NEW DELHI: Brands targeting the growing number of online consumers in rural India need to understand how their attitudes and behaviours differ in many respects from those of their urban peers, a study has said.

In The Rising Connected Consumer in Rural India, Boston Consulting Group noted that over the next four years, more than half of all new internet users in India will come from rural communities; by 2020 rural users will make up about half of all Indian internet users.

Based on surveys of around 4,000 rural consumers in 27 villages in 14 states in 2015 and 2016, authors Nimisha Jain and Kanika Sanghi observed a "digital immaturity" among many rural users, who are almost exclusively male (98%) and few of whom have been online for more than two years.

They also distinguished five segments "of varying interest to marketers". At one end are older, lower income consumers who are effectively "internet dark" (23% of the rural population with just 1% internet penetration).

But other groups are of considerably more interest. "Next-wave adopters" are younger, female and affluent (36% of the rural population, 9% internet penetration); "late adopters" are middle-aged, less affluent men owning their own farms (15% of the rural population, 16% internet penetration); and "ambitious users" are less affluent, young, male college graduates (8% of the rural population; 33% internet penetration).

Only "mature users" – typically an 18-50 year old male salaried worker or businessman from an affluent household (19% of the rural population, 30% internet penetration) – have been online for three years or more.

Social media are the most popular online destinations among rural users – almost 70% access social networks – but their behaviour there is very different to their urban counterparts, the authors said.

Facebook, for example, may be the only app installed on a phone and while urban users are focused on its interactive social and sharing aspect, rural users are more likely to see it as the main point of entry to the internet for passive consumption of news and videos.

As more rural users spend more time online, so the internet is growing in importance as a source of influence, although the authors add that "there are stark differences in the level of digital influence across various product categories".

Brands need to "evaluate which touch points in their targeted customers' purchase journeys are most affected by digital and to what extent".

Data sourced from Boston Consulting Group; additional content by Warc staff