We're pretty sure you'd have heard of Clicknetwork – the Singapore "YouTube" channel known for producing viral content that’s fun and casual, and they just celebrated their tenth anniversary with a bang recently. Oh, and they're also the first local channel to hit one million subscribers. How did they achieve that? We chatted with Clicknetwork's founder Gillian Tan and she shared with us 10 ways to get to the top.
1. Don’t let age or inexperience hold you back
After seven years in the US – where she studied and worked in advertising – Gillian considered her options back in Singapore. Television was her main interest, but the industry is small, and she wanted autonomy to do things on her own terms. Her parents, who are both entrepreneurs, gave her the solution: start her own company. Her mother, who owns a fashion retail company, financed the start-up, and so video production company Munkysuperstar (named for Gillian’s Chinese zodiac sign – the Monkey) was born in 2003.
2. Spot the gaps, then fill them
Gillian, 36, enjoys what she calls mindless entertainment (think: American reality show The Bachelor) and saw there was a gap in the Singapore market for such shows. She convinced a friend to go on dates, filmed the antics, and pitched it to local broadcaster Mediacorp. It caught the eye of an executive producer, who decided to take a chance on Gillian despite her lack of experience. Gillian went on to produce shows like Eye for a Guy, where a group of men vie for the affections of a model; S Factor, where bikini-clad contestants competed to be on the cover of now-defunct men’s magazine FHM; and Girls Out Loud, a talk show hosted by radio DJ Rosalyn Lee, and blogger/ influencer Wendy Cheng – who goes by the moniker Xiaxue.
3. Recognise trends before they happen
Xiaxue's Sun Ho makeup tutorial became one of the most talked-about videos on the channel.
In 2007, Gillian, who’s married without children, went on a road trip to Malaysia with Rozz and Xiaxue. She filmed some of the things they got up to – random conversations the girls had in the car, pranks they played on one another. She uploaded these candid videos on Youtube – which, at that time, was far from the juggernaut it is today – without expecting much of a response. To her surprise, the few viewers who came across the videos not only enjoyed them, but wrote in and asked for more. She knew she was onto something. “The viewership was so low, but those responses encouraged me to keep going,” she says. This became the foundation for Clicknetwork’s first web show, Xiaxue's Guide to Life, which is still going strong today, and is one of the channel’s most popular offerings. A decade on, Clicknetwork has a stable of 10 well-known hosts and eight web shows, with up to three episodes released every week. Some of the most popular episodes have racked up views in the millions.
4. Produce content you would enjoy watching
More than 80 per cent of the channel’s viewers are women, mostly aged between 18 and 34. And the content on Clicknetwork – such as Hype Hunt, which, as its name suggests, susses out if certain trends live up to the hype – is tailored to that audience. “I know what women like, and I tend to produce shows that I personally like and find interesting,” says Gillian. “People have asked me [why I don’t have male hosts since I’m targeting women], but it doesn’t work that way. Women like to watch women because they like to feel that they can understand, and relate to, them.”
That said, Clicknetwork does have a handful of male hosts, all of whom have that same relatability. Musician Don Richmond, for instance, crossdresses as his alter ego Donatella, while Singapore Idol alumni Paul Twohill and regular guy Charles Ng attempt pole dancing. “They’re not the alpha-male type,” says Gillian, adding that women find their goofy antics appealing.
5. Break the mould
Hack It, hosted by Rebecca Tan, is popular show with both local and international viewers.
The motley crew of hosts on Clicknetwork – a big part of the channel’s success – are a breath of fresh air. They aren’t necessarily polished, use Singlish, and their dialogue is largely unscripted. They also don’t take themselves too seriously. Gillian cites Singaporean-Australian model and host Rebecca Tan, who hosts Hack It (which helps viewers take hacks, or shortcuts, when it comes to mundane tasks). “Clients would comment that she’s too pretty for consumers. But Rebecca is really different from how she looks. She’s not uppity, and she’s goofy and scatter-brained.” So Gillian let Rebecca unleash her personality on the show – including her use of the Hokkien dialect. “Now, even our international viewers know what ‘kiap’ (Singlish for grasping something) is, thanks to her.”
This boils down to the ability to pick the right people for the audience. Some hosts are roped in through auditions, but most are talent-spotted by Gillian. “All of them are funny in their own way, but I like the phrase ‘non-vanilla’,” she says, when asked about the elusive X-factor she looks out for. “I don’t just pluck [people] off the streets and make them [stars]. They need to have the makings... what I do is find people whom I feel have potential, and then help to harness it.”
6. The audience isn't always right
And that’s because they don’t always know what they want. Gillian has learned that the hard way. Four years ago, Clicknetwork was looking for a new female host for its now defunct show Chick vs. Dick. There was an audition call, and Gillian experimented with getting viewers to vote for who they wanted to share the screen with existing host Paul Twohill. The chosen host, however, did not have the right chemistry with Paul, and the show flopped after less than 10 episodes. Gillian’s key takeaway? “People don’t necessarily vote for the best choice. They vote for who they like, but sometimes, they don’t know who they like, or what they want, until they see the show.” That’s where producers like herself come in.
Influencer Xiaxue describes Gillian, whom she has known since 2005, as having an “uncanny ability to know what works on film ... She gives me the freedom to express myself, but guides me [so I don’t go off] on a tangent, which I tend to do. I’ll always be grateful to her for seeing the unpolished gem in me, when I was more awkward and blustering.”
7. Spot the money-making potential in viral videos
In Clicknetwork’s early days, Gillian and her hosts created shows purely for entertainment’s sake. But as Youtube’s reach expanded and viewership climbed, Gillian recognised her channel’s money-spinning potential. Advertisers came calling, and by 2010, Clicknetwork had become financially sustainable. Gillian then stopped producing television shows.
This business model required Gillian to make some tough calls. “There were a lot of shows I used to do that were really fun to produce and watch, but they made no business sense,” she explains. “On the plus side, they added to the flavour and brand of the channel. But on the other hand, if a show got eyeballs and chatter but no sponsorship, we had to kill it.” Numbnuts – which featured two male hosts trying out potentially dangerous stunts each episode, such as durian dodgeball and skateboarding blindfolded – was one such example. As popular as it was, no brand wanted to be associated with it and it was eventually axed. Gillian’s ability to rationalise the hard decisions is one of the reasons Xiaxue describes her as “a boss who knows exactly what she wants”.
8. Money can't buy trust
A big part of the process is ensuring that the hosts can stand behind the products they endorse.
Given how Clicknetwork is a brand built on authenticity, Gillian knew she had to balance keeping the channel financially afloat and maintaining its integrity. It’s why she works hard to make sponsored content come across as real as possible, and picks only products that she’s certain her channel can back. Before a commitment to a prospective client is made, the hosts test the product in question. If they aren’t fans of what they try, it’s a no-go. “I’m sure we’ve burned bridges, because some clients weren’t happy we turned them down,” admits Gillian. “But if we’ve tested something and it doesn’t work the way it’s meant to, then there’s no way we can put it on a show.”
9. Go beyond Singapore
Clicknetwork has garnered an international following – some of its shows clock an international viewership of between 60 and 70 per cent. This isn’t just down to the popularity of Youtube – Gillian says she always keeps the international viewers in mind and rejects ideas that would speak only to the local audience. If an idea doesn’t translate outside of Asia, it’s not going to fly.
10. You've got to be thinking one step ahead
While Gillian wants to continue making Youtube videos, she has cast her eye on bigger projects. “I want to make a feature film and involve the [Clicknetwork] hosts as much as I can,” she confesses. It’s already in the works – she’s been working on a script with Xiaxue. She remains tight-lipped about what it’s about, but let slip that it’s a female-centric film, where the leads are women and with themes that will resonate with a female audience. “Why does it have to be a male lead? There should be more films where you see female dynamics.”
This article was first published in the July'17 issue of Her World magazine.