“Earlier, we would get about 5,000 daily organic users; now it is above 10,000,” says Lal Chand Bisu, co-founder and CEO of Kuku FM, an Indian vernacular podcast app. While other businesses have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing pan-India lockdown, regional social media apps like Kuku FM have seen a surge in users as locked down Indians binge on content to pass the time.

“We get 20,000-25,000 answers a day now, and more than 20 million monthly active users (MAUs),” says Aprameya Radhakrishna*, the founder of voice-based, peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing app Vokal. “About a month-and-a-half ago, we would get close to 7,000 answers [a day].”

The increase in usage is a happy uptick in fortunes for these platforms because, while they mushroomed in 2017-18, following a precipitous fall in the price of data, life hasn’t been easy for them.

Much has been made of the “next billion users”—first-time internet users, especially those in the Indian hinterland. However, while a 2017 report 2017 report KPMG and Google report Indian languages — Defining India's internet Read more by KPMG and Google forecast a market of 521 million Indian language internet users by 2021, cracking this opportunity has proven difficult.

Vernacular social media app ShareChat, founded in 2015, became the poster child of the space. It has raised over $200 million so far and counts American social media giant Twitter among its investors.

Still, the Bengaluru-headquartered company is yet to turn a profit. The company incurred a loss of about Rs 415 crore on a revenue of close to Rs 26 crore in the year ending March 2019, according to data sourced from business intelligence platform Tofler. Interestingly, the revenue it did earn came from “other sources”, rather than from ShareChat’s user base. It claimed to have 60 million MAUs at the time.

Other apps in the space haven’t been as lucky. Not in terms of adoption. And certainly not in terms of funding. This combination becomes especially worrying because user acquisition happens to be one of the major costs for these companies. And while ShareChat can afford to rack up losses in its quest to grow its subscriber base, platforms like Kuku FM, Vokal, or Indian language publisher Pratilipi have had to be far more frugal.

The pandemic, therefore, has given these platforms unexpected breathing room. The spike in the number of users visiting these platforms has significantly lowered the cost of customer acquisition.

“Startups who were acquiring a user for, let’s say, about Rs 20, can acquire them for about Rs 4,” says Kuku FM’s Bisu. This is a great opportunity for apps like Kuku FM, Pratilipi, and Vokal, which have outlasted several similar apps that were forced to down their shutters after burning through their funding.

AUTHOR

Prasannata Patwa

Based in Mumbai, Prasannata writes about content start-ups, consumer products, and OTT platforms. When not chasing trends she likes to travel, and binge on documentaries. She previously worked at Mint and is an ACJ Bloomberg Business Journalism graduate.

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