Opinion

Q&A with Coconuts Media founder Byron Perry

Byron PerryByron Perry is the founder and MD of Coconuts Media, a network of city news websites that casts an irreverent eye over the local happenings, quirks and trends of Bangkok, Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bali and Yangon. (Bombay will probably be next.)

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Perry talks about what makes Coconuts different, what makes it so popular, how the sites make money, who his competitors are, walking the thin journalistic line in Singapore, why he admires STOMP, and who he’d sell to if the right offer was on table.

If there’s one reason why Coconuts is so popular, what is it?

The Coconuts masthead logo

I think it’s that we’re funny. That’s our USP more than anything else. And it’s something that I always wanted it to be. It’s about – to use an English expression – taking the piss out of the news, when appropriate. Because sometimes it’s not. At its core, Coconuts is funny, conversational and informational.

What sort of traffic are you getting at the moment and what sort of stories are driving it?

On our biggest traffic month, we achieved 4.1 million unique visitors and 10 million page views.

A story about Jollibee in Manila drove the biggest traffic day of this year. A man tricked a Jollibee delivery guy into getting a PHP200 voucher that Jollibee was offering to customers if their delivery was late. He ignored the door bell until their delivery time guarantee of 20 minutes was up, then boasted about it on Facebook. We then ran a story on a statement from Jollibee as a follow-up. That day we hit 280,000 unique users.

Coconuts CY Leung's daughter article

Coconuts CY Leung’s daughter article

But our Umbrella Movement story about CY Leung’s daughter [The Hong Kong chief executive’s daughter said in a Facebook post that tax payers pay for her shoes and dresses while thousands where on the streets demanding that her father resign] was probably bigger. We had never seen anything like it. We had 8,000 people at one time on the site.

Our most popular video was about a man who paints with his penis, which has around 638,000 views.

We have also been focusing more on distributing videos natively to Facebook and since March we have amassed about 700,000 views, on videos like this one about a homeless boy on the streets of Manila and his pet puppy.

How closely do you walk the line reporting on politics and stories that are critical of the government here or touch on sensitive issues such as the Amos Yee saga?

Coconuts' Amos Yee story

Coconuts’ Amos Yee story

We have reported extensively on Amos Yee, as has all media in singapore. We’ve reported the facts. In a situation like that, there’s less joking and opinion, and we tone down the attitude and voice and just report the facts.

We started out in Bangkok [Perry launched Coconuts four years ago], where politics are so divisive it’s insane, and I’ve never wanted politics to be a big part of what we do. We don’t shy away from it, but it’s less our bread and butter. We cover more how politics effects local life. If there’s a political protest, for instance Occupy Central, we’d cover the detail on where protests are, how many people have turned out, where the roads are closed, that sort of thing.

In each of the cities we cover, there are different levels of media freedom, and different things you can and cannot say. All of our editors are experienced in what they can report locally. We want to operate in the places where we are, and we stay within the boundaries. I believe in freedom of the media, but I respect the laws of all the countries in which we operate.

Who do you see as your closest competitor in Singapore?

That’s tough to answer. It’s tough to pick just one. There are multiple. SG [formerly I-S Magazine until a rebrand at the start of this year] and Time Out are definitely the closest, certainly for advertising, although they’re primarily print products. And Mothership.sg is definitely a competitor. They’re online only and have a style, but they’re a lot more political than us.

What do you make of the likes of Buzzfeed and Mashable coming into the market? 

It doesn’t worry me that much. I think Buzzfeed is quite different. They’re trying to diversify into everything, but their bread and butter is still listicles, for instance ‘You know when you’re from the Philippines when…’ sort of articles. We know they’re popular, but we’d rather do other stuff.

In terms of advertising, they’re definitely a competitor – and that worries me more. I think that their brand will be less recognisable out here than they might think. Maybe in the Philippines where there’s a strong American connection.

I don’t think people know about Mashable [which plans to launch in Singapore later this year] in Asia, it’s less visible than Buzzfeed. I check out Buzzfeed stories often, because we plan to expand to India [Buzzfeed launched in India in August last year]. But they don’t give me a feeling of ‘Oh no Buzzfeed is all over India’. Again, the content is mostly listicles.

How’re plans for India going?

Everything I know about India and everything I’ve found out from talking to many people makes me very excited. When we launch Coconuts in a city, the challenge is always finding good people to be editor. We’ve had ads running in India, but we haven’t found who we’re looking for yet.

What do you think of STOMP, Singapore’s popular citizen journalism/gossip site?

Stomp story todayI’d always planned on expanding to Singapore. I always wanted to launch here second after Bangkok [but eventually chose Manila instead]. And I hadn’t heard of Stomp when researching expanding here back in 2012. But when I came across it, I do remember thinking that it’s exactly what we want to do with Coconuts. I really wanted to do user generated content. (But we’ve dropped that as a strategy.) I thought damn, someone has beat us to it, and I was impressed by what they were doing – putting out a lot of juicy content. But it was of a certain quality that some might not find to be the most premium, or covering the most important things that are happening – which is a way we differentiate ourselves. I followed them on Facebook. Stomp stories were constantly coming into my feed, and I found myself constantly clicking on them. They’re great at doing that. But I had to unfollow them. It became too much.

Why are you based in Singapore and not Bangkok, where you started the business? Presumably for commercial reasons not because more happens in Singapore?

I wanted to set up a physical office here, pursue advertising and sponsorship deals with companies based here, and raise some money. Also for personal reasons. I like Singapore and I was a little bit burned out on Bangkok. The lifestyle is so easy here and the business atmosphere is great. It’s the true hub of Southeast Asia.

How do you make money? 

Coconuts' 'Minion mania' article for McDonald's

Coconuts’ Minion mania piece for McDonald’s

Mostly from sponsored content. Some of our big clients are Singha Beer in Thailand and Smart Communication and McDonald’s in the Philippines.

We create content that is sponsored by brands – they try to tap into what we’re good at – funny, engaging stuff that people want to share.

McDonald’s wanted us to do a story about Minions that came with their Happy Meals. They’re quite popular anyway, so it was easy for us, because people go nuts for the Minions.

Singha Beer wanted to do a series on food. And that was also easy as people love Thai food.

Singha sponsored Coconuts TV’s Instakitchen series. Here’s an episode:

But there’s usually constant back and forth with the sponsor wanting to get their promotion in – to get their branding and message out there. But the pushback is always that if the promotion is too strong the content won’t be popular.

We do this all the time, we know what’s going to be popular. An advertorial about your beer is not going to be popular. It has to be valuable to the person who watches it, and not trick them in any way.

Our readers are savvy. They know what is advertising and what is not. We make it very clear when a piece of content is sponsored. Some clients want us to take off the logo, and we say no absolutely not. It’s really important to me. We don’t want to compromise the integrity of the site.

We separate who produces sponsored content. None of our editors do it – it really would be a conflict of interest. I’ve seen very clearly how that doesn’t work well.

Do you have a story to share as an example?

We ran a story that was critical of a large shopping mall company in Bangkok, a city where malls are extremely powerful and a big thing. Unbeknownst to our editor – as we keep editorial and sales separate – our sales person had been chasing them to buy a sponsored content campaign for months. Our editor wrote a story that was fair, and I think they were overly sensitive in how they responded to the piece. They hadn’t signed a deal, but had verbally agreed to. They said, ‘How dare you, we’re pulling the deal. They wanted us to take down the story. But it was popular. We chose not to take it down – and we lost that ad deal.

If we allowed our editors to write sponsored content, our Thai editor would have been the one who had to write the sponsored piece before or after the story, and that just wouldn’t have worked.

How much does a campaign cost with Coconuts?

Usually we push clients to do multiple pieces of content as part of a campaign series. A problem we find is that we’re asked for one piece of content that goes viral and that’s it. But for a successful campaign you need several pieces of content. We’re talking tens of thousands of US dollars for a series. We do not have minimum spend but that’s something we’re considering.

What about ad networks or programmatic as sources of revenue?

That’s going to be come more and more important. We do have ad network ads running on our site. We mainly use Google Ad Exchange, but the revenue generated from that is pretty small – even with 10 million page views. That being said, we don’t allow ad networks into certain sub-domains. So you can’t buy inventory on Coconuts Bangkok if you’re an ad network.

There’s also the dance of not cannibalising your own direct sales, not that we’re doing much banner advertising – brands are not interested. They’re really interested in sponsored content though.

As for programmatic, let’s see how it goes. As we get bigger, it will become more important to us, but you have to be a really marquee media property, and in terms of the tech implementation, well that’s not our expertise. We would hire someone to manage programmatic, that’s probably the way to go.

Which is your biggest revenue-driving country?

Thailand. We’ve really only just begun doing sales in Hong Kong and Singapore. Manila is second most-established. Hong Kong is more ready than Singapore. Our Hong Kong Facebook page is really popular [it has 38,000 fans]. Hong Kong is a more expat market with a concentration of English speakers. In Singapore, we’re competing with everyone as English is spoken more widely.

What’s your end game? Are you looking to sell? If so, what sort of partner would you work with? 

We want to become a solvent company that is profitable and ultimately, sure, an acquisition has crossed my mind. But we’re not at that stage yet. For now, we’re focused on the near future.

What sort of company would you sell to? Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp?

I did speak to News Corp in New York a year ago. I’m really just speculating, but companies like News Corp, Time Warner, Viacom or the big Asian media companies like Next Media, Yahoo Japan or Rakuten.

From what you’ve written about these cities over the years, how do you see each as different?

I think Bangkok has a spirit of fun and sense of humour. It has an absurdity that makes it so great; a craziness.

Manila has this really creative side that I think makes it stand out. It has an amazing arts and music scene; so many talented people. And yet it has this aspect of sadness and hardship. It’s a tough city that has a lot of problems. There is probably more extreme poverty in Manila than in the other cities in Southeast Asia.

Singapore complains a lot. For better and for worse, there’s modernity and a relentless drive to improve and strive to succeed here. I really like that atmosphere. But also the amazing mix of races and cultures that the others don’t have. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole in Singapore.

Hong Kong has this brashness – from the expat perspective – a New York-style attitude and business-minded way of doing things. It’s a really big city where people walk fast and you better get out of the way because they have things to do. You don’t get that in the other cities.

Jakarta and KL I’m least familiar with. Jakarta reminds me of Bangkok a lot. There’s a bit of the absurdity factor. That craziness; a sense of humour and fun, people who deal with a crazy, huge dysfunctional city every day with a smile. It’s got that irony too. It’s a Muslim country, but has a crazy nightlife. There are a lot of contradictions.

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