Bangalore: In July, Mohit Kapoor made a slick presentation on his new company to a gathering of technology developers for cellphones at the Bangalore arm of Mobile Monday, a global forum of mobile technology enthusiasts.
The presentation marked the soft launch of Goolel, yet another India-centric social networking site. Five years after the world’s largest social networking site, Facebook, hit the Internet, companies here are still scrambling to join the social networking bandwagon.
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In April, Hyderabad-based nLeague Services Inc. entered the already crowded social networking landscape with Zahdoo.com. March saw American Internet company AOL Llc. bring Bebo.com to India.
Social networking sites started gaining traction in India some three years back with the rising popularity of global sites Facebook and Orkut.
Soon, Indian sites caught on; Ibibo.com, Indyarocks.com, Bharatstudent.com and Bigadda.com emerged. Today, the market is cluttered with at least a dozen sites but the two global first-movers —Orkut and Facebook—account for at least 90% of the market, according to Diptarup Chakraborti, a principal research analyst at Gartner India, a research and consulting firm. HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, has a presence in the space through DesiMartini.com.
Kapoor is convinced there is a market for offerings such as his.
“In terms of technology, there are no (geographical) barriers,” says Kapoor, chief executive at Gurgaon-based Goolel Technologies Pvt. Ltd, which runs the eponymous site. “But people want to feel at home. You have to create that Indian environment.”
He claims to be the only player focused on delivering a “rich user experience” on mobile phones.
However, his isn’t the first offering to target mobile phone users.
“Facebook mobile (the mobile version of the online site) will be a hugely important way to enable people in India to stay connected,” says Meenal Balar, international marketing manager at Facebook.
Another social networking site, Indyarocks, says it draws its inspiration from market leaders in South-East Asia—Mixi.com in Japan, Qq.com in China and Cyworld.com in South Korea—all popular social networking sites with local origins. “They continue to rule the market with specific offerings (in the) local language,” says Kalyan Manyam, co-founder of Indyarocks, which has 3.4 million registered users. Manyam soon plans to offer messaging and blogging in seven Indian languages.
None of the social networking sites mentioned in the story were ready to reveal details of revenue or cost.
Nobody knows what is the critical mass to break even, said Shivanandan Pare, chief operating officer at Bigadda, RelianceBIG Entertainment Pvt. Ltd’s social networking site. But Pare is hopeful. “Since our sales force went out to get advertisers in January, we have had 40 brands (advertising on the site).”
Gartner’s Chakraborti compares the rush to build online communities to the dot-com boom of the 1990s. “Ten years back, it was all about eyeballs, eyeballs. Today, it is all about communities, communities.” On the lines of the dot-com bust, Chakraborti predicts a shakeout in the next two-three years.
“A big percentage (of these networks) will not survive.”
“There are many ‘me toos’ created over the (last) two-three euphoric years,” says Ashish Kashyap, CEO at Ibibo, a social networking site that has positioned itself as a talent-showcasing platform. “There is no space for ‘me toos’…you have got to differentiate and solve a problem.”
The numbers, too, do not seem to add up. India has between 34 million and 50 million internet users, according to various estimates. According to Internet market research firm comScore Inc., the country had 34.6 million Internet users (who access the Web from their homes/offices) in June, of which at least 65%, or 22.61 million, accessed social networking sites.
In many developed markets, social networks and blogging sites have dislodged personal email in the hierarchy of the online world, said media measurement firm Nielsen Co. in its “Global Faces and Networked Places March 2009” report.
Still, Facebook is yet to turn a profit and users are too busy connecting with old friends and lost love to click on advertisements.
“Everyone is experimenting with different things (to make money from advertising). Some things will work; some things won’t,” said Rahul Kulkarni, product manager at Google India who oversees Indian market leader Orkut.
For Orkut, India, with 13 million active users, is the third largest market after Brazil and the US.