Case Studies - Brand & Marketing

How Kuku FM got “non-English speaking” India to pay for subscription

With 2.3million paying subscribers, Kuku FM is busting the myth that a non-English speaking, non-metro audience will never pay for content subscription. We do a deep dive into their content and growth strategy

What It’s About
  • Kuku FM provides audio content like book narrations, book summaries, courses and stories, in seven languages, across genres.
  • All content can be sampled, but unlimited ‘premium’ access costs ₹99 a month and ₹899 a year
  • Kuku FM ended 2022 with 2.3M paying subscribers.
  • Educational and inspirational content which can be consumed on the go, is working best. (The Hindi audiobook version of ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’ has been listened to 40 million times)
  • Kunal Joshi, Head of Growth and Kunj Sanghvi, Head of Content at Kuku FM, explain their content and marketing strategy.
  • Kuku FM’s north star is sampling – it takes multiple downloads to convert to a subscription

44-year old Mohit (name changed) works as an ATM-security guard in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh. He whiles away the long nights consuming content on his phone. While his behaviour is commonplace, it is interesting is that Mohit pays for access to this content. His choice of content is an audiobook describing the lives of successful engineers. When asked why he listens to this, he smiles and says that his son recently joined an engineering college, and he wants to better understand the profession and his son’s ambitions. 

There are several such stories across India. While entertainment will always be popular, others genres are emerging. The audience ranges from shopkeepers inspired by stories of business icons, to young people studying for a public exam. They’re all listening to — and paying for — Kuku FM. 

Kuku FM saw a 9x growth in paying customers and raised $22M in Series B1 in 2022. It ended the year with 2.3M paying subscribers, which it claims is greater than any other streaming platform in the country. The icing on the cake is an impressive 4.4 star rating from 4.5 lakh Play Store reviews. 

A snapshot of Kuku FM data in 2022

The Content

Kuku FM provides audio content — full books, book summaries, courses and stories — in seven languages, across genres. The team works with close to 30,000 creators through an internal platform called Spark. Here, community managers double up as producers and work with talent across voice, sound and content to create new additions to Kuku FM’s fast-growing library. All content can be sampled, and unlimited ‘premium’ access for a year costs ₹99 a month and ₹899 a year. 

According to Kunj Sanghvi, Head of Content, the Hindi audiobook version of ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’ has been listened to 40 million times. Ankur Warikoo’s latest book, ‘Get Epic Sh*t Done,’ has clocked 500,000 listens in Hindi and more in other languages. Even shows on topics such as the Tamil Dravidan Movement and the Chernobyl tragedy have impressive numbers in languages such as Telugu and Malayalam.

“We have seen wins for genres as diverse as parenting, history, careers, motivation, de-addiction, meditation and sports. And we have regional listeners paying for this content, not just engaging with what’s free”

Kunj Sanghvi, Head of Content, Kuku FM

This is what makes Kuku FM so interesting. They are busting the myth that a non-English speaking, non-metro audience will never pay for a subscription.

This summary of Rich Dad, Poor Dad has been listened to 40 million times

The Growth Strategy

Kunal Joshi, Head of Growth, Kuku FM, outlines the four pillars of their growth strategy.

#1. Refine audience understanding with frequent customer interviews

While “know your customer” is conventional marketing wisdom, it is critical for a brand like Kuku FM, whose customers are quite different to say, a new D2C brand. Customer interaction is part of the company culture and the teams speaks to 100-150 customers per week. This impacts both marketing communication and content.

For instance, customer interviews showed that many public exam takers used Kuku for quality educational content, which could be consumed on the go. This has led to a change in content strategy. “Over time, we have reduced the amount of entertainment content and increased educational and inspirational content — this has been mostly informed by understanding our users better,” says Joshi.

#2. Uncomplicated messaging and high rotation in ad creatives

The brand runs hundreds of video-first ads on Facebook, YouTube and display, with a keen understanding of what works on the digital medium. There are 40-60 of these on a monthly basis across languages, developed by an in-house team, agencies and a network of freelancers and directors.

The ads mostly summarise a popular book (like ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’), introduce a whole category (investing, parenting), or create hype around a popular name (like Ankur Warikoo). They usually feature an anchor or voice-over, key text and a few visuals set to music. Each ad is custom-made and there is no overt branding till the end.

The net result is that the ads feel like content and are effective as teasers to compel the watcher to check out the product.

The brand is not afraid to experiment. There are cinematic trailer-like ads for historical content, provocative questions (“Why do people support Godse even today?”) and fun facts (your writer learnt that Tihar Jail inmates make several beauty products, for instance). 

Kuku FM’s Ads are focused on GETTING audiences TO sample the content

Interestingly, the company has not made a large foray into ATL yet. This shows that it is possible to reach a non-metro audience through good digital targeting and content rather than traditional media buys.

#3 Improving sampling efficiency with first-party data

Joshi believes that marketing efficiency can be achieved with a combination of the right creatives and data. Kuku FM captures granular first-party data such as content sampled, length sampled and categories explored

This helps customise communication via push notifications and re-marketing to various cohorts.

To further increase conversion, the brand makes sure the journey is seamless — an ad for a particular piece of content will result in the exact content page being opened on app install. 

“Our marketing north star is sampling. We know that it takes multiple samplings to finally convert a download to a subscription, so we focus on how to get the cost of marginal sampling as close to zero as possible.”

Kunal Joshi, Head of Growth, Kuku FM

#4. Giving advertising platforms effective signals

Kuku places emphasis on psychographics and convertibility over pure demographics, in oder to provide advertising platforms with sharper data.

One technique that has worked well for them is lookalike audiences, where ad platforms ‘find’ prospects similar to a list of uploaded profiles. “We slice and dice our customer list in various ways to experiment with custom and lookalike audiences”, says Joshi.

Towards the Next Billion

As it takes in a fresh round of funding, Kuku’s 2023 focus will be on brand marketing to increase the top of funnel traffic and remove further hesitation to purchase, because “We think there’s a big audience still out there to target to show that audio can be non-music.” 

Head of Content, Sanghvi, knows they are on to something. “The hunger to succeed is so much higher among this audience that they are desperate to find content that can help them realise their aspirations.”

The THC Take

Strategically, Kuku FM’s marketing is not very different from that of a brand targeted at urban Indians. Use the power of first party data, understand customers as much as possible, constantly experiment – all points we have covered several times before in this publication. What Kuku FM has done well is execute consistently. Perhaps that is the takeaway of many of their own how-to audiobooks.

4 Comments

  1. What i like most is how they managed to get into Tier 2+ audiences without any ATL
    Fantastic!
    Do write a follow up on this

  2. I like how they’ve focused on user experience even before acquisition: ads are interesting, feel like content, landing on the exact page viewed once the app is installed, etc. Did you find any more interesting tidbits on UX post installation? And in this audience, are people subscribing monthly or paying annually? I’m curious about usage and retention too. Good case study, Deepak!

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