‘There’s no dark art to it. Anyone who says they know the secret formula for getting a viral hit is lying, but there are a few things you can do to increase your chances...’
Jamie Bolding should know a thing or two about getting attention online. He’s founder of Jungle Creations, a social media giant you almost certainly haven’t heard of, but probably should have. Across its ten social platforms, headlined by Viral Thread which was the most visited Facebook page in the world last month, it gets four billion views a month. By that measure, that makes it one of the biggest global media platforms.
‘It can boil down to very small things. On Facebook, it’s about making the video a square not widescreen. The first three seconds need to be really captivating. They have a very specific role, to stop a person scrolling. Tell that to a director or producer and they’ll say it’s blasphemy, but you’ve got to look at it how people are consuming it. They’re not going to that video as a destination,’ says Bolding.
Here’s a flavour of what he means:
By 2019, it’s estimated that 80% of online content will be made up of videos, and a huge proportion of those will have viral DNA: short, sweet and addictive.
In social media as in traditional media, being able to grab attention is a lucrative skill. Jungle Creations has a content side that builds an audience (in olde worlde publishing, it would be called editorial, sigh...) and an agency side that gets paid to connect brands to that audience. Revenues in 2015-16 were £8m, up from £2.5m the year before.
It’s a far cry from where Bolding started in 2013. A fresh graduate from Manchester University, he thought his prior experience (‘I’d always made money on the side online, doing bits and bobs’) would land him a plum job in marketing, but found the experience of corporate life didn’t live up to expectations.
‘I worked for three weeks, realised it was a rubbish job at a rubbish company, and quit. I made the decision then that it didn’t really matter what I did, but I was going to do it by myself.’
There are two types of entrepreneur, the ones who have a passionate vision about something in particular, and the ones who look for opportunities where they can find them. Bolding says he’s definitely the latter.
From his mother’s spare room, he started a male grooming company, using a £10,000 government loan to source products and build prototypes, but soon realised he wouldn’t be able to make much of it without a substantial injection of capital.
Bolding decided to leverage the social media audiences that he’d built to promote some of his earlier business ventures, funnelling all the likes and conversations onto the Viral Thread Facebook page. ‘I realised there was massive potential in social media pages, not only to drive traffic to my site, but as channels and brands in their own right. I didn’t have to send people to websites anymore.’
Building a business on Facebook
The student-centred audience grew and grew, and Jungle Creations branched out into pages about cooking (Twisted), DIY (Nailed It) and animals (The Aardvark), among others.
Bolding’s ambitions went from making £2-3,000 a month – ‘it meant I could live with my friends, have a nice time, create cool articles that people would talk about in the pub’ – to creating a global media company ‘that competes with the big dogs, down the line using it a force for good, you know, bringing important subjects to the forefront of people’s minds.’
Funny what a few billion views will do, eh? Reaching the level of media titan is of course no easy task, especially given that the business is essentially built on Facebook, which, as foundations go, isn’t exactly the rock of ages. But Bolding isn’t deterred. ‘People once said it was crazy to build your business on the internet, now they say it’s crazy to build a business on the back of Facebook, but if people always go there, then it’s not that crazy at all.’
Doing business on Facebook has had its downsides, he admits, particularly when the company changes its algorithms. ‘There were a couple of points when I thought it might fail. When you’re a small page, you’re hit a lot harder when Facebook tweaks the algorithms. One day you’d have loads of hits, then they’d tweak it and the hits would go. But as you become bigger you’re less affected by those changes, because you’re a major part of the infrastructure that is Facebook.’
The thorny issue of fake news
With two billion regular users, Facebook is probably too big to fail, but it is facing a challenge in the form of fake news, which many believe demonstrates why the tech giant needs to take responsibility as a publisher, not just a platform. Bolding isn’t convinced.
‘They’re creating this platform which is essentially a true version of a democracy, where everyone can do what they want and say what they want. It’s on society to police each other, and not give people respect when they give hateful comments or post fake news or extremist content. You will have people who abuse it when you have a full version of democracy, that’s going to happen, but the only alternative is to police it. Do you really want Facebook becoming more powerful than the government in controlling what people can say or do? That would be way uglier than what we currently have, in my opinion.’