Earlier this month, a news story broke: “India police use WhatsApp to trace missing boy”.
It’s an interesting and highly contemporary story. Police in Bareilly took a photo of the pamphlet they had posted all over the city which carried a picture of the missing boy and his father’s contact details, and sent it by WhatsApp to nearby police stations and the boy’s family and relatives. They in turn forwarded the message to everyone in their WhatsApp address books. A man called Daanish received the WhatsApp message from a friend known to the boy’s father, and recognised the boy in the photo as being on his train. And the rest, as they say, is news!
This story caught my imagination, as another WhatsApp user from India myself. So I thought I’d write a little bit about how I’m seeing the app work in my own social circle – and how I think WhatsApp fits so well into Indian society and culture.
Now, WhatsApp’s not reached the whole of India yet – in fact, the app only rolled out in Hindi between January and March this year. Previously Indian people had to use the English interface, which of course restricts uptake to a more urban and educated social sphere (only about 20% of people in India speak some English, and 5% are fluent.)
But this move into Hindi should see the app gain a wider user-base, making it increasingly important in both the research and the marketing mix. So far the app already has over 40 million active users, the company’s VP Business Development, Neeraj Arora, told Times of India in an interview last month.
What’s up with WhatsApp?
I don’t currently live in India, but I too am on WhatsApp. The biggest group I’m part of is a bunch of women who were at school with me. When I recently sent out an email to the group, the response I got was, “Please don’t send email – send it through WhatsApp.” It appears that for them this new mobile app has for the most part replaced email, SMS and even social media options like Facebook. The volume of messages I get from this one group is amazing – every day 100 or more. One might be justified in asking whether being on WhatsApp is a full-time occupation. I know I find it hard to keep up.
The messages are quite varied: a chorus of “Good Mornings” every day either through images or text accompanied by a lot of emoticons, greetings for festivals (no matter how minor), images and videos of members of the group as well as their children – and grandchildren, lots of jokes (many of them surprisingly risqué), items of news about the impending elections and sometimes political cartoons (there’s a lot of that going around just now), philosophical or spiritual pieces that have moved or inspired them, as well as more practical things like planning a get together or a holiday, or asking for travel or shopping tips and advice.
It almost seems like their lives are being played out on WhatsApp. Does this sound familiar – like something that was said about Facebook users?
So why’s WhatsApp been such a hit in India?
1. Sociable and social Indian culture
Kinship and belonging are central to the Indian psyche. Indians love keeping in touch with family and friends, and want to know what’s happening with them. While that can be said about people in other countries and cultures too, among Indians, the sheer size of the family group and the extent of obligation to keep in touch takes it to another level.
WhatsApp is a mobile app, and since the mobile is at hand at all times, the interactions can be almost like conversations and you never have to miss out on anything that’s going on.
Another feature that supports this need for relationships is that WhatsApp allows a fairly large group size (30 people). This means it’s perfect for family groups, friend groups, or company groups to share news, pictures, greetings, instructions, or for people to seek advice from a larger community. With a single message on WhatsApp, the word can go out to up to 30 people.
2. I’m the first to know, and you’d better know it!
Who’s getting married? What job the prospective bridegroom has, when the baby is due, which colleague just got promoted… you get the gist. Indians love to be the first to know, and to be seen as people who get the news and gossip first.
Each group has a few members who dispense most of the news and gossip, and the rest react with appreciative comments, and quite possibly forward the tidbit on to their other groups!
3. Can’t do without SMS/text
With the advent of mobile and the possibility of SMS, Indians found a way to keep in touch at relatively low cost. A 2013 GSMA Intelligence report shows that non-voice revenues are growing at 16%, twice the rate of voice traffic growth. And text messaging is 45% of what people are using mobile for. So, when WhatsApp came along offering ‘free SMS’, it tapped right into the Indians’ preferred mode of using mobile.
4. Love a good deal, and ‘free’ is even better
Using WhatsApp, people can at one stroke both eliminate their SMS bill and at the same time get additional features. The free 1st year (which means they’re hooked!), and low cost thereafter ($0.99) makes it ridiculously cheap, even by Indian standards.
This has encouraged its use, not only by ordinary people, but also by political parties. There’s a general election this year, and political cartoons and jokes against both candidates are all over the social media sites – including WhatsApp. And if the material is funny or interesting, people help in the ‘marketing’ task by sending it on to their groups. For example, I received a WhatsApp message this morning that read “India needs to be MODIfied” (Narendra MODI is the opposition party’s Prime Ministerial candidate).
5. Makes me feel SO good!
Indians seem to need validation and acknowledgement just as much as (if not more than) other cultures. Within a WhatsApp group there’s a great return on a very small investment. The app is very intuitive and easy to use and a wealth of emoticons enables an instant response that doesn’t require much thought. It allows people to maintain relationships and be part of the group with very little effort. As with Facebook, this small effort on WhatsApp brings its users rich emotional rewards – appreciation from many for passing on a joke, poem, piece of wisdom, news, and the sense of solidarity with kindred spirits.
What does WhatsApp’s success tell us?
The image below – which was sent to me on WhatsApp (of course!) – shows what WhatsApp means to Indian consumers
Translated, it reads:
A way to share the secrets of the heart
A way to remind others of you
A companion who helps you forget your sorrows
And a way to keep your relationships even when you don’t meet!
Firstly, WhatsApp’s success tells us that relationships are important to people, and that’s a domain that marketers and product designers need to think carefully about. How can your product help people have better relationships with those around them?
It also reminds us that there’s definitely a place for products that are simple and focused, and put users’ needs first. The dedicated WhatsApp messenger has succeeded where Facebook’s messaging functionality hasn’t. So there’s a lesson in simplicity here too.
So, now WhatsApp’s included Hindi in its supported languages, we look forward to seeing how the love affair with WhatsApp will spread beyond the English-speaking population to a still wider Indian audience.