By Terry Xu
The Online Citizen interviews Bryan Choo, the founder of TheSmartLocal - a fast growing independent Singapore review site started just last year which covers practically everything one could ask about Singapore lifestyle. Bryan shares with us through an in-depth interview what the site is about and how Singaporean visitors can benefit from it.
Q: How long have you set up this website for?
A: We have just entered our 7 month since our official opening in August 2012 last year. We currently have close to 15,000 high quality Singapore reviews and a Malaysian portal.
Q: How many people are there running the site with you?
A: Content wise we have a team of freelance seed writers, public writers, journalist students and freelance photographers. We also invite special guests such as bloggers, start-up founders, novelists and celebrities to contribute reviews to the site. We want to cultivate a community of expert local reviewers that the bulk of our reviews will depend on, rather than one off reviews from strangers where the legitimacy can be questionable. Its an innovative approach that no other review sites I am aware of use. Being a private business, we are independent of any existing business relationships. i.e We will never delete "negative reviews" for high profile places which some sites have been caught doing due to their business relationships in the industry, a big no-no for any legitimate review site.
Q: What do you hope to achieve through your website? Any social improvement you wish to achieve through your website?
A: The shorter answer is we aim make people's lives better by reducing the information gap so they end up making smarter choices that lead to happier outcomes in their lives. Many Singaporeans are thrilled to learn such a site for Singapore exists and we are delighted to be able to provide a platform that promotes the best of Singapore free from any influence.The longer answer is - in the past I often ran into difficulty when searching for things in Singapore. When my friends did not have the answers, I would turn to the internet for help. For e.g which driving instructor to use, which contractor to hire for renovation, where to get a good hair cut, a reliable good air-con servicing company, a day care centre to send my children too, where to hold my wedding, where to take friends from overseas when they came visiting, etc. Because for some of these like weddings and photography - you only really get one shot, and you want that one shot to be good.I had to spend hours trawling forums to get a decent indication. And still I would be unsure as these were just forums without the proper infrastructure to support reviews. I wanted there to be a structured and reliable way to find this information. Why do people trust forums for advice? Because they are essential a community of trusted members who's opinion will be legitimate. So I tried to bring this trusted community aspect over and make sense of it by providing a proper platform – allowing people to share information in a way its easily accessible, and making people lives easier by reducing their search time and costs. For any decision they had to make, they could simply hop on our site which would become a definitive resource, automatically sorted by aggregated ratings with quality reviews of everything Singapore.If we became an authoritative site, it will also in a way help companies to improve their services based on the feedback on our site if people left negative reviews. Therefore improving some industries and increasing competition for the benefit of the consumer. Perhaps I'm thinking way too far at this point of time, but we already get overzealous marketing executives writing fake positive reviews to cover up the negative ones. Our review community makes these extremely easy to weed out and remove. One company even tried to threaten legal action to get a negative review removed! Tsk! Intimidation is not the correct approach and we try to advise companies how to handle such reviews through good PR.
Q: I see a lot of categories on your website, but what makes up of the main bulk of reviews on your site? or its pretty well spread out?
A: We have four main categories, Attractions/Entertainment, Eateries, Businesses and Hotels. Food is the biggest category as Singaporeans just love food, but our most popular category has to be our Attractions/Entertainment category and Uniquely Singapore category where you can review singapore politicians, celebs, tv shows, products (milo) etc. There isn't much competition for these categories from other sites out there, apart from TripAdvisor and maybe Yelp. We aren't too concerned as these are unlocalised foreign sites built from the outside in - so you get a foreign / tourist perspective of things. We believe its the locals who know their country the best, hence "The Smart Local" and our site is built from the inside out with the vast majority of reviews coming from locals who know their country better, providing a much more accurate representation. E.g you don't see people praising "Newton Food Centre" on our site for their "affordable" Tiger Prawns!
Q: How many active users are there on your site?
A: We have over a hundred active writers on the site who contribute reviews actively each month. As for visitors who don't contribute but just read information, we have close to 70,000 unique visitors monthly. I hope more of the readers start contributing!
Q: Are there a big pool of reviewers on your site? Are they spurred by the points that they earn or they just do out of their interest?
A: The best writers on the site are in their 30s-40s who are not in the least motivated by points. They do it out of their passion for writing and sharing the best of Singapore with others. And of course alerting reviewers of nasty places to avoid. These are writers like slidepj, equina and Jensen. Other really good writers are the well educated journalist students who are looking for a platform to explore their writing and pick up experience for their future careers. They have all grown to be a strong part of our community and their reviews are extremely enjoyable to read. I guess its the same way for the contributors of TOC who are intrinsically motivated and dedicate their time for the belief for fair and independent media in Singapore.
Q: I see that there is a point system for users, how do users earn points and what can they get from their points?
A: Users gain points from doing almost anything on the site from participating in forums to leaving comments and writing reviews. The purpose is to encourage participation and provide a bit of competition for the regular writers. The top 5 contributors each month win a token cash prize.
Q: How do you support your website and the work that goes behind running this website. By paid advertisement or?
A: I am a web developer by profession so in my case the site's developmental costs were extremely low, apart from my opportunity costs I guess, which could be spent on "guaranteed" projects. Our site is already "profitable" in the sense that the google ads easily cover the operating costs. But of course we eventually aim to sustain ourselves through a revenue model from paid front page advertisements / featured listings from companies looking for more exposure. We offer complimentary photography and features with our packages for now. These advertisements are stand alone features and independent of our review component on the site and are explicitly declared as advertisements / media invitations. And we will also later incorporate a third party ticket/affiliate merchanting system. Because we cover virtually every category in Singapore, I feel we have huge potential when we reach a critical mass in terms of traffic numbers, and our traffic is steadily growing every month so I have a very optimistic outlook for now on our site's future!
Q: Do you see your website as fully matured or there are some other tweaking to be made on the site? Any future plans on the website?
A: The website has been fully developed for a while now. But I believe there is always room for improvement and the site is constantly being tweaked. We recently introduced our own youtube channel last month which you can check out at http://www.youtube.com/thesmartlocal We basically wanted to add more depth to our features or give companies advertising with us more value for their dollar.Our future plans include launching a smartphone app by the end of Q2 and to expand to at least one other country by the end of the year. I am very proud of us being a home grown Singapore site and I hope one day we can be the one stop platform for consumer decisions all across Asia, which is our ultimate goal. Do give us your support! 🙂