The Audio and Voice Revolution in India

As an audio and voice enthusiast and evangelist, I’m always happy to point out audio- and voice-first success stories. India is definitely one such story, and to paint a more vivid picture of the country’s fascination with audio and voice, I’m joined by Niraj Ruparel, Head Of Mobile and Emerging Tech at Groupm India and Head Of Voice Practice at WPP India, who will provide some color commentary, so to speak.

What makes India so special?

At the peak of online conference events a few months ago, I learned an interesting tidbit at the Mobile Marketing Association virtual conference. According to Google, India is the second quickest nation to adopt voice-activated technology, just behind the US. More than three-quarters (76%) of the users are familiar with the speech and voice recognition technology. As a result, Hindi is the second-most commonly used language on Google Assistant, behind the English language.

It’s worth noting that the trend of using voice tech is also shaping the way Indians interact with their smartphones. 

In India, mobile devices are the primary choice for voice interaction for many people or, to be more precise, 60% of users. Voice has become a core part of daily life that goes beyond convenience and smart devices in the home, setting the stage for further proliferation of audio content.

“There is a large population with no or limited access to the Internet,” says Niraj. “For this less connected group, voice technology has been not just a convenience but a necessity. Interactive services accessed on standard telephone numbers are a key source of information and education, and as AI-driven voice recognition technologies have evolved, these services have become increasingly sophisticated and have provided brands with unique opportunities.”

Fighting the illiteracy problem with voicetech

Despite being the world’s IT powerhouse and a heavily mobile-centric country, India has a literacy rate of 74.4%, according to data from World Population Review. With a population of almost 1.4 billion, that means around 358 million people are illiterate. For comparison, the entire population of the United States is approximately 333 million people.

However, thanks to such quick adoption, voice assistants are swiftly becoming more localized, even though it’s a fairly new technology. Voice assistants can understand accents and vocabulary not just in Hindi but also in other regional languages, helping overcome literacy barriers. Considering most of India’s population is multilingual, people are finding voice a much faster input interface than typing.

“Fun fact: here, Google Assistant can be even accessed without the Internet, simply by calling a phone number,” Niraj adds. “It is available in nine Indian languages, while Alexa is only available in English and Hindi. 

Having said that, even the addition of Hindi has been a boon to the Amazon smart speaker. As they go regional, they would find more fans for their technology with more people adapting to it. The sonic identity and personality of Alexa in Hindi is so powerful that we’re seeing a lot of people engaging with her. Close to 1 million people have proposed to Alexa already.”

Illiteracy and accessibility are two topics near and dear to me, and it’s gratifying to see audio and voice helping in a big way. I’ve said it before: leveraging any form of audio AI to transform textual content into a more accessible audio version of it will help mitigate the effects illiteracy has on society. For me, having an audio option for listening to any given content is the most direct way to solve the majority of those issues at once. 

As such, a text-to-speech technology (TTS) solution can be the bridge that connects the two sides. Publishers like India Today, Jagran New Media, and Network18 are already partaking in this audio-first movement, building their listener base so that they are fully ready for brands that want to associate with them.

This brings me to: 

The audio part of the equation

For starters, podcasts in India are really, really big. What a “shock”, right?. The country is the third-largest podcast listening market in the world, right after China and the United States. 

The country has crossed the 200 million mark of monthly active listeners, which represents about 15% penetration since we’re talking about a population of 1.33 billion people.

Indian Digital Audio COntent Market

“Indian audio OTT market is projected to explode to 400 million in the next couple of years,” adds Niraj. “It’s safe to say the country is in the midst of an audio revolution.”

Much like the rest of the world, India too has collectively experienced a change in daily routines, including digital audio streaming. There was a 155% growth in kid-friendly content, 20% growth in playlists dedicated to cooking, and news podcasts saw a whopping 245% growth. Evening and early night prime-time slots, both on weekdays and the weekend, are the peak traffic time slots for the medium. The growing number of people stepping out of their homes, also known as return to normalcy, is one of the key drivers of demand for streaming audio.

Also, this thirst for listening can be attributed to the huge role of oral storytelling in India’s culture. Podcasts successfully replicate that experience and add a more intimate, yet non-intrusive element on top of it. The country’s familiarity with radio is another important factor why Indians are jumping on the podcast bandwagon. Unlike other screen-based mediums, audio doesn’t require all of your attention and engagement, which means it doesn’t stop whatever routines people have, especially when at home.

Thanks to platforms such as Anchor and Spreaker, it’s very simple to record, edit, and distribute podcasts from home. As expected, there is a wide variety of topics covered for which there are a number of related podcasts. Now with Spotify making a concerted effort to better adapt to Indian consumer habits and download speeds, it’s close to becoming India’s leading music, supplanting JioSaavn and Gaana as the two local leaders. And we all know how huge and important Spotify is for the audio landscape.

Adoption of new listening habits due to COVID - 19 and key trends emerged due to COVID - 19

If you need more proof of just how much Indians are into audio, check this out. They consider audio quality as one of the most important factors in their next smartphone purchase. With homebound work and leisure, users don’t want to compromise on the audio quality, both from a communication and content consumption point of view. Also, five in every eight users or 62% use audio during gaming. 

Audio revolution at its finest.

The money in audio

Digital media is expected to lead the rebound in advertising spending in India this year with a 23.2% growth, and audio advertising is slated to increase by 17%. This might not paint the full picture at first but it’s important to take into account. That’s because India is expected to be the ninth-largest market in global ad spends in 2021, a sixth-largest contributor to incremental ad spends in 2021, and second-fastest growth market in the top 10.

From a publisher standpoint, audio is on par to becoming a cultural movement of sorts thanks to its loyal audience that covers almost every age demographic. Spotify’s Culture Next Report 2020 for India states that for 84% of Indians, music streaming services offered a gateway to other cultures. Furthermore, 76% of Indian millennials and Gen Zs, as opposed to 68% of their global peers, said they turn to audio to cope with stress and anxiety. Of note is the fact that 86% of Indian parents who listen to podcasts feel that the medium has become a very helpful educational tool.

In turn, this is providing advertisers with multiple opportunities to reach consumers through engaging audio formats and achieve tangible results in a growingly screen-free world, and they are seizing these opportunities. In 2021, audio advertising is on track to have a significant share in programmatic spends and also possibly even bring incremental budgets from the traditional media like print and TV.

“Brands have a big opportunity to integrate every audio touchpoint into a brand’s storytelling and spark emotion to drive audiences to action,” my guest poster chimes in. For him, further customization through sonic branding and conversational AI will both enhance user experience and strengthen brand engagement with users who can’t read banner ads. 

“This effectively creates an entirely new market for text-to-speech solution providers. The audio advertising market features plenty of room for innovation than it seems.”

By capturing the listener’s full attention and forming an emotional connection, audio will not only provide a better reach but also better ‘conversion’ unlike other ad formats. So, the stage is set for publishers to power the creation and distribution of their audio content across a wide range of platforms and devices, then monetize it through in-stream ads. 

Alternatively, the option is to package audio content as a part of subscription plans. However, seeing that only 1% out of 200 million unique monthly active users are paid subscribers, creating a new revenue stream through audio advertising could pave the way for transition from freemium to premium content in the long run. 

Final thoughts

I’d say the points made above are the reasons enough for publishers and brands to think more intentionally about their online footprint in India by adding a 100% audio-only touchpoint. India is all ears as listeners are actively seeking better and more immersive experiences, whenever and wherever they go. One huge advantage audio has is being able to go beyond the limitations of video by providing access across devices, especially relevant in this second-largest smartphone market.

It’s evident that India’s linguistic and cultural diversity presents exciting opportunities for publishers and content creators to dive into languages and local culture for regional consumption. Besides English dominating the media landscape and Hindi scaling up, we can’t neglect content in regional languages that is positioned to steadily grow too, as awareness and preference for podcasting and voice interactions expands across India.

The future of audio and voice is loud, and it has never been a better time for publishers and content creators to start thinking more intentionally about their approach to this aural environment, growing listenership, and overall business strategy. Now is the time to join this audio and voice revolution and cash in on this behavior.


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