Regional language internet thrives amid challenges

Industry experts explain why India's multi-lingualism not only poses challenges to media platforms and brands but also presents them with opportunities

e4m by Javed Farooqui
Updated: Feb 9, 2021 1:06 PM

With a population of 1.3 billion and internet penetration of over 40%, India is widely regarded as the biggest growth driver of the next billion internet users globally. The country has a lot going in its favour like low-cost smartphones coupled with affordable data prices.

However, a big chunk of the un-digitised population resides in the small towns and villages of India. And to bring them on-board, digital companies will have to customise their offerings in local languages. India is linguistically the most diverse nation on earth with more than 19,500 languages or dialects. The existence of so many languages is both an opportunity as well as a challenge for media platforms and brands alike.

Print media companies and TV broadcasters have been successful in exploiting this vast untapped market. However, digital businesses in India have barely scratched the surface when it comes to capitalising on this burgeoning market segment.

Whether it is tech companies, e-commerce platforms, digital payments players, or media companies, all of them have their eyes firmly set on the next big opportunity that is regional internet market.

US-based digital marketing agency NetElixir's Founder and CEO Udayan Bose noted that the next 5-7 years will see a massive focus by all leading tech firms to engage the new billion internet users. "With 1.3 billion people, a median population age of 27, and Internet penetration of less than 45%, India is expected to drive a big chunk of the next billion Internet users. The main impediment to this projected growth is language," he stated.

Social status and the need to express is also driving internet adoption in the interiors of the country. “In a class-oriented society like India, being able to participate in the digital world may be linked to an elevation in social status among your friends and family circle, especially in rural and semi-urban areas."

To buttress his point, Bose cited the example of TikTok, now banned in India, for bringing new users to the internet. "Tik Tok provided an outlet for many rural and semi-urban folks to express themselves and be recognised."

Times Internet VP Sriram Hebbar said that India’s digital penetration is estimated at 40.6% and it has the second-largest digital population globally. "In May 2020, rural India had 2 million more active internet users than urban India. This clearly shows that the monopoly of urban English-speaking audiences is being challenged by multilingual and culturally diverse populations from semi-urban and rural areas."

Hebbar believes that the government investments in digital literacy programmes, affordable high-speed internet, ensuring the ready availability of government schemes and policy information in regional languages, and digitising local infrastructure can go a long way in harnessing the potential of regional languages. "The private sector can do their bit for digitisation by ensuring the availability of premium content across genres, and invest in scaling their digital businesses beyond metros and tier I cities to smaller towns."

Advertising scene

Network18 COO, News18 Languages Mitul Sangani said that there has been double-digit growth in user base on regional languages. He further stated that video and voice backed by good internet speeds have helped digital content to reach a much wider set of users in the non-English content consuming market.

"This trend not only accentuates the adoption of digital media to a greater length but also establishes a new normal where brands are open to spending larger percentages of advertising revenue as well. With the double-digit growth in user base on regional languages, the brands are aligned to tap the attention of the regional audience. Although current numbers are not too competitive with English, a positive trend is starting to reflect," he averred.

Hebbar said that the Indian marketers are growing up to the realisation that in order to cut through the clutter of English-language centric advertising, they need to ensure that the linguistics of rural marketing is as diverse as digital audiences.

"Furthermore, it’s clear that 88% of Indian language internet users are more likely to respond to a digital advertisement in their local language as compared to English. These facts represent the time is right for content developers and marketers to recognise the benefits of vernacular digital ads because it is expected to bring higher engagement, more recall, and better ROI."

On being asked whether ad spends is keeping pace with the growth in Indian language internet users, Dentsu Webchutney AVP, Client Services & Leader- Corporate Strategy GD Prasad said that advertisers are buying audiences and not space on digital.

"Currently, we identify the most popular platforms relevant to the audience that offers scale and host our content in a language native to the audience. In some cases, it also means working with influencers and content creators who speak native languages. With regard to platforms, YouTube, for example, supports multiple regional languages allowing us to target vernac audiences specifically. With a rise in mobile subscribers and internet penetration, while audiences may mark themselves as English speaking on a platform, based on client and business preferences, we can still target the region with vernac content to meet our objectives," he stated.

Prasad said that in the last 8-12 months there has been a significant increase in creating vernac content + buying vernac audiences. "The only thing agencies and marketers need to do is understand that a significant portion of their audiences are more comfortable understanding and speaking their mother tongues and use digital channels to communicate with them in a language of their choice – gone are the days when only English speakers were using social media."

GroupM India Head of Mobile & Emerging Tech & WPP India Head of Voice Niraj Ruparel said that digital ad spend is definitely keeping pace with the growth but there is a need to provide more regional content.

"Brands need to think through and offer regional communication and platform to support this growth. More than entertainment, digital usage for other areas needs to be focused on like education, etc., and more so on tertiary sectors. The Internet and technology need to be used in their daily life. Educating audiences to use digital technology for more than just entertainment is needed in such markets. It is then when users start leveraging digital in everyday use – that’s where the adoption and usage will increase," he noted.

Speaking to users in their own language

The growing internet adoption among non-English audiences has compelled brands to communicate with consumers in their own language. The creative agencies are also stepping up their game to come up with engaging campaigns in local languages. However, these are still early days for regional language advertising on the internet.

Ruparel admitted that while there is a movement towards creating digital ads in regional languages however the momentum is slow. "Brands have started using regional language creatives to reach out and communicate with consumers in small regions. The problem is after the first hop they need to offer a continued experience. Post the click, content again is offered in English."

Dentsu Webchutney's Prasad said that there is a definite shift among creative agencies towards increased cultural inclusivity, regional nuance, Hinglish and/or Hindi copy, other vernac copy, and regional art styles. There is also a push towards developing digital assets (websites, banners, apps, etc.) with regional language support.

"The adoption rate of regional languages on large services such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, etc. has been exceptional (90% of new Indian Internet users consume content in regional languages, according to Google). It therefore only makes sense to put out content in languages that are comfortable for mass India (although they may mark themselves as an English speaker on social platforms)," he stated.

Key challenges for regional language internet

According to Sangani, the biggest challenge for the regional language internet is that Indian language content currently doesn’t have the luxury of search algorithms that can help regional stories to be discovered with ease. "While voice search shows some promising results, discoverability continues to be a challenge."

GroupM's Ruparel feels that translation is still a challenge. Furthermore, Bots and Google Voice Assistant skill has limited usage in regional markets. "A two-way conversation on regional language is a challenge. Voice as input and video as the output will create that experience for the new regional audiences.”

Prasad listed three key challenges for regional internet - technical, digital literacy, and audience size.

He pointed out that the largest chunk of the Internet (globally) is in English and will continue to do be so for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, the internet has always been designed to be West-centric due to which most scalable back-ends will favour the Roman/Latin script. “This said, China has a sizeable Internet population and the country has hundreds of thousands of services that are run only in Chinese, showing that if the market is big enough, adoption will happen."

The second big challenge, according to him, is that the larger part of India's population is not yet completely digitally literate as they do not understand the full potential of the product/service that they are using. Thirdly, businesses will need to work out how much impact working in any Indian language other than Hindi will make to their business and take a call on how much to distribute in vernac vis a vis English.

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