Local content delivered fast is the secret of success for Byron Perry's Coconuts websites
Local content delivered fast isthe magic formula for Byron Perry's growing Coconuts web empire
Admit it: you're addicted to the internet. Given some downtime at work you turn to Facebook, only to find it mostly offers photos of cats and friends' babies. You turn to Instagram, where people are mostly showing off their private parts. You even turn to Twitter, but it's filled with the meaningless ramblings of celebrities.
And then there's Coconuts, a relatively new network of sites spread across seven Asian cities, including Hong Kong. Inspired by US-based blogs such as the Gothamist network and New York's Gawker, Coconuts has won over viewers with its constant and immediate mix of breaking local news, quirky stories, neighbourhood reporting and pop culture-focused content.
In Hong Kong, Coconuts' online-only focus has stood out from the city's print-dominated market, breaking through with its coverage of the citywide democracy protests and hitting a record 700,000 unique October viewers in the process.
Founded by American entrepreneur and former journalist Byron Perry in 2011, Coconuts first launched in Bangkok, stemming partly from Perry's frustrating experiences with traditional print media and partly from the Thai capital's lack of neighbourhood-focused news.
"I'm really interested in local news. I love what's happening around me," says Perry, who was living in Thailand at the time. "And since Bangkok didn't have anything like that, and because I thought there was potential for it around Asia, I decided to start Coconuts on a shoestring budget.
"I began by writing about everything, producing all sorts of content about what was happening in the city."
The site immediately met with acclaim, and after receiving investor funding in San Francisco, Perry expanded his website into Manila and Singapore, before tackling Hong Kong in late 2013.
Coconuts Hong Kong started small, with lifestyle-related features and short news articles as it tried to find a footing in an already media-saturated city. But in the same way its Bangkok site built up its initial audience through Perry's on-the-ground coverage of the city's 2011 floods, Coconuts' reporting of the Occupy Central campaign sent the Hong Kong site's unique viewers skyrocketing.
"The Hong Kong protests were definitely a boon for Coconuts. Everything we did was extremely popular: we were producing updates as quickly as we could, from Admiralty to Causeway Bay to Mong Kok, and trying to live-cover as much as possible," says Perry.
"Our ultimate goal was to share what was happening and remain as neutral as we could, and it caught on, mostly because our Hong Kong team did an awesome job of providing a stream of videos, photos and content."
It was the tipping point that turned the city's English-speaking audience on to the site's impressively inspired content, ranging from not only breaking news, but features digging deep into art trends, videos chronicling the city's gentrification, as well as up-to-the-minute event information, restaurant reviews and other city-related information.
On paper, that doesn't sound far off from what's offered by most lifestyle publications, but where Coconuts has differentiated itself in the market is in its all-inclusive local focus and online exclusivity.
"We're hyper-local, we're recording absolutely everything that we can within the urban area, and very rarely straying outside of that. We don't have an international or national scope, the focus is on Hong Kong," says Perry.
"Hong Kong has such a vibrant scene and so much cool stuff happening, but not much of a big online media focus, and I thought it was right for something like us."
Coconuts has capitalised on the immediate nature of the internet. Not limited by deadlines or page counts and through the use of social media and quick translations, Coconuts can share and report on stories print publications can't.
"It's something we wanted to do, since no-one else was. Every Coconuts site has a wide range of content, from high-brow stuff that took a lot of work to report, to short posts that share a stupid commercial or a silly flash mob. We do a lot of translating from Chinese media and from social media, both of which are where a lot of pop culture crops up, so it's great that people react."
A recent story Perry liked was about "pill graffiti": stickers of red-and-green pills that cropped up in Sheung Wan and gained social media interest. Coconuts capitalised on the interest by sharing a video on the phenomenon. "That's the kind of pop culture stuff I always want to do for Coconuts' content," he says.
Perry's brand of ideas have caught on and, with an average 400,000 to 500,000 viewers per month and rising, Coconuts Hong Kong looks set to be the next big thing among the city's English-speaking audience. It begs the question of what Perry's plans are for Coconuts Hong Kong and how he hopes to stand out as copycats start to flood the market.
"Every city is different. In Hong Kong, it's an expat-oriented site, as opposed to Singapore or Manila, where it's more for locals. We've found a good niche with something that competitors aren't doing, by focusing exclusively online with a lot of content, by being funny, by being snarky," says Perry.
"Hong Kong also has a very tabloid attitude towards content, and we're trying to embrace that. It's really caught hold in the city."