Of Koo, product differentiation and an opportunity

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Koo is a micro-blogging platform launched in March 2020 for the Indian market. A plus point in comparison to Twitter is that the app allows for posts in several Indian languages (aside from English). While social media platforms have facilitated posts in major Indian languages, Koo plans to allow posts in regional languages such as Konkani and Manipuri. Its founders are serial entrepreneurs who previously built businesses such as TaxiForSure (a cab hailing service acquired by rival Ola Cabs) and RedBus -a ticketing platform of bus travel. The brand first got visibility in August 2020 when it won the Atmanirbhar Challenge  (or self reliant) an initiative from the Indian government. The programme’s intent was to encourage entrepreneurs to create products catering to India and its digital needs in eight categories

The brand is in the news now and also picked up traction over the last few weeks, with its user base reportedly growing to 3 million. I am not sure if there was one specific tipping point but a combination of factors might have have played a role in its growth: (a) the Government of India had a row with Twitter over the platform not removing the tweets of certain users as requested by the former (which seems to be getting sorted as we write). A few ministers and government agencies opened their accounts on Koo, maybe to send a message to Twitter. These actions brought must have piqued the curiosity of many to try the service (b) coupled with this is an ongoing wish of many to see a popular home-grown brand in social media particularly in micro-blogging and (c) a section of social media users feel that Twitter is biased against ‘right wing’ users and hence a rival platform was welcomed. 

Duopoly and multiple players: successes abound, with caveats

There are many examples of two players dominating a category (Boeing and Airbus. Android and iOS). However, in most categories several brands not just fight for survival but thrive, especially when the market size is huge and the opportunity to segment the market on various parameters exist. For example, hotel, airlines, automobiles, mobile handsets (in Android), FinTech services, travel aggregators, web browsers have several players with varying degrees of success. Even in search engines where Google is dominant there are players like Duckduckgo who cater to a certain mindset who find the privacy factor appealing i.e. essentially taking the ‘anything-but-Google’ approach.  Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter have had a relatively ‘no competition’ run thus far. 

In order for an option to emerge, a pain point associated with the lead player must the felt. Telegram and Signal benefitted from the discourse on WhatsApp’s privacy concerns. There really hasn’t been a brand with significant traction as an alternative to the rest. Viber was once a popular option for instant messaging and  voice calls but somehow feels like ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for users like me. When the category is dominated by a large brand, the option needs to provide a strong, relevant ‘reason-why’ for adoption. Vero is a social media micro-blogging platform which promises an ad-free & algorithm-free experience but hasn’t become as big a hit as Twitter. We’ve all seen how the easy-to-use experience of Zoom and the need for such a service last year saw its adoption pick up. Yet, viable alternatives are around: – Webex (the old favourite), Google Meet, Microsoft Teams to name a few. Some sort of dissonance towards the category leader helps in proliferation of options. 

The various players in PC laptops and Android handsets present an interesting case. When selling a Windows laptop or an Android phone the brands have very little to play with in terms of the ‘hardware+software offering’ (which is Apple’s strength) and hence create differentiation in technical specifications, design tweaks or custom software layers (bloatware in the PC world) on top of the operating system, which is common to all players. In such contexts, brand preference is based on budget limitations and affinity created through advertising.

In Koo’s case the initial curiosity factor (limited a section of Twitter users) may get trials and the language options may attract an audience hitherto limited by the options. App fatigue is also a real thing. Even among heavy users of social media, there is a tendency to take steps to de-addict from platforms for various reasons – hampering productivity, toxicity of content and so on. However, ‘reviews’ or commentary in English mainstream media is decidedly condescending about Koo – opinions formed and judgements passed too soon without studying its key benefit: non-English content.

Need to go beyond a ‘Twitter clone’

In traditional media like a newspaper, magazine or TV, the editorial board, chief editor and senior staff are likely to influence or determine the stance of a news content and the opinion columns. They decide which news gets on to the front page and which one gets buried in the inside pages in small point. Even if they give columns or time to diverse opinions, the ‘official’ stance was clear to the user base.  Social media platforms which started off as just that – platforms for people’s voice have at times acted like traditional media ‘regulating’ what is shown to its users. Social media users who feel this way may take to an alternate platform first. Parler was meant to be that in the US. In India Koo maybe perceived as ‘Twitter for the rest of us’. But if that perception is allowed to be reinforced it may restrict new sign ups and engagement. The brand has to, and I am sure it will find another strong reason-why for continued patronage and growing its user base. 

Many have reiterated that English language digital content is catering to a sliver of the Indian market. The affinity developed by posting and viewing content in one’s mother tongue is likely to be a big attraction. Having said the evolution process will take time. We are essentially comparing a one-year old product with a mature one which has been around for 10+ years. I am sure the founders are aware of what it takes to build a core tech product and the challenges of scaling up. The user experience on iOS has improved in days with regular updates and I am sure it will get better. On paper Koo has the potential to reach an audience who are comfortable expressing themselves in their mother tongue – surely an advantage in a country where the English-speaking & communicating audience is small. Features that improve the overall experience will happen over time. So many features which we take for granted in iOS, Android or WhatsApp were missing in their early avatars. So safe to say we Koo-d have a strong rival to Twitter in India soon?

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