Features

How a ‘gender neutral’ Ladbible will fit into the Australian publishing landscape

Mumbrella's Josie Tutty talks to Ladbible's founder and CEO 'Solly' Solomou about the publisher's Australian expansion, and considers how the Facebook-friendly brand will fit into the current landscape.

When Mumbrella revealed Ladbible was set to launch in Australia, the reception was mixed. The news had broken amid rounds of redundancies at Vice, Buzzfeed and Verizon. A year before, HuffPost Australia’s joint venture with Fairfax Media had come to an end.

Then, just a few weeks after the news broke, HT&E announced it was shutting Techly and Lost at E Minor, as Conversant Media folded into ARN. In short, the publishing landscape was looking bleak, and digital publishers were no longer looking on pityingly at print: they too were being thrown into the wreckage.

So speaking to the Facebook-centric publisher’s founder and CEO Alexander ‘Solly’ Solomou at the team’s shared office space in Darlinghurst, Sydney, it felt strange — and rather refreshing — to hear some optimism.

“For us, it’s a fantastic opportunity,” says Solomou, who founded the company in 2011 and has been at the helm ever since. “We have work that we’re already doing in the market, but we’d like to build on that.”

In order to integrate into Australia’s youth media space — which Solomou admits “feels fairly small” — LadBible’s approach will be to build the team slowly but surely.

“We’re building a small team of eight people. It’s very much going to be about learning about the audience: how we adapt what we do content wise, how we adapt what we do commercially, very much put one foot in front of the other.”

Ladbible’s Solomou: ‘We’re going to do this in our own way’

The approach contrasts with other international publishers’ Australian offices, including Buzzfeed and Vice, which were able to build larger teams, no doubt bolstered by significant funding rounds from the US.

In early 2018, Buzzfeed had 20 staff members in the commercial team alone. Vice Media’s Australian arm had approximately 50 staff — several of whom are expected to be made redundant following the company cutting 10% of its workforce globally.

“We’re not coming here, putting 50 people on the ground and making a big splash,” says Solomou.

“We’re going to do this in our own way — we’re going to invest in this. We’re not launching in 20 markets at the same time, so it’s important for us to make this work.”

Despite only opening its office a few months back, Ladbible already has an Australian presence that it has been gradually building from the UK.

“We already have a huge audience here. The big thing for us is understanding how we translate that knowledge and that audience to the brands and people that we work with commercially, and how we educate them on how they connect with our audience.”

Part of that education will come from persuading commercial partners that Ladbible is a brand safe proposition, and that ‘lad’ is no longer a dirty word. There was a time when a ‘lad’ was a bloke who loved Jagerbombs, stealing traffic cones and repeatedly using the word ‘banter’.

As Vice UK’s Clive Martin succinctly put it in a piece in 2015:

“The Uni Lads were as maligned and debated a group as there has ever been in this country. A stateless band of no-ideologues, pumped full of supermarket lager, and drunk on creatine. They sang on buses and pissed on war memorials; they studied in the day and chugged their own piss in the evening.”

Solomou is on a mission to rebrand the lad, starting with its gender.

“The change in information flow to the younger generations has started to change their mindset. They’re much more aware of things such as mental health, such as the environment, and the genders are much closer together.

“I think if you ask a 16-year-old what a lad is, I think it would be very different to what maybe 40 or 50 year old may perceive it to be.”

Overall, Ladbible’s audience split falls 56% male, 44% female. However, Solomou points out that in Australia, it’s actually the reverse, with a slightly bigger female audience.

“If you ask different people you may get different things but, for us, we’re on a bit of a mission to educate the older generations on what the new generations think a lad is. It is gender neutral.”

Sticking with Facebook

There’s no denying that Ladbible is a giant on Facebook, and its Australian audience share is no exception. Solomou claims the publisher has a bigger market share of Australians than it does in the UK: “Nearly half of all Australians are consuming our content every single month. We get around 2.4m unique visitors to our website from Australia and around 11m people consuming our content either reading or watching via Facebook, Instagram et cetera.”

When Facebook changed its algorithm in January 2018, it de-prioritised news in favour of posts from friends. For many publishers — including Mumbrella — the response has been to gradually shift from an over-reliance on social and towards more stable, reliable traffic generators including search engine optimisation and email.

It’s a move Facebook itself has encouraged, with news partnership lead Andrew Hunter telling 2018’s Publish conference that it doesn’t make sense for publishers to build their businesses off the platform.

That’s not the case for Ladbible. The publisher is doubling down on social, and ensuring it keeps Facebook on side. And judging by the numbers, its persistence is paying off.

“We’ve got a fantastic relationship with Facebook,” says Solomou. “We meet with them regularly and understand what their initiatives are, what they’re trying to achieve.

“Ultimately, every change that they make is to benefit the user, and to make the user experience better. For us it’s something we’ve got to always be aware of. Things may change, but we usually look on the positive side of it. It’s usually to benefit the user, and therefore we need to adapt what we do.”

“Facebook is still one of the fastest growing platforms on the market,” he adds. “So for us it’s certainly not somewhere which we’ll be stepping away from. If anything, we’ll be leaning in more.”

A large proportion of Ladbible’s output are videos – an essential ingredient for any publisher looking for success on Facebook.

A quick sample of its Australian page reveals a video of a girl with pythons for pets, a compilation of golden retrievers, and a bunch of commenters realising that pufferfish are full of water, not air. A video of a woman trying to get into Spanx has 48 million views.

“We’ve always found the most important thing is to listen and learn,” says Solomou when asked if Facebook’s algorithm changes had any effect on Ladbible’s traffic. “What’s happening with the platform, what are they trying to do in order to change it?

“Up until about five, six years ago, [Facebook] didn’t even have video content on the platform. When they did bring video onto the platform, we were very quick to adapt and bring video on board. We saw that by understanding what the platforms are trying to do, you can exponentially benefit from that.

“We always had that listen and learn approach. All the way through the different changes that have happened, we’ve always come out on the right side of it.”

When the algorithm changes hit, Solomou claims Ladbible “didn’t actually see much of an effect”.

“We’ve always focused on engagement and creating engaging content that people are going to share. For us, we didn’t see a huge impact in those changes. Some people may not adapt, other people will benefit.”

One of the most common criticisms thrown at Ladbible is its tendency to replicate content already published elsewhere.

“We like anyone else break news that several different providers put out,” Solomou explains when asked about this common refrain. “So when the Daily Mail puts out a post, the Guardian are also reporting on the same story, and we’re all going through the same news wires as each other.

“So there’s no doubt about it, there’s definitely replication and people telling the same story. I think that’s happened for years. Newspapers have also done the same.”

Original content is one way to avoid such replication, with the founder pointing to Ladbible’s original videos as a prime example of the kind of content it wants to move towards.

“I guess for us we’ve started to move into the original space more and more so, and take that learning from the 300 posts that we do each day.”

He points to a video piece in which a Ladbible journalist attempted to replicate Mark Wahlberg’s 4am workout routine.

“As we move forward we’re taking our insight from what’s going on in the world and producing amazing piece of content like that, which differentiates our tone and the types of content that we produce from other people.”

Outside of Facebook, Ladbible is currently exploring other social media platforms: “We also have invested heavily into Instagram — which of course is owned by Facebook — but we see it as a platform that is growing exponentially and has a huge audience base,” says Solomou.

“Snapchat is exciting… I believe we’re the fastest growing Snapchat Discovery Channel that they’ve had on the platform.”

Returning a profit

Ladbible’s revenue streams are made up of a combination of display ads, branded content, and owning the rights to viral videos.

“The ways which [Ladbible] monetises include our website, where we get 50 million unique visitors a month,” says Solomou. “It’s still a very good source of income for us. We have a huge audience base on there which brands still want to connect with.

“What’s interesting about the Australian market is that digitally it’s still very display heavy, which is great for us, because we have big audiences that they can reach on that.”

Another stream comes from branded content, which is offered alongside the publisher’s social agency, Joyride. Brands such as Diageo are already on board.

“We’re taking our knowledge on platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and of course the website, taking those learnings and bringing them to the market,” explains Solomou.

A third stream comes from licensed video content, which the publisher purchases directly from its audience, and licenses out to TV shows or other publishers. Solomou puts the number of licensed videos the publisher owns at around 75,000.

While Solomou claims Ladbible Group “has always been profitable”, the same cannot be said for once-time rival publisher Unilad, which went into administration in October 2018.

Unilad sold £5 million of debt to Ladbible before it went into administration, putting Ladbible into pole position when it came to takeover discussions. The group purchased the brand soon after, saving 200 jobs in London and Manchester.

Now that Unilad is an integrated brand within Ladbible Group, it too will have a presence in Australia.

“Unilad and Ladbible have been fighting for that number one spot since the beginning of the company,” says Solomou. “We’ve always been a secret admirer of what they’ve done creatively.

“They’ve created amazing brands within the market that appeal to subjects that we as Ladbible Group don’t cover.

“When the opportunity came to purchase Unilad, it was an absolute no brainer. When that happened, it was a massive win for us. They have brought to the table a huge audience in America that we don’t have.”

But while Unilad’s engagement metrics on social media are undeniable, the viral brand’s ability to return a profit is much less certain.

“They’ve done a fantastic job of building their audience,” says Solomou. “[Ladbible] has always been profitable since day one and we’re not the types of people to invest beyond our means. So for us a big focus is on getting Unilad to be profitable, and taking the principles we’ve learnt into what they’ve done.”

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