The real value of ‘free’ content

This post is sponsored by Viddsee

Our dream was simple: to build a site where awesome short films could be watched and appreciated by the right audience. Sure, YouTube and Vimeo were there, but the millions of category videos, tutorials and vlogs have a way of burying the good stuff away. So in 2013, Derek Tan and I launched Viddsee as a way to connect filmmakers and engaged audiences on one platform.

For a new platform to succeed, we knew it needed to be free – no fees for filmmakers and audiences and no annoying ads. And it worked: five years on, Viddsee is now a premium short film platform that has achieved more than one billion views, 80 million hours watched, 40 million views per month, over 13 million reached per month, and has thousands of filmmakers in its network.

Filmmakers are at the very heart of what Viddsee is – a platform that empowers storytellers. Without their stories, we wouldn’t be able to exist. Back when we first started the idea in 2013, it was made to be a place where filmmakers could publish their short films, and be easily discovered by an audience that appreciated them.

But stopping there would mean that we’re nothing more than a channel for media consumption. It takes much more to be a platform that empowers filmmakers.

For local filmmakers to continue thriving, we needed to actively support their films and personalities, which we do through content marketing, data-driven audience insights, community engagement activities, on-ground events such as the Viddsee Juree Awards, and commissioning work through Viddsee Studios.

This is a model that we’ve built ourselves on, despite not having to charge a subscription fee, nor place any advertising on top of our content – which could earn the filmmakers some money, but would be a barrier to entry that would lower viewership numbers and exposure for filmmakers.

Building from the ground up

At this point, you might wonder: how are we making money from short films that are screened for free? For the past four years, we were sustained by a mix of VC funding and clients who used our platform to amplify and distribute their content.

The real worth of Viddsee, however, isn’t found in those numbers. Rather, it’s in the relationships between us, the filmmakers and audiences that we grew from the start: we know what our viewers watch, and how they watch: they trust us to recommend the best short films. Directors are promoted by our marketing team, and recognised by our annual Juree and monthly Shortee awards.

A big part of the puzzle was complete with last year’s launch of Viddsee Studios, the digital content creation arm led by veteran filmmaker Kenny Tan. The Singapore-based Studios (for now, anyway) enabled us to scale up our offerings in two ways:

  1. By adding in branded content as a revenue stream.
  2. By creating Viddsee Originals, which showcases what we can achieve with Singapore’s talented filmmakers.

What’s new about branded storytelling?

But, you might ask, branded content isn’t new, so what’s the big deal? We didn’t set off to do the in-your-face advertorials that we’ve come to loathe and skip the moment we’re allowed to.

Rather, what we’ve done is create branded stories that rely on insights into what our audiences like to watch, while keeping true to the artistic vision of the director we recommend. In return, brands benefit by telling more engaging and compelling stories, and helping to turn local filmmakers’ passions into a career. It’s the holy grail of branded content, which we can, and have achieved, because of what we’ve learned and built.

Just this year, we’ve produced branded films for Vaseline, Yomeishu, Star Living, Mamonde and Lifebuoy, to name a few. These episodic brand episodes, particularly those over five minutes, have achieved 60 to 70% average watch time.

('Reunion Gift', a branded content piece Viddsee produced for Yomeishu)

We’d like to think it’s an impressive achievement in a time when six-second ads are commonly used to capture a fickle audience. So while there is a place for short-form ads in catching attention, it’s the lengthier brand stories that win over an audience’s hearts and share of mind.

Originality matters

Branded content is only one part of Viddsee’s growth story – Viddsee Originals is the other.

Our goal with producing original content is two-fold: the first is to showcase the kind of films Viddsee can create given our learnings, and the second is to empower filmmakers across the region to tell their stories – be it in the form of short films, web series or documentaries – without needing to wait for funds or sponsors to kick in.

Their finished works tells you all about their talent and quality. This year, we produced social documentaries such as Memories on a Plate (directed by Ng Yiqin), Confessions (directed by Eileen Chong), and While You Sleep (directed by Christine Seow), which were done in partnership with the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

Besides documentaries, we also worked with local talent such as Jacky Lee to create series such as Sleeping Beauty & The Man in The Red Suit, Don Aravind for Drive, and others to create the Scene City anthology. All together, our original productions have been viewed nearly six million times across the region, and the line-up will continue to grow as we expand Studios into other countries.

Ready to rise

All of this comes just as OTT content and online advertising is skyrocketing in Southeast Asia. According to the Global Entertainment & Media (E&M) Outlook 2018-2022 report* produced by PwC, OTT consumption in the region grew 29%, beating its estimates of 22%. In Singapore, it grew by a phenomenal 24%, which was more than the 11% it estimated.

The future looks even brighter: OTT consumption in SEA is expected to grow 20.8%, nearly three times as much as the average E&M growth of 7.2% from 2017-2022, while in Singapore it’s expected to grow 15.9%.

Couple these numbers with a projected internet advertising revenue of US$4.5 billion in 2019, and an 18.3% projected growth of internet advertising in SEA from 2017 to 2022, and you have the makings of a perfect wave that we’ve spent the past four years preparing for.

The market won’t be an easy one to compete in, but we believe that our deeper understanding of our viewers and grassroots film communities have given us a firm foundation to build on.

The future of storytelling can only get better. But this business model isn’t a yarn we’re spinning. We’re going to prove and live up to this story.

The writer is Ho Jia Jian, co-founder and CEO of Viddsee.