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Why Rural India Holds Surprising Insights About the Power of Voice

London, UK
Not convinced about the potential of voice tech? Look to India, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
It’s hard to remember, but before 2011 ‘Siri’ was just a girl’s name. Same with the word ‘Alexa’ pre 2014. Since then, voice technology has been at the top of annual trend reports, impressing everyone from Mary Meeker to JWT Intelligence. But glued… no… bonded as we are to our screens it can be hard to fully appreciate the potential of voice. 

To really understand it, turn to a country where, for hundreds of millions of people, voice tech is more than a novelty, but a lifeline. India. 

India’s Voice Duet

In 2019, Google revealed that Hindi was the second most common language for its Google Assistant globally, behind English. It’s no exaggeration to say that in India voice is booming. 40% of adults use voice search at least once a day in India.

"The adoption of voice technology in India is really a phenomenon and what makes me say is some really fascinating and promising trends as well as stats," reflects Isobar India ECD Anadi Sah. "We are seeing an increasing number of smart speakers, voice assistant embedded devices and voice search over smartphones in India. In the year  2018 there were over 7.5 lakh (750,000) smart speakers shipped to India and that number should only have increased this year. There are some 200 million Indian who today have access to voice technology on their Jio devices that is powered by Google voice assistants." 

But beneath the headlines, there’s a more complex story.

Voice technology in India has developed along roughly two paths. On one hand, there’s the proliferation of smart speakers and the use of voice assistants on smart phones – in 2019, the number of smartphone users in the country crossed 500 million. In urban centres, speed and convenience has been behind a surge in voice search popularity. The penetration of smart speakers is still relatively small but there are enough to inspire brands to tap into the millions of smart speaker users; KFC India recently introduced an Alexa skill to allow urban fast food fans to order finger lickin’ deliveries via their smart speaker.

India has also entered the smart speaker game with its own offering, from local fintech brand PayTM. Their voice-activated Sound Box allows busy shopkeepers to keep track of payments and prevent customers from leaving without coughing up.

For e-commerce retailers, banks and transport platforms there are plenty of opportunities to get inventive with voice tech as Indians have been so keen to engage. Last year Flipkart teamed up with Google to create 'Hagglebot'. By analysing haggling strategies and speech patterns, they allowed online shoppers to haggle with Flipkart via Google Assistant. Users had so much fun with it that the average engagement time was over six minutes.

“The novelty feature is really attracting a wide segment of users and, obviously, millennials and Gen Z are leading the adoption as they are more comfortable experimenting with new technology,” says Shankar Shinde, managing partner at Geometry Encompass. “We are heading towards an era that is data-driven machine intelligence powering conversations between brands and consumers. Indian consumers are now ready for this, frequently using smartphones to interact with brand and coordinate their tasks.”

But in parallel to the scenario of hyper-connected urbanites, there’s an equally large population with no or limited access to the internet, many of whom still rely on ‘dumb’ or feature phones. There are still nearly 400m feature phone users  in India, often in isolated, rural areas. For this less connected group, voice technology has been not simply a convenience but a necessity. Interactive services accessed on standard telephone numbers are a key source of information and education – and as AI-driven voice recognition technologies have evolved, these services have become increasingly sophisticated and have provided brands unique opportunities. These days, even Google Assistant can be accessed without the internet, simply by calling a phone number. 

Literacy and Education

Cost is one important factor driving poorer people to unconnected feature phones, which means that the only way to access interactive services is via voice. But there’s another potent driver that has made voice tech a particularly useful tool for this demographic: education. The adult literacy rate in India is 73.2% - meaning 26.8% of adults (almost 370m people) are illiterate. Even as cheap smart feature phones grow in popularity, voice remains king.

“Video is now penetrating into the rural market, voice remains a major input medium. So, even if you give them Internet on an affordable 20 dollar phone, they would still not fetch the content by punching in words, because they’re not literate,” confirms Niraj Ruparel, Head of Mobile at Mindshare India. “The biggest thumbnail on the phone is the voice icon.”

But in areas of low literacy, voice tech is proving to be an empowering, educational tool, says Shankar. “As literacy levels in India have been growing in recent years, the overall quality of education needs improvement. As per a survey by an independent body, 50% of students in fifth grade can’t fully understand textbooks meant for second grade students. This gap can be filled up using voice technology apps,” he says. “Voice is going to be very important in the near future because in a market ecosystem like India, the next couple of million consumers who are going to come on board might not be conversant with typing at all. This will be the audience that will heavily depend on tools like voice to access services on the internet.”

In one example of voice helping people with little or no literacy to educate themselves, Niraj says that in isolated villages it’s become popular to learn English vocabulary via interactive voice response systems, reached by a phone call. 

Anadi has an even quirkier story about voice technology being used as an educational tool, this time with Alexa. "Let me quote you an example of a small school 170 kms from Nagpur where  Alexa has turned into a teacher for kids. An Alexa fitted into a mannequin is dressed as a teacher is changing the way students are learning in Marathi medium school. So the shift has already started."

Keeping it Colloquial 

When talking about the idiosyncrasies of voice technology in the Indian market, one can’t overlook the importance of language. Or, rather, languages. The country has 22 official local languages plus English – though the reality is much more complex. According to the 2001 census there are 122 major language and 1599 minor languages
As companies compete to gain ground beyond the urbane Hindi and English speakers of the massive metropolises like Delhi and Mumbai to tap into the growing middle class in tier 2 and tier 3 cities, adapting to local languages will be key. That’s not a new insight – Piyush Pandey revolutionised the country’s advertising creative with a more vernacular approach decades ago – but it does present a particular challenge for new platforms. Natural language processing (NLP) – or developing an AI that ‘understands’ or can communicate in one language is difficult enough, let alone 100 languages or thousands of dialects.

"This is a very crucial question which highlights the situation almost all tech companies are battling with presently," says Isobar's Anadi Sah of the intensity of the problem. "You would wonder why is this disparity which defines the challenges that one faces when it comes to voice. The fundamental challenge is the lack of data sets that can be used to train the NLP models. Plus the diverse accents and context that exists within different languages and geographies makes it even more complex for the software to get proficiency in a specific dialect."

As difficult as it is, it's something that brands and platforms are going to have to contend with if they are to come out on top. “A key determinant of their success would be measured by how they are able to adapt to the wide variety of dialects and accents that are prevalent across India,” says Shankar. 

By this metric, when it comes to the big tech players, Google is racing ahead. As of September last year, Google Assistant is available in nine Indian languages, while Alexa is only available in English and Hindi. Having said that, even the addition of Hindi has been a boon to the Amazon smart speaker.

“As they go regional, they would find more fans for their technology with more people adopting it. The sonic identity and personality of Alexa in Hindi is so powerful that we’re seeing a lot of people engaging with her. Close to 600,000 people have proposed to Alexa already!” laughs Niraj.

Smart Use of Dumb Phones

Over the past ten years, as voice-based technologies have evolved, so too have opportunities for brands to advertise to and assist people. Things have come a long way since the pre-recorded messages blasted out to rural phone owners.

The first evolution was telephone services users could sign up, delivering regular automated phone calls full of useful information around particular areas of interest. After that, phone platforms began to operate on keyword searches. For example, Pocket Dentist was a Colgate advice line developed for media dark regions where there’s only one dentist per 50,000 people spread across vast areas. 

Increasingly, sophisticated natural language processing and natural language understanding AIs are being put to use on these interactive phone lines. And, in the financial sector particularly, using voice as a biometric pass key has become an important tool in the fight against fraud. Rural areas with little access to the internet are often also poorly served by amenities like bank branches, so telephone banking is heavily relied upon. User ID numbers are easily copied or stolen, so voiceprints bring added security.

Add data to the mix, and things get powerful, allowing brands to serve up useful, relevant information. Last year Mindshare took home a Silver Media Lion and Bronze Creative Data Lion at Cannes with the Infection Alert System for Lifebuoy soap. The project takes live government data about 21 communicable diseases from 34,000 rural community health centres from across 822 villages and sub-districts. When infection reached a certain number in a local area, it triggered an automatic calling system alerting nearby people in their local language, reminding them to take precautions, including handwashing. It's been so successful that it has since rolled out to other markets, including Vietnam and Myanmar.

And finally, feature phones are also giving those cut off from the internet a taste of social media. Mindshare has created a huge audio conferencing bridge that can host up to 25,000 people at a time, allowing people to dial into live celebrity chats - the audio equivalent of a Reddit Ask Me Anything. The first big trial has been for GSk brand Horlicks, where callers could listen to and submit questions to actor and politician Ravi Kishan. A similar system was also used during last year's general election campaign, allowing thousands of village heads to dial into a giant 'town halls'.

Levelling Up

Data of another kind is also accelerating new ways of using voice technology – mobile internet data. Outside of so-called ‘dark India’, the slice of the population with no access to the internet, the appetite for mobile data is enormous. Despite a price hike in December 2019, India still has the cheapest mobile data in the world. According to Nokia, Indians use an average of 11GB of data a month

To get a handle of where voice technology in India is heading, there are a couple of trends to watch. One is the aforementioned growing popularity of smart feature phones, affordable stepping stones between dumbphones and full blown smartphones that allow internet access. At around $25 a pop they’re a tad more affordable than a $699 iPhone 11. It’s the smart feature phone that will give previously disconnected people access to the Internet in significant numbers, in coming years. That means that next wave of internet users will come from a more rural segment of the population that’s already used to accessing information via voice rather than typing. 

On top of that there’s an enormous appetite for video content, so perhaps we’ll see more innovations that combine voice with video. For an example, telecom brand Idea 4G launched a voice-enabled platform called #IndiaKaLiveNetwork that used a video chat bot ad designed to resemble a video call.

Unfortunately, one thing getting in the way of that is poor video streaming quality – the issue isn’t just 4G coverage but network consistency and congestion. It's one issue that will need to be addressed as more people get connected. Isobar's Anadi Sah laments that Indians' lauded ability to find workarounds means that the government and telecomm operators aren't under sufficient pressure to improve matters. "Actually, we Indians love to accommodate and that’s what the telcos are taking advantage of by not working toward consistent and seamless data connectivity. While talks are happening to give access to the next billion in forums and 5G is being tested, in reality even in the metros we struggle to get consistent connectivity of internet and coverage."

Nonetheless, despite the nuances, complexities and challenges that are inevitable in a country as vast and as culturally, economically, socially, geographically and linguistically diverse as India, one thing that unites the country is the affinity for voice tech. And given the local industry’s experience using voice and mobile to reach vast numbers of people in isolated areas, agencies and brands have become adept at finding inventive applications. So, if you’re keen to learn about voice-enabled technology that’s both useful and used, India’s a great place to start looking.

“There’s loads to it. If you are to really understand and study this subject you need to really understand the psyche of rural audiences and the devices they use and how it’s all getting transformed as people move onto smart feature phones,” says Niraj. “Even for me, I love going to do research in rural markets, to sit with them in focus groups and then come back to jam with my clients to make content that has real value in it.”
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