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Chinese apps crack the code to address India's language barrier

Yuvraj Malik/Bengaluru 05 Dec 18 | 03:32 PM

Helo, an app by Chinese tech giant ByteDance

Last month, Sharechat, a top vernacular content sharing platform, sued new entrant Helo for using its copying design and indulging in unfair competition. 

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Helo, an app by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, is a lot like Sharechat. Both have a timeline and content sharing features that, brashly put, resemble Instagram. But the moot here is local languages - over two dozens of them - and a razor-sharp focus on user-generated content that works with this target group.

Facebook’s and Google’s of the world have been trying this for long, so have a few local ones, but when it comes to targeting the non-English speaking users in India, Chinese apps have been far more successful than anyone else. 

In the last 18 months, at least half a dozen apps have entered the Indian market including players such as Helo, Like, Clip, Tik Tok, Kwai and Vigo Video with a focus on either of the three categories-- social media and content sharing, news, or user-generated video. Interestingly, except for Clip, all others are run by creators in China or in neighbouring countries in South East Asian countries. These apps have been hugely successful in cracking the Indian vernacular market. 

The fight now is about region-focused products for non-English speaking first-time internet users, where even deep-pocketed global companies such as Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp are finding it excruciatingly difficult to maintain the users’ traction.

It’s not that Indian apps are much behind. In fact, Sharechat and news platform DailyHunt have largely created the regional audience niche in India, toggling between 25-30 million monthly active users.

But the one thing that is favouring the Chinese players is their huge experience back at home, a country of 1.3 billion people, gaining troves of data and insights which they are taking in their strides in India.

China has seen a proliferation of social apps like nowhere else in the world. These are ubiquitous and the space has matured to a point of amalgamation between content sharing, messaging and payments, said a New Delhi-based analyst who tracks the internet firms. “They have trove of data and insights on how these platforms work and now with user growth in China slowing, these firms are looking to India," the analyst added. 

Last year ByteDance bought Musical.ly, a Dubsmash-like video app, for a $1 billion and merged it with Tik Tok, one of its own apps. Together, Tik Tok is now the largest platform for user-generated lip-sync videos in the world.

ByteDance, a $30 billion internet behemoth, owes its success to Jinri Toutiao (meaning today’s headlines in Mandarin), a news app and the company’s flagship product. With 120 million daily active users in China, Toutiao is the dominant news app in the country and is said to have cracked the code for bring localised news to the fore. 

ByteDance – also a major investor in India’s DailyHunt -- has interestingly entered India with content sharing app, Helo.

“We wanted to use our local understanding of needs of a market - what kind of content is being consumed and shared and so on. We found that a lot of people wanted to connect even over WhatsApps status updates, trendy topics, romance content and more such sharable content. We wanted to create a more holistic service that allows people to connect to the right community and content," said Bella Baldoza, a director at Helo, in a call from Singapore.

While Baldoza did not divulge the actual user numbers (Helo is live only in India), she said that the app launched in June this year, has grown phenomenally. Data from app Annie show Helo is in the top 10 apps in terms of Google rankings, going neck to neck with Sharechat. 

Besides Chinese apps, venture capital investors from China are also betting big on the space. Shunwei Capital, a Chinese early- to mid-stage VC, recently led a $100 million round in Sharechat at a reported valuation of $460 million. It is also an investor in Bengaluru-headquartered Clip along with phone maker Xiaomi.

“It’s not about tier II and tier III cities but about users’ knowledge of English. I know English so I have a bunch of options - I can go to Medium, I can go to Quora, I can download Kindle or Google Playbooks. Anybody who doesn’t know English, there is nothing really they can do. There are no real platforms where I can go and read in, say, Bengali or Marathi," said Ranjeet Pratap Singh, co-founder and chief executive officer at vernacular storytelling platform Pratilipi.

With metros getting saturated, it has become incredibility important for internet platforms to capture new users from smaller towns and cities. Google has put its weight behind The Next Billion, a division for creating localised products, while Facebook and Twitter are on a spree of tie-ups with regional news outlets and content creators to push vernacular content.

A 2017 report from KPMG, a consultancy, said that Indian language Internet user base has, in fact, surpassed English users. This vernacular user base will grow at 18 per cent CAGR (compound annual growth rate) to 536 million by 2021— 75 per cent of India’s estimated Internet user base by that time.

It’s a gold mine if cracked, and cracked well. Capturing the attention of regional users opens strong monetisation possibilities, especially advertising, for a pristine audience. Other than DailyHunt, no one platform has started monetising yet. 

“At least on paper, this is a fantastic model for advertising. Unlike print magazines or TV channels, these apps have more nuanced data about their users and their region," said Karthik Srinivasan, an independent consultant with over two decades of experience in social media.

“So, if the numbers do add up respectably, in theory, this is a great platform for local advertisers. But local advertisers tend to go with tried and tested media (local print, radio and local TV). To convince them and make the process easy, these apps need a solid local sales team," he added.

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