The next wave of online users will speak several Indian languages. Are publishers capable of capturing the upside?
As per a 2017 Google-KPMG Report, nine out of every ten new internet users (between 2016-2021) are likely to be local language users. And most of these users are likely to come online through their smartphones. At the recently concluded Digipub World (our convention for and about the business of online publishing) four experts discussed whether and how web publishers can make good on this growing demand for local language content - and the challenges they face when doing so. The talk was moderated by Ashwini Gangal, executive editor, afaqs!.
We discussed the same subject at Digipub World last year (the link is given below) and most of the issues flagged then were what the panelists termed "ecosystem challenges", such as monetisation of local language content (many local language sites run English ads!), affordable distribution of the same, translation related challenges (manual and AI), tech and device related problems (to do with keypads, fonts and the user interface for local language sites), among others.
Here are the highlights of this time's discussion around the subject; watch the video (embedded on this page) for details.
This time around, monetisation was the challenge that was underscored most emphatically by all the panelists. While the new pool of local language users is big and promising, advertisers are not exactly rushing to spend money on this segment because there's no other data about these users out there, unlike their English language counterparts who routinely make online transactions, and, in general, use the internet for a wider range of activities that can be compressed and labeled as 'data'.
ALSO READ: Digipub 2017 session on the same topic
Cautioning against grand figures such as the one cited above, but nevertheless agreeing that it does in fact represent market trends, DN Mukerjea (Bonny), president, digital, ABP, says, "The big question is - how do you monetise vernacular content? There is still no clear path. The number of users, and pages even, could be more for vernacular (language sites), but the bulk of the revenue is still with English (web publishers), in digital."
For Bharat Gupta, CEO, Jagran New Media, too, the revenue skew between English and Indian language sites is most worrying. "The (local language) content is there, exploration is there, the audience/traffic is there, but the greatest challenge is monetisation. I get concerned with - it took 50-55 years for print and TV to break the barrier of English versus language..."
To Jaivir Nagi, director, online partnerships (India and Australia), Google, of the three stakeholders - users, publishers and advertisers - in the local language publishing ecosystem, "the users have come online, but the other two have still not." Consequently, these "users don't know what to do when they come onto the internet; they've become so desperate that they've started creating their own content..."
On the monetisation front, he feels there's an urgent need for "an ecosystem shift from an advertiser perspective", a shift that will make advertisers more open to targeting local language users. Agencies, he believes, can play a big role here. That 'Indic language spends' on digital are growing faster than (spends on) English (sites), is a good sign.
According to Sandeep Amar, founder, Inaaj (an AI-based aggregator of content), Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu language content is growing faster than Hindi content. With respect to the subject of the session, his premise is - language users are not very tech savvy, they want the content to be delivered in their preferred app, mostly WhatsApp, and perhaps a bit of Facebook... tier II/III users don't want to work hard to click on too many links before they finally reach the content; "publishers are missing this big point," he says. As regards monetisation, Amar forewarns big publishers about an extremely bumpy ride in the days ahead; "smaller, 'tighter' publishers will be able to stay profitable."
Answering a question about what publishers ought to focus on more - translation services or building local language content from the ground up - ABP's Bonny brought up the visible homogeneity in the front pages of most English language publications in our market, something that stands in sharp contrast to the marked heterogeneity of the top news stories across, say, five different Indian language papers. Because local language content tends to be so region and state specific, publications, he feels, will do well to focus more on creating language capabilities ("original language content" as Jagran's Gupta put it), rather than merely translating English content at scale.
Google's Nagi points out that Indic language users are leapfrogging content consumption in text form and opting, instead, for video and voice. Language users, he finds, avoid typing and prefer tapping on options and discovering content through an endless feed. Of late, though (last 12-18 months), they 'talk' to search for content. "So, they're getting more proactive about the content they want - from relying on a feed, now they do a voice search to find their content..." he says. Sandeep Amar of Inaaj feels translation works wonders for video content but has quite the opposite effect on the written word.
All in all, it was a stimulating chat about what we at Digipub call one of the perennial topics in our bag.
Event partners - Timesnownews.com (platinum partner), Akamai and Facebook (silver partners), and Freshworks, Vidooly, comScore, Quintype, Times Internet and 24 Frames Digital (bronze partners).