Josh is a popular Indian short-video social networking app and Prashant Sardesai, director of content strategy and business at VerSe Innovation, which owns Josh, speaks to WARC India Editor Biprorshee Das about how the brand approaches social media marketing in a sea of apps.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on social media marketing in India. Read more

Key insights

  • Josh is popular with non-English speakers and dominates on the vernacular front with 12 languages and 100 million-plus reach.
  • Josh differentiates itself by analysing its few billion data points daily to gain insights and make better recommendations for users.
  • Josh sees the creator economy as the next big thing in India but how creators will make money is still evolving.
WARC: How did Josh start? There was clearly an opportunity after India banned TikTok.

Prashant Sardesai: At that time, Dailyhunt (the content and news aggregator app owned by parent company VerSe Innovation), had seen massive success in serving the English and non-English speaking audience with news content partnering with offline and online brands. The Dailyhunt platform had built a capability of personalisation.

In the process (of personalisation), we learnt the nuances of the local language context serving the non-English speaker. We also helped advertisers reach this audience.

The logic was, if we’ve done it in text, could we do it in video? So as soon as there was an opportunity, which was essentially when TikTok was banned (in India), we launched this app. We marketed it to the DailyHunt base and got our initial set of users quickly. Thereon, we started building technology, capability, content and creators.

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Immediately after TikTok, a number of apps were launched, some using a similar logo, others a similar sounding name. How did Josh differentiate itself from the rest?

There isn't much differentiation at the level that the users see. It's all the secrets behind the scenes. If you open any app today, be it Instagram, YouTube shorts, Moj or Josh, they all look the same in terms of the interface. I might tweak it here and there to make it look different or maybe add some more functionality but broadly, it is the same set of features. One, the differentiation happens at the back end, which is the algorithm that matches what you like with what creators are creating.

The big thing for us is language, of course. I think most didn't have any or even a close level of learning that we had on the vernacular front. In Josh, we have 12 languages; in DailyHunt, even more. A similar competitor in India is ShareChat, which launched a competitor to Josh called Moj. ShareChat had that because they were in the social media vernacular space. So that was one different thing but it's not something you could tell a user. The second thing that you can't tell the user is about the algorithm being great.

The key is also in looking at behaviours on the platform. The app generates lots of data. When I started in this business in content, television ratings would come once a week and we used to get one number per programme. All content decisions were made based on that one number. Then things progressed. We got minute-by-minute analysis within the episode, we got a little more granularity. Now, fast forward to 2022 data today and we have tens of millions of users watching, say, around 100 videos a day, which is a few billion data points every day. Now, that is where your differentiation will start to happen. Can you look at that data? And can you organise the data and then look at the insights to make better recommendations on the user side?

Yes, you cannot get technical with the user but when you're marketing your product to them, what are you telling them? Why come to Josh and not try the dozen other apps available?

If you come to Josh, you will find the content you like and that is relatable. One clear differentiation is that we are not Instagram! So it's very conscious. The analogy would be that Instagram is Starbucks, and we are largely the “adda” (a local coffee joint). That's who we are. You want to have the adda experience or you want to have the air-conditioned coffee, that’s your choice. When you want to have relatable experiences with local people and get a local flavour, come to us.

Of course, a lot of Indian platforms are taking this approach. But we had a legitimate case to do it and most importantly, we could prove it when the user downloaded the app and started using it.

And like I said, it is the algorithm. I can’t tell you it is the algo because you will not know what it means. But when you experience my app, you will see that I understand you very quickly from your behaviour compared to another app.

This is a tech play, not really a content play.

Since launch, how is Josh evolving over the last two years? How have you gained momentum and built on it?

There are two parts to it. One is users, one is creators. My particular role here is on the creators’ side.

At Josh, the audience type is much different from Dailyhunt. Dailyhunt is more male and slightly older, I would say closer to 30, whereas at Josh, it is closer to 20 and more females, relatively speaking.

On the creators’ side, our job has been to help the creator get what he or she wants out of the system. If we do that correctly, more creators will come to the platform. I am not paying for the content. The creator may make money off me at some point but I am not paying him when he puts the content on my platform. Therefore, the platform has to deliver something on day one, on day seven, on day 20 of you being a creator. And that's really what the focus has been on.

In Dailyhunt, I didn't have to make too much effort because the publishers were around. There have been publishers of news for 100-plus years. Whereas creators for short videos didn't exist five or 10 years ago. I have to find them and I have to tell them that if you come, there is a benefit and we deliver that benefit. That continues to be the journey for us as a platform.

How is Josh working with creators?

We are always trying to figure out what makes the creator tick. If it's not money, what is it? So to answer potentially your next question, what is it that will make the creator tick? It is kind of obvious. Some creators are here just to have fun, fool around with the camera tools. One of the things that is happening, thanks to these technologies, is there are a lot of fun camera tools, filters and editing effects that were once available only in high-end editing studios. Today, you can do it on your phone.

The key is our ability to understand what works, what can work in future for the Indian audiences. The other is a deep understanding of what goes on the creators' side, so we can attract them to the platform.

Today, we have a team that specifically looks at how to tell the creator, “hey, come right here, it's fun to create”. Or send messages to say, “hey, your video has got a thousand followers or thousand views, why don’t you create more like this?”.

Look at data, find insights, create features, communicate those features – there's a lot of this going on. And that's where you would be different or Josh would be different from Moj and also different from Instagram. It’s like how Coca-Cola has a secret formula locked somewhere and that's their differentiation. Similarly, every product category would have that. It can be copied but it's not easy. And in our case, there are so many elements of technology.

What's your comment on the creator economy in India? What are the opportunities that you see there?

We believe it’s the next big thing. How money is going to be made by creators is an evolving thing. So Instagram, for example, is a giant in this space currently in India. They allowed the influencer to work with brands. But it was the advertiser giving them (influencers) money. In China, a lot of the creator ecosystem makes money from tipping. Typically gifting. I consume your content, you're a creator I like on the app and I send you a gift. A lot of that happens globally, not specifically in India. In India, tipping is taking off but we don't know where it's going to go. Advertiser money already is there but how big can it go is the question. We are already seeing issues of ASCI cracking down.

There's also commerce, right? Again, largely in China but also elsewhere in the world, there are instances where influencers actually help sell a product, not just through an ad but by modelling it. If he or she is wearing a jacket, there is technology that will allow me to click on that jacket and buy it; the influencer then makes money off that. And there is Live, which is big in some parts of the world; you broadcast live and make money. We are also seeing gaming now. Twitch, for example, is both advertiser-driven as well as ticketing.

I am sure ideas are developing out of conversations. My view is that creators finding their audience, which started with YouTube, is now going to get even bigger because of short video. I am talking largely about countries like India. Someone sitting in a small town somewhere had no ability to become a YouTube creator other than actually having to spend money for it. It would take a high investment of time, money and infrastructure to be able to do that. Today, anybody in a small town can become a creator and reach a large number of people because Josh’s reach is 100 million-plus across all languages. You come onto my platform, you take one language and you will find there are a few million people following it already. So if you're seeking an Odia (from Odisha) kid or to reach all Odia people in one day or however long it takes, you can do so.

The minute creators can reach the audience, then in some way value will get created. An advertiser may want to monetise that audience. That’s one way. The audience might have fallen in love with the creator and would want to encourage, so they will pay them. That’s another. So in some way, somebody entertaining someone has value. The basic principle is that “I like viewing this and I am willing to pay money”. This is how OTTs grow. In the same way, individual creators will grow.

Share some insights into your creators’ profile. Who are they and where are they from?

As an app, vernacular is our strength. So Insta would be very concentrated on the big cities, where people understand Hinglish. We too are in those cities because those cities are big in terms of population and there are people who use lots of apps. We are sure to be one of those apps. So we have that audience. But we also go deep.

Our ability to have access to a more vernacular audience is stronger. So yes, we are stronger in the smaller cities than, say, an Insta would be. Having said that, it doesn't mean we aren't present in the big cities. It's both for creators and users but I would say the creators are slightly more concentrated in the bigger cities than the user would be. But not by a large margin, just little more.

How do you see this space evolving in the near future? It is, after all, very trend-driven and you have to be on your toes all the time.

Short videos are here to stay. What form does it take? What content formats become popular? That will, of course, continue to evolve. When television came, the first thing that happened on television was the Sunday feature film and there were Chayageet and Chitrahaar (movie-based programmes). Then there were TV serials, history and mythology-based shows. Then there was the news, and live sports.

The formats will evolve to fit the medium and fit what the audience wants. We’ll learn as they go along. When TikTok started, the trend of short videos began. A lot of the content was lip-synced, where you lip-sync to a song or dance to it. But that's gone. It's there but it's not front and centre. People are figuring out what the format will be. The way travel videos are done for the shorter format has changed, for instance. It's not like how it was done on YouTube.

The space will evolve, the formats will come, which will entertain the user; this is not going to go away. And again, going back to the national Doordarshan days, it was one part of my life, not a big part. At some point, television was working for five hours of people's time in a day. I believe that short videos will overtake TV for the audience that today is 17-18 years of age. By the time they are 30, they'll be consuming short videos in the way they consume OTT or TV. This means advertisers or anybody in the space looking to reach these audiences cannot ignore this. How will they reach the audience? They will also have to innovate. Their concept of 30-second, 60-second commercials was enabled by the TV format. Once users turn to a new format, somebody has to figure out a business model.

How do we evolve as individual companies? From Josh's point of view, we have to deliver the best technology. We have to ensure that we have the best creators on our platform and enable the creators to be innovative so they can entertain their audiences and help them monetise. I can't reveal much but we are in the process of doing something that not too many platforms in the world have: enable creators to earn money from the performance of their content. Never mind the number of followers. If you have just one piece of content and zero followers but if that content goes viral, I will pay you for it.