The Underground Internet Movement in India

2 January 2019

T-Series is going to become the biggest channel on YouTube. Think about that for a second. YouTube serves 1.9 billion people a month globally. India has been its largest and fastest growing market. The platform is now building features for Indian users, and taking those products to the world, like offline video. The #1 Trending Video on YouTube is not a sketch in English (or Despacito), it’s likely a compilation of videos from TikTok (née The future of education is being shaped on YouTube, by a Chennai-based studio named ChuChu TV. The most expensive reach builder media property in the country is the YouTube masthead. This isn’t by accident, either. According to Google, 90 percent of all content consumed on YouTube is in local languages. 

Further, the Jio story is well-narrated, but the surprising story is not about cheaper data driving smartphone growth (or vice versa). That’s been on the cards for as far back as 2010. What’s barely been given attention is the emergent behaviors on by users with no conception of the internet’s rules, at scale. 

Brand builders for the next billion rightfully have a share of the spotlight. Who would have imagined a few years ago that Ramdev Baba would lead the cover of Bloomberg and set the agenda for Indian political reportage of The New York Times? As an aside, with armchairs in metro cities firmly intact, some of us still choose to make light of Patanjali’s Instagram. (Which, ironically, scores better organic engagement than some top-tier fashion brands.) I personally find this incredibly interesting to see, especially because a new internet is finally showing up. 

Between 2003 and 2014, the Indian web looked like a rip-off of the Western web. We had an Indian Hotmail in Rediff, an Indian MSN in Sify, an Indian Craigslist in Sulekha, and the storied Indian Amazon in Flipkart. Where new concepts abroad were taking over, Indians were quick to borrow: Orkut, Hi5 took on social networking. And we find ourselves here, where Google and Facebook aggregate demand for search and social networking to the ad industry’s disdain. Marketers and media buyers are clearly pressured to justify spends on both platforms despite a series of scandals. Where else will we go?  

Let’s not lose sight of what’s happening in the trenches. New behaviors are taking over categories like gaming, news, and social networking: Teen Patti is fueling mobile gaming growth. India’s fastest growing news app isn’t from the oracular Times Internet stable, it’s NewsDog - a lightweight app focused on regional languages. For ecommerce and retail, Flipkart or Amazon aren’t the most exciting players: join your hands for Meesho, a service helping independent users sell over WhatsApp. And social media, well, TikTok is now #1 in App Stores world-over after its success in India. (More on this in a bit.) How do you create content, much less build a brand, that works for users on NewsDog, Meesho, or TikTok?

Truth be told, content marketing synonymous with the millennial mindset is undergoing a seismic shift. And there are several rules up for questioning in terms of creating the right kind of content for these platforms. A long-standing meme inside advertising agencies is that every brand’s target audience is now an 18–35 year old millennial. The result oftentimes isn’t pretty. Creatives are equally tapped out: using the same platforms to reach the same aggregated cohort of the most valuable consumer on the planet, there’s almost no way users will remember, despite creative effectiveness” in the category. Today, advertising is a tax poor people pay, to quote Scott Galloway

The future will almost certainly be different: The fastest growing cohort of users on the Indian Internet are in rural India. How many? 732 million users. Metro city growth is all but tapped out. Google’s focus is the next billion usersFree Wi-Fi at over 400 railway stationsNeighbourly, Files by Google and Google Pay (previously known as Files Go and Tez respectively) aren’t made for the 300 million internet users. Google isn’t alone, Instant Games on Facebook Lite is made for internet-immature Android users. Uber Lite is targeted at Indian tier-II towns, and it’s close to a branding exercise for the next 200 million cab hailers in the country. When it comes to Indian internet penetration, there’s a 75 percent headroom to grow, and these users are going to dominate behaviour.   

Further, it’s projected there will be 536 million Indian internet language users by 2021, in contrast to 199 million users in English. Going local has never meant more.  

The answer might be in getting closer user behaviour now adapts and shifts; yes, every brand wants the prized cohort in 18-35, but that will soon no longer mean a metro internet user fluent in English. No one you know uses WhatsApp Stories, but that’s the point. With 450 million users, It’s bigger than Snapchat globally, and the biggest application of Stories in the Indian internet.

For the past 20 years of web advertising, money has moved from serving awareness of a brand to serving its bottom line. That’s why much of it is performance marketing rather than brand marketing. Several brands even have internal teams to track media effectiveness and paid media strategy, which then defines brand budgets. ROI is a burgeoning question. But this incentive of payments on the internet can no longer drive brand strategy on digital.

Research and development that begins with consumer research can influence not just the brand, but the company’s business model entirely. Agencies and marketers need to do better to not just identify shifting behaviour, but to build for it. For agencies, it’s an existential need to get closer to the strategic direction of brands. The rise of creative consultancies such as PWC Strategy& and Accenture Interactive lends itself to this trend. I’ve tried to avoid the C-word, alas: China. We find ourselves in an eerily similar situation to how user behaviour in China is shaping the internet experience for all of us. In many ways Facebook and the rest are trying to keep up. Here’s evidenceA Chinese takeover of Indian app stores offers clues into emerging use cases.

A few notable examples from the Indian internet in 2018: 

Mobile gaming and e-sports are ready to establish themselves as entertainment players: while the west fawned over Fortnite, India made PUBG a riot. We leap-frogged the entire PC-gaming and console era and went straight to mobile. Gaming recently registered the fastest growth in the media and entertainment sector

In social networking, TikTok might be cringeworthy for some and is a medium of self-expression for others. With 20 million monthly active users in India, as Hardik Rajgor writes, has eroded the divide between rural-urban audiences. Bytedance, TikTok’s parent company, is raising funds to become the most valuable startup in the world. (Uber clearly has bigger fish to fry, with a potential $120 billion IPO.) ShareChat recently saw its valuation grow 7 times in 2018, and is now looking for India’s next viral talent. Bigo TV showcases a new world for Indian content where creators can monetize social influence heralding a new era of micropayments. 

None of this is easy to stay on top of, but this is where the next generation of brands are starting to find their footing – almost unseen. By adapting quickly, we can build for the underground internet movement, and set a precedent for everyone else. Besides, your brief is going to compel you to break the metaphorical clutter. Now you know where to look.