Bangalore: Less than four months after launch, a social networking website aimed at college students in India and those of Indian origin abroad is making waves. Backed by Internet advertising firm Northgate Technologies, BharatStudent.com already has 1.4 million registered users with its unique selling proposition being direction and advice for Indian students seeking entry to universities abroad. Web information company Alexa has placed BharatStudent.com at No. 34 in its list of the 100 most popular Internet sites in India.
That makes it the highest ranked Indian social networking site and the front-runner in the race to draw users away from Orkut, the popular networking site from Google Inc. Orkut, says Alexa, is India’s second most popular Internet address and another social networking site Facebook, founded by a Harvard University student, is at No. 29.
With a marketing team of over 400 student representatives on campuses in India and abroad, BharatStudent.com claims it offers content that is not available elsewhere. Students are hired as campus representatives for a monthly fee that varies from Rs4,000 for India-based students to $500 (Rs20,500) for Indian students on overseas campuses. These student reps upload campus videos, earn extra incentives for every new friend they register and act as word-of-mouth marketers.
Such local-focussed strategies are key to customer interest in social networking sites, says an expert. “Building strong localized content is the only way, an India-based social networking site can differentiate itself from Orkut and Facebook,” says Hitesh Oberoi, chief operating officer of Naukri.com, a job portal owned by India’s only locally-listed consumer Internet firm Info Edge India Ltd.
BharatStudent.com did not go in for any mainstream advertising at launch. Instead, it relied on word-of-mouth marketing by the student community. Users received gifts when they referred friends to join Bharatstudent.com. “We have given away gifts worth Rs50 lakh in the last 100 days,” says Vishnu Vardhan Indhuri, business head of the site.
The site offers deals on student loans and airline tickets for Indian students travelling overseas, and will soon start processing loans through a tie-up with ICICI Bank, says Indhuri. A marketplace where students can buy and sell lecture notes, used mobile phones and motor bikes is another feature in the works.
For student reps, the fee on offer is compelling. To qualify, students have to be above 18, net savvy, of Indian origin, and studying in schools in India or overseas. They apply on the site and if chosen get to work for a three month stint. “We get to earn, learn and make new friends here and if I get enough incentives I hope to take back at least Rs10,000 a month from my stint here,” says Akshay Pai, an engineering student in Bangalore and a BharatStudent.com campus representative.
Pai stumbled on the site while he was searching for study material online, ahead of his GRE—short for Graduate Record Examination, an entrance test almost mandatory for US graduate programmes—tests and now spends about an hour on the site every other day but still retains his Orkut account that he checks for new messages. “You have to be on Orkut because everyone else is there but there is nothing much to do after the first 15 minutes,” says Pai.
Bharatstudent.com, which has funding of Rs25 crore, hopes to gain a user base of 5 million and record 150 million page views a month—up from 40 million today—to be able to earn revenues from the site. Indhuri recognizes the power of niche targeting. “Social networking sites must have their own USP targeting a specific group; this gives more valuation. That’s why MySpace, a general social networking site with 80 million users is valued at $16 billion while Facebook , a niche site targeted at students with just 20 million users is already valued at $10 billion,” he says.