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Social Media Portal - Profiled - BuzzCity - Dr. K F Lai

Staff (Social Media Portal) - 05 May 2009

Social Media Portal - Profiled - BuzzCity - Mobile social networking platforms and mobile communities

An interview with Dr. K F Lai, CEO at BuzzCity

Social Media Portal (SMP): What is your full job title and role at BuzzCity?

BuzzCity logoDr. K F Lai (KFL): I hold the role of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at BuzzCity. I take a hands-on approach to driving the strategic direction of the company and I also serve as a director on the BuzzCity board.

SMP: Tell us briefly about BuzzCity, what is it and why is it different?

KFL: BuzzCity, headquartered in Singapore, runs both a mobile community, myGamma, and a mobile advertising platform. Unlike a lot of other social networking platforms ours is developed purely for mobile; we are not looking to compete with the big names in online social networking but work entirely on and for the mobile platform, which is where our expertise truly lies.  We are particularly proud of the work we have carried out with our partners including advertisers and publishers who share our aim to create a rich and enjoyable mobile experience for users around the world.

SMP: What made you start BuzzCity?

KFL: I founded BuzzCity 10 years ago alongside three research partners from my time at Singapore’s Kent Ridge Digital Labs (now known as the Institute of Infocomm Research).  We were working on a project in ‘change detection’ and ‘adaptive learning’ at the time and we saw an opportunity to move into an untapped and potentially very lucrative market.  We all agreed that we wanted to create a brand that would influence the way people create information, share and communicate via the mobile device, so we jointly applied for funding and launched BuzzCity with the proceeds.

SMP: What was the most challenging part of building the service?

KFL: The first incarnation of our service was a nice idea but it lacked a sound business model. Finding an innovative niche with a sustainable business model was certainly the most challenging part of building our service. It was only after many years of trial-and-error that we finally arrived at the current configurations of a community-based mobile advertising network – a mobile advertising network anchored by our mobile community, myGamma.

SMP: Who are your target audience and why?

KFL: BuzzCity’s mobile community, myGamma, now has users in 84 markets globally.  Our user base essentially consists of two distinct audiences: the newly connected emerging middle class in developing markets and the blue collar sector in developed regions. Many of our users have limited access to a PC and connect to the internet primarily via their phones due to widespread and affordable wireless access.

SMP: How did you initially attract users to your site / service, and how do you do it now?

KFL: We have only ever advertised our service on other mobile internet sites.  The myGamma target audience consumes mobile internet content more than any other type of media and therefore mobile internet is the most effective way to connect with these consumers.

Although we initially charged a subscription fee for myGamma the service is now entirely ad-funded and consequently is free to all users.

SMP: What are your low moments of what you have been doing so far?

KFL: Things can seem difficult when you are yet to prove that you have a sustainable business model but you can see your capital dwindling fast. Fortunately, we have supportive shareholders that helped us to get through those low moments.

SMP: What are your high moments of what you have been doing so far?

KFL: It’s great to rediscover the joy and raw excitement of coming face to face with the people who use our service daily. Many of these users -- from across four continents -- are experiencing the Internet for the first time. Even in the more developed markets, we are seeing users who prefer to use mobile phones over computers for accessing the Internet. For some of them, the impact can be life changing. Subscribers often write to tell us how myGamma has opened up a whole new world for them with new friends, opportunities and possibilities. This is when I know we have realised our dream of connecting the unwired.

SMP: Now that you are established, what do you see as your biggest challenges and opportunities?

KFL: With more and more mobile operators around the world introducing flat rate mobile data tariffs, consumers are accessing the mobile internet for entertainment purposes.  There is an ever-decreasing demand for social media and community-based activities amongst our global target audience which means we are gaining additional users every day.  Brands are realising the potential worth of this audience and are increasing their mobile marketing budgets, which is great news for BuzzCity.  

On the flip side of the coin many of our competitors have also recognised these opportunities, and the market is becoming increasingly convoluted with other mobile community platform providers and mobile ad networks. We believe, however, that BuzzCity is a unique proposition that will stand the test of time, and our recent funding from Naspers is testament to this.

SMP: What are the next moves for BuzzCity?

KFL: BuzzCity has recently opened its API to third party developers to allow them to create new social networking applications which will extend the amount and variety of content available to myGamma users. We expect the launch of the myGamma developer platform to encourage more advertisers to deploy applications as an alternate means of reaching mobile internet users.

Another recent innovation affecting those that choose to advertise via BuzzCity’s mobile ad network is the regional targeting feature launched in December 2008.  BuzzCity is able to obtain a user’s IP address and mobile phone number when they sign in to the myGamma community. User demographics are requested when members complete the registration process and an algorithm applied to deduce where the user is located. This information is then used across the entire advertising network, including third party publishers on the network. We expect to roll this feature out across all supported regions throughout 2009.

SMP: What’s the next big step for social media and networks, particularly mobile social networks?

KFL: I think each social network needs to pick its very own value proposition and differentiation. Are you a communication platform? Are you an entertainment platform? How are you going to monetize your service - through the sale of advertising or virtual items? And do you have the requisite skills to implement this model?  

SMP: What’s going to be the most interesting aspect regarding social media / technology throughout 2009?

KFL: We expect to see further growth in the mobile advertising industry with the majority of the revenues generated amongst mobile communities due to their innate ability to target consumers by gender, age, location etc.  As the potential of the mobile internet achieves widespread global recognition, big brands and developers will begin working together to design more effective and measureable application-based mobile campaigns which will provide a healthy challenge to the booming online social networking industry.

SMP: What impact is the global recession having and what do you think the best way is to manage it for businesses such as yours?

KFL: BuzzCity’s latest quarterly Global Mobile Advertising Index shows the global recession is having little to no effect on mobile advertisers or user habits. In fact, it indicates growth in the number of users accessing the mobile internet, in spite of declining public confidence in the economy and security in the job market. In the first three months of 2009, the BuzzCity Advertising Network delivered 8.5 billion paid advertising banners, which equates to an increase of 11% over the previous quarter.  Our year-on-year growth currently stands at 300%.  

SMP: How does this fit into plans at BuzzCity?

KFL: Despite a very challenging economic environment advertisers are clearly moving more of their advertising budgets to the mobile internet. Competition for advertising dollars has never been more intense but the mobile internet’s superior ROI has made this media a part of many marketer’s plans, especially now that advertisers are demanding greater emphasis on measurability and return on investment.  

We will continue to study mobile consumers and their changing behaviour to make sure our ad network continues to deliver its value proposition; look out for future research results and Advertising Index figures from BuzzCity to see how recession-proof mobile advertising is going to prove this year.

SMP: Best way to contact you?

KFL: Through our UK PR agency, Skywrite Communications: buzzcity @

Now some questions for fun

SMP: What did you have for breakfast / lunch?

KFL: Something that my doctor -- who is concerned about my high cholesterol level --wouldn’t be particularly impressed with!

SMP: What’s the last good thing that you did for someone?

KFL: I kissed my wife before I left for work today. I guess that should qualify.

SMP: How many hours do you work a week?

KFL: I spend about 50 hours a week in the office – but then with all the connectivity all the time, sometimes it is hard to separate work from play!

SMP: If you weren’t running BuzzCity what would you be doing?

KFL: Attending classes that I really like in good universities.

SMP: When and where did you go on your last holiday?

KFL: About four months ago. We (my wife, son, daughter and myself) spent a few days in Hanoi, wandering through the narrow streets of the old quarters.

SMP: What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office of a morning?

KFL: I turn on my computer.

SMP: If you had a superpower what would it be and why?

KFL: I do not want a superpower.

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