The secret sauce behind Unilad's viral empire and why it wants to go 'beyond being a broadcaster' on Facebook Live

The secret sauce behind Unilad's viral empire and why it wants to go 'beyond being a broadcaster' on Facebook Live

As Unilad takes the crown for most popular Facebook publisher of the year The Drum catches up with the site's co-founders to find out why it doesn't throw a lot of money on social and what it has planned for its 2017 live-streaming shakedown.

If you use Facebook on the regular, you’ve probably noticed Unilad popping up on your news feed at one point or another. Last week it was revealed that the viral behemoth had risen through the ranks to become the social network’s most popular publisher, pipping the likes of BuzzFeed’s cooking channel Tasty and even the Daily Mail to the post.

Thanks to the Unilad team’s dexterity for spotting viral gold dust at 10 paces the site has clocked up over 25bn video views across YouTube, Facebook, Vine and Instagram. With numbers like these you'd be forgiven for thinking there’s a mammoth team behind the media brand, but that’s not the case.

Since its launch in 2014 its founders Sam Bentley and Liam Harrington have watched the company, which posts a mixture of user-generated and self-made content, open offices in Manchester and London. Surprisingly, there are only about 12 staff focused solely on social for the core site.

Organic reach 'crucial'

Unilad was named the most popular Facebook publisher in 2016

What’s more curious though, is that Unilad doesn’t “throw money” at platforms like Facebook, instead relying on organic reach to build up views and engagement online.

“What we don’t have in money, we make up for with our social media vision and insight,” says Bentley, adding that in order to identify what will work for Gen Y, and on Facebook in general, the team is “militant” about the content it puts out there.

“Organic reach is crucial to our operation,” chips in Harrington, “it's vital that the audience buys into your content rather than you buying your audience. You get a far more truthful response and honest engagement that way.”

And while most media brands are waxing lyrical about what video overhauls they’re plotting for the year, Unilad says that when it comes to organic reach, it isn’t planning on changing course over the next 12 months. “It's simple – let your audience decide what they want to see,” says Harrington.

Harrington believes this philosophy of refraining to buy an audience or forcing things onto their feeds sets Unilad apart from other viral publishers, and for Unilad the proof lies in having an engaged readership, which also makes it very attractive to advertisers.

According to end of year data from CrowdTangle Unilad’s Facebook received close to one billion Facebook likes, comments and shares across its content in 2016, giving it a high ratio of engagements to its 25bn-strong video views. BuzzFeed’s Tasty platform clocked up 23bn video views online over the same time period according to video monitoring company Tubular Labs, but fans interacted with the videos at a slower rate of 6bn engagements.

Going Live

The publisher live-streamed the Homeless World Cup last year

One area of the media firm’s Facebook strategy that will be getting a bit of a revamp in the coming year is its approach to live-streaming, which so far has been focused on sport and live events. Unilad made history last year when it showcased the Homeless World Cup from Glasgow in real-time, and Harrington says its more recent broadcast of the BAMMA mixed marital arts show clocked up a "charming" 2.5m views.

This year, he says though, is "all about live," adding that the buzz around the ticking time bomb unsettles a lot of traditional media owners because of its capacity to change the market.

Unilad also wants to "go beyond being a broadcaster for the content," and get involved in the creation of the formats too.

"[We want to] make it more consumable for the online audience and also help marry brands with the format as well to generate revenue," asserts Harrington, teasing that there will be a few "huge" announcements from himself and Bentley in the next few months.

Bentley says that original content is also something high on the agenda, pointing to videos Unilad has made in-house around trending topics like the so-called killer clown craze and popular Snapchat filters.

He says the Gen Y publisher views itself as "pioneering how content is digested on social media," and that original content is one of the best ways to achieve that, however Harrington adds the licensing team will also be a significant growth area for the outlet.

Unilad has been criticised in the past for re-purposing content but its founders say that reaching out to content creators for permission is imperative and will be "a major part" of their plan to move the business, and whole industry, forward.

Staying cautious

The team's 2016 Christmas campaign for Manchester Dogs' Home

​That said, Harrington notes that when it comes to selecting advertisers to work with on video projects, as the site has done for the likes of Lionsgate's Dirty Grandpa movie, the Unilad team is still "extremely cautious," and that it can be a struggle when brands are reluctant to listen and try new things.

"My goal for 2017 is to try and educate as many execs as possible and show them how we can actually enhance the engagement and perception towards the brand we are working with."

In 2016 Bentley and Harrington realised that their audience had an appetite for more serious content and as such they doubled down on the work they share and produce around issues like men's mental health and animal rights.

The publisher's Christmas campaign for Manchester Dogs' Home was watched over 12m times, but for the duo, the power of getting serious is about more than likes or eyeballs.

"Donating is the next stage of engagement after liking and sharing a piece of content and we love using our platform for these types of positive causes as it makes the whole thing more worthwhile," says Bentley.

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