“The way you stay on top of the constantly shifting sands is to be in every place you can be to make sure your audience has an opportunity to access your content wherever they are. That’s how we’ve stayed ahead of every curve that digital media throws our way.”
You might not be familiar with TheSoul Publishing, but if you spend time on social channels, you will certainly know its brands. The company claims to be the number one digital media studio in the world in terms of online video traffic on YouTube and Facebook through iconic brands like 5-Minute Crafts and 123-Go! Soul has two billion subscribers and achieves around 25 billion views per month.
Its global reach is reflected in a team spread across the planet, as Michael Boccacino, senior director of content partnerships at TheSoul Publishing, explains:
“We have 2 000 people all over the world. We have studio spaces in Budapest, Hungary, Cyprus, and Riga in Latvia, and then everyone else is kind of global. The bulk of my team is in London. So a single piece of content might be written by someone in Spain, voiced over by someone in New York and edited by someone in Budapest. So it gives our company a very global feel.”
How did TheSoul Publishing grow so quickly? What is its attitude towards venture and private equity money, and how is AI helping it keep abreast of major industry trends? And what lessons can more established media learn from a company that has achieved such incredible growth in such a short period?
Michael refers to the company’s most high-profile brand.
“In streaming, our flagship brand is called 5-Minute Crafts. It’s the number one DIY brand in the world. We love to make content that is positive, entertaining and evergreen. In addition to 5-Minute Crafts we also have a variety of other types of genres that we produce, including Baby Zoo, which is a 2D animated children’s channel with fun songs and life lessons. We have a virtual influencer called Polar, who has about 50 tracks and over 4 million followers across YouTube and TikTok. And she performs regularly in the metaverse. So we’re highly diversified in the types of content that we make.”
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AI and humans combine
One of the big challenges facing any media business that goes deeply into trends is keeping pace with what is often a very fast-moving market. Michael says combining humans and machines keeps TheSoul Publishing on track.
“We have different ways that we follow what’s trending online. Number one, we have a team of people who scour the internet looking for what’s trending, for hot topics and things people are passionate about. And we’ll create new content around that. We also have a bespoke platform called TheSoul Platform, which is our AI-powered tool that we use not only to inform our content and the types of shows we choose to make, but also their production. So it allows us to be fast and nimble.”
“I think the key to our success has always been that we make content that’s intended for universal consumption. We are much more focused on building the kind of infrastructure that we have now, where we have this global team of 2 000 people, where a single piece of content can have lots of different touchpoints from people all over the world. And I think that’s allowed us to grow really fast, globally,” Michael adds.
“Also, a lot of our videos are non-verbal, so you don’t need to translate them to understand or engage with them. They are easy to watch and fun to engage with, no matter where you are and what time of year it is. There doesn’t need to be a specific reason to tune in.”
Choosing the type of content requires a strategic, iterative approach, Michael explains.
“We have a really aggressive piloting program. So we’ll hone in on an idea or topic and launch the channel. We launch dozens of channels each quarter and we focus on the ones that are really working for us. And then, from there, we’ll propagate it and continue finding new ways to iterate on it. For example, with 5-Minute Crafts, we have a number of spin-offs based on that parent brand. So we’ll have 5-Minute Gardening, 5-Minute Decor etc.”
“When people watch videos on YouTube or watch our content on a streaming platform, it’s a different experience than watching, say, a Netflix drama. It’s very much the sort of leanback entertainment where you can enjoy it in a different way than you would with a scripted drama. You don’t need to focus deeply; you can enjoy it while you’re doing other things.”
Despite its rapid growth, TheSoul has not been tempted by venture capital or private equity cash. Yet the financial bandwidth exists to extend the company’s key brands into new areas. Like gaming.
“We have just released a game inspired by our channel Bright Side, which is one of the top channels on YouTube and Facebook. And when you tune into Bright Side, you find content geared towards fun science facts, body science facts and historical information, but told in a really fun, innovative way. Sometimes with animation, sometimes we use really cool graphics to help you understand the topics that we’re digging into. And as we’ve been growing online, for example, we have 25 million views across our portfolio of a couple dozen channels.“
“We really wanted to look for new ways to reach your audience and do new things with our brands. The game Bright Side is one of them. We’re always looking for ways to take the core IP that we’ve developed online and find new ways to access it and bring it to our fans. We have also recently acquired Underscore Talent and Shorthand Studios. They’re a massive agency here in the US. And it really helps diversify what we do.“
The relationship with brands is likely to prove pivotal to TheSoul, especially as there may be long-term challenges in monetising social content.
“Crayola is a partner of ours,” says Michael. “We started working with them in terms of producing white-label videos. If you think of crafting content, we’ve partnered with Crayola to help shake up their online presence. So we’re not just making content. We’re also helping them strategise and figure out where they should be. I think there are lots of partners who we could help crack the code with the internet because we’ve been doing it successfully for about a decade now.“
Diversification is key
I wondered whether the social media engine that has helped TheSoul Publishing grow so rapidly might now present issues for the company in the future. Firstly, the democratisation of content creation has delivered a host of competitors with minimal overheads. Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, the last few years have seen the decline of social media as a key driver for publishing companies. BuzzFeed, Vice and several others have seen their business models collapse as the traffic from Facebook and X dries up.
Michael acknowledges that there’s “certainly been this democratisation of ease and producing content as people”, but thinks that TheSoul has advantages over its creator economy rivals: diversification and flexibility.
Crucially, too, TheSoul doesn’t see itself as a social content publisher; rather, social media content is part of the mix that also includes streaming, game creation and other initiatives such as creating virtual influencers and working with brands.
In addition to the major social platforms, the company is also on Apple, Spotify, Samsung TV+, Rakuten TV, and Amazon Prime. Recently it expanded to include Chinese platforms such as Xigua, Douyin and Bilibili.
“It’s all about diversification. We’re on every platform you can think of, from Facebook to YouTube, Snapchat to Instagram, but we’re also on streaming and we really saw an opportunity to take everything we’ve learned from social and reach people in a different way than we had been previously. And it’s proven to be just as successful. And I think the way you stay on top of the constantly shifting sands is to just be in every place you can be to make sure your audience has an opportunity to access your content, wherever they are. That’s been how we’ve stayed ahead of every curve that digital media throws our way.”
Finally, there has been a huge amount of discussion about the potential of generative AI since the launch of ChatGPT in November 2022. I wondered how TheSoul Publishing had incorporated the technology into its processes and where it might use it in future.
“We’re definitely looking at AI as a creative tool. We’ve been using it in our process distribution tools for a number of years now. And we found it’s a really great way to help speed up our production pipeline. For example, when we produce a piece of content, the platform and the AI within the platform automatically translate horizontal video to a vertical video. I don’t just mean chopping off the ends, but also tracking the shots and producing something that looks like it was made by humans,” Michael says.
“And it’s allowed us to get to more places more quickly, to monetise in more places, and to be more efficient with what we produce. So, for us, it is an exciting way to augment the creative process that’s already happening with our producers and our writers and our editors and our storytellers.“
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