We have made a conscious effort to remain culturally relevant in India, says Snapchat's Nana Murugesan

HT Tech chatted with Nana Murugesan, MD, International Markets, at Snap.Inc to learn about Snapchat's India plans and why this country is important for the platform in the larger scheme of things. 

| Updated on: Aug 21 2022, 19:48 IST
Nana Murugesan, MD, International Markets, Snap.Inc in conversation with HT Tech
Nana Murugesan, MD, International Markets, Snap.Inc in conversation with HT Tech (HT Tech)
Nana Murugesan, MD, International Markets, Snap.Inc in conversation with HT Tech
Nana Murugesan, MD, International Markets, Snap.Inc in conversation with HT Tech (HT Tech)

Snap is currently celebrating the two-year anniversary of its first office in India. Snap opened its first Indian office in Mumbai in 2019 and since then this social media platform has come a long, long way. As Nana Murugesan, MD, International Markets, at Snap.Inc says it's been a very strong year for Snapchat in India. Snap's core product value proposition is all about empowering visual communication and thanks to Covid-19, that's become vital. “Because you have people that are physically apart, separated while emotionally they want to stay connected. All this augmented reality-led visual communication has actually really helped people do that in these tough times,” Murugesan explained. So what the company has essentially done is they've doubled down in the country on their local partnerships, experiences, etc, to give Snapchat a more local and cultural feel.

“India is a very important market. Like, mentioned, we've had more than 150% growth in the main user growth metric that we look at, which is the daily active users and a hundred percent-plus growth, like in the last five quarters. It's becoming quite a sizable part of our community. And, what we have been doing is trying to make our service more and more accessible and relatable, you know, making sure it's available in more languages,” Murugesan pointed out.

Moving to more immediate announcements from Snap, there's the new Landmarker lens the company rolled out to mark Independence Day in India this year. Created for the India Gate in Delhi, this is the third Landmarker lens Snap has made for India and the first it has made for the national capital. Also, they have the second edition of Snap in India coming up soon. To learn more about what the platform has planned, we had a long chat with Murugesan about all things Snap. And here are excerpts from our conversation:

Was there an immediate spike in usage numbers on Snap when the lockdowns began last year?

Nana Murugesan: We definitely saw a difference in the engagement patterns. So if you think about it, a lot of young people use Snapchat, which means that usually during school and college hours, we would see lower engagement. And then during the early mornings and the evenings, we would see very high engagement. That would be typical. But during Covid, as people's movement patterns changed we definitely saw some kind of a difference in engagement behavior. Our growth and engagement have gone up for sure, as you can see from our numbers, but also the patterns changed given that people are using their mobile phones all the time now. So that created an increase in engagement.

Was the growth you witnessed this year much higher than what you've seen YoY in 2018 and 2019?

For sure. But it's not like a sudden splash. In 2019, our growth was strong, in 2020 it was stronger and in 2021 it got stronger still. So we are seeing a steady rise in our growth rates.

A bunch of Chinese apps got banned in India last year, TikTok being one of the more important ones from that lot. Did you see that work more positively for you?

We generally don't comment on the other companies, but to add to your question, even before the ban, our growth was pretty strong. The ban happened in June of 2020, but even before that our growth was pretty strong. But that aside, we are a very differentiated platform. Obviously, we are focused on augmented reality and we are really focused on driving market adoption. 

The biggest driver of our growth is largely the investments we are making in localising the app experience for the Indian community because India is such a vast country with diverse languages and diverse regions. There is still a lot of work for us to do, but as we do more and more work on localising the experience, and we celebrate more and more festivals and cultural moments - it is definitely driving our growth. The partnerships that we are doing with the likes of Samsung, or Sharchat's Moj are also definitely contributing to our growth. 

Can you tell us about some of the features that you brought on board over last year to make the experience better?

There are five tabs in Snapchat, five experiences, so when you open Snapchat, it opens to the Camera. When you swipe left, it goes into Communication where you can chat with your friends. When you swipe left again, we have Snap Maps, which recently has been a focus area, we are really doubling down on that. It's a very, very engaging part of our app, you can also see where your friends are and communicate with them, so there are a lot of cool things that are happening in Snap Maps.

When you swipe right from the camera, we have, Discover, which is where we have our content from different publishers, we have our shows, we have things like Phone Swap and publisher-oriented content. We also have our friends' stories and everything going on in the Discover tab. And then finally Spotlight, which is user-generated content. It's something which we announced late last year and it's quite new. This is where people are encouraged to like, create, share and bring in authentic ways to express themselves. 

A lot of re-architecture and new additions like Spotlight have happened over the last year. 

As a social media platform, you are competing with the likes of Instagram and Facebook who have declared a video-first strategy. Snap has been video-first but not in the way Reels, or TikTok, or Facebook Stories are. Is there anything you are doing to differentiate your content from the others?

Snapchat is about the fastest way of sharing a moment with your close friends, a way to bring the physical world and the digital world together. So there's a lot of communication. We are a very camera communication-oriented platform and it's all about how do you use the camera to communicate with your close friends. It's not about the number of friends, but it's really about the depth of those friendships how you share your experiences

I wanted to highlight how we always enhance the sharing of experiences between friends. Obviously, we've talked about augmented reality, but gaming is another one. For example, we partnered with Moonfrog Labs and made an exclusive custom version of Ludo Club that's getting a great response. We also collaborated with Mojiworks on a game concept called Dosa Dash, which is also doing really well. So you're playing games, chatting with your friends, and really enjoying the game together. You can see your friend in the game, the Bitmoji of your friend at the game. And these are unique experiences created for better engagement.

Another thing that we are very focused on is the Camera Kit and Snapchat Kit. This is where we take the best of our technology, and actually share it with other apps. For example, we took our Camera Kit and shared it with Moj, which they have integrated. 

Tell us a bit about the safety measures you've incorporated to protect your users better?

We are a privacy-first platform, it is a very ephemeral platform where messages disappear either immediately or within 24 hours, depending on the settings. We also don't have a feature where you can like or comment on any of the stories or easily add new people, it's quite a private platform that way. We make sure that there are certain barriers you have to cross before you can add friends. Things like these make Snapchat a platform that is privacy-first by design. It's something we've thought about from the ground up and not as an afterthought. 

Recently Instagram brought about a feature where users below the age of 16 would have Private accounts by default with an option to change it later when one comes of age. Is there anything like that for underage users on Snapchat?

Like I mentioned earlier, we are the privacy-first platform. In our case, a lot of the things are inherent, we have designed our product from the beginning like that. 

So I'm free to accept whoever I want as a friend on Snapchat, right?

Yeah. Let's say if I send you an invite, and then you could accept it. 

Suppose I open my Snapchat and I have a whole bunch of requests. And even if I am not very well aware of who these people are I go ahead and accept them. The onus does lie on me to be more responsible and pick and choose my friends and then interact with them. But if by mistake I do accept someone as a friend who ends up sending me something inappropriate, and I report the person, what does Snapchat do next?

I want to caveat it by saying that all of these communication technologies have had it tough out there and there are always things that happen that are unexpected. So we are always thinking about that constantly. The whole industry faces that, but now specifically, as I mentioned, safety is baked into our design which makes it harder for strangers to find people. So unless there is a two-way contact authentication, strangers cannot contact you. There are no public profiles for those under 18. And when you're searching for new friends, we just show you the Bitmoji. We don't even show a profile picture. 

We also recently launched this thing called Friend Check Up. It prompts users to review their friend list and make sure that they actually know their contacts. So if somebody sends you a request, you can kind of take a look at their contact to see, okay, is this is a friend of mine?  With Friend Check Up you get an extra element of protection before you actually accept somebody. 

We're always constantly investing in new tools, partnerships, and initiatives to better prevent these things and find out how to better detect these things and how we can act on any kind of misuse. Specifically for those younger people, we are trying to help them learn because we have to educate them about how they should stay safe. That is another big focus, i.e. education, within the app. Teaching our users, particularly the underage ones, about how to use the features we have to stay safe because at times there are features on the app that users don't even know about. 

Moving forward, what other plans do you have for 2021?

First, on the partnership side, we have 60 channels from 32 publishing partners. We've been doing these Creators shows with Anushka Sen and Vir Das. We had launched the first Snap Originals called Phone Swap and that was the first non-English thing that we did. So you're going to see us do a lot more of just doubling down on different ways we can engage our community with content, more partnerships, shows, Snap games, and more. 

We've seen a tremendous response with Ludo Club as well as Dosa Dash. And so you will even see us coming up with more games, Camera Kits, more integrations like what've we done with Alt Balaji and many others. Consumers will get to see more Bitmoji, 3D Bitmoji avatars, Hinglish stickers, etc. Also, there is a growing community of Snaps stars in India that includes people like Neha Kakkar and Awez Darbar and we are going to welcome more and more celebrities and influencers to become Snap Stars.

Punjab has been a very special region for us where the community has been extremely engaged and passionate. India is a large country, but it is also hyper-local. Of the certain regions in India which are particularly embracing, and I want to call out Punjab as one very important region for us. To connect with users from the market we focus on generating unique experiences around Gurunanak Jayanti, Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti, Bandi Chor Diwas, Baisakhi, and other Punjab-specific festivals We also have a huge set of Punjabi Snap stars.

We also going to focus on Official Lens Creators (OLC), one of the first OLC's from Punjab is Jagmeet Singh, he is based out of Amritsar and is actually studying medicine, but then he's also passionate about augmented reality. So we're engaging students, to become creators by organising Lens Studio workshops in Punjab's engineering colleges. We have done a lot of things around the Olympics and other sporting events as well. We have a big theme around digital skilling in India and how we can democratise creativity. 

We now have eight Indian official lens creators. We are very proud of them. I mentioned one of them, but there are eight of them and we are going to invest in more and hopefully get more. And these lens creators have done some incredible work. For example, one OLC called Vivek Thakur had created this lens called Smoke Flare lens which went viral in India and across Southeast Asia and garnered billions. 

With digital skilling, we want to make augmented reality not just fun and entertaining, but also more utilitarian. We have lenses for learning Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Bengali, Tamil, and Kannada. These lenses are created by Atit Kharel, another OLC.

During International Women's Day, we had partnered with the likes of the Navjyoti Foundation and Digital Empowerment Foundation to reach out to women across the country to help them create lenses and become lens creators. We did a Lensathon that focused on women, and it was super successful. And, we had winners from Chennai, Delhi, and Surat, who did some exceptional work. So you're going to see a lot of Snapchat activity and doubling down on these areas.

And then come the Snap spectacles. We launched it with Flipkart. It's quite exciting to see some of the IPL teams like the Delhi Capitals posting behind-the-scenes content with the Snap Spectacles. So it's pretty cool. 

And then on the social side, it's been a tough year, there is a lot of investment we made on our Covid-19 efforts. Whether it's accurate news and information on Discover or other avenues, the pandemic is still out there and there is a lot that still needs to be done on educating the public. We feel like our platform can do it in a very impactful way. We've been partnering with the Mariwala Foundation, Manas Foundation, etc to support the community during these tough times.

Are you undertaking similar initiatives in other countries as well?

India has just so many cultures and it's really up there in terms of all the things that we're doing. The more we work in India, the more we learn about it. All our teams are pretty, fascinated, and excited. So all that's translated into just a lot of initiatives going on in India. That's actually something I'm particularly proud of is how Snapchat has come such a long way and the amount of excitement and commitment it has towards India. And, you're only going to see that grow from strength to strength.

So just to give you an idea, by percentages, global v/s India, our growth was around 23%. In India, it's more than 150%. There is a significantly higher growth rate in India for sure. And there are many factors that contribute to it, but to answer your question, India is definitely more pronounced.

What do you think is the singular reason why India's growth is more pronounced than the rest of the world? 

We have made a conscious effort to remain culturally relevant in India and have created what the Snapchatters here want. We understand the importance of moments and connections and have given them what they seek. 

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First Published Date: 18 Aug, 20:31 IST