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Can short form video apps shed the Tiktok cloak?

Anish Khandelwal of Mitron TV, Rohit Chadda of Zee HiPi, Sunil Nair of Firework, and Janhavi Parikh of MX TakaTak discuss India's short-form video space with Ashwini Gangal of afaqs!

TikTok India’s ban in June last year (2020) left a crater-sized hole in the Indian short-video space. A slew of potentials rushed to fill the gap and pretty soon, the Indian short-video segment was buzzing with players and the users were spoilt with choice.

In this session of vdonxt asia, Ashwini Gangal, executive editor, afaqs! tries to understand how the short-form video space fares today, who’s leading it, and what's next for companies invested in this space?

Her panellists: Anish Khandelwal, co-founder, Mitron TV; Rohit Chadda, CEO, digital publishing, Zee Group (HiPi); Sunil Nair, CEO, Firework; Janhavi Parikh, business head, MX TakaTak.

Gangal kicked off the session with an analogy: “If watching a season of a web series on OTT is like enjoying a bottle of wine over several hours, a short-form video is like a tequila shot.” It is instant gratification designed for instant fun in the here and now said the executive editor.

She then went on to ask all the panellists to tell everyone about their user base, the genres and types of content they cover, the number of Indian languages their platform is available in, and how many of their users are passive and how many overlap with the creators.

Parikh who went first revealed MX TakaTak “addresses a large audience of 150 million at this time.” She remarked, “It’s key to have users on the platform who not just consume content but also create them.” The other big aspect of short-form video content she said was fresh, high-quality, and diverse content across languages and genres.

She revealed that on TakaTak, “in terms of genres, the key focus tends to be on entertainment such as lip-sync, dance, comedy, music but we do have a lot of long-tail content across food, travel, photography etc. and we’re proactively building these categories.” And as for language, right now about 50 per cent is Hindi content and the rest of it is a long-tail of our regional content across languages in India said the business head.

“In terms of users we’re over 100 million and growing,” remarked Zee HiPi’s Chadda. Offering both UGC and short-form content, he went on to reveal HiPi did some of its content in the short format as well. “Some of our TVs shows (snippets) in this format worked well. In terms of overlap, when we launched, the focus was to onboard creators aggressively. We see a fair amount of overlap. That’s a positive sign.”

Mitron TV’s Khandelwal said “we’ve organically grown up to 50 million users as of now” and then went on to add that “on our platform 22 per cent of users are creators.” We’ve launched in 18 categories (communities) and our main focus is on getting organic users to these communities.

Gangal then asked Firework’s Nair to step in and informed everybody that it’s the only platform in the session that is not UGC based but is based on OGC (occupation generated content) and PGC (professionally generated content).

“Currently, we work with around 190 million publishing points within India and close to about 350 globally,” revealed Firework’s CEO and remarked that we’re called a toolkit for anyone who wants to bring short video into their environment. Some of the Firework’s publishers include the likes of NDTV, Oneindia, and Bloomberg.

Speaking about languages, he revealed Firework works in eight languages: English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati, Malayalam, and Punjabi. “The genres we do is DIY, a lot of personal finance, and we saw a 700 per cent growth in wellness and mental health between April and July in 2020.”

The lack of differentiation

Taking the aid of Bollywood, Gangal quoted a line from the 2013 movie Mickey Virus: Kaddu katega, sab main batega. “The proverbial pumpkin over here is time and attention of TikTok user, creator, and advertiser,” remarked the executive editor.

She was curious to understand if the lack of differentiation among the short-form video apps bothered them. “Apps are clones of one another. Is it a life cycle thing? Talk about that and in a bid to differentiate, will you give up width? The more sharply defined your sub-community/niche audience, the easier it might be to get targeted advertising but at the same time you will get depth but you may lose out on width.”

I think it’s a lifecycle thing. Over time we will start to differentiate stated MX TakaTak’s Parikh and then said “I think width is important provided you can cater the right kind of content to the right kind of people, that’s how you will win the audience and grow.”

Speaking from a monetisation perspective, “If you go too niche, you will limit the reach and for advertisers, reach is important and so is the engagement they are getting from platforms like us. I would say getting a wide variety of high-quality fresh content but being able to personalise is the key differentiator over time,” said Parikh.

Gangal then went on to remark, “Everybody had a collective moment when TikTok was banned and there’s no denying that we are yet to step out of that shadow.”

HiPi’s Chadda who went next agreed that it’s a lifecycle thing and said that most short-form apps are in the early stages of their lifecycle… “The products will evolve and everybody will figure out what their USP is… How much time a user spends on your platform and how interesting he/she finds your content is core to grabbing the attention span of users.”

For Khandelwal, who spoke next, when users say it’s a copycat app/clone, they are speaking about the user experience – the content format, the layout in which you are watching the content and that is something that will change your content strategy…

… Chadda jumped in between and asserted “when you say copycat because of layout… If users are used to a certain layout and it works for them, it will be there everywhere.” He then went on to ask why OTT apps or e-commerce apps are or even news websites are not called copycats despite having similar layouts and appearances.

Monetisation moves

Moving onto the aspect of short-form video app monetisation, Gangal asked her panellists which formats work on short-video formats which ones will take the segment to the next level six months ahead.

Mitron TV’s Khandelwalal took the question up first and said advertisements is one of the things when it comes to monetising short-video apps and will not be major when short-video apps are monetised…. How people engage around short-video will be important.

Parikh revealed that they hadn’t started monetising MX TakaTak but were seeing a lot of advertiser interest. Even she agreed that advertisements aren’t the only major way to monetise and went on to reference China’s leading short-video apps TikTok and Kuaishou. While ads dominate the former, virtual gifting on live stream dominates Kuaishou.

“The other thing that could evolve is e-commerce or publisher content on live streaming. There are a lot of diff avenues. It’s a little early to say what will work or not,” stated the business head.

Chadda went next and spoke about what the advertiser’s goal is. “When you’re looking at a short video from a hashtag challenge or a branded content perspective, you’re looking at creating brand awareness. For OTT, it’s performance.”

He then remarked on the possibility of increasing the advertising base. “What we are forgetting is there is a whole base that’s not started advertising on digital which is retail”. There’s a whole different advertiser space that’s nascent and hasn’t been captured.

The bundled offerings

Gangal remarked, “HiPi is part of Zee5 and rests in-app, TakTak is part of main MX Player app and is also separate” When it comes to talking brands and advertisers, does bundling help? Two audiences are different: Short-form and OTT. How does that work?

“We don’t think so,” said Parikh and went on to say that the audiences are to a pretty large extent pretty similar between MX Player and TakaTak app. “In terms of bundling this offering to advertisers, we’ve been doing it for a while… On MX Player, we’ve had OTT gaming and music and that’s something our team has successfully managed to sell as a great proposition to advertisers,” she remarked.

Firework’s Nair who came to speak next touched upon the aspect of content safety. He said, “Brands put a lot of emphasis on what kind of content their ads are being seen alongside.” He remarked that there’s a perception that short-form video apps don’t have clean content and that has become an area of concern.

What are you optimising?

Gangal then moved to the optimisation challenges and asked Khandelwal about them. He revealed that when it comes to Indian users - buffering issues need to be solved, low data consumption is needed and we have to optimise on video compression… “Moderation of content is important… We have moved a lot from manual moderating and automated the process.”

Is consolidation the way forward?

If you look at the short-video app players, there are the independent ones like Mitron, ones backed by big media giants like HiPi (Zee) and Mx TakaTak (Times) and the likes of Roposo and Josh that have enjoyed investments from Google.

Gangal posed two questions to all her panellists: Going forward, will we see a lot of consolidation? Is there such a thing as the optimum time for a short video?

While Nair and Parikh didn’t see it happening, Chadda and Khandelwal did and as for the timing, most agreed it will stay below 60 seconds while soon, we may see some formats offer anywhere between one to three minutes.

This panel discussion was part of vdonxt Week, a conference organised by afaqs! during March 1-5, 2021. Conference sponsors: Presenting partner – Voot. Associate partners – PubMatic, Zee5, Vidooly. Insights partner – Nepa.