “prosumers” – consumers who also contribute to the content production – which will also contribute to the increase of digital content creators in India.
UCWeb has also been setting new trends under the UC We-Media programme, where people get an opportunity to create, to write, share thoughts, and engage with their followers on UC News. Celebrities including Manish Paul (the host of Jhalak Dikhla Jaa), dancer Lauren Gottlieb, and author Chetan Bhagat have joined the We-Media platform in the past to write exclusive content for UC News.
Inc42: UCWeb currently provides content in Hindi and English in India. In which language does UCWeb’s content platforms achieve major traction? Also, with India being a multi-linguistic country (over 100 officially recognised languages), will UCWeb foray into vernacular languages?
Young Li: According to the latest content trends from UC News, total time spent consuming content on the mobile has seen a sharp uptick of 230% in Q4 versus Q3. The total page views on UC News also rose over 290%, with content in Hindi seeing maximum traction. Indian users read in Hindi almost five times more than English on the mobile in 2016. Hindi content, focussed on Bollywood news and celebrities, clocked in the highest page views and readership on the mobile. It was consumed over two times more than politics and technology content and content with Hindi keywords hit over eight times more readership than content with English keywords.
Multiple new-age digital media platforms are challenging traditional mediums. The preference of the Indian consumers towards vernacular and regional language content is constantly on the upswing, with 93% of the time spent on videos in Hindi and other regional languages.
Keeping this in mind, UCWeb has been striking multiple partnerships to provide its users with engaging and entertaining content.
Inc42: In India, we already have established players in the digital content distribution space such as BCCL, You Tube, and ESPN. Then there is a community of new age media startups such as ScoopWhoop and WittyFeed. How does UCWeb plan to fend off this competition?
Young Li: UC Browser is unique in many ways. We were the first mobile browser to introduce cloud computing technology back in 2004. With more people accessing the internet on their mobile phones, we have developed an easy-to-use navigation.
Features such as speed mode, background download, download manager, and multiple add-ons distinguish UC Browser from other products in the market. Apart from providing the best user experience at the lowest data cost, we have made significant localisation efforts to cater to each market, including synergistic tie-ups that add value to our users. Even though we enjoy a healthy market share, we continuously strive to reach out to users in newer markets.
With increased focus on “Digitising Entertainment,” in 2016, UCWeb tied up with India’s leading entertainment television channel – Colors TV – to promote four of its marquee shows – Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, 24, Big Boss, and Comedy Nights Live – allowing the channel to customise, curate, and present diverse content to users who access Internet on the move. UCWeb also charted a new success story through its tie-up with Fox Star Studios India, Dharma Productions, and Sony Music India to promote Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma starer, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. In a fortnight-long campaign, UCWeb got first rights to ‘The Breakup Song’ and launched a special section of unseen and exclusive footage from the movie, video bytes from the stars, movie trivia, and special posters as pop up screens and banners on UC Browser and UC News.
In addition, the launch of the new UC Browser marks increased customisation options along with integration to UC News within the browser. The new UC Browser has been updated keeping in mind user preference for hyper-personalised and engaging content at every touch point.
Inc42: What are the differences that you find in the Indian market as compared to other countries?
Young Li: India is the world’s second-largest internet market. With increased feature and smartphone penetration along with the drop in data costs, a large part of the country’s unconnected population (a massive 73%) is ready to go online on their mobiles. Interestingly, India skipped the PC-revolution era to jump straight to smartphones.
The next wave of growth in India’s internet penetration is expected to come from Tier II and Tier III cities, enabled by the wireless mobile internet. The preference of Indian consumers towards vernacular and regional language content is constantly on the upswing, with 93% of the time spent on videos in Hindi and other regional languages.
Inc42: According to you, what are the emerging trends in mobile content consumption and browsing, globally, as well as in India?
Young Li: UCWeb in every market is guided by its mission to connect people. As a leader in the sphere, we work as a gateway to content through the mobile internet through which people access information, opportunities which make a meaningful difference to their lives.
Our new strategy is to also be a content distribution platform for our users. Our collaboration with Colors TV to provide our users certain exclusives such as ‘behind the scenes’ has been our first step towards providing the right content to our users. We understand that Indian users love entertainment. So, with the UC Browser, we aim to bring our users exactly what they need – the chance to engage with entertainment related content be it movie promotions, book launches and TV shows’ behind the scenes content.
India, in the upcoming years, will easily surpass 500 Mn mobile internet users. With numbers like that, undoubtedly, India will be the leading power to drive the growth of the world’s mobile internet economy. Now, we need to prepare ourselves to serve India in a more efficient and optimum way. The answer lies in “Glocalisation” through which we shall serve, communicate, and cooperate with the local communities and enterprises who share the same value with us and welcome them to be a part of this changing face of the mobile internet.
Inc42: What are UCWeb’s plans in terms of expansion, innovation, investment, and launch of new products in India?
Young Li: Our objective is to make UC Browser and 9Apps super applications that offer something for everybody. Our new strategy is, from tool to content. We will focus on content aggregation going forward, based on our successful partnerships for UC Browser, UC Cricket, and UC News.
We will continue to address the key challenges faced by users and partners i.e. content discovery and navigation for users and content distribution by publishers & partners. We will keep exploring new partnerships for distributing content to the masses through our huge user base. We will get more and more content providers on board including key opinion leaders (KOLs), improve our product, and add additional regional language support.
Our new milestone of reaching 100 million MAUs in India (for UC News alone) has placed us at par with Twitter and Instagram. Our vision in the coming years, after our success in India, is to serve half the population of the planet. Our strategy is to focus on “Glocalisation”- which means going global by offering localised solutions in each market. We believe this strategy will lead us to a new digital era, which is GUF – Google, UCWeb, and Facebook.
Is The Timing Really Perfect For UCWeb To Enter The Indian Digital Content Distribution Market?
UCWeb started operations in 2004 as a mobile Internet browser and was launched as a Java application. It was the first mobile browser to introduce cloud computing technology back in 2004. The company got acquired by Alibaba Group in 2014 and later UCWeb positioned itself as a leading provider of mobile internet software technology and services.
With a presence in more than 150 countries and regions around the world, UCWeb has more than 200 patents, both pending and received, in the field of mobile browsing. Not only this, over 80% of the 3,000-strong workforce is engaged in product research and development.
The western countries on the globe today have already crested the wave on the fourth industrial revolution. They are in an era where the distinction between physical, digital, and biological spheres is getting blurred and technologies like AI, robotics, IoT, 3D printing, quantum computing are on the rise.
However, in developing economies like India, we still stand at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution. We are in an era where the Internet, IT/ITES, electronics, etc. are still evolving and are acting as driving factors in the digital revolution. But, again, this has also positioned India as a ready-to-capitalise market against the almost-saturated global peers.
In such a time, digital content distribution has emerged as one of the prominent sectors in the Indian digital ecosystem. The digital content consumption market in India has been poised to reach $3.1 Bn (INR 20,000 Cr) by 2020 as per an EY January 2016 report. The factors driving this growth include increasing smartphone and internet penetration, along with rising tech savviness and standard of living of people.
Indian users currently hold over 300 Mn smartphones, and this number is projected to reach over 500 Mn by 2020. There are over 450 Mn internet users in India, as of June 2017, as per predictions of the IAMAI. The roll out of 4G broadband infrastructure, the launch of data services like Reliance Jio and initiatives by global tech giants like Facebook and Google are further fuelling efforts to provide low cost faster internet to Indian masses.
As they say, the “pen is mightier than the sword” and mobile internet has given further power to this pen. With almost every print media publication having its content on digital platforms, the evidence is undeniable. Also, with an increase in digital content distribution, content consumption is now driven by multiple screens. Here is a look at the content consumption patterns on different screen as per January 2016 report by E&Y.
Also, the current generation of millennials has broken the shackles of 30 minutes or 60 minutes content. Today, the average length of video viewing in India is less than 10 minutes.
Keeping all these factors in mind, it does seem that the timing is quite perfect for UCWeb. With digital content distribution platforms like UC Browser and UC News as well as We-Media Reward Plan 2.0, UCWeb has the means to grab hold of the top position. UCWeb’s content, based on short videos, is already popular in Chinese markets and they plan to soon introduce it in India as well. However, India still lags behind on having a proper digital infrastructure. Although we now have 4G and lower data pack rates, a lot of work still needs to be done to make internet services faster and smoother. Also, at present around 45% of over the top content (OTT) users consume content in regional languages. How UCWeb will be able to tackle these unique challenges posed by the Indian subcontinent, will be worth watching for in the near future.