Through responsible coronavirus coverage, LadBible aims to show its growing maturity

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

LadBible's London office

If there was a moment when LadBible really grew up, it was when the World Health Organisation chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu praised the British social publisher for its role in fighting the spread of Covid-19.

The man coordinating the global response to the virus went out of his way to applaud LadBible’s ‘Cutting Through’ campaign, which features advice from WHO experts. “So glad to see @ladbible’s ‘Cutting Through’ campaign which will provide important advice to be safe from #COVID19,” tweeted Dr Tedros last week. “It’s so important that we’re all guided by facts, not fear, in this fight.”

The global health chief’s endorsement of a media brand that came to prominence by promoting male student banter was, in the eyes of one Twitter user, “the most 2020 thing I’ve seen”.

It’s the sheer scale of LadBible’s reach to young audiences that means the WHO takes it seriously. Since taking over rival social publisher Unilad 18 months ago, LadBible Group has this field largely to itself. LadBible co-founder Solly Solomou says it reaches 140 million followers across all platforms. It has become less reliant on Facebook and grown its presence on Instagram and TikTok. Importantly, it now has 70 million monthly visitors to its owned-and-operated website, he says, making it the ninth busiest in the UK.

But if LadBible is to continue to grow it will need more than audience scale on social media. It’s all very well generating 11 billion engagements, but the publisher knows it needs more than likes if it’s to reach its commercial potential. This is why LadBible Group has created its first executive board, with Colin Gottlieb, the former chief of Omnicom Media Group as chief growth officer. Tim Croston joins as an experienced chief finance officer from Nichols plc, producer of Vimto.

“What LadBible Group has done is they have created something which is fiendishly difficult,” says Gottlieb. “They have done the hardest thing, which is to create a huge audience that is deeply engaged, well-segmented and global.”

LadBible’s income comes principally from branded content, display ads on its website and video revenues from its Facebook traffic. To achieve its potential it needs first-party data. It sees opportunities in 5G’s impact on video streaming on mobile. It could adopt a ‘C2B’ capability of using its vast following to identify products and services which young people want and take that insight to manufacturers. It also wants to empower its followers in their career journeys.

Solomou announced the appointments and new relationship-based strategy to the company’s 250 staff in town hall talks at the Manchester and London offices. “The top of the mountain – where we want to go – is building those deeper relationships with our audience,” he tells The Drum. “That could be through events, it could be audio, it could be features within apps.”

His inspiration for growth is the success of cycling-based platforms such as Strava, Zwift and Komoot, which he admires for their ability to build communities beyond the digital space. He is in training for a “sportive” long-distance cycling event across rural Oxfordshire and is signed up to Strava’s premium subscription service. LadBible could benefit from similar relationships, he believes. “There are things that you enjoy as a sports fan, a cyclist, a gamer – whether it’s attending an event or being part of a competition.”

Still only eight years old, LadBible is looking to mature as a media business. “We entertain our audience, we generate experiences, we empower them, on all of those things how do we make that better?” asks Solomou. “It’s a difficult challenge we are setting ourselves. We feel we have a good relationship with our audience but we want to understand further their behaviours, wants and needs.”

The responsible coronavirus coverage is essential to LadBible’s need to be trusted by its young users so that they allow the media brand to have a greater role in their lives.

In launching ‘Cutting Through’ last week, LadBible – a brand that became famous off the back of making light-hearted user-generated videos go viral – said it would be putting “cold objectivity” before the “pursuit of clicks and views on social media”, even though it admitted: “We recognise that we are a big part of that industry.”

Solomou recognises that alarm and uncertainty surrounding the crisis will allow some publishers to exploit the situation for gains in traffic. “If you were looking at it in a very cynical manner a lot of people will be wanting to know more about what’s going on in the world and will be very scared – and people will be capitalising on that fear,” he says. “We would prefer [to focus on] positive emotions, providing people with facts and trying to alleviate pressure and stress is something we would prefer to do. Those are the long-term relationships we want to build.”

The approach has not gone unnoticed. “Things are really serious,” commented Jim Waterson, media editor of The Guardian. “LadBible and UniLad announce they won’t chase clicks on coronavirus stories.”

While 18-24-year-old Gen Zers (among whom LadBible claims an 82% reach in the UK) are considered to be at relatively low risk from coronavirus, there is a danger that complacency might mean they take the threat insufficiently seriously. They also get a lot of news from social media.

Solomou says it’s important that LadBible readers are “properly informed” and that online myths are busted because “there are all sorts of rumours and crazy things going around right now”.

This new maturity doesn’t mean LadBible is to abandon its reputation for fun and attempt to mimic the gravitas of the Washington Post. Solomou says LadBible can serve its audience best in this crisis by providing the WHO’s advice alongside its usual diet of humorous videos and ‘Daily Ladness’ stories of inspiring young men. “Our brief to the team is that this is going to be a very difficult time for a lot of people and there is going to be a lot of boredom. I am sure working from home will be a great thing initially, but you can start to get frustrated. We can bring a smile to people’s faces with the day-to-day stuff that we do.”

‘News’ is one of LadBible’s two main verticals, alongside ‘Entertainment’. As a news brand, LadBible makes an assumption that many of its audience will not be news junkies. It introduces its news output with the question: “Have you ever had a conversation about politics, current affairs or the latest news and you realise that you don’t know anything about it all?” Its answer is: “Don’t worry lads, we’ve got it covered.”

Sober and fact-based coverage of coronavirus is in line with a succession of recent LadBible campaigns aimed at emphasising the platform’s sense of social responsibility. Its campaigns for greater awareness on male suicide, mental health, plastic pollution and gambling addiction are aimed at changing attitudes among millennial and Gen Z men (and the many women who also see LadBible content). It also reassures commercial partners that the platform’s reach to young audiences doesn’t come with inherent brand safety risks. It produced 190 branded content pieces in 2019, for clients including The Army, Guinness, Heinz and Smirnoff (with whom it has a long- running partnership).

In the short time since it was created by Solomou (then a student at Leeds University) and co- founder Arian Kalantari, LadBible has gone through major upheavals. Senior advisers have come and gone. The platform has proliferated with new brands SportsBible, GamingBible and female- oriented Tyla (previously known as Pretty 52). After a protracted hostility and legal disputes, the rival Unilad was bought for £5m of acquired debt in 2018. In the merged operation Unilad, focuses more on music and technology, with LadBible producing more long-form content. Last year, LadBible Group set up new operations in Ireland and Australia.

The company made a profit of £3.6m on sales of £20.4m in 2018, according to accounts filed at Companies House. For a platform of such scale, it’s a relatively modest return.

“We know it’s not going to be simple,” says Solomou of the task of properly monetising so many lads. “It’s going to take time and effort from everyone across the business.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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