COVID-19: Assessing our enhanced digital footprint

• One of the concomitants of Covid-19 and the decline of outdoor entertainment has been a shift to a digital way of life.
• Research indicates that there has been an increase in the time spent by people on screen. Mobile users spend more time on OTT, social networking and gaming apps.
• However, growing online presence, also amplifies concerns related to data privacy and security.
• There needs to be a regulation in place to protect the privacy of the customers. Also, new work models and financing strategies need to be worked out to adapt to the changing times.

Social Media

A few months ago, a report titled ‘A Billion Screens of Opportunity’ (2019) by Ernst & Young, had pointed out that while cinema and TV segments grew by 12% in the previous year, OTT usage increased by almost 42% in 2018 (the only other mode of entertainment recording faster growth was online gaming, at 59%). This growth was encompassed by the overall bright performance of Indian media & entertainment (M&E) industry.

As months progressed and India was caught in the COVID-19 storm, like the rest of the world, the government was forced to lockdown 1.3 billion people in their homes. This period proved to be a fertile ground for the cultivation of digital aficionados. Of course, the role of the mobile in our daily lives is already overwhelming enough. But when the distinction between weekday and weekend got totally blurred and stepping out of homes became illegal activity, there were few alternatives left. Besides entertainment, the newly formed work-from-home (WFH) community rediscovered the importance of video conferencing apps like Zoom to manage their meetings and skilling platforms like Upgrad to fast track their career through relevant training programmes.

TV viewership measurement agency BARC India and global data analytics firm Nielsen reported that in the week which ended on March 20 (Covid-19 Week 1), while the total time spent per user on smartphones went up by 6.2% to 25 hours a week. Meanwhile, though 15-24 years and 25-34 year age group users have raised their screen time by 7% and 3%, it is the 35-44 year age group, who overpowered these two groups and started spending 11% more time on their mobile screens. The research also noted that most of these smartphone users spend more time on OTT, social networking and gaming apps.

1. OTT

The confinement of people to their homes and the consequent decline in outdoor entertainment has led to the mounting popularity of OTTs as the go-to-mode for a lot of consumers. With perennial additions of varied content available in numerous languages and an easy to navigate interface at a time when the film industry has been forced to shut shop, OTT has filled the void left in the lives of many city dwellers who’re left with a lot of free time.

Further, the free subscriptions offered by these platforms during this period in a bid to encourage habit formation in these new digital enthusiasts also acted as a catalyst for them being a popular source of entertainment.

ZEE5 has witnessed an over 45% rise in paid viewers and subscriptions going over 80% during the lockdown. The viewing time has increased by over 50% with Daily Active Users (DAUs) and app downloads rising by 15% and 41% respectively. And the viewership on connected devices has also seen a 3X growth in this period. Our massive library of 1.25 lakh hours of content across genres and 12 languages has led to a substantial number of paid users subscribing to our platform,” observes Tarun Katial, CEO Zee5 India.

2. Social Networking

Another unintended consequence of the lockdown has been India’s social media elite taking to social networking apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and TikTok to combat boredom and anxiety. For example, while earlier social media users frowned upon TikTok’s “cringe-worthy” content, they are now turning India into the biggest market for the Chinese video-sharing social network.

The surge in its visibility on other popular platforms is also one of the reasons why this platform is gaining traction among users. Insights from a report from KalaGato, the major Big-Data Intelligence & Audience Insights Platform reveal that lockdown led to a spike in the time spent on social media platforms. From connecting family and friends to tracking one’s favourite celebrities to offering a source of news, these platforms have become the go-to option for these users. An app named Mitron started by IIT Roorkee student Shivank Agarwal on April 11 was one of the surprising performers during this period. It reached 5 million downloads within a month of release.

3. Gaming Apps

Covid-19 has also seen online gaming apps reach a new pinnacle, thanks to the lockdown. Thus, as the country adjusts to self-isolation and “quarantine and chill” is the new normal, more and more people are seeking thrill and entertainment in the world of virtual gaming. Knife Dart, Ludo, CandyJam, PUBG, FreeFire and Call of Duty are some of the games that are keeping users company during this quarantine.

“The biggest trend in gaming is that multiplayer gaming has started to pick up. Earlier only PUBG like games were encouraging multiplayer mode, now employees, friends etc are connecting remotely even for playing games like Ludo. People are looking at games to socialize and connect,” according to Faisal Kawoosa, founder & chief analyst TechArc.

While some gaming startups have introduced tournaments at new timings, others have launched new free and solo tournaments to keep user engagement high to make the most of this crisis. Meanwhile, gaming startup Adda52Rummy, which saw a 200% increase in new users, is also trying to surge its market spend as it feels this the right time for brand awareness campaigns as people are more online. Consequently, it is offering bonus codes for first-time players, and tax savings and referral codes for existing top players.

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4. Cloud meetings

However, COVID-19 has not meant only fun and games! With applications like Google Classroom, Zoom, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams, all offices and schools of the nation moved to the comfort (or otherwise!) of our basements and living rooms. According to Jared Spataro, corporate vice president, Microsoft 365, there has been a massive 775% upsurge in the use of its cloud services. At a time when industry stalwarts like Kris Gopalakrishnan, Co-founder & Former CEO, Infosys, expect over one million IT employees to continue to work from home even after the lockdown situation, these apps may continue to sustain users.

While videoconferencing apps have proved to be the backbone for these companies during the lockdown to facilitate work, they have raised data security and privacy-related concerns. This is due to the rise in phishing attacks, since users are accessing networks on their personal devices outside of their organizational setups where they had secure firewalls. Further, apps like Zoom have numerous features, which are not particularly welcome.

For example, it offers hosts rights that might not be immediately apparent to other participants – for instance, hosts have the ability to turn on “attention tracking” to check whether you are paying attention during the call. It also collects personal data from accounts of users and is an invasion on their privacy.

5. Digital advertising

At a time when people are getting sacked all over the country, a recent report by Accenture found out that 64% of the respondents are worried about their own job security. As incomes shrink and consumers become frugal, there has been a trend of spending money only on most basic needs.

Further, e-commerce has also seen a spurt as new consumers migrate online for grocery shopping – a rise that is likely to be sustained post-outbreak. These factors cumulatively are leading to a penchant for online advertisements.

“While marketing budgets will generally shrink, the share of digital will increase. A lot of budget needs to be reallocated to ensure that the distribution is right”, explicates Dr Sreelata Jonnalagedda, IIM Bangalore. However, as a Deloitte analysis points out, the content & the message of these ads will need to acknowledge the changing realities in the face of this crisis.

To sum up, Covid-19 has led to a remarkable change in the way we live and has acted as a harbinger of ushering in a digital way of life for many urbanites in the country. With people shying away from each other, as they maintain social distancing, this pandemic has acted as a great time for the booming of OTT apps, social networking apps, cloud meeting apps, virtual games and online advertisements. This transition is likely to continue even after the lockdown is lifted.

This confluence of people using social media can be a turning point for technology. However, as more & more people adopt a digital way of life, it is imperative that concerns related to data safety and privacy are addressed. Regulating of these data protection channels will be a step in the right direction. Last year’s Economic Survey also highlighted the importance of reliable data.

Acknowledging the importance of this legislation, the government has drafted the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019. This bill should provide consumers with basic rights with respect to their personal data. They should also be sensitized towards them. Finally, this legislation must also recognize and uphold the seamless and cross-jurisdictional nature of the internet.

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