From modest beginnings as a Facebook page in 2012, LADbible has grown to reach a global audience approaching a billion, won multiple Cannes Lions awards, and has taken a dominant slice of the highly coveted youth demographic, claiming to reach two-thirds of 18-34 year olds in the UK.

In the process, it has transformed into a fully-fledged media group with titles including LADbible, UNILAD, Tyla, SPORTbible and GAMINGbible. At the end of 2021, it floated on the AIM stock market.

Yet for all its spectacular social media success, at heart LADbible retains elements that would be reassuringly familiar to traditional newspapers. Simon Binns, Group Managing Editor, explains how they have managed what so many traditional news outlets desperately want to achieve.

Simon Binns will speak at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Europe conference in Vienna on 26-27 April 2023.

WAN-IFRA: Let’s get straight to the point – where did it all go so…right?

Simon Binns: As a company, we’re 10 years old, and I’ve been here for five of them. So I’ve kind of seen half of what we’ve done, I suppose. It’s an enormous brand, which is very, very well known in the UK. And I think it’s kind of become a friend to people really.

Over the last few years, we’ve [all] had some really difficult times, and I think being a big social publisher, who understands and listens to an audience who’s going through something like a pandemic, or cost of living crisis, or whatever – I think there’s huge value in that.

What we’ve done really well, whether it’s through LADbible, or other brands in the group, is a bit of distraction as well. It makes them laugh, keeps them in touch with what’s going on, tells them what to watch on Netflix, and what everyone else is talking about. We’ve kind of been that relatable presence in their lives now for quite a long time.

We continue to listen to the audience. We care about the same things they care about. We reflect their own experiences back at them. And we get to be part of a big conversation rather than just telling them what to think. We’re part of their daily routine: hopefully a good one.

We see so many reports saying the youth market is turning its back on traditional news, yet you seem to manage to bridge both news and social. How do you manage that balancing act?

It’s about two things: we’re audience-lead, and we’re data-lead.

Being primarily social you’re in there with your audience all the time. So you get a really keen understanding of who they are, what they are, what they care about and what they don’t care about.

There’s this argument that young people don’t like news. Well, they do. They perhaps just don’t like it in the way you’re serving it to them. Or they don’t share the same traditional opinion that you have of what news actually is.

In a previous life I worked the food-and-drink desk, so I’m interested in when a restaurant opens. That’s news to me. People like soap operas. When a new character comes along that’s news to them.

Just because it’s not what you would find on the front page of a traditional broadsheet publisher, for example, doesn’t mean it isn’t news. You have to go to where your audience is.

I’ve got a 16-year-old daughter, and an 11-year-old son. I learn more about how young people consume content on a daily basis just by watching them than I do with any study that’s dropped into my inbox in the last 10 years. 

The smart publishers are the smart creators, and we are seeing a massive rise in the influence of creators in really important areas such as news, science, and business. They understand their audience, therefore their audience is attracted to them. 

We’re now the number one publisher on TikTok. And we’ve done that by adapting what we do to suit that platform. We don’t just throw out the same videos that we put on Facebook or Instagram. We don’t tell stories in the same way because it’s a different audience; almost like having four separate newspapers for four separate audiences or four separate TV programs.

For some people, news will be an app. For some people it will be a newspaper. And for some it will be a website. You can’t be too precious about what you are.

So, I don’t buy into this idea that young people don’t care about news. They’re well-informed, probably more than any generation that’s ever been, because they’re bombarded by information constantly, from all directions.

The thing to do to build trust with an audience is to be authentic and tell them what they want to know, the information they’re looking for, and be trusted, rather than just adding to the noise. Because there is a lot of noise.

How do you know what the audience wants to know? How do you choose what to cover?

We’ve got data, so why wouldn’t you use it? We understand the algorithms, the platforms we work with enough to know if the content we’re putting on there is successful. So we have very strict targets on what stays on Facebook, and what gets taken down. 

If we do a story about a big Netflix show, for example, and the audience likes it, well then obviously we’ll do another one. It’s common sense.

I think, as publishers, we’ve never been better informed to understand what our audiences like and what they don’t like. 

So is it just a question of constantly feeding the tigers with whatever seems to go down well?

As long as you don’t compromise your brand. You always have to hold the line of what you are, and the content pillars you have set in stone. We are still human driven. We’ve got about 50 journalists also working across the editorial stable and they bring their expertise.

So, it’s a mix of people and data. 

But the data will often help to tell you what you’re doing wrong, what isn’t working. You intuitively know what’s good, but what the data is really, really good at is showing you something that you didn’t really know your audience cared about.

Like personal finance: if someone had told me five years ago that LADbible would be writing about mortgages and personal finance I would have thought they were mad. But it’s the world we live in, young people are really interested because it affects their everyday life. 

They want to know what’s going to happen to their wages, they want to know if they can buy a house. Young people are under pressure financially. The youth audience is really interested in the world around them and publishers have to understand their concerns and be there with them, helping them.

Are the key metrics studied centrally, or is everyone involved watching them? How do you share what works and what doesn’t?

Everybody is watching metrics on some level, although those metrics might be different depending on what you do and who you are.

We have a live board with the numbers on so we can see what the audience is reading at any one time. So everyone knows what’s going on and when. We post on Facebook at certain times; we run a schedule as you would if you’re a TV station or radio station, but we’re also really alive to breaking news. We’re really reactive. 

We have daily reports, we gather around the table every day to discuss what we did the previous day, and we share our successes as a group. We have internal messaging systems that we put our big wins on.

We have a company newsletter every Friday, where we put our audience highlights. It’s not a numbers culture, but if you’re sat there plugging away for 40 hours a week it’s certainly nice to know how you’re doing.

In some ways it’s a jarringly traditional newsroom setup. On a typical day me and editors are sat around the desk looking at screens. The writers are sat near us, writing. The subs are sat down the road doing what they do.

I like to think what LADbible does really well is, we have people who are very, very skilled at understanding individual social platforms. And they’re very, very skilled at understanding what an audience wants. 

What are your key formats?

We have an “originals” team and they produce longer-form content just for YouTube. By longer form, I mean 15-16 minutes, that will occasionally get cut down into a 30 second clip for Instagram or TikTok. Or it might get cut down for a 30 second clip in a story where we write around it. 

We have video editors who are working on various video edits for the various platforms.

What we don’t want is for the YouTube team to make a great piece of content but one that only ever lives on YouTube. We take clips out and stick that on Instagram, because it’s gonna have a big impact there.

So we’re looking at all this content and thinking, “How do we make it sweat? How do we make it work across all these platforms with their different audiences?”

That’s the skill.

Where does the income come from, to pay for all this work?

We make money in a variety of ways. There’s display advertising around editorial and web, and programmatic for the pre-roll stuff before videos.

We also monetise the content we put directly on social. So a Facebook video will earn you money, the longer that audience watches it for. 

We’re waiting for monetisation to be part of what Instagram and TikTok do because we’ve built up a big audience on those platforms.

YouTube is monetisable. If you can crack the formula of what YouTube wants and understand the algorithm, then that’s an incredibly profitable source. 

We have a lot of big commercial clients that we work with on sponsored content. We work with very big, very well-known names such as McDonald’s, Tesco, Nando’s, and the British Army.

In this age when you’re talking about revenue diversification, it’s a good thing. We’ve been careful to make sure we were doing that so we’re not relying on one particular thing for either audience or revenue.

We’ve tried to diversify out in terms of what we do, whether it’s across the portfolio of brands, or where we get our audience from, or where we get our revenue from.

I don’t know if there is a most important stream of revenue, because one kind of begets the other.

There’d be no point for us having loads of big commercial branded clients if we didn’t have a big social audience to talk to. So the fact that we speak to so many people a day, and that we’re so skilled at finding that audience, is what makes us attractive to big brands.

One thing that might surprise outsiders is that despite the name, LADbible has about 40% female readership. How do you achieve that?

Obviously, we’ve got Tyla, which is a female focused brand in the group. And we’ve got lots of senior females in the business. It’s something we’ll always have an eye on, in terms of making sure that we have a good level of diversity in the business that represents the audience. 

We look at the way that we cover women’s sport now, for example, and the rise of women’s football. And we’ll never stop working to make sure we’re bringing the kind of quality our audience wants – and the subjects they care about – in the way that they should be spoken about. 

So, looking forward, what comes next?

Social platforms will change. If you look at the rise of TikTok and how popular that platform has become, you’ve seen Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as well move towards short form video. So that’s kind of the battleground.

What will come next? I don’t know. We have a team that works on Metaverse stuff.

We always try to be 18 months to two years ahead of where platforms and the audience are going. So we’ve got teams looking at augmented reality stuff and how we might play into that space in terms of content. Do we put additional content there, or do we just have a presence there as a connector of communities? 

Previously it was so expensive to buy a VR headset. That barrier has been removed now. So we’re watching carefully what’s going to be the movement of the audience into the Metaverse space, and what they will expect when they get there.

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