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BW Businessworld

Indian Content Creators And Digital Atmanirbharta

The ban on TikTok may have come as an unpleasant surprise to content creators, but the market already is gearing up for platforms from Zee and Times in addition to existing home-grown platforms and also Instagram Reels

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The show must go on. And it is. A single TikTok ban has spurred the arrival of at least four rival platforms from leading media businesses including Instagram, Zee Entertainment Enterprises (ZEEL) and Times Group, creating a wave in the user-generated content market. These launches are not a case of leveraging another’s loss — India was TikTok’s biggest overseas market prior to the ban. But it is about making a strategic move at the right place and at an opportune time.

Consider this. Twto weeks after the ban, Roposo claimed it was peaking at 500,000 new users an hour, and expecting to have 100 million by July end. Roposo is joined by the likes of Chingari, Mitron and ShareChat — all Indian startups that are raking in the spoils. At a time when India, Asia’s third largest economy, is rapidly adopting digital and taking big steps to grow the user base for connected audiences, these movements are strong not only in driving digital atmanirbharta in user generated content, but also in creating global people brands from India.

The platforms, including TikTok, had become a beacon of hope for name, fame, money (a minimum of Rs 120 crore annually for the top 100 influencers of TikTok alone, as per an Indian Institute of Human Brands report) and entertainment among many across India’s varied social, economic and geographical strata, and surprised many.

Nevertheless, these are just a speck in the country’s content creation ecosystem, which is waiting to explode, thanks to the rapid spread of mobile access, insatiable demand and anytime-anywhere content consumption, a population of 1.3 billion, 688 million Internet subscribers, nearly 400 million smartphone users, and an audience rendered homebound for content creation and viewing amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Consumer as the Creator
The consumer, the latest EY-FICCI report on Media and Entertainment notes, is becoming the new content creator. This has given rise to influencers, whom advertisers have been tapping into to reach a wider audience. While YouTube claims over 1,200 creators with a following of over a million each today, TikTok, which had a 200-million-strong user base in India, claimed several hundred such creators. The numbers are only poised to grow through foreign and home-grown platforms that are mushrooming in the space.

The report expects over 10,000 such creators in the fray by 2025, and media companies are looking at a challenge to build, sustain, incentivise and grow such creator communities.

Ashutosh Harbola, Co-founder & CEO of influencer marketing platform Buzzoka says, “It’s a snowball effect. What one will lose, the other will capture very quickly. The important question to ask is, ‘Has the market matured?’ The answer is yes. TikTok has given a big push for that market to mature, and if any player enters now, it’s a great market opportunity to capture a huge user-base.”

The ban on Beijing-based ByteDance-owned TikTok (formerly followed a border clash between India and China in June. A report in China’s Global Times says ByteDance, which had invested over $1 billion in the Indian market and owns two of the other banned apps — Helo and Vigo Video, could incur a loss of $6 billion from the ban.

The Indian government has raised concerns regarding data security and threat to the country’s sovereignty, and is currently drawing clarifications from stakeholders of the 59 Chinese apps that have been banned to review the matter further.

Emergence of New Players
Meanwhile, both old as well as new foreign and native apps and companies are trying to adapt to a market where content creators, consumers, and advertisers are hungry for more. So, here come Instagram Reels, HiPi, Mx TakaTak, Gaana HotShots, Roposo, Chingari, Bolo Indya, Mitron, ShareChat and the like. Some have been around in the market, some in the testing phase, some launched just days after the ban, and some looking at a mega launch soon. And not all are startups. HiPi is from ZEEL, while Mx Takatak and Gaana HotShots are from Times Group.

Rajneel Kumar, Business Head – Expansion Projects & Head, Products, ZEE5 India, says that HiPi, due to launch soon, is intended to further consolidate ZEE5’s positioning as India’s entertainment super-app. That its launch follows a TikTok ban is not something they could have predicted, but Kumar admits there was a bit of reprioritising of other releases to expedite the processes for HiPi.

Meanwhile, Instagram has since extended a testing of Reels in the country starting July 8. “India has always been a priority for us. All of our test countries (Brazil, Germany, France and India) represent vibrant cultures, and in India consumer demand is strong with videos making up over a third of posts on Instagram. We’re excited to see what people create with Reels,” says Manish Chopra, Director & Head, Partnership, Facebook.

“In the past few months, we’ve seen incredible growth as people use our platform to connect with people and interests in this time of social and physical distancing. Many creators have been a source of constant information and entertainment, and a few everyday people have become new creators on Instagram and gained national audiences as well. Reels will take this ahead,” Chopra adds.

At the onset, Reels was populated with content from diverse public figures and creators, such as Ammy Virk, Gippy Grewal, Komal Pandey, Arjun Kanungo, Jahnavi Dasetty aka Mahathalli, Indrani Biswas aka Wondermunna, Kusha Kapila, Radhika Bangia, RJ Abhinav and Ankush Bhaguna. That’s also going to be the modus operandi for other apps, which are even offering new creative tools, user-friendly interface, building a creator-advertising community, and content.

Says Gaana CEO Prashan Agarwal, “HotShots’ biggest USP is the community of leading celebrities and content creators like Neha Kakkar, Darshan Raval, Riyaz Aly, Avneet Kaur, Sunanda Sharma, amongst others. Cross-cultural influencers who were getting a decent dose of consumption in India with erstwhile platforms are also likely to start creating content on home-grown apps like ours to cater to the Indian audience.”

Even ZEE5’s Kumar says they will launch with over 300 influencers — the plan includes making HiPi the home for actors of ZEE’s TV shows and original content across its streaming platform — and eventually expanding it by another 200 and more to make it an “ever-growing list”.

Digital Atmanirbharta
It is all about giving a push towards atmanirbharta. Gaana HotShots, for one, is pitched as a platform which “offers emerging and established influencers an opportunity to migrate to a robust Indian platform and build their own success stories. Bolo Indya, touted as a ‘Made in India’ brand for all content creators who want to ‘go local’, claims to represent PM Modi’s Atmanirbharta and ‘Vocal for Local’ initiatives. There’s also ZEE5’s HiPi, which is said to be a ‘made for an Atmanirbhar Bharat’ platform for making content.

Bengaluru-based advertising tech unicorn InMobi Group’s Roposo is described as a “product of Indian minds”. Avinash Saxena, Co-founder, Roposo, which currently has 75 million users and has worked magic with theme-based channels to attract users, says, “This is a digital atmanirbhar moment for India. A lot of startups, and not just in the content space, have got the opportunity to showcase what they are building and also to get a fair share of viewers’ attention. Hopefully, we will see world-class products coming out of this.”

So even if this means a ‘more the merrier’ scenario for content creators, success would need to be measured based not just on the number of active users and downloads, but also user engagement indicators such as open rates (the number of times an app is opened by an user in a given day) and average session time.

Saxena says Roposo’s daily active user-base now stands at 20 million, and time spent is 40 minutes per user daily. “The growth has been great. We hope that in the coming weeks we will cross the 100-million-users mark. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we had 50 million users, and we are happy with the way we are growing.”

An analysis by data analytics firm KalaGato shows that while TikTok lost almost half of its unique users to Indian competitors such as Mitron, Roposo, Sharechat and Chingari within 48 hours of the ban, user-level engagement among Indian social media apps was yet to catch up with TikTok’s engagement levels. Of course, it will take time.

KalaGato Co-founder and CEO Aman Kumar says, “The growth of the Indian companies is very impressive. But all said and done, TikTok created a lot of smart proprietary technology. Therefore, it is easy for people to say ‘I am going to build something similar’, but it must be the same in performance, the way people perceive it in terms of utility, etc.”

Kumar further says, “People didn’t use TikTok just because Tikok was also there. They used it because of what TikTok offered them. If you see the subset of users that used the platform, it is quite dissimilar to Instagram. That tells you that people chose TikTok because as an ecosystem, it may have felt more familiar to them.” What TikTok brought to the table was deep penetration into India’s hinterlands through 15-second videos, allowing the dreamers to go beyond their dreams, earn a living, and for brands to reach the masses through them.

TikTok India head Nikhil Gandhi, who has said that the platform has not shared any information of its users with a foreign government, including the Chinese government, points out the app’s contribution in “democratisation” of the Internet.

“It has democratised the Internet by making it available in 14 Indian languages, with hundreds of millions of users, artistes, storytellers, educators and performers depending on it for their livelihood, many of whom are first time Internet users,” Gandhi said in a statement.

Content Still is King
Content has in the past few years emerged as a vital differentiator and a fierce battleground for most companies, including the Big Five in the tech domain — Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. “Big, global stars can come out of India,” Ajit Mohan, MD, Facebook India recently said about the idea behind testing Reels in the country.

Even Indian players are readily tapping into the opportunity by spreading their wings, giving a reason to content creators, both experienced and budding, to be excited. “Many creators are starting from scratch. This makes it exciting for the younger, budding creators to lap up the opportunity and get a shot at building an audience. As for the more popular creators on TikTok, they’re going to be in demand from multiple platforms,” says Viraj Sheth, Co-founder & CEO of digital entertainment startup Monk Entertainment.

ZEE5 also plans to have two platforms which ease the process of making user-generated content profitable. One will be a self-service window for advertisers to leverage the ZEE5 platform, and another a creator tool where verified users would be on a revenue sharing model with the parent platform for advertising shown on content they have uploaded. If such efforts fructify, they may expand the pie of earnings for influencers of TikTok, which was in the early days of trying to monetise its business via TikTok ads as well as a business model for its own and its influencers’ benefit.

Influencers Speak
For now, the influencers are focusing on establishing presence on Instagram and YouTube, but say the idea of having a successful home-grown app in the space resonates well with the sentiment of self-reliance.

Mohak Narang, a 19-year-old from Hisar in Haryana with a following of 14.3 million on TikTok, says, “We do have plans to migrate to the Indian platforms, but right now I am piling content. As and when I feel I have a decent following on Instagram or YouTube, I will support the Made in India apps. That is the plan.”

Similarly, TikTok-er Shivani Kapila, who too has been growing her presence on Instagram and YouTube, says she needs some time to understand what’s happening before taking a call. “What I am sure is the show must go on,” she says.

If a single app of the scale and reach of TikTok was to emerge from India, it would do another thing necessary for the ecosystem: clear the clutter for talent, and open the pool for more people to break the glass ceiling.

Chingari, for example, is trying to woo more users with its ‘Chingari Star — Talent ka Mahasangram’, a digital talent hunt where the best content creator will be
given Rs 1 crore in prize money. “The competition is aimed at promoting desi talent and helping them fulfil their dream of becoming famous and rich,” says Sumit Ghosh, Co-founder & Chief Product Officer, Chingari App.

What’s a win-win for these platforms is there is an audience waiting to watch, especially amid the pandemic, which has left consumers scrambling for entertainment avenues at home.

But from an advertiser’s perspective, KalaGato’s Kumar asks, “Creators are happy to switch platforms as they are there for the money/influence/followers. But brands will advertise where their customers are. Tomorrow, if a number of people start using another platform, then brands will switch over too. But are fans switching over? For that to happen, we have a long way to go.”  

This article was first published in the print issue of (10 July - 25 July) BW Businessworld. 
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Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Radhika Bhirani

The author is a Senior Writer at BW Businessworld.

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