Viber in Sinhala, Tamil to woo Sri Lanka’s masses

Viber Asia-Pacific Director Anubhav Nayyar

By Uwin Lugoda

Smartphones have basically taken over the globe, with almost 45.12% of the world’s population owning smartphones. According to Statista, the current number of smartphone users in the world today is 3.5 billion; this figure is up considerably from 2016, when there were only 2.5 billion users, 33.58% of that year’s global population.
The primary uses of smartphones are to bring convenience to people’s lives and ease communication. Therefore, it is safe to assume that one of the first apps users would download on any new devices would be have to do with communication, such as Viber for example.
Viber has been around for almost a decade now and recently reached over a billion users worldwide, making them one of the top communication apps globally. While being present in every country, the app has managed to customise their services in 10-15 countries, so that the content would better suit local audiences.
This is especially true when it comes to the Asia-Pacific region, where smartphone penetration is at 70% and acts as a potential growth accelerator for Viber. Currently, the region accounts for nearly 25% of their overall global user base.
During a roundtable session held last week (24) with Viber Asia-Pacific Director Anubhav Nayyar, The Sunday Morning Business learnt that Sri Lanka was among the top five markets for Viber in the region. He explained that this was purely because of three factors, namely the overall market size and penetration, encouraging and healthy growth numbers, and the huge potential the market holds.
“For a country with a population of 22 million, I do think the quality of the audience we have in Sri Lanka is extremely good; from what we have seen, everybody has more reasons and occasions to use us. The time spent on the app is important and I think in Sri Lanka, we see that to be higher than the global average.”
Sri Lanka currently houses 14 million registered Viber users, with an activation growth rate of 13-14% over the previous year. This growth is not only attributed to the usage in larger cities like Colombo and Kandy, but also to smaller towns in rural parts of the country.
“We have seen the usage of Viber grow in other regions in the country, and have data to show that usage. We have also spoken with certain organisations and people, which have confirmed that even the smallest parts of the country also use our services,” said Nayyar.
He also attributed this widespread usage to the infrastructure of the internet in the country and the subsidised prices of smartphones, both of which have given people access to the app.
During the roundtable, Nayyar stated that Viber introduced a new local interface to their platform in January which includes both Tamil and Sinhala languages, in order to provide higher accessibility to their users in Sri Lanka. He explained that while the English penetration in the country is much higher than other countries in the Asian region, they believe that localisation is the future for apps and services such as Viber.
While having entered the Sri Lankan market in 2010, when the app was launched globally, Viber had begun investing in localising the app and partnering with other Sri Lankan organisations back in 2015.
Nayyar claimed that they have seen their localised stickers do well in the Sri Lankan market, when it comes to connecting with their user base. Taking the Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Tamil New Year as an example, he stated that they traditionally do something specifically cultural during April for their local users.
He explained that the response they saw was a key factor when they looked at introducing Sinhala and Tamil as languages on the platform. It was also driven by the fact that their user base also included non-English speakers from rural parts of the country.
“We included the languages in January because we felt that this was very important for the country and specifically for our non-English-speaking users.”
Nayyar stated that all the localised content, including the stickers and the communities, are created by local talent. He explained that they currently employee several fulltime employees and consultants, and work with creative agency partners.
“Everything from the concept to the actual creation and execution is done here in Sri Lanka itself. We used to initially introduce something and get it translated here, however we realised that only a Sri Lankan would understand what the people in Sri Lanka would like, and not someone from outside the country.”
He went on to state that they also work with several organisations including telecommunication companies, media houses, and a lot of Sri Lankan influencers who help provide content for the platform, and that has resulted in traction with younger audiences between the ages of 18 to 20. Apart from these, he explained that they work with government organisations to benefit the public too.
“A couple of years back, Sri Lanka saw a severe dengue epidemic, so we worked with the Ministry of Health to use our platform to disseminate communication to all our users.”
Nayyar stated that the platform recently collaborated with a reality show which aired in collaboration with the TV Derana media group, where users could use the app to place their votes, interact with, and make comments on the show.
“The idea is to have a good mix of fun and at the same time ensure that there is an element of functionality.”
According to Nayyar, Sri Lanka has continued to be one of their focus markets because it demonstrated interesting cases of user adoption and a lot of consumer feedback on their products and services.
Product wise, Viber plans to continue introducing newer services and newer features. Recently, the app introduced My Notes, which was to help people take down notes and make to-do lists within the app itself. Nayyar stated that this was introduced in response to their corporate users wanting a way to take down notes during meetings.
He explained that while five years ago their focus was growing their user base, now their focus has shifted to creating more occasions for users to spend more time on the app. They have currently seen that users’ time spent on the app has increased by 40-45% in the last 18 months.
Nayyar stated that they also ensure customers with cheaper smartphones receive the same services as everyone else, which in turn has contributed to them being strong in emerging markets.
He stated that they remain strong in this market as the company consistently ensures they protect it and introduce relevant features which drive the penetration of that market further.
“We focus on innovation and continue to release new services that sometimes work and sometimes do not – the constant endeavour to innovate is super relevant. At our core, we look at saving you a millisecond when a user sends a message across to somebody in order to make the process go a bit faster and also whether we can also reduce the data consumed when using the app.”
Nayyar stated that one of the main aspects that separate them from the other competitors in the market is the privacy they provide their users.
“I believe that in Sri Lanka, we have the responsibility of ensuring that we protect user privacy; it’s extremely important for us.”
He explained that this also comes with the challenge of educating the Sri Lankan market on privacy, as people are unaware of it, unlike in other western and European markets. Having spoken to people and done their research, he stated that they realised that the local market really values privacy, and so he feels it is important that Viber ensures that privacy.
According to Nayyar, Viber is currently more secure than any of the other players in the market due to two reasons. Firstly, he stated that they are the only app that is end-to-end encrypted and does not share information with any social media platforms.
“There are other apps out there that claim to be end-to-end encrypted, but what is the point of having end-to-end encryption if they share all your information and data with social media networks?”
He stated that they are end-to-end encrypted by default, so people do not have to switch the feature on themselves. Nayyar explained that most apps are not end-to-end encrypted by default, and expect the users to switch the feature on themselves, which often does not happen.
“Our conversations cannot be read by anyone, and that is something we pride ourselves in. We are a business and we are definitely here to generate revenue, but we put our users ahead of our revenue.”
Nayyar stated that these reasons have led Sri Lankan users to choose Viber as a communication app, and further localisation is set to better connect with local users.
Since its launch, the new local interface has shown an adoption rate of 45.5%. However, it is currently only available on Android devices, due to Sri Lanka primarily being an Android-dominated market, and is set to be released for iOS devices in the future.