In a decade of being in India, YouTube has seen an explosion of video content being shared in the country as more first-timers come online.
From being a predominantly news, music, and kids-video platform, the Google-backed website is today seeing a spurt in regional content across genres in the country.
But it was in 2014, with India’s last general election, that YouTube reached a turning point, marking the beginning of political satire and comedy content. “That was when we saw these individual voices come onto the platform and create content that was perhaps reflective of what was happening on the ground,” said Satya Raghavan, entertainment head for YouTube in India.
The proliferation of videos is reflective of how the smartphone generation in Asia’s third-largest economy is lapping up online content. They are watching everything from political satire to videos on regional cuisines, Bollywood dancing, news, beauty tips, and much more—even in languages beyond English, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu. Today, over 225 million Indian smartphone users access the website every month here. And the number is only growing, thanks to cheap data and increasing smartphone usage.
Quartz spoke to Raghavan about the company’s journey.
How has YouTube responded to India’s changing media and telecom landscape?
We launched in India in 2008. Pretty much for the first five to six years, till 2013, YouTube evolved more in the direction as a distribution or syndication platform for traditional media companies such as TV, news, sports, movie studios, music etc.
The interesting turning point was the 2014 general elections, where suddenly we had comedy creators.
That’s when we doubled down on reaching out to creators such as All India Bakchod (AIB). While all of this was happening, we also realised that these guys started inspiring a lot of other folks. By the end of 2014, we spotted a comedy video from south India; it was by a group Ennada Rascala and that talked about the south Indian comedy scene. That’s when we hired someone just to look at south India (in 2015), which we hadn’t done earlier. And by that time other verticals had begun to emerge.
More recently, thanks to Jio, telecom firms slashed prices. Has that affected video consumption?
Parallel to all of this (growth in content), the number of internet consumers was certainly increasing. In 2015, there were 70 million people on the internet. 2016 was a turning point for us from creators, consumers, and a content point of view. Here we saw the birth of what we call technology-related content on YouTube because at that time the telecom guys came with a very strong access story. Data got very cheap, and suddenly the number of consumers who started to come on the platform began to grow like crazy. That was also the time when other languages started to kick in—Marathi, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati. We suddenly saw creators in these languages and from newer cities.
And how did that make you shift your strategy?
Earlier in 2016, we as a team would have perhaps been present in Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Bengaluru etc. But we soon realised it was time to think about other cities. Which we did in 2017.
And clearly, that affected the kind of content being shared? Was regional content a big deal then?
Yes. Technology as a category suddenly spurted in 2016, for instance. Since more people were on the internet, mobile companies then said, “Okay! This is a great market for us,” and there were new mobile phones being launched every week. So tech-reviews as a category really took off. Then (there was) dance. We also saw another category emerge: village food.
Earlier, a lot of our creators were based in Delhi and Mumbai, and their language was primarily a very metro-centric “Hinglish.” In 2017, because the internet had now gone to 350-400 million users, a lot of people from smaller towns or middle India came online and that gave way to the return of Hindi—but in a very rustic way. Which then impacted the way in which some of the existing, as well as, a new breed of creators, churned out local content.
So today, if you look at our creator ecosystem, it has really gone up.
But the entry of OTT channels like Hotstar, Amazon Prime, Netflix etc has broken your monopoly. How are you adapting to that?
Netflix and Amazon have converted the paradigm of viewership from a pure advertising-driven platform to a subscription-based one. I think it’s great that so many video players are now in India because it broadens the ecosystem, it gives consumers choice and, for us, it gives creators a chance to do stuff beyond YouTube.
So will YouTube invest in original content for India?
Last year, we launched our subscription platform in various overseas markets which had our own content. We also launched YouTube TV, so in the last 18 months, we have launched these products but not yet in India. I don’t have visibility on when we will do that.
Advertisers are spending a lot of money on digital now. How are you monetising that?
If you look at the numbers, digital is the fastest-growing medium in the advertising pie. Within digital advertising, video will drive the expenditure. The interesting thing is that, on YouTube, most of the advertising is supported in Hindi and English. Recently we launched advertising in two more languages—Bengali and Tamil. So we will see a lot more local advertisers come in.
We’re entering an election year again, will we see a spike in content?
There’s not a direct correlation. But that (back in 2014) was the tipping point and I think news as a category has grown since. Earlier there were mostly the prominent TV channels (on YouTube), today there are more than a 100 TV channels which are live 24×7 on YouTube. And that has grown. Occasions like demonetisation and elections always give a spurt to that kind of content and viewership.
What will be big on YouTube in India in 2018?
There will be more sub-verticals, i.e., men’s lifestyle; we already had technology but now auto, travel, gaming are all emerging. And we will see the emergence of more languages beyond the current 11.