India is expected to see an unprecedented boom in the number of Internet users over the next few years but for a host of Internet companies it means a wholesale change in the language in which they engage with their potential new consumers.
According to a November report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI), India is expected to have the second largest Internet user base in the world by the middle of next year with about 460 million users. The numbers have grown by 49 per cent over the past year and about three-quarter of these new users are accessing the net through mobile phones.
Behind these numbers though, is a more interesting trend, namely that the Indian Internet consumer is now a very different individual than he or she was a few years ago.
Smaller towns According to an earlier IMAI-BCG report, while 29 per cent of Internet users lived in rural areas; in 2018 approximately half the users will reside in smaller towns and villages and will access the Internet not in English but through local languages.
The anomaly here is that the Internet in India is predominantly English – the English language still accounts for 56 per cent of the content on the worldwide Web, while Indian languages account for less than 0.1 per cent. There is a dearth of good regional language content that the new Indian Internet user can engage with. However, over the next few years this could change rapidly as companies are investing heavily in building up the Indian language Internet.
Google initiative According to a spokesperson from Internet giant Google, the company is already looking ahead to the fact that the next 100 or 200 million Indians who come online won't speak English. “In the last one year alone, Hindi content on the web has grown by about 94 per cent year on year, whereas English content is growing only at 19 per cent year on year,” he explains.
Last year, Google India initiated an Indian Language Internet Alliance, a group of companies who will help push regional language content online. The first set of partners in this alliance included media forms such as ABP News, Network 18 and Jagran Prakashan Ltd. The ILIA currently has 30 partner companies.
According to B.G. Mahesh, founder and MD of Oneindia.com, one of the publishers on the ILIA platform, the focus on regional languages is also essential from a marketing perspective. “Once the user base increases it becomes easier for digital companies to convince brands to spend on their platform. Brands are now interested in reaching users across India, especially Tier-2 and Tier-3 towns. What can be a better platform than Internet to reach Tier-2 and Tier-3 users at a far lesser cost than traditional media which is print and TV?” he asks.
Research conducted by various digital companies also supports the view that the character of the Internet in India is rapidly changing. “One measure is how many Facebook shares of say Hindi stories. Our data shows that it is on the same scale as English. We see creating mobile first experience and shareworthy stories for languages as a big opportunity,” says Samir Patil, CEO of Scroll media which runs the website Scroll.in. Scroll Media has already introduced Satyagrah.com, a Hindi site while others, like curated news aggregator InShorts, have also introduced Hindi versions.
Mr Mahesh also points out that it is not content companies alone that to stand to benefit. “All Internet companies stand to benefit by promoting regional languages. Users want to consume content / services in a language they are most comfortable with. Definitely services like railway booking, apparel, electronics can benefit a lot by having their sites in regional languages.” E-tailers like Snapdeal and Shopclues have already taken the lead, rolling out their sites in Hindi and Tamil versions while several others are expected to follow suit.