Talk about weddings, and it is likely that shiny rings, flowy bridal dresses, and romantic ballroom dancing will come to mind – the stuff of fairy tales.
What most don’t realize is the ugly underbelly of the wedding industry, where vendors all too often conjure up ways to make unwitting couples cough up as much cash as possible. And it is by no means a small amount of cash – weddings make up an impressive MYR$7 billion (US$2.2 billion) industry in Malaysia.
“Weddings are a pretty cutthroat business,” explains Kelvin Leow, co-founder and CTO of online wedding network Wedding.com.my. “Some vendors see it this way: they only have one chance to earn your money, so they will push up their prices. They know that, regardless of whether they do a good job or not, you won’t be engaging them again anyway.”
Such stories are all too common to both Leow and his wife and co-founder Petrina Goh. Many of their friends emerged from their respective big days with huge debts because they did not have enough information to make the best educated choice. While such information can occasionally be found on wedding forums, combing through thread after thread finding the relevant details becomes a tedious process.
“It comes down to education and awareness. Our friends have many questions, such as where to buy this dress or hire that decorator, but there’s just no ecosystem to provide the most relevant information,” says Leow. “So my wife and I decided to create this portal to help them make the best decision.”
The platform today actively plays a middleman role between vendors and the 300,000 or so soon-to-be-married couples who tie the knot in Malaysia each year. “Users can browse our site for free, and that will never change,” clarifies Leow. “We monetize through subscription fees paid by the merchants. We charge them a premium, and give them unlimited leads in return. They can also upload pictures and information to inspire readers to visit their profile page.”
There is also a freemium model through which vendors can give it a test run. However, they get a limited number of leads, as well as a cap on the amount of content they can publish on their profile page.
A treat for the eyes
Wedding.com.my was first born as an online directory, but the couple quickly found that it wasn’t really effective. At that time, US-based startups like The Knot and Lover.ly were rolling out their Pinterest-inspired designs, and upon studying these websites they decided that a visually-centered approach should be the way to go.
“We aim to be the website to go to when you want to get married,” says Leow. “Even if you’re not buying, we want you to view, discover and be inspired by what you see – through pictures and videos. This is why we injected a very strong ‘visual search’ element to our platform.”
The newly-revamped website was launched in September 2013, and currently sees about 100,000 visitors per month, with the number growing steadily month-on-month. Their audience largely consists of those in their twenties to thirties, though they have been surprisingly popular with girls aged 15 to 16. “I presume they’re starting to plan for their dream weddings,” he says with a shrug.
Leow attributes this popularity to the pleasing aesthetics of the website. At the beginning, he was stumped by the wide gap between US and Asian websites in terms of design. “We have a UX guy on our team, and he pointed out that it’s all the small things that count,” he says. “Minute details such as the resolution of images on the website make a huge difference to the user experience.”
For this reason, though vendors are encouraged to upload their own content, the team still makes it a point to ensure quality control. This has turned out to be a huge challenge for the team, as many vendors do not actively update their content. He elaborates:
You might come across a lovely picture of a photoshoot in the mountains and your first question would probably be, where was this taken? But you’ll never find out, because that’s all the vendor posts – a photo with no description whatsoever.
“So we hired a portal coordinator a couple of months back, whose job is basically to educate and encourage merchants to upload engaging content. She even has the license to call and scold merchants who don’t meet our standards,” he laughs.
Goh adds that the team have actually had to remove underachieving content, such as photos that have the vendor’s watermark splashed across the center.
Getting ahead of the competition
The wedding industry in Malaysia is very crowded – a simple search on Google will reveal a colorful variety of forums and portals in this space. Each of them, though, specialize heavily in their respective niches. Among their competitors, Planyourwedding.my and Weddings Malaysia come the closest. However, he is confident that Wedding.com.my has a clear advantage: their presence on the ground.
The wedding industry is pretty old-school – very few merchants are online. They do realize that it is important, but given the choice of spending US$1,500 to gain an online presence through our platform, or US$3,000 to get a booth at an exhibition, they will ultimately still go for the exhibition.
Realizing this, the team has forged close partnerships with three wedding fair organizers, who have run about 10 major events so far. Most recently, they were the official media partner for the KL Wedding Expo 2014 event. “We come on board as the official online media partner, and this way we are able to raise awareness of our platform,” Leow explains. “Each time, we are able to acquire between 500 to 1,000 new members at such events.”
While these numbers might seem small to the uninitiated, Leow emphasizes that the wedding market is relatively niche. In addition, members who are acquired via such events are highly valued as they are likely to be couples who are looking to get married in the near future.
“These members are highly targeted leads, and since they are on our platform, we become very attractive to vendors through them,” he says. “The numbers may not be large, but they still represent huge potential.”
At these events, the team also vigorously works the ground, asking consumers and vendors alike for information on who they perceive to be the best in the business. “Our current vendors come highly recommended by the community,” says Goh. “Many vendors actually request to be listed on our website, but for those without recommendations, we will do a survey first to see if they are reliable or credible.”
For each of the twenty categories that they have, the team shortlists at least ten of the best vendors. As of today, they have around 300 vendors on board.
Leow reveals that they manage to get good vendors on board by turning the recommendation process on its head. “We tell these vendors, ‘A lot of our members buy their jewelry from you and recommend your service – would you like to join us?’” He adds:
In this way, these vendors know that they are almost guaranteed positive reviews if they join our platform, and hence more likely to get a larger volume of referral business.
On the flipside, he was clear that they do not hesitate to remove vendors who don’t perform. He sees it as part of his responsibility to ‘walk the walk’ – that is, helping the community to pick the right merchants.
Besides partnerships with wedding fair organizers, the team also has strong partnerships with the local print media, such as bridal magazine Bridal Trend, which is one of Malaysia’s largest wedding magazines in Chinese. For the Malay community, they also have a tie-up with Persona Pengantin.
Enter social commerce
Come September this year, the team is looking to roll out what they’ve termed “social commerce” on the website. Why choose to call it social commerce, and not just ecommerce?
“Our business model is to harness engaging content to inspire readers, and then subsequently convert them into paying customers. This entire process is thus driven by recommendations, which people traditionally find out through word-of-mouth,” says Leow. “What we’re doing is to collect all these recommendations in a single online platform for couples to peruse, and from there, make the purchase. We’re bringing both the social and commerce aspects together.”
Once it is up and running, readers will be able to see what are the products and services that their friends use and recommend. If so desired, they can immediately make the purchase via the same platform.
From weddings to parenting
Ultimately, the duo’s vision is to guide women through the three key stages of their lives where they spend the most money: getting married, having a baby, and looking after a family. As such, Wedding.com.my is their foray into the first vertical, and they are looking to expand into the other two in the near future.
“While monetization is important, our broader goal is really to help women make the right choices at the important stages in life,” explains Leow.
People think that it’s a waste that we spend so much time and money acquiring a customer at the ‘wedding’ stage. However, our plan is to do a great job helping them at that stage in their lives, so when they move on to planning for motherhood and family, naturally they will look for us again.
With this in mind, Motherhood.com.my is currently in the works, and will be launching in August this year. As for the third vertical, Leow hopes to launch the final family-oriented website early next year, if all goes well.
In this respect, their greatest asset is their seed round strategic investor, whom Leow chose not to reveal. He did mention that the investor’s company owns more than 10 mother, baby, and parenting magazines across three languages locally.
“This partnership makes sense because he owns audiences in the more ‘conventional’ print media space, while we are in digital media,” he says.
Leow reveals that the team is planning to go regional in the third quarter of 2015, starting with Singapore and Indonesia . They are currently in the process of raising their series A funding round to help realize that goal, and have received positive feedback from potential investors thus far.