On a Tuesday afternoon, Lata Mangeshkar’s sonorous voice in Jaane kyon log mohabbat kiya karte hai, from the 1971 film Mehboob Ki Mehndi, helps Sulthan Ahmed unwind while waiting for customers in Bengaluru. The middle-aged autorickshaw driver who has parked near the shopping hub of Commercial Street is glad he spent Rs 2,500 a year ago to buy a smartphone, his first.
The YouTube app on his Motorola, propped up on the dashboard, is mainly to “play old songs, and that too when I am waiting for customers,” he says. But it does not take long for him to reveal that he uses the free video-streaming app for more. Apart from videos on health tips, he also watches videos comparing the prices of items such as daily groceries, schoolbags and “fancy items” for his wife. Typing the right words in the search bar is a problem for the autorickshaw driver who has studied till Class V. So he banks on voice search. “Sometimes my 10-year-old daughter helps me,” he adds.
A couple of hundred metres away, Imran Khan is also on a break from attending to customers at his shop that sells costume jewellery and accessories, using the time to watch videos on his phone. Khan, 31, started watching videos extensively on his smartphone only in the last couple of years. He watches comedy scenes from movies, reports on the rumblings in Karnataka’s Vidhan Soudha and reviews of mobile phones in the vernacular. “I got to know after watching a video that my new phone works better if I keep the WiFi option switched off,” says Khan.
What has changed for people like Khan and Ahmed in the last few years is the dramatic crash in mobile phone data prices, sparked by Reliance Jio when it launched 4G plans in September 2016 for as little as Rs 149 for 28 days. The low entry point helped Jio wireless internet to grow its subscriber base from 100 million in 2016-17 to 307 million in 2018-19, according to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report for 2019. Jio’s rivals had no choice but to offer proportionately lower tariffs, making India the country with the cheapest data plans.
Mobile data consumption leapt from 20 crore GB a month before Jio’s launch to 370 crore GB per month after that, while data prices slid from Rs 250 per GB to less than Rs 15 per GB, according to online video analytics firm Vidooly. (Times Internet, which is a part of Times Group, the publisher of ET Magazine, is an investor in Vidooly
The fall in data tariff caused other tectonic shifts — millions of new users came online through their phones from every corner of the country and a large section of people started watching more videos online. This statistic from media agency Zenith’s report, Online Video Forecasts 2018, is telling: if Indians spent 2 minutes a day on an average watching online videos in 2012, they were watching close to an hour a day in 2018.
This year, that figure is set to touch 67 minutes a day, the global average. Video streaming is estimated to account for 75% of mobile internet use in India by 2021, according to app analytics firm App Annie.
This meant for many Indians, video has become a window to the internet. At the centre of this shift is YouTube’s video streaming app in India, which today has 265 million active users a month. In 2016, according to Vidooly, YouTube reportedly had 60 million unique users a month.
YouTube has in a sense become a Google for users like Ahmed and Khan who prefer video to text and are more comfortable in their regional language. Google India says 2018 saw a 270% year-on-year growth in voice queries across all its platforms.
“The first 100 million users on YouTube were primarily from the metros, coming on the platform predominantly for entertainment,” says Satya Raghavan, You-Tube’s director of content partnerships in India. “The next 100 million were not just from metros, but also cities, towns and villages, and they are using YouTube for information and education, apart from entertainment.”
In 2013-14, the language of YouTube was Hinglish as the user base was concentrated in metros. “But we are now at a place where I would say the language of YouTube is your mother tongue. Today, if you are a first-time user, depending on where you are accessing the app from, you will see more content that is being watched in that area and in the language of that area,” explains Raghavan.
The YouTube India home page is now available in 10 languages and 60% of YouTube watch-time comes from outside the six largest cities. Hindi is undoubtedly the largest segment among Indian regional languages, says Vidooly CEO Subrat Kar. But as more Indians from various quarters of the country started coming online, the demand for and consumption of other regional language content on YouTube rose.
Vidooly says Telugu had the highest viewership and uploads between 2016 and 2019 among regional languages (outside Hindi). Sixteen million Telugu video subscribers in 2016 soared to 166 million in 2018.
The channels with the most number of subscribers are still those serving traditional media content, like T-Series, which is famously locked in a closely watched battle for the most subscribers with Swedish YouTuber PewDie-Pie. T-Series has emerged victorious for now, with 106 million subscribers, against the Swede’s 98 million. The period after 2016, when mobile data became cheaper, also saw the emergence of regional language YouTube creators who can attract millions of views. Among them is Village Food Factory, a Tamil YouTube channel with 3.1 million subscribers.
The channel features a wiry, grey-haired Arumugam cooking up feasts of gigantic proportions, often attired in a lungi. The video of the 58-year-old resident of Tiruppur making a dish “using 100 chicken legs” has been viewed more than 61 million times. Arumugam’s son Gopinath launched the channel in mid-2016 when he returned to Tiruppur after failing to get a break as a filmmaker in Chennai. Viewership was low initially but father and son kept at it.
“Then we decided to make a video of him cooking a whole goat. That got 3 million views in three weeks,” says Gopinath’s wife, Pragathi P, who also helps during the shoot. Their income from YouTube monetisation jumped from Rs 3,000 a month initially to around Rs 10 lakh a month now.
The year 2016 was also when Pune-based Madhura Bachal decided to expand her You-Tube cooking channel from English to her mother tongue, Marathi. Her gamble to showcase traditional Marathi recipes paid off. While it took nearly a decade for her English channel to rack up close to 900,000 subscribers, MadhurasRecipe Marathi got a million subscribers in just 18 months. “The videos with the traditional recipes do really well,” says the 37-year-old, who had launched the English channel when she was living in the US and was taking a break from her banking job after the birth of her daughter.
Two years before Bachal started her Marathi channel, Bengaluru-based Kuber Natarajan began posting animated videos of songs and stories for children in south Indian languages, which he earlier used to sell through CDs. Between 2016 and 2017, InfoBells, the channel he started with his wife, Jayalakshmi, saw its subscriber base zoom 4-5 times, says Natarajan, 43, an engineer by training. Today, InfoBells Telugu and InfoBells Bangla are among the top 10 in the respective languages in terms of subscribers. With year-on-year revenue growth of 25%, Natarajan now plans to launch content in more Indian languages, enter the merchandising segment and publish books based on the original stories.
The potential has made advertisers and brands jump on board. “From an advertiser’s perspective, depth of reach is now increasingly possible using video,” says Anand Chakravarthy, MD (India) of Essence, a Group M agency. “You can now target consumers in smaller towns through videos, and reach beyond the 12-15 biggest cities.” By the end of 2019, the digital share of advertising is expected to be 20%, he adds, from 17% in 2018.
The spurt in video consumption includes videos watched on OTT platforms, and apps like TikTok, the Chinese short video app which has added 120 million monthly active users in India and has become a rage. But while all major video platforms are growing in India, not all of them are relevant from an advertiser’s point of view, says Chakravarthy. “Personally, I think TikTok still has to be proven to be a good advertising platform for brands. But typically, we have seen that new platforms take time to evolve their advertising platforms.”
Nikhil Prasad, creator of Malayalam You-Tube channel Karikku, which has 2.6 million subscribers, has reasons to agree. “We use Facebook and Instagram to give a shout out once we upload a new video on YouTube. But we want to build the community on YouTube since that’s primarily a video platform.” You-Tube’s monetisation –through advertisements — helps Prasad’s venture earn Rs 5 lakh a month, while his brand collaborations bring in Rs 5-10 lakh per brand.
As video consumption continues to grow in India, YouTube says it will continue its focus on vernacular and voice searches. “We will continue to double down on languages and make search and discovery more intuitive for users,” says Raghavan.
That might be welcome news for users like Ahmed, the autorickshaw driver in Bengaluru. “Right now my daughter uses my phone. But I will get her a smartphone once she passes Class X.” That should be music to the ears of advertisers.