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August 18, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:13am

Ladbible editorial strategy boss says ‘innate understanding’ of youth audience has led to continued growth

By Charlotte Tobitt

Ladbible has harnessed its “innate understanding” of young audiences to keep growing and stay ahead of the field as new platforms such as Tiktok emerge, according to its new head of editorial strategy.

Noting the journey from viral Facebook publishers to a “fully-fledged news operation”, Jon Birchall, who joined in April after seven years at Reach mainly leading its sport coverage, said Ladbible and its sister brands – including Unilad, Gamingbible, Sportbible and the female-focused Tyla – pursue a mixture of entertainment and the hard news that matters most to young people.

Birchall (pictured) told Press Gazette: “It’s telling really important stories, but doing it in a way that will resonate and speak to our audience and respect our audience. It is a youth audience but they care about these things as much as any other demographic.”

He said he had been “impressed” prior to joining the group by “how the brands spoke to youth audiences, which is a challenge… that a lot of the major publishers and broadcasters have come up against”.

Ladbible news focus is driving growth

For example, a mixture of stories like the cost of living crisis, the overturning of abortion law Roe v Wade in the US, and Glastonbury helped Ladbible grow by 36% in June compared to May. This made it the fastest-growing brand in Press Gazette’s monthly ranking of the top 50 UK news sites.

Birchall said the growth had been the culmination of hard work, including tweaks to Facebook posting and breaking news combined with the “innate understanding” the relatively young team has of their audiences.

He added: “I think especially over the last couple of years… the brands and the editors have really recognised that we’ve got a more mature place in the market. The challenge around the cost of living, for example, has an impact on our readers’ lives, and if they’re talking about it and they’re caring about it so do we.”

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This meant, he said, the brand recognises “that yes, some people do want light-hearted, funny viral things, which I’d say Lad covers better than anyone in the world – but equally the same people who might be talking to their friends at the pub or whatever about that story also have real challenges or real concerns about the world around them, and for us it’s how do we reflect that? How do we tell those stories in a way that is meaningful for them and actually useful for them?”

Ladbible’s Tiktok presence and youth appeal

The Ladbible Group brands collectively reach two-thirds of 18 to 34-year-olds in the UK, according to Birchall.

But he said they try to be welcoming to audiences of all demographics who are interested in their stories: “We are a youth publisher but we also now have such scale that we really try and speak to anyone and everyone we can.”

Ladbible’s understanding of young audiences means that when something new takes off among other publishers, like video platform Tiktok, where half of news audiences are aged between 16 and 24, the group is “already there”, Birchall said. “We’re not necessarily chasing the rest of the pack.”

But equally they are not chasing new platforms for the sake of it. For example, Birchall said the team had looked at Be Real, the new photo-sharing app that encourages users to share glimpses of their "real life" with their friends each day, but decided not to join – although he could not say if that might change in the future.

"I think it's safe to say we will only ever look at distributing our content on any platform if we were confident that we would do it in a way that felt legitimate with our audience and felt we had some kind of authority there," he said.

Facebook still core to Ladbible content

Despite the growth in platforms like Tiktok and Snapchat, Facebook remains the biggest audience driver for Ladbible's brands, as it does for many publishers. Despite its reputation for losing touch with young audiences, Ofcom research shows Facebook is still used as a news source by 22% of 12 to 15-year-olds in the UK, although this is behind Instagram, Tiktok and Youtube.

Asked how Ladbible Group copes with having – as many publishers do – a reliance on the whims and algorithms of social media platforms, Birchall said it was the "nature of the beast" and the reason why focusing on engagement is so important.

"If we build a strong enough relationship over time, and if we're really trying to cultivate that relationship, we'd like to think that regardless of an algorithm change we're in a really strong position because people love our brands, people love the content that we do, and that's the one thing that does typically survive and stand up to any kind of algorithm change that comes," he said.

So what's next for the Ladbible brands? Since Birchall arrived, he said, the aim is "constantly trying to get better, but also [to] diversify", including by working on boosting engagement, looking at new areas of coverage, and working on new ways to reach audiences using SEO and on social platforms.

Ladbible started life in 2012 as a Facebook page posting shareable user-generated content. It saw similar viral success to then rival Unilad, which launched in 2010 as a Facebook group but entered administration in 2018 before being saved by Ladbible Group, which became what it described as the "largest social video publisher ever".

The two brands remain distinct, however: Birchall said Ladbible is more UK-focused and looks at "day-to-day issues that people face alongside conversations that they'd have with their friends", while Unilad "looks at things through a slightly more global lens and tries to be a little bit of a window to the world to explain what's going on behind the news and behind the stories".

Ladbible owner LBG Media has continued to grow financially, debuting on the London Stock Exchange in December, although the share price has dropped by 42%, from £2 at the end of its first day to £1.16 now. The publisher grew revenue by 81% to £54.5m in 2021, with pre-tax profits almost doubling to £8.1m. Revenue growth has continued so far this year.

Press Gazette is hosting the Future of Media Technology Conference. For more information, visit NSMG.live

Picture: Ladbible Group

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