OTT’s Rising Tide Seeds The Second Wave For India’s Vernacular Internet

OTT’s Rising Tide Seeds The Second Wave For India’s Vernacular Internet


Around 210 Mn active internet users in India with $300 Bn in annual spending power have embraced regional language services and products

On Twitter, Facebook, forums, blogs, YouTube and Instagram, vernacular content accounted for up to 49% of all discussions and engagement

Media consumers are spending almost 45% of their time watching regional language videos on digital platforms

Up until 2018, for 20-year-old Preeti Singh (name changed) from a small locality in Noida, every day would invariably begin with walking to an apartment, three kms away from her house, in the wee hours of the morning to clean vessels, sweep and mop in one house after another. Once done with all her chores, she and her mother had to return home before the curfew set by her locality, which was 4 pm. After going home, she would again clean vessels at her house, sew etc. She had never seen a world beyond this. Her only solace were those occasional dramas and Salman Khan movies she got to watch on TV at her neighbour’s house. 

Cut to January 2019, she gets her first smartphone and her world changes overnight. Today, Singh has a bunch of close friends, is active on TikTok, watches free videos on Disney+ Hotstar, YouTube and even does online shopping. The smartphone is today her window to the outside world. She prepared macaroni at home and even knows how to bake. She also learnt a lot about how shopping malls function through several videos and even went to one in Noida with her friends on a weekday bunking work. 

Well, she is a house help even today, but dreams of opening a boutique or delivering beauty parlour services to the same apartment she works at soon after the lockdown is over, thanks to all the DIYs on various digital platforms, or rather all the videos posted in the only language she is confident about, Hindi. 

If low-cost smartphones and cheap internet data are the primary factors behind Preeti Singh and millions of Indians today being able to participate in the digital revolution, the credit equally goes to the regional language internet ecosystem in India.

Like Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” This is exactly what India’s online platforms have come to realise in the last few years.

According to DataLabs By Inc42 analysis in November 2019, the estimated market opportunity of the vernacular content in India is $53 Bn (2021) and given the lucrative market opportunity along with favourable market trends, the investment into vernacular startups is picking up pace. The total funding amount into regional language startups between 2014 and Q3 2019 was approximately $708 Mn across 49 deals. The top-funded startups in this space are Sharechat ($224 Mn), DailyHunt ($124 Mn), Roposo ($38 Mn) and Pratilipi ($29.4 Mn).

The rise of vernacular or regional language media and content startups is thanks to the rapidly expanding addressable base of regional language users. Out of the present 530 Mn active internet users in India, 210 Mn users, with $300 Bn annual spending power, prefer to interact in their native tongues, said a study by market researcher RedSeer Consulting.

Well, India has always presented a huge opportunity for vernacular content and with Covid-19 offering more time to people confined at homes, vernacular content has kept audiences engaged throughout the country. For many, the internet is also the only way to stay connected with the rest of the world and local language content brings a feeling of familiarity that has contributed to habit formation in the regional language OTT segment.

OTT’s Rising Tide Seeds The Second Wave For India’s Vernacular Internet

Covid-19 And The Burgeoning Vernacular Base

According to Google India, nine out of 10 new internet users in the country at present are consuming online content in Indian languages. Google India senior product manager Nidhi Gupta had earlier said that among all the Indian languages, Hindi emerged to be the most popular one for consuming online content. “Hindi web consumption has grown over 90% during 2015-16 while the English content growth was only 19%,” she had said.

Post lockdown, most platforms offering vernacular content, within video OTT, audio streaming, social media and news, have seen a significant rise in consumption recently. Circus Social, a data analytics company, recently analysed more than 250K social media conversations and 5 Mn engagement activities (likes, comments, shares) across platforms.

On Twitter, Facebook, forums, blogs, YouTube and Instagram, vernacular content accounted for up to 49% of all discussions and engagement.

OTT’s Rising Tide Seeds The Second Wave For India’s Vernacular Internet

“This lockdown has proven beyond any doubt the huge untapped potential for regional content creators to cater to the under-served audience in these markets, and with our new regional originals, we are doing our best to bring Indian audiences quality digital-first content in their native language in this post pandemic OTT landscape,” Karan Bedi, CEO, MX Player told Inc42.

The Comfort Of Native Language 

In March, ShareChat’s user-generated content (UGC) campaigns and the engagement rate saw a major spike by 18.75% and the login session of users has increased by 20%. “Since people are staying indoors they are spending most of their time on our platform and this has led to 30% growth in terms of total views. Talking about the visual content, from approximately 23 Bn video play in March first week, it has gone up to 28 Bn by the end of March,” said Satyajit Deb Roy, director-sales, ShareChat.

Further, according to App Annie, an app analytics platform, in India ByteDance-owned TikTok was the most downloaded app in the week of March 15, 2020. The company’s other app, Helo, available in 14 languages including Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Haryanvi, Rajasthani and Bhojpuri, was fourth on this list.

Momspresso, a digital platform for mothers, saw the highest content creation across languages and formats – vlogs, blogs and 100-word stories in April, with an increase of more than 40% over February and March numbers. Engagement, in terms of time spent, has shot up by 30%.

“The traction for vernacular content is definitely greater across tier 2 and 3 cities. Two years ago, our top 10 cities for content consumption included all the metros. The top 10 cities today include cities beyond the metros such as Lucknow, Indore, Patna, Agra, Jaipur and Chandigarh, reflecting the impact of vernacular content,” said Vishal Gupta, CEO and cofounder, Momspresso.

OTT’s Rising Tide Seeds The Second Wave For India’s Vernacular Internet

Indian Languages Find More Takers 

India has around 40+ OTT video streaming players, of which over 30 platforms offer some content in regional languages. The key players in regional content would be Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, YouTube, Zee5, MX Player, Jio Cinema and more. Other names picking up pace include Manorama Max, Hoichoi, Addatimes, Primeflix, Ullu and Sun Nxt. With the increased consumption for regional language content seen post the lockdown, more players are expected to capitalise on core regional content.

ALT Balaji, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Balaji Telefilms, with content only in Indian languages, witnessed a 15-20% surge in viewership within a few weeks of the lockdown. It has also noticed a substantial rise in the time spent consuming content across urban and rural cities. The surge post lockdown is also expected to see more languages coming under India’s video OTT umbrella.

For instance, Zee5, the platform, which has the highest content consumption in Hindi, intends to soon explore Malayalam a bit more and further explore Odia and Northeast Indian languages. It recently added Punjabi and Bhojpuri to the roster to go with Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali, Kannada and others.

OTT’s Rising Tide Seeds The Second Wave For India’s Vernacular Internet

Zee5 offers content in 12 Indian languages now and has clocked 11.4 Mn peak Daily Active Users (DAUs) and since March 2020, it has seen a 2X rise in subscriptions and the traffic from Tier-2 cities grew in the range of 30% —  Lucknow with 32%, Patna at 25%, Jaipur at 30%, Noida with 58% — for the platform.

“When we launched in Feb 2018, our core proposition was to offer bespoke content in as many Indian languages as possible. The foundation rested on 3V’s – video, vernacular and voice. The first thing we ask on our app is to pick the preferred language. With user interface and user experience (UI/UX) in 11 languages, ZEE5 is also an all-tap–no-type platform. We want to appeal to India’s diverse audience clusters,” said Aparna Acharekar, the company’s programming head for India.

While most players offer content in Hindi, international players like Amazon Prime Video have a wide choice for South Indian languages. VOOT, Hoichoi are more popular for Bengali and other Northeastern languages.

“We believe the first thing for anyone trying to reach a first-time user with a mobile phone with the internet is reaching them in their mother tongue and as you grow past half a billion, this becomes even more important,” MX Player’s Bedi said. In line with this strategy, the platform has made investments in original content in languages including Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu among others.

For Hungama Digital Media, almost 49% of consumption across its platforms happens in languages other than Hindi. The current protocols and safety measures have led to an increase in consumption across languages, with all major Indian languages like Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Marathi registering a 30% to 80% growth on Hungama Play since March.

“OTT platforms have democratised content consumption and creation. Over the last 2 years, vernacular content has fuelled the growth of the industry. The increase in demand for local content is going to reflect in content creation as well, once shootings resume,”said Siddhartha Roy, COO, Hungama Digital Media.

He also added that vernacular content has always been a priority for the platform and that the team has been actively creating vernacular original shows. “Our content lineup this year too will include shows across different languages,” he said.

Not Just Video — Regional Language Podcasts Also Rise

As explored in a previous article, India’s podcast platforms have also been experiencing a jump. According to Audioboom, an on-demand audio and podcasting distribution platform, out of the top 25 well-performing shows across podcast platforms, 60%-65% of shows would be regional language shows.

“Post-lockdown we see more listens coming from regional language shows. Within that, Hindi language shows see 80-90% traction. Other languages gaining popularity would be Bhojpuri, Assamese and Marathi,” Umesh Barve, head of India partnerships, Audioboom, told us.

Kuku FM, for instance, is experiencing high boost on both listener and creator side, 2X jump in organic users and 34% jump in active users taking its total monthly users to 600K.

News audio platform Khabri has seen an increase in engagement time from 18 minutes to 22 minutes across all categories and a 77% increase in news listenership among repeat listeners. “The present numbers are an indication that online/OTT content usage is far beyond just videos and English-oriented content. Hindi content consumption is on the uprise and it is a strong indicator of promising growth,” said Pulkit Sharma, co-founder & CEO, Khabri.

For Aawaz, a podcast network in Indian native languages, Covid-19 lockdown has increased listenership, with a steady increase in new users to a tune of 22% and also 20% higher amount of consumption amidst existing users. It has also entered into a licensing arrangement with Spotify. “Spotify understands podcasts, spoken-word audio well. They have a large audience base around the world, we have content that resonates with Indian audiences. That makes a good win-win,” said Sreeraman Thiagarajan, cofounder and CEO of aawaz.

Talking about Indian language content, he added, “The highest watched TV show, highest read newspaper, or the most-listened audio, all of them are in Indian languages. English is a language for the world to trade and have a level playing field. It helps make decisions faster, but for everything else, we love our language.”

Additionally, according to Mindshare India and Vidooly’s latest report, audiences have shown an increasing interest in regional music videos. “The number of regional songs in the list of top Music videos has grown from 28% in January ‘20 to 45% in March ‘20. Most popular channels featuring this type of content are Speed Records, Aditya Music and Wave Music,” report said.

Inclusive, Interesting and Indian: The Mantra For Vernacular Content

Since the last few years, the focus of digital platforms have shifted towards local languages. As per the Google KPMG report, Indian language internet users are expected to grow at a CAGR of 18% to reach 536 Mn by 2021, while English users are expected to grow at only 3% reaching 199 Mn within the same period.

In October 2019, video-sharing website YouTube said that it clocked 265 Mn users per month in India and 60 percent of users came from outside the metro cities. “We are witnessing a staggering growth in content consumption in Indian languages. More than 1200 creators in the country have crossed the million-subscriber threshold. Just five years ago there were only two creators with 1 Mn subscribers,”  Satya Raghavan, director of content partnerships of YouTube India had said. 

Today, every user on ShareChat, the largest regional social media platform with 15 Indian languages and over 60 Mn monthly active users,  today spends an average of 23 minutes per day on the platform. ShareChat’s national and regional news partners of including Aajtak, News18, ABP, News Nation, Zee news, BBC India, PTC, TV 9 Marathi and Gujarati, News J Bangla, Saam TV are also using the platform to provide real time updates on the pandemic in native languages to the people.

OTT players like Netflix, are also today teaming up with multi-system operators, smartphone makers and telecom operators in dubbing movies to regional languages to cater to all sets of audiences, beyond just the Tier 1 cities.

According to the latest KPMG study, 30% of Indians consume content on OTT in their preferred language.

“There is rapid adoption of the internet in India. Billions of people are going to join the internet for the first time. They will love to enjoy content in their mother tongue over foreign languages. A sense of belonging and strategic positioning together deliver better engagement. Our internet culture is turning more Inclusive, Interesting and Indian,” said Lal Chand Bisu, cofounder, Kuku FM.

What Led To The Golden Age Of Vernacular Content

India is primarily a language-first nation with 22 official languages and over 6,000 dialects. Though English remained a preferred language for communication on the internet, in the last five years, we have seen a change due to the emergence of platforms such as DailyHunt, ShareChat, Lokal, among others. This has completely changed the way people, comfortable in their first language, express themselves on the internet.

Unlike large countries such as the US, the UK, which have one or two languages, companies realised that the only way to improve internet penetration and services adoption in India was by moving to the vernacular base.

In fact, the experimentation of Indian language content started going mainstream way back in 2008 when Rediff started offering its email and other services in 22 Indian languages. In 2009, Google launched a transliteration application on the web allowing users to type in Hindi using an English keyboard and Facebook also allowed its service in six Indian languages, including Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu.

Dailyhunt was launched in 2009 by Umesh Kulkarni and Chandrashekhar Sohoni, as an aggregator of news, called back then as Newshunt. It was acquired by job classified company, Ver Se Innovation, in 2012 and later in August 2015, Newshunt rebranded itself as Dailyhunt. It had already started expanding into Indian languages and the new app supported more Indian languages such as Assamese, Sindhi, Nepali and Bhojpuri.

“It was in 2016-2017, when people started talking about vernacular content. DailyHunt was one of the early companies to experiment with vernacular. The next wave of driving this forward came from Chinese companies. I don’t think investors thought they would be so competitive in driving local platforms and see such growth in numbers. In a way, Hotstar also took the leap of faith and started telecasting IPL in multiple languages and that worked for them. In 2019, most of us were sure of vernacular content and monetisation also started,” said Deepak Gupta, Managing Partner, WEH Ventures.

In May 2018, SHAREit, a China-based content sharing and smartphone utility app, acquired Fastfilmz Media India, a south Indian OTT video streaming platform that was valued at around $13 Mn (INR 80-100 Cr) and raised $4 Mn (INR 25 Cr) in its last funding round in 2017, to increase its regional content.

The social media app Roposo, available in Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil, Bengali and others, which was started in 2014 as a fashion discovery platform. It had 2.5 Mn users onboard in June 2016. However, in August 2017, the company changed its business model to a short-video application and got established as a successful vernacular platform with 42 Mn users. It raised a funding of $10 Mn in October 2018 from Tiger Global and Bertelsmann India Investments. In November 2019, Bengaluru-based advertising tech unicorn InMobi acquired Roposo to enable the group’s content platform Glance to expand its vernacular content. Naveen Tewari, founder and CEO at InMobi Group had said, “This acquisition will enable Glance to bring to the fore content created by Roposo’s large vernacular influencer community.”

In many ways, tech giants have also contributed to the rising adoption of native language services.

Google India senior product manager Nidhi Gupta revealed that among all the Indian languages, Hindi emerged to be the most popular one for consuming online content. “Hindi web consumption has grown over 90% during 2015-16 while the English content growth was only 19%,” she said. 

Today, according to Google, nine out of 10 new internet users in the country at present are consuming online content in Indian languages. In 2018, the tech giant’s flagship product, Google Home and Home Mini, in India, added Hindi support for the voice assistant. This year Google has also enabled voice search for eight Indian languages.

Google News recently added more Indian language support to news articles on its platform. In India, the platform enables readers to read the news in over ten languages, including Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Tamil. Twitter  has also recently introduced content in seven Indian languages —  Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Urdu, Tamil, Bengali, and Kannada.

The Hyper Localisation Wave 

The impetus to bridge the infrastructural needs of diverse audiences in the country has been steadily growing with regional content taking the front seat.

“One of the key reasons for this is also because indigenous language users are rapidly contributing to the growth and economy of new media. For instance, consumers are spending almost 45% of their time watching just regional videos on digital platforms,” said Rakesh Deshmukh, cofounder, and CEO at Indus OS.

He believes hyper localisation of content is a very powerful value proposition for digital users which has boosted their engagement on various platforms. The number of language users on AppBazaar, a product of Indus OS, a regional operating system, has increased by approximately 2X times. Hindi and English have been the most used language on Indus App Bazaar. It has around 40K apps which are available in 12 different languages including Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Odia, Assamese, Punjabi, Kannada, Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi and English.

Today, brands are equally excited with this change and connecting with their audiences in their language through platforms like ShareChat. For example, Bhasha Dibosh is a well-celebrated event in Bengal. Coca-Cola did a Bhasha Dibosh special recently with ShareChat users with a local language hashtag.

“Currently regional content has 3X more engagement compared to English content and the cost per click is a third that of English,” said Momspresso’s Gupta.

It added Hindi content to the platform in 2017 and since then has added eight more Indian languages to the mix. More than two-third of its 22K content creators use regional languages, Gupta claims.

Besides media and entertainment, many other sectors such as skill development are also reaching rural areas using regional languages. “We are providing our courses in eight different languages on the platform and it has helped a lot of students who are not familiar with Hindi or English such as students from Gorakhpur and Nagaon to get on the portal and get trained online,” said Divya Jain, founder & CEO, Safeducate that trains on skills required for jobs in the supply chain and logistics space. Post-lockdown, the platform has witnessed more than 3K learners logging in every day from various parts of the country.

The Big Question: Will Offline Vernacular Consumers Move Online?

In 2018, a FICCI Frames media and entertainment report said that for the first time ever more Kannada films were released in India than Hindi. Bollywood and other regional film industries pump out more than 1,000 films a year and Hollywood movies have long struggled to make a splash in India unless they dub the movies in local languages. This is expected to be replicated in video-streaming platforms as well.

“Today the regional content has become one of the heroes across cinemas and on OTT platforms in the last few years. This clearly indicates that regional box office has done well and continues to do well compared to English and Hindi. The same is mirrored across international OTT platforms as they have consciously upped their investment in acquiring regional movies,” said Zee5’s programming head Acharekar.

Earlier, OTT content was complementing TV content in terms of genres, characters, storylines. But, a lot of reverse learning has happened now. “Our strategy is Originals in regional languages because we realised that India consumes in languages,” she added.

Only 8% of India reads English newspapers while the rest opt for regional language publications. Now, as the digital medium is gaining scale, this trend is being replicated in the digital space as well. For consumers in rural parts of India, sitting in a global lockdown in the midst of a pandemic, being able to consume content in their local vernacular is a huge boon. This means the opportunity for digital news, social media, audio streaming, OTT platforms and other online platforms is only about to grow in the next few months.

The viewership on the top videos under news & politics soared in the month of March, displaying a 2X growth from January 2020 to March 2020, said  Mindshare India and Vidooly’s latest report.

According to Circus Social’s insights seen by Inc42, the millennial audience prefers talking about vernacular video content rather than international English-language content. Women viewers also appear to prefer local language content as compared to male audiences. For every discussion on movies, there were 2X discussions on TV series in vernacular languages, the report said, hence establishing the need for platforms to focus more on locally-made and produced series in native tongues.

“With the impact of COVID-19, I expect this transition to digital to accelerate with digital likely to exceed press spends in 2020 itself.  If we look at television, the major ad spends have always been focused on Indian language channels such as Star, Colors, Zee and so on vis-à-vis English language channels. Regional language press spends have also shown much faster growth compared to English language publications. This just illustrates the point that Indian marketers have always understood the importance of local Indian dialects,” added Momspresso’s Gupta.

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