The case of Unilad and how social media use is changing

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Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have derailed and dominated our attention for decades – but a groundswell of discontent could mean they’re on the way out

By now, you will most likely have heard about Unilad – the online publisher of viral content – and the announcement that it is going into administration.

Given Unilad is one of Facebook’s biggest pages, it’s a surprise development. The site was ranked 7th for global engagements as recently as July, alongside the likes of the BBC and the New York Times – not bad for a website created less than 10 years ago by two students.

2018 has not, however, been kind.

Algorithm changes have eaten away at impressions. Interactions have noticeably sloped off since January, and it’s not clear how well Unilad’s business model is equipped to deal with a changing climate. Meanwhile, more adaptable competitors such as LadBible are moving in for the kill. Strong market share won’t save a site racked by unserviceable debts and apparent mismanagement.

Given the fate that has befallen other former big hitters, publishers who rely on social media need to be on their guard.

LittleThings built a company with hundreds of employees by riding a wave of Facebook popularity. But failure to diversify saw all this come crashing down at the most recent swath of adjustments to the news feed’s formula.

Changing algorithms, changing behaviour 

Algorithm changes aren’t the only pressure publishers have had to contend with this year.

Once all-conquering and all-encompassing, attitudes towards social media are shifting. Research from the US suggests 42% of Facebook users have taken a break from the site in the past year. What’s more, 44% of 18-29 year olds have deleted the Facebook app on their phones altogether in the same period, suggesting enthusiasm for the platform is cooling off among a formerly prime audience.

Photo: Unilad

Indeed, users are starting to treat social media as a kind of dubious guilty pleasure rather than part and parcel of everyday life. Initiatives such as ‘Scroll Free September’ demonstrate how audiences are trying to snap the cord between them and the web’s constant content bombardment. Government regulators are encouraging the initiative, arguing that online overindulgence is a public health issue.

It’s a veritable pincer movement for publishers who have made their name on social media, caught between ebullient platforms and skeptical users.

It has the whiff of a pivotal moment for content and content marketers.

Natural selection?

Unilad and similar brands have flourished thanks in part to the compelling and addictive ways of social media scrolling. But while Unilad found a way to monetise the Wild West of social media, what happens when users simply opt out?

In other words, if users become conscious of their bondage, are social media and publishers doomed?

Well, no. How we engage with social media, and the channels we choose to engage with, may indeed be entering a transitional period – but this looks more like evolution than extirpation.

WeChat’s all-conquering integration into everyday Chinese life is an example of this, using QR codes to lubricate offline consumption of goods (like food) as well as online consumption of services (like content).

But, for content creators wondering what’s next, it’s a crucial moment to take stock.

B2Bers may have more reason to be optimistic than most.

B2C vs. B2B

In B2C, where huge audiences can be built on single platforms, the social media pinch is certainly being felt.

Although appealing to smaller social audiences, B2B publishers have a wider pool of channels to choose from. LinkedIn is the natural habitat of the B2B social media user, with clearly defined types of content able to reach across niche markets.

And, increasingly, new platforms are getting in on the act. Instagram’s community of business users grew by over 10 million in the second half of 2017 alone.

Many B2C publishers have built their brands around social and are now watching them wither in the heat of change. Meanwhile, B2B brands are used to more closed, less volatile audiences. They know who they’re reaching out for already and where they’re located.

This last point is crucial when thinking about the road ahead. Clients might flirt with the idea of investing more in social traffic to give their referral data a shot in the arm. But with the allure of a high-quality closed audience on their side, B2B businesses should resist caving in.

Where B2B wins out

In the world of vanity metrics, volume speaks volumes. But audiences are more nuanced than this – as anyone with a passing acquaintance to the world of insight can tell you.

Think about channels in terms of quality over quantity. On the B2B side, a few thousand engaged users across a couple of choice platforms, nudged towards converting via well-placed content. Meanwhile in B2C, a less specialised audience, multiplied by a factor of ten, reliant on fickle ad revenue and sponsored content to save the day.

Listen carefully to your advertisers and clients next time they call, and you may detect an unspoken sigh at the inability of B2B publishers to achieve the same mass appeal as their B2C equivalents. But the former shouldn’t fall into the trap of copying the latter, as exemplified by Unilad’s tribulations amid the ever-changing face of social media.

The message? Don’t compromise. If B2B brands produce the right content for the right audiences, it will attract the right backers and, ultimately, create the right leads.

Tom Lawrence