Is laughter the best medicine? Hepmil Media Group on using humour during coronavirus

HMG owns platforms that produce comedy content like SGEEK, SGAG in Singapore, MGAG in Malaysia and PGAG in the Philippines.

Despite cuts in marketing spend during Covid-19, there are still brands that are keen to collaborate with content creators to produce light-hearted humour and encouraging messages to spread positivity to their audiences.

In Singapore, when the lockdown measures, officially known as circuit breaker, were first introduced, millennial-focused publisher Hepmil Media Group (HMG) saw a five times increase in the number of inquiries and briefs from advertisers to engage users.

HMG owns platforms that produce comedy content like SGEEK, SGAG in Singapore, MGAG in Malaysia and PGAG in the Philippines. SGAG, MGAG and PGAG are a name play on the popular 9GAG platform but have no relation to the Hong Kong-based platform.

“During these uncertain times, it is ever-more important for brands to connect with their audiences, showing how they care and contribute to the community,” Karl Mak, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Hepmil Media Group, tells The Drum.

“Humour and light-hearted content is one way to do that, but at the end of the day, content that adds value to what the audience needs at that point in time is most important, such as using comedy in a relatable way to educate the public on important messages around the virus.”

As a result of the cuts in marketing spend, 65% of execs expect the crisis to lead to layoffs in their company, according to research from Fishbowl. This adds multiple layers of uncertainty to freelancers as they wonder if there will there be work and if they will be paid before their clients’ businesses collapse.

To address this, HMG recently launched a new subsidiary called Hepmil’s Creator Network (HCN) to nurture and provide business opportunities to freelance content creators on TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. It also hopes HCN can connect brands with these freelancers to develop brand-safe content for the Gen-Z and millennial audience.

HMG is first extending the HCN network to comedy creators in Singapore and the Philippines, with plans to reach other South East Asia markets. It claims HCN’s TikTok creators in the Philippines have seen a 41% increase in followers following the country’s lockdown, a surge in TikTok hashtag challenges and more content developed.

“70% of the Singaporean creators in HCN have also been involved in developing content for brands that seek support since March 2020 across TikTok, Facebook and Instagram,” explains Mak.

“Some of these content aims to spread positivity through light-hearted humour and encouraging messages or educate the public. Others also help the community directly as part of the brands’ corporate social responsibility initiatives.”

He continues: “For example in Singapore, we were part of the Stay Home For Singapore #SGUnited campaign and the launch of Circles.Life’s #HelloNeighbour campaign that nudges Singaporeans to display encouraging messages by their windows to interact with their neighbours during the circuit breaker period.”

Mak says HMG’s clients require local knowledge, a consistent content strategy and brand-safe platforms, something that the publisher is striving to do.

“What sets us apart is our years of experience as content creators ourselves. We have a good understanding of what tickles the regional audience. While humour is universal, nuances are cultural and herein lies our strength in creating a hyper-local, authentic, engaging and effective content that works for audiences in the region,” says Mak.

“This experience enables us to pass on our knowledge and mentor the other creators to guide them in strengthening their craft. We also understand the challenges faced by brands and agencies when working with content creators and look to create a fuss-free process for them based on our experience.”

At the same time, HMG says it is investing heavily in research and data analytics to adapt its content creation strategy for each market.

According to Mak, HMG embraces an experimental work culture where the publisher encourages and empowers its employees to continually experiment with new ways to entertain its audiences through various content types, formats and product offerings.

“Tapping on the power of data and technology has empowered our content teams to make more informed decisions and fine-tune our content strategy according to audience preferences and interests,” explains Mak.

“A recent example is when we successfully developed a series of Money Heist-inspired content, such as related memes, and a local parody titled ‘Bubble Tea Heist’ based on the insights of its trending popularity on social media platforms.”

He adds: “Focus groups are also conducted in each market to hear qualitative feedback of our local audience on the content created. In Singapore, we survey our most engaged fans to gather their sentiments and suggestions and incentivised them with exclusive insider-only content or merchandise.”

The venture capital-backed digital media space is crowded and many have found it tough to compete against the likes of Google and Facebook for ad revenue. Vice, Vox Media and BuzzFeed have all struggled in recent times.

However, Mak says HMG does not see itself competing with social media platforms such as Google and Facebook, but rather as a partner to these platforms.

He is keen to stress there is a mutual relationship between the ad giants and HMG, where they provide the platform for the publisher to share its content, and as a publisher, it helps to keep the audiences on these platforms by engaging them with the brand-safe content that it creates.

“Over the years, we have built strong relationships with the social media platforms as we collectively see the value of providing an integrated creative content and media approach to advertisers together,” explains Mak.

“With our years of experience as content creators, marketers and media buyers are also assured of our content quality, servicing expertise, and data-driven insights to achieve the campaign objectives through our four subsidiaries - SGAG, MGAG, PGAG and HCN.”

Through angel investors, HMG previously raised US$968,000 in pre-series A funding in 2016. Mak explains the publisher was careful to only raise a small round of strategic financing as the media and content landscape is still rapidly evolving and consolidating across SEA.

He claims the funds were not used to grow 'at all cost', but rather to allow the publisher access to enter new markets and validate content and business strategies.

“We’ve been offered a lot more funding opportunities in the past year but have been careful in raising too many funds because the tricky thing about SEA is its diversity across countries,” he explains.

“So our go-to-market approach in each country is also tailored to localised learnings. Having said that, we will definitely explore how we can double down for further growth when the media and content landscape consolidates and stabilises.”

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