8Bit’s on a mission to empower SA’s indie publishers and beyond


8Bit Media has been extremely busy in the past six months. In between 88mph’s accelerator programme, founder Tom Kennedy and his significant other having their first kid, and successfully pitching at Net Prophet’s SparkUp Live, the startup has been adding a host of new features and is constantly expanding its vision of empowering local independent publishers. With a cool new tool called 8Bit Engage, the company is currently helping local indie sites promote each other’s content and boost impressions, and its crusade has been nothing short of exciting.

Kennedy is also the co-founder of local events and culture site Don’t Party, which means that he’s well aware of the difficulties in running an independent publishing company in South Africa.

There’s a sort of apprehension when it comes to media buyers dealing with indie bloggers, Kennedy explains. “Bloggers have these huge audiences but many don’t even know how to run the technical side of things,” Kennedy says. The teams are too small to house the skills necessary to know which numbers to sell and how.

This is where the inspiration for 8Bit Engage came in. Currently in beta and used by 12 sites like One Small Seed, Bandwidth Blog, MyCityByNight, and HumanIPO, 8Bit Engage is a content recommendation plugin that (independent or part of a network of sites) suggests articles to the reader. Think nRelate for local independent publishers with unique features added like neat analytics tools.

“Back in the day, when I started blogging, it was sort of like a community. Today everyone is about being competitive, but the sites we’ve been working with are all part of a community. Smaller independent publishers have to band together to survive,” Kennedy explains.

Under one umbrella

Based on time, social and general engagement, 8Bit’s system automatically works out sites’ top content and shares impressions across the network. For instance, MyCityByNight gives 200 000 impressions to the network, and the network gives 200 000 impressions back — driving traffic from one site to the next by promoting posts that picks up traction. It’s tit-for-tat really.

Engage currently process 6-million article recommendations from around the 12 sites with around 1-million impressions per month. “We want to empower creators by giving a tool which would blast their content out to new but relevant audiences,” explains Kennedy.


This is where content branding also steps in. Advertisers will eventually be able to get in on the action by having their content promoted as one of the recommended articles. Kennedy explains some of the reasons why indie publishers are making so little dough:

“One of the problems many of these indie outlets face, is they’re not taken seriously enough. They might have the user numbers to sell to the agencies but too often settle for a lot less. It’s frustrating because these blogs are extremely influential and the problem is they’ll often settle for a pair of nice shoes, an event launch party, instead of getting paid what their space is really worth.”

At the moment, if you want to be taken seriously by an agency, you’ll have to guarantee them that you’ll be able to redirect X amount of traffic to their site. They want very specific feedback. 8Bit can, by banding all the sites’ most popular or trending posts together, sell hefty impressions to agencies. The revenue made would then be split equally between all the sites in the network.

SA’s media landscape

“Still, even when presenting all the stats, there’s an uphill battle with agencies… but we’ve started making headway,” Kennedy says. “In SA, we have have one of the weirdest media landscapes in the world where these monopolies are formed by big media companies which control an estimated 70% of the local digital spend,” says Kennedy.

According to recent reports by PwC, the SA internet advertising market is expected to generate revenues of R3.7-billion in 2017, up from R1.2-billion in 2012. The biggest chunk of of this spending goes to the sites owned by multinational giant Naspers which owns roughly 30 online sites, many of which are well established.

Comparing to other plugins like Disqus, Outbrain or nRelate, publishers don’t usually get the same kind of analytics. More importantly however, sites using 8Bit’s services are able to provide their users with relevant content based on their geography. “8Bit tries and keep readers within the site or the network the site belongs to,” Kennedy notes.

Most suggested posts used by the majority of the sites today display random, Americanised and thus irrelevant content to local users. 8Bit’s changing that.


An example of Disqus being used by a local site.
Run by Kennedy and CTO Richard Huth, the company has been operating since October, and started 8Bit Engage in February. Originally, Kennedy and Huth were working on a social bookmarking service that’s been in the pipeline for the last eight years. It was only when he joined 88mph’s Accelerator Programme that he started 8Bit, which is basically an extension of the initial concept.

“We had to present at Demo Day and didn’t want to be an ad network just because it’s so boring. So we decided on building 8Bit and it sort of got a life of its own,” he explains.

“It was three months of intense work,” Kennedy says referring to the accelerator programme. The morning after Demo Day, Kennedy’s first son was born. The phrase “I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown” was thrown around quite a lot, he says, and a few months later he had to pitch at Net Prophet’s big SparkUp Live event.

Kennedy says that “After the success of SparkUp Live, sh*t just went crazy!” With the recognition and mentorship gained from both events 88mph and SparkUp Live, 8Bit has scooped up a total of six investors from all around the world. The latter saw the startup secure R500 000 in investment. A rather big boost of confidence for a few months old product.

When asked about the most significant lesson learned thus far, Kennedy says that for startups in general, it doesn’t work just sitting on a business idea in stealth mode. “We’ve faffed around not taking things seriously. Getting yourself out there is important. The sooner you start going to all the events, networking or joining programmes, the sooner you’ll start getting crucial feedback and encouragement,” Kennedy explains. “At SparkUp, for instance, meeting all those other startups and the sharing of knowledge were very important,” he says.

Future endeavours

As mentioned above, 8Bit’s been super busy. “That’s the thing with startups. We just realise things and run after them like a dog with a bone. We’re very reactionary,” Kennedy says.

8Bit’s also working on an indie news aggregator called The Drop, which is going to be sort of like Media24’s MyEdit but backing the independent publishers instead. “We have all this info, so we quickly realised that we’re basically creating an index of all the content and data,” Kennedy says. Aggregator tools are excellent platforms which bundle all these sites together to be then leveraged as more presentable numbers to bring big brands on board.

The Drop is just the proof of concept of an API 8Bit’s working on for iOS and Android. The aggregator will be a separate entity and run on 8Bit’s API Suite. Readers will be able to interact, share and save posts on the app which will further help 8Bit create user profiles and tailored content.

“We’re trying to create a new funnel, sort of like a new RSS stream that’s categorised, ranked, content-based, social relevant,” explains Kennedy. Brands and publishers will eventually be able to create there own apps, and populate them as they feel fit. The apps can source content based on keywords, date range, or social impressions for instance.

Kennedy says that he’s in talks with other partners helping him expand 8Bit’s market into Nigeria, Kenya and Denmark. This is good news for 8Bit as its shooting below the radar of all the big international guys that are operating in New York and London.

Jacques Coetzee: Staff Reporter


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