Winning work: How TheSmartLocal harnessed the power of positivity to beat the big media players

TheSmartLocal started as a website designed to introduce a dose of positivity in the lives of Singaporeans. Along the way, it morphed into a significant branded content player – Joyce Yang from TSL chronicles its transformation, after it won 'Media Brand of the Year' at the Mumbrella Asia Awards for 2018

It was 2012. Instagram had just been bought over, Obama created Facebook’s most-liked post in history and #Linsanity was trending on Twitter.

While the world’s social media landscape was undergoing upheaval, the formula that would one day disrupt Singapore had just started brewing. Bothered by the negativity and lack of useful content on local social media, a guy started writing positive stories about Singapore from his bedroom. He called the site TheSmartLocal.

Today, TSL Media Group has over 100 employees, over four publications, a talent division, an events arm and a data-analytics department. Over half the Singaporean population view our content each month over editorial, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. And a lot of the content we produce are ads.

This was completely unimaginable to us six years ago. How did we get over three million Singaporeans viewing ads every month?

We discovered we could achieve a delicate balance while creating ads. That we could convey marketing messages while still adding value and entertaining our audiences. We learnt that people don’t hate ads — they hate bad ads.

Pioneering branded content in Singapore

TSL started at a time when brands were spending most of their marketing budgets on traditional advertising. In 2013, listicles like ‘52 Things To Do In Singapore Before You Die’ prevailed. Yet, few local players could create such shareable content, and even a smaller number knew how to monetise it. But the internet generation’s appetite for (good) listicles grew.

We began to grasp the formula for articles to fill this need, and when our audiences’ consumption patterns evolved to videos, we already had fully-trained YouTube and Facebook video teams in place. We gave our audiences what they craved and our following grew.

Our ability to engage the social generation caught the attention of brands beyond the lifestyle segments we covered. We attracted interest from clients like government agencies, banks and even law firms. There was a way to reach millennials after all.

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We helped government boards make retirement planning sound cool and shifted society’s perception of the affordability of public housing. With our expertise, there was now a way to naturally weave messages into content that our audience was already consuming.

Recent work

In 2017, we filmed a 37-day overland journey from Singapore to London on a smartphone, to showcase the prowess of the Sony Xperia XZ Premium. Later that year, we wrote a love story about two university students whose chance encounter in a university dormitory — thanks to a Canon E560 printer — led to a long distance relationship when the male lead left for overseas. The narrative hit so close to home for Singaporeans, that it reached over 1.3 million people organically on Facebook.

This year, we created a short film that got the National Library App trending on the App store, a first for a government app.

Later in the year, we created ‘The $100 Nomad’, a 10-episode travel series crafted for millennials to make a point that satiating one’s wanderlust doesn’t have to be costly. It aired on Channel 5 at the primetime slot of 8pm and will be distributed regionally as well.

The future of branded content

Every year, organic reach diminishes and Facebook advertising gets a lot more expensive. The strategy of amplifying media by having to pay for visibility is one that will continue to eat into marketing budgets. These costs vary significantly between bad and good content — because even Facebook doesn’t want bad content so they tax it hard.

This is why branded content is the future of marketing. But it’s not always easy to create such organic successes. Consumer trust in the publication you’re partnering is crucial. More often than not, you’ll see heavily boosted hard-sell posts masquerading as branded content— unsurprisingly, engagement with these posts is very low.

When it comes to conceptualising content for clients, we follow a few rules. Our content has to add value to our audience. Our content has to be shareable. Our content has to be strong enough to gain traction without paid amplification. If our content fails in any of these areas, we go back to ideation.

Our most successful collaborations were built on these tenets. With strong ideation and the right content partners, brands can gain huge traction organically, spend significantly less on paid amplification and bypass curveballs or algorithm changes thrown your way.

And with a bit of luck, you may also pick up some recognition along the way.

Joyce Yang is senior content strategist at The Smart Local and is based in Singapore


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