9GAG: why age is more than just a number when it comes to staying relevant
Ray Chan, the 32-year-old co-founder of entertainment website 9GAG, is worried his advancing years mean he risks losing touch with the company’s millennial audience.
While he still classes himself at the upper end of the age bracket, Chan recently launched an internship programme to bring in new blood so as to remain relevant to the website’s core visitors. Sixty per cent of its 150 million-strong monthly audience are under the age of 24.
The decision to hire more youngsters comes as 9GAG, home to user-generated memes, is exploring partnerships with brands to help them engage with the hard-to-reach demographic.
“When we talk to our users, they don’t really hate ads, they just hate irrelevant ads,” Chan said.
“If your ad is good, if your ad is really for our users, not just promoting your own company, then the users will like to share it, react to it.”
Advertisers are struggling to reach young consumers as they watch less television than older generations and are more likely to use ad blockers to avoid seeing online advertising, the Kantar TNS Connected Life 2016 survey found.
While they want to block irrelevant adverts, 42 per cent of 16-to-24-year-olds had a positive response to reading or watching brand content on social media, higher than other age groups.
Chan was a student at the University of Hong Kong when he came up with the idea for 9GAG in his university halls in 2008 as he and his co-founders wanted a place to find funny pictures.
In 2011, 9GAG joined the 500 Startups accelerator programme in the United States followed by the Y Combinator accelerator scheme, which has produced such technology giants as Airbnb and Dropbox.
Chan said the fledgling company took part in the US schemes in order to expand its network outside Hong Kong where the concept of start-ups was yet to take root.
The company’s website now draws two million comments each day and seven million ‘upvotes’ - the voting system that pushes user-generated jokes to the 9GAG homepage.
Visitors to the website spend an average of 9.5 minutes a day and users of the app spend 16 minutes a day scrolling through memes ranging from Pokemon jokes to cute puppy GIFs.
9GAG is the sixth largest brand account globally on Instagram, its chief operations officer Lilian Leong said, with 34 million followers and a further 34 million fans on Facebook.
A recent 9GAG viral hit drew 69 million Facebook video views for the Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen (PPAP) song sensation by Japanese comedian Kosaka Daimaou. A further 500 PPAP parodies were uploaded to 9GAG in the following two weeks and the company hosted a Facebook Live question and answer session with Daimaou, Leong said.
In its early days, the company relied on the founders sharing its user-generated memes with friends by email to boost traffic to its website, Chan said.
The strategy at the time was to send the sorts of jokes they thought a friend would like, such as cat pictures, and if they replied positively, to send more. If the reply suggested they did not get the joke, Chan said they would send one more to ‘push the limit’.
“A lot of companies think too big. They think about how to change the world. But I think it’s more important that you can change your world, which means the people around you,” Chan said.
“If you can’t even get friends to use your product it probably means you can’t get strangers to use your product.”
The website uses a combination of user upvotes and an algorithm measuring the number of shares, comments and the time spent on a post to decide which pieces of content are a displayed more prominently, Chan said. Human editors can step in to move a post if it is not suitable, although Chan maintains that the website does not police users too heavily beyond racist or sexist jokes.
Next year, the company plans to expand the types of content users can post from the current pictures, GIFs and Youtube links to allow text and virtual reality content, Chan said.