Mumbai: Rapidly increasing mobile penetration in emerging markets like India, coupled with the proliferation of low-cost handsets, is continuing to boost the user growth prospects of US-based social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter as also that of communications apps such as US-based WhatsApp, Skype, Viber, China’s WeChat, Japan’s Line and homegrown Hike.
While India provides the largest user base for WhatsApp, it gives most of the top social networking sites their second-largest subscriber numbers.
On Wednesday, LinkedIn, the world’s largest online professional network with over 364 million members globally, said it has crossed 30 million members in India. The site, which had 3.4 million members when it started operations in the country in 2009, grew 50% over the past two years. And India continues to be the largest market for LinkedIn after the US in terms of member base.
On 22 April, Viber said it had crossed more than 40 million registered users in India, attributing the growth to “the surging popularity of the platform and its active and highly engaged community of users”. Viber commenced operations in India in December 2013 at a time when it had just 13 million users. Viber now has over 516 million unique users in 193 countries.
Whatsapp, which was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in February 2014, had 700 million global users as of March, according to online statistics company Statista Inc. Of these, an estimated 10% users are from India.
Facebook Messenger, on its part, has 600 million global users. Facebook.com itself has around 1.3 billion global users and about 110 million in the country.
Facebook is also promoting a programme called Internet.org, wherein it has tied up with telecom services providers (telcos) around the world to increase the Internet user base by connecting people who are not online.
In less than a year, Internet.org has brought more than 7 million people online--in the nine countries (including India) it operates this programme, Facebook said in a statement on 4 May. Last week, the company also launched the Internet.org platform to help more developers include their services in Internet.org.
But the Internet.org programme is being met with a lot of skepticism from many netizens and activists who believe that the platform can “split” the Internet by offering services selectively and, hence, flout Net Neutrality principles that do not allow for discrimination in online services.
On 15 April, travel portal Cleartrip and media companies Times Group and NDTV logged out of the Internet.org initiative even as Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of the world’s largest social networking site, attempted to defend his position in sections of the media.
While the debate is not likely to end in a hurry, according to a 7 May newsletter by Internet World Stats News, there were a little over 3 billion Internet users worldwide by end December 2014.
The number of mobile-only Internet users is growing in importance, it said, adding that the number of mobile-only Internet users have gone from some 14 million in 2010 to 788 million in 2015.
India, with a little over 300 million users, is the second-largest wireless market in the world after China, and has the world’s second-largest Internet user base--again after China.
India has nearly 970 million mobile phones of which over 95% are wireless phones and over 22% are smartphones. India also has nearly 100 million broadband connections, and there are many low-cost handsets and even feature-rich smartphones now available for less than Rs10,000.
The number of mobile Internet users in India (173 million in December) is expected to reach 213 million by June, according to the Mobile Internet in India 2014 report released on 13 January. The report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (Iamai) and IMRB International (a market research firm) also pointed out that the number of mobile Internet users in rural India is set to grow at a rate of 33% from October 2014 to reach 49 million by March 2015 and 53 million by June 2015.
The report revealed that for 74% of the mobile Internet users, the primary activity is to access email, followed by social networking, which is accessed by 61% of the mobile Internet users.
India is also soon going to become one of the biggest markets in terms of new smartphone users as most first-time internet users are jumping directly to mobile platforms, according to a 2 February Morgan Stanley report. It added that the total number of Internet users in India is forecast to exceed 600 million by 2020, and if the pace of smartphone adoption remains strong, Internet penetration in India could touch 46% by 2020.
India also has one of the youngest populations in the world, with a median age of 26 years. As a result, the Indian youth market remains the largest for smartphone and mobile internet use. As smartphone prices in India have decreased, those from low income backgrounds have a greater opportunity to fulfill their aspirations--to own a smartphone and use the internet services offered, according to the Ericsson Consumer Insight report released in April.
The report corroborated that social networking and chatting with friends and family via instant messaging is becoming common in India.
Meanwhile, though India gives these companies a huge user base, it is the US that continues to be the largest market in terms of revenue for most of these social networks and communication apps.
For the full year ended 31 March, Facebook had 936 million daily active users (DAUs), an increase of 17% from a year earlier. Mobile DAUs were 798 million on average, an increase of 31% from a year ago.
Revenue for the March quarter of 2015 totaled $3.54 billion, an 42% increase over a year ago. Revenue from advertising was $3.32 billion, a 46% increase from the same quarter last year. Mobile advertising revenue represented some 73% of this advertising revenue--up from around 59% of advertising revenue in the first quarter of 2014.
With more and more Indians latching on to feature-rich low-cost handsets, the country may soon prove to be a haven for companies like Facebook and Twitter Inc. in terms of revenue growth too, especially with digital advertising spends growing at a fast clip in the country.