Thursday 23 March 2017

As traditional media snoozes, Unilad's 'Y' generation cruises

With 12 million followers and billions of video views, Unilad is exploding right now. Its co-founder spoke to our Technology Editor

Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Liam Harrington, the 24-year-old co-founder of the Unilad media company, whose family hail from Mayo
Liam Harrington, the 24-year-old co-founder of the Unilad media company, whose family hail from Mayo

Last week, a broadcasting 'moratorium' was observed by Irish radio and television stations the day before the general election. But in the supposedly silent period, Irish people watched more videos online than from the combined terrestrial networks of RTE and the independent sector.

For Ireland's two million daily users of Facebook, a decent chunk of that video content was shared - or even made - by Unilad. Started just two years ago, Unilad's viewer metrics are eye-watering. With a Facebook audience of 12 million people, it attracts hundreds of millions of views for the videos it shares and creates, regularly topping lists of Facebook video shares. One video it shared, of a boy shoving a pie in the face of his father, has been viewed 200m times.

The co-founder of Unilad, 24-year-old Liam Harrington, believes that the success of the site is indicative of a shift in media consumption.

Social media, and not traditional websites, is where people now go to get their news.

"Facebook really is the front page of the internet," he says. "We don't really want to go out searching for things any more. We want content to come straight to us, and we want it to be stuff that we're interested in. I can see a lot of broadcast TV still moving online. I find it very difficult to sit down in front of the TV and not watch something on demand. Most people I know rarely watch live TV any more."

Harrington, a second-generation Irish transplant from Castlebar, Co Mayo, is on the younger end of the millennial (or 'Generation Y') scale. But the success of Unilad, which is different to a defunct 'lad' website by the same name, shows that the way we consume things has already moved much faster than most established media industry interests are willing to admit.

Research from Irish telecoms regulator Comreg shows that 9pc of all households use Netflix, rising to 18pc in Dublin. On average Netflix users spend seven hours per week using the service, it says.

Meanwhile, one of RTE's video partners - Ooyala - released figures showing that Ireland has the highest mobile video viewing figures in the world.

"The Irish watch more mobile video content than any other nation," it said, releasing its 2015 Global Video Index report.

And current research from Dublin-based analytics firm Statcounter shows that Irish people use our smartphones to get content more than almost any other western country, with a third of all web access here now coming from our handsets.

Report after report from international bodies as well as home-based organisations such as Comreg, Virgin and Eir show that hundreds of thousands of Irish people are now snacking on video content, including live broadcasts, on tablets, laptops, phones and XBoxes.

In many cases, they are watching the same programmes as they would when sitting on the sofa watching TV. But they're starting to watch it on different platforms.

"There is a clear shift towards online viewing," says the most recent international study from research analytics firm IHS. "Traditional broadcast television viewing is being overtaken by two forces, personal video recorders (PVRs) like Sky+ and online video from services like Netflix and BBC iPlayer."

All of this is having a significant commercial effect. Currently, statistics from Ireland's Television Audience Measurement organisation show a 25pc drop in viewership of ads among 15 to 34-year-olds (and other key demographics) over the last two years.

In general, the Irish media industry is reluctant to admit that much of this is happening. And it is the gap in appreciation by tenured industry interests - from editorial functions to commercial and marketing interests - that gives Unilad a clearer path to continuing its explosive growth.

"We are absolutely not stopping," says Harrington. "We're moving with Twitter, Instagram, anywhere we know people are consuming media. The way we look at it, if you're creating something for Generation Y by Generation Y, you're onto a winner."

The infrastructure of Unilad's success is already in motion. From a standing start two years ago, the company has over 40 people, with offices in London and Manchester. It is now ramping up its own content-generation units, with film crews and writers.

The commercial model is still developing, says the company's chief executive (and fellow second generation Irishman), John Quinlan.

"We have ads on the site (unilad.co.uk), but we want to be quite careful and smart with the way we make money. We want to do it in as subtle a way as possible. So we do campaigns with various people and brands."

One such campaign was for the recent movie release of the Robert De Niro film 'Dirty Grandpa'.

"We had an old grandfather rapping in London and it had a huge viral element to it. It got picked up by major media outlets such as the BBC. So far, it has received over 2m videos. That's the kind of thing we want to do. We treat this sort of viral marketing content in the same way as our normal content, which is why it's so successful."

Does that mean that Unilad is on the way to being a glorified marketing company, following the money in 'native' content?

"I don't think so," says Quinlan. "I think we'll always be a content company."

While a majority of Unilad's views have come from licensed videos it saw online, it now believes it can become a major producer of content itself.

"By the end of March, we'll see a 60-40 split in favour of original content," says Harrington. "We have 12 people in teams in both London and Manchester, doing a mixture of documentaries and videos about issues we're interested in."

Still, the majority of its traffic to date has been from stuff it found online and re-shared. How does Harrington decide which videos to share?

"Experience is important in coming to the science of how a viral video is created," he says.

"There are certain things you look out for. If you've got the eye, you'll know. One of our biggest videos is a little lad getting hit in the face by a pie in the US.

"As soon as I saw that video, I knew that a father and son playing was a little social nugget that would work. These little things are what make people fall in love with the video. Crucially, if you speak to your audience in the right way, that's why they will share it. We are Generation Y creating it, so it becomes more relatable."

The name 'Unilad' suggests videos based on 'lad' culture, but that is not what the company is going after, executives say. Despite this, there has been some confusion with Unilad's origins. A different site called Unilad, online between 2010 and 2012, featured content that was criticised for being dangerous and misogynistic. That site was set up and run by different proprietors than the current Unilad incarnation.

Today's Unilad, says Harrington, is evolving into a company that makes its own content, much of which focuses on serious issues.

"In 2016, we want to try and push forward with original content that tackles issues that affect Generation Y, such as mental health, homelessness and education," says Harrington.

"What we found out after some marketing research, is that people of our age and generation are talking about these issues amongst ourselves but this is not really being represented on a bigger level. We feel we are that bigger level. The biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide."

Does this not go against the science of happy-go-lucky 'viral' videos? What about the light-hearted stuff that features kinds throwing pies at their dads?

"There's no reason that you can't do both," says Harrington. "It's very important that when you're as big as we are, you use your power. If you don't use it you might miss the chance. So far, the response to them has been fantastic."

To this end, Unilad is staffed by "qualified journalists", says John Quinlan.

"It's not as if people don't want to hear about mental health," he says. "We're lucky we only have to cater for a Generation Y audience. We definitely don't think that these issues are off the table for them. Also, it's not as if these videos don't' perform incredibly well. They get a million views."

"If you look at the people who work here, everyone is young and these things affect them. So everyone's very passionate about the subject."

There was once a time when traditional broadcasters and publishing companies had a large chunk of the web's 'content' to itself. Those days are long gone. Open up your Facebook feed today and you'll see a variety of videos jumping out from your friends' sharing proclivities. A shrinking proportion of these are from corporate media entities.

Instead, they're being distributed - and increasingly created - by entities that have only emerged in the last two or three years.

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