9GAG, The Asia-Based Social Site With 80M Monthly Visitors, Steps Into Mobile Games

So, you’re in charge of one of Asia’s (nay, the world’s) top viral/comedy communities. The new year is here. What’s your focus for 2015? How about game publishing?

That’s not the most obvious answer, but it is a new experiment that 9GAG, the popular online forum run out of Hong Kong, is embarking on. The goal is to provide a richer experience for readers using different kinds of media.

9GAG claims 80 million unique users visit its pages each month. The company has taken an interesting and very different path to many other online publishing companies. Founded in 2008, it passed through 500 Startups’ accelerator in 2011, and Y-Combinator in 2012, going on to raise $2.8 million from investors.

It made its name as a place to find amusing images, and now it is diversifying its business to increase engagement and value for users, while enabling some of Asia’s hidden gems to shine through its platform at the same time.

That’s the message from CEO and co-founder Ray Chan, who recently spoke to TechCrunch following the launch of Redhead Redemption, 9GAG’s first mobile game. Initially available on Android (an iOS version is due soon), it is a freemium title developed by Indonesia-based Touchten.

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Early traction has been impressive, and initial promotion efforts generated 100,000 downloads within two days of its launch on Christmas Eve. Current Google Play store metrics show it has less than half a million downloads thus far, and an impressive 4.6 rating from over 60,000 reviewers.

That engagement came without any ad spend, just organic traffic. 9gag.com has a banner at the top of its site that links to the Google Play store page (we are now noticing some banners too), and the game was also shared via its well-followed social media accounts.

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Why 9GAG Games?

As a community-driven site, Chan and the 9GAG team want to serve its users by surfacing the kind of content that they’ll enjoy and engage with. Beyond images and comedy skits, that could include different kinds of media too.

Chan said the team has always been keen on games, but didn’t take the leap yet because “we didn’t know anything about making them.”

“We play games, our users play game, but making them is another story,” he added.

When Chan met Touchten founder and CEO Anton Soeharyo at an industry event in Singapore in October last year, the duo got talking about their respective startups. The idea of collaborating was floated and, within two months, 9GAG published its first game.

As a community, we always want to create value for our users. Ray Chan, 9GAG CEO

“It’s an experiment for us,” Chan explained.

“As a community, we always want to create value for our users. On the other hand we always have to make money, and we always think it is better to get money from the users directly if possible.”

Chan declined to go into the specifics of the partnership, but he did confirm that revenue generated from the title — via in-app purchases — will be split between both startups.

Curated Alternative To Crowded App Stores

He believes that today’s app crunch and general consumer reluctance to downloads lots of apps make a curated and trusted pick of apps valuable to all parties. Though this is just 9GAG’s first game, Chan claimed the site’s audience trusts it implicitly to serve up apps and games that are top quality.

Beyond that, there is also a vast opportunity for game studios and developers to stand out in crowded app stores.

“There are tonnes of gaming companies in Asia, many build pretty good games but the cost per install gets high due to competition. That makes it harder for small studios. We think it would be interesting if we could work with studios, and help them to publish. If we can curate good games then it’s win-win-win for them, us and our users,” Chan said.


Salaryman Dash is another of Touchten’s existing games

In this specific case, Chan is a big fan of Touchten which he said “doesn’t get the exposure that they deserve” for many of their games.

Beyond just the potential to drive downloads and revenue from games, Chan said 9GAG can showcase companies, helping them build a reputation in their own right and enabling them to get valuable feedback from the 9GAG community.

Touchten has notched over 10 million downloads for the 20 games it has published to date. Soeharyo told TechCrunch that he hoped its partnership with 9GAG could raise the five-year-old startup’s profile and “put Indonesia on the map as a country that also produces games.”

Stressing that the strategy is still experimental at this point, Chan said 9GAG would seek out small game studios, 10-20 person operations who can be “reputable partners,” if and when it extends gaming push.

Big On Social Media

The likes of Reddit and Digg aren’t likely to venture into game publishing anytime soon, but that isn’t the only strategy that 9GAG differs on. Its approach to social media is centered on building its brand, not generating traffic, according to Chan.

Its approach to social media is centered on building its brand, not generating traffic.

9GAG has nearly 23 million fans on its Facebook Page and over 3.7 million Twitter followers, but Instagram is a particular success story.

There it has over 9.4 million followers, which ranks it inside the top five brands using the service, ahead of H&M, NBA, Adidas and many other household names.

No doubt the photo-centric nature of 9GAG’s content helps it, but that’s still an incredible achievement. Chan said the company “doesn’t really care if posts drive traffic” or not, and that’s why it focuses on the actual content that it posts to social sites rather than ‘calls to action,’ click bait and other factors.

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That’s a pretty fascinating approach, and watching how its content is shared and interacted with on social media has also helped 9GAG introduce new verticals. 8fact was launched for shareable facts, as the name suggests, while 8crap similarly does exactly what you’d expect.

Those two don’t have their dedicated sites though, they exist on social media and app form only. It’s an experimental approach that might one day see them given their own URLs or domains.

Beyond the social media followings and vast website traffic numbers, 9GAG also has an impressive mobile app readership. Mobile represents a fairly regular 30 percent of all visits, but 9GAG’s dedicated mobile apps drive three million daily active users. That figure jumps to 5-6 million for monthly users, and is another impressive feat from this Asia-based publisher which is quietly plugging away.

As for other plans in 2015, Chan is keen to dabble in other media experiments that can benefit the 9GAG community. He’s also looking to localize more of the humor on its pages for the varying different nationalities that visit. (The U.S. drives most visitors, while Germany — a country often teased for a lack of sense of humor — ranks a surprise second.)

But the chatty Chan is less interested in talking about the financials of 9GAG’s business — including profit, loss and revenue — such is his focus on the consumer side of its work.

The startup last raised funding in July 2012, taking in $2.8 million, and he said its financial situation is good and there are no imminent plans to raise again. With less than 30 staff on its books and an office in Asia, he added that 9GAG “stays lean,” which helps its money go further.