YouTube readies to conquer India in 2015

roar fills the swanky indoor stadium of the National Sports Club of India (NSCI) in central Mumbai. It is followed by screams, and a scampering across numerous rows as hordes of ‘screenagers’ scramble to get a view of a tiny young woman clad in jeans, a T-shirt and a cap worn the wrong way on stage. She opens her mouth to speak, and the screams get even louder. She shushes the audiences, exalting them to allow her to speak, but the decibel levels refused to go down. The pandemonium goes on for three minutes or more with the screeches and screams getting louder.

But speak she has to, which she does. The 4,000-odd crowd has been waiting to listen to her, get a glimpse of her and her alone for a good four hours.

“I am so glad to be in Mumbai,” she gushes, amidst shushes targeted at the crowds. “I could not resist it when I was invited once again. I had promised you that I would be explaining what the hashtag #AT2UI means which I had revealed on my Twitter account over this week. Well, let me make the big announcement: #AT2UI is A Trip to Unicorn Island and I am embarking on a world tour with it, beginning with India next month.”

Before she even finishes making the statement, the crowd goes berserk once again with ecstasy. The screams rise to a crescendo and refuse to die down. “OMG,” says a young thing, six rows ahead of us. “I can’t believe it. She is coming here for a tour. I can’t believe it.” The tears roll down her cheeks and she raises her hand heavenwards, saying ‘Thank you! Thank you!’

No. No. It is not Madonna on stage. Nor is it Lady Ga-Ga. Nor is it Selena Gomez or Taylor Swift or One Direction. Nor is it a bible thumping preacher or a spiritual Hindu Guru.

The young lass is Lily Singh aka IISuperWomanII, a 27 year Indo-Canadian, who appears to have surpassed the fan love showered on even Bollywood’s and Hollywood’s biggest stars. This kind of mania was probably something that was reserved for the Beatles in the sixties and seventies.

Excepting IISuperWomanII is a star born of the digital era. Her fan following is totally digital in origin. She is a YouTube star with more than 5.3 million subscribers. Her Twitter handle has around 847,000 followers, whereas 1.7 million track her on Instagram. Her fans mainly are girls between 8-28, but don’t be surprised if you find a young man of 19 there too. Those are the kind of numbers mainstream broadcasters would love to boast of for their channels. But Lily Singh is a young creator, who is the star attraction at the Second YouTubeFanFest (#YTFF) in Mumbai.

“Never let anyone tell you what to do or not to do. Be yourself,” she tells the screeching fans at the NSCI. “Go out in the sun, have fun. It does not matter if your skin gets tanned. Whether you are dark or fair. You have to live your life. Not just be a housewife.”

It’s exactly what young girls; women in India have been wanting to hear. And IISuperwomanII has piped into that desire.

Others have too. And they have built audiences. The Viral Fever – which started as a branded content creator – today has more than a million subscribers. All India Bakchod (AIB), which flew into controversy and some legal wrangles courtesy a roast it did a couple of months ago, too boasts a following of a million. Prior to that, it was mainstream entertainment companies such as Bollywood producers, music labels, broadcasters, who were attracting viewers on the online video streaming site started by Chad Hurley. T-Series, Star India, Sony Entertainment, Eros, Rajshri were all the rage. But the majors such as Star and Sony pulled out a majority of their content to concentrate on their own streaming apps. T-Series, Eros and Rajshri still have followings running into multiple millions and most of the video consumption on their channels is coming courtesy traditional Bollywood content.

However, over the past couple of years an ecosystem of independent video content creators is being built up – addressing almost every genre. Kids (through Chu Chu TV), cooking (Vah-Chef), Comedy (SNG Comedy, TVF, AIB, East India Company), Education, Travel, and what have you.

Of course revenues on YouTube are not something you would write to Mom about. Estimates are that the streaming service is on course to do about Rs 160-170 crore in ad revenues this year. That’s probably what would be just one month’s earning for a general entertainment channel. But with smart phones proliferating and bandwidth rates dropping, video consumption – both in terms of time spent viewing and number of viewers - through outlets like YouTube and Dailymotion is only going to rise. Advertisers no doubt will follow in the hope of catching consumers’ eyeballs. Estimates are that YouTube revenues will likely skyrocket to about Rs 1,500 crore by 2018.

And of course who else will benefit but independent content creators. Estimates are that PewDiePie - the world’s top YouTuber with 35.5 million subscribers to his gaming channel – takes home about $4-5 million a year. Along with it come endorsements, live gigs, and of course superstardom status.

But most of the YouTube stars started their video journeys with very basic gear, filming with their computer cameras, or digital cameras or even their smart phones. For edits they used Windows movie maker or iMovie, self-learning to use Adobe Premier Pro or Apple final cut pro.

“My first videos were done with simple video cameras,” says Bethany Mota, who has more than 8.4 million followers on YouTube in just about six years since she uploaded her first video. . “And I kept waiting for views. I remember how excited I was when I touched 100 views for my videos.”

Mota has a super following in India too. At the YouTubeFanFest, she probably drew the second highest cheers after IISuperWomanII.

Standup comic Abish Matthew in fact did a sketch during the YTFF about the difficulties that YouTube stars face, especially in terms of getting their video blogs online. “You film, you edit and then you wait for the video to render. Time goes by. Then you wait to upload, you wait and wait and wait. The bandwidth here is limited. And then you wait for the views to come in. You wait and you wait,” he said.

AIB, on its part, believes in producing videos of high quality. “We love to experiment with cameras and with great equipment,” says Gursimran Khamba.

“We want our videos to be of a particular standard and even though it is all about the content, we also want it to look good,” adds Tanmay Bhat. He further says that there are ways to get your videos done cheap and cheerful, yet maintaining quality. “We reach out to our friends, acquaintances who then help us reach out to the talent we want to work on our videos,” he says. “And then we request them to work with us at low or almost no budget. We find they are willing to do it. Then there is talent available in media colleges in every city, who will work with you just to get the experience.”

Most of the YouTubers believe in communicating with almost everyone messaging them on their social media and video posts. “I respond to almost everyone I can online,” says fashion icon Scherzarde Shroff. “I like to connect with them.”

IISuperWomanII was at her hyperactive best through her handle on Twitter before the YouTubeFanFest giving away free VIP passes to the event and messaging her followers, thanking them for their following her. While initially it was only she who did it, these days it is teams who share that responsibility.

But some like Rohan Joshi of AIB talk to their followers directly - a couple of the YouTube stars call their followers as friends - even today. “I like to put out what I want to myself. It reflects who I am,” he says. “I have a social strategy: I need two types of followers – those who agree with me and those who don’t. For every two people who agree with me, I need one who does not. That allows for healthy debates and conversations whenever I post something on Twitter.”

The Viral Fever – run by Arunabh Kumar - began by making branded viral digital video content for clients such as Airtel, Flipkart, Colgate, Head and Shoulders – today boasts more than a million subscribers on YouTube, becoming the first independent original content maker outside of Bollywood to cross that landmark. Its parody of Times Now’s Arnab Goswami’s ‘The Nation Wants to Know’ has attained online cult status. And that was followed by India’s first fictional web series Permanent Roommates, which was funded by commonfloor.com.

“Working with brands has helped us develop another layer of revenue for the company, which has allowed us to go further,” says Kumar . In fact, the TVF's viral work has led to the company getting work on television too with a show on Bindass and numerous promos for TV channels.

Kumar says that he and his team are careful about their creative freedom when working with brands on videos. “We value our independence and our clients trust us,” he says. “We know how to engage with our audiences, and brands rely on us to do that as long as we keep their messaging in mind.”

In fact cola giant Pepsi has taken to YouTube in a big way. As part of its global Pepsi Challenge campaign, it has launched a ‘Crash The IPL’ initiative wherein it has asked consumers to shoot a 30 second ad film showing their love for the beverage. The entries have to be uploaded on youtube.com and the link submitted to www.crashthepepsiipl.com. These will be judged, and finalists chosen, entitling them a cash award of Rs 100,000, VIP tickets to the IPL matches, and the winning ads will be aired on TV between 8 April and 24 May 2015, replacing the agency created ads.

Pepsi has also partnered with the Singapore based Music Matters festival for its Music Accelerator Programme. As part of this, a band or an artiste from India will be flown to Singapore to participate in the Music Matters Conference, be mentored at the Music Matters Academy and also perform at Music Matters Live to an audience of about 8,000. Music Matters’ Indian partner for this initiative is Pepsi MTV Indies.

“Most of the great creative work, which has come on air is when we were having fun,” says PepsiCo India senior director market social beverages Ruchira Jaitly. “We want creators to have fun too and create ads for us. And that’s what’s extremely exciting for us.”

YouTube, on its part, believes that 2015 is going to be the year of India on the online streaming network. Says YouTube's David Powell, “We believe that Indian creators are going to break out this year. The time has come.”

YouTube director global content operations Sara Mormino adds, “We are eager to work with newer Indian creators and who knows… another superstar like PewDiePie might emerge from India. India is a very vibrant young country.”

Towards this end, it conducted its second Academy in India in mid-March, organsied the YouTubeFanFest in partnership with Branded, which was attended by Indian creators and thousands of fans. And it is also organizing workshops with different communities like ad filmmakers, schools and TV producers. 

To its advantage is the fact that it has first mover advantage in this space. Star’s hotstar.com is only carrying its own content and it has managed only 10 million or so downloads. Others such as Dailymotion.com are just about getting its feet into India. And Reliance Jio – which is developing its own streaming app – is some time away.

Keeping that in mind, YouTube.com might well become the Indian consumer’s own content tube.

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