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Telegram takes off in India as startups drive adoption

According to Prabhu Ram, head, Industry Intelligence Group at CyberMedia Research, businesses prefer Telegram because it marries capabilities of WhatsApp and Snapchat — it’s secure, private and accessible.

Nov 17, 2019, 10.40 AM IST
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Edtech sector is the largest adopter of Telegram in India.
The global race for messaging supremacy has long seemed like an uneven contest. WhatsApp, with over 1.6 billion monthly active users (MAU), looks almost uncatchable for players like Telegram and Signal.

But the encrypted service Telegram, which has over 200 million users globally and which is patronised by journalists, public officials and protest movements, is now gaining a huge following in India. It has seen nearly 65% increase in user count this year; the MAU figure (Android alone) stood at around 2.9 crore in September.

Small and medium-sized enterprises and startups, which use the app for marketing and customer engagement, are driving this bump in interest. Edtech firms use it to reach test-prep users, companies in other sectors rely on it for influencer marketing, and small businesses love its unique application programming interface (API) and bot feature to engage with customers and analyse data.

According to Prabhu Ram, head, Industry Intelligence Group at CyberMedia Research, businesses prefer Telegram because it marries capabilities of WhatsApp and Snapchat — it’s secure, private and accessible. Access across multiple devices and no restrictions on the number of group members and file sizes are also a big selling point.

Fantasy sports platform HalaPlay uses the service as an influencer board. The freedom of having unlimited members on the app’s broadcast feature ‘Channels’ helps the company maximise its reach. HalaPlay co-founder and CEO Swapnil Saurav said in the past two years, a single influencer had brought in, through Telegram, nearly 40,000 users for the fantasy sports platform.

Edtech sector is the largest adopter of Telegram in India. This is because a large section of the companies’ target audience — tech professionals and candidates preparing for competitive exams — are on the app.

Awanish, assistant vicepresident (content marketing) at Edureka, said the nature of engagement among tech professionals in the age group 25-34 on Telegram was more focused and therefore it constituted targeted traffic for them. “As a business strategy, Telegram helps me in branding my startup and getting the word out about my offerings,” he said.

Edureka’s official Telegram channel, which has over 6,520 followers, offers latest updates on trending technologies and information on upcoming batches. The company hosts seven Telegram groups for DevOps, Python, Java and data science.

Online tutoring platform Vedantu uses Telegram to send notifications on sessions and classes, solve doubts and address users’ grievances. Anand Prakash, the firm’s co-founder and academic head, said Telegram’s API and bot capabilities enabled businesses to interact with users, and data analytics was a standout feature, something WhatsApp for Business lacked. “Up to 200 users are generally online per hour, with high levels of interaction and engagement,” Prakash said.

Exam prep firm Oliveboard found unique users in tier-2 and 3 towns who generally cannot afford the sophisticated and expensive paid solutions of an edtech platform. “Most UPSC toppers go off Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms, but are active on Telegram the whole time. This is a key indicator of the app’s dominance in the exam prep segment,” said Oliveboard co-founder Abhishek Patil. Oliveboard’s Telegram channel has over 16,000 members.

Pick Your Trail, a Chennai-based travel tech startup, began using Telegram about three years ago as a concierge platform to talk to customers and send them information, including vouchers. Later, it developed its own app for the purpose. “The flexible and open-source APIs of Telegram helped us pull in data analytics of customer interactions and improve the quality of engagement,” said cofounder and chief technology officer Srinath Shankar. “Our customers were happy doing it on a separate platform rather than clubbing it with their social interactions on WhatsApp.”

At one point, Pick Your Trail’s Telegram group saw engagement from over 500 customers a month. During the vacation season in December last year, it clocked up almost 100 concurrent customer interactions a day.

The cryptocurrency and blockchain community also swears by encrypted service’s value. Malta-based cryptocurrency exchange OKEx opened its Indian Telegram group in June 2018 before formally setting up Indian operations in June this year.

“We chose Telegram because it gathers more cryptospecific community members compared to any other messaging apps,” a company spokesperson said. “In comparison with social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Telegram behaves better in instant communication or group discussion.” The group has over 4,500 members, and the company says there are daily interactions with most members.

Telegram ranks higher among users concerned about privacy. “The platform’s encryption protocol, MTProto, creates a framework in which messages sent are completely scrambled and masked while in transit between the sender and recipient devices,” said Rahul Tyagi, co-founder of enterprise cybersecurity firm Lucideus.

The app is having a moment in the mainstream, thanks to the large Channel sizes that support countless members, file transfers as large as 1GB, and Super-Groups that can accommodate up to 1 lakh users and mask their numbers.

Patel Wealth Advisors, a stock broking and wealth management firm that shares stock tips and related advice, has around 1.7 lakh subscribers on one of its channels, Minish_Patel, and an average post reach of around 83,900. A company spokesperson said the channel was started in September 2017 to educate and empower retail individual investors. “We are running two channels — one with 4.2 lakh members and second with 1.66+ lakh,” the spokesperson said, adding the count goes up every day.

But the same features that score high on convenience have also prompted concerns about piracy, especially in the case of entertainment content and education material. Industry watchers and edtech players STOI spoke to said the platform posed a threat to book publishing and pureplay content companies.

Two top channels on the platform, in terms of number of subscribers, are dedicated to Hindi and Hollywood movies, according to Telegram Data Analytics.

Lucideus’ Tyagi said the ‘secret chats’ feature, which was introduced recently and which leaves no trail of messages anywhere on the server, making them disappear from devices after some time, had sparked security concerns as it could be misused for hateful or extremist propaganda.

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