In the beginning â before Naira Life, Man Like Sex Life, and all its famous content series â there was Zikoko the Buzzfeed clone, fueled by listicles and humour soaked in nostalgia and relatability.
Reading an early-day Zikoko listicle was like looking at your lifeâs story play out in a screen before you. Only, this story was meant to make you laugh.
In 2015, when I worked at Big Cabal Media, Zikokoâs parent company, I witnessed firsthand the gruelling foundational days of building theÂ cultural powerhouseÂ that Zikoko is today. I watched the then-Editor-in-Chief,Â Damilola Odufuwa, and her editorial team bat ideas for hours and churn out articles and listicles that people read, laughed at, shared on their social media, and moved on from within minutes to find the next interesting thing (as is typical of the modern-day audience).
What follows is the story ofÂ Zikoko, its evolution, its relationship with youth culture in Nigeria, and how it thinks about monetising that culture.
Zikoko was founded in 2015 under the Big Cabal Media umbrella. It is the sister publication to one of Africaâs most prominent tech publications,Â TechCabal.
In its early days, Zikoko was patterned after Buzzfeed, which is to say that it churned out listicles and quizzes designed to be funny, engaging, and shareable. The humour was relatable and, unlike Buzzfeedâs, local.
It took shared Nigerian experiences and found creative ways to make fun of them. This is what endeared readers to the publication. People felt seen. They realised they were not alone. They saw how many other people experienced the same things they did growing up. And this fostered a sense of community in a way that no one had witnessed before.
Before most people understood the formula for virality, Zikoko had hacked it. Almost immediately after its birth, the publication became so popular that it inspired a short-lived rival,Â Party Jollof. But humour as a digital media strategy can only work for so long (ask Buzzfeed).
The demand to constantly create content that makes people laugh is excruciating. It takes a heavy toll on the editorial team as thereâs pressure for everything to be funny, even if the author is not naturally funny.
Asking people to be consistently funny for five days a week and 52 weeks a year will definitely burn them out. Even comedians cannot keep up. Daniel Orubo (one of Zikokoâs earliest employees and a former Editor-in-Chief)Â talks about the resultant burnout in this interviewÂ (emphasis mine):
âAfter a year of doing listicles and quizzes, I kind of got bored. My editor-in-chief at the time wanted us to expand and do more long-form articles, and I agreed, but I guess what we were doing at the time was working, and people didn’t want to switch it up too much. I was like, fair enough, but I don’t think I can do this.Â I don’t think I can sit down every single day and be funny on command.Â So I decided to leave [in 2016] for a French company that had moved to Nigeria.â
Big Cabal Media also went through a rough patch in 2017 that saw poor management decisions and infighting lead to a loss of momentum and identity crisis. During this period, the companyâs co-founders split. In 2018, the board brought inÂ Tomiwa Aladekomo, the former MD of Ventra Media Group. Aladekomo had helped to digitally transform one of Nigeriaâs legacy publishers, Guardian Nigeria. Now, his task was to steady the Big Cabal Media ship and set course for new territories.
The evolution of Zikoko
Aladekomoâs arrival came with a new management team and a series of editorial changes.Â Fuâad LawalÂ joined the company from Ringier Africa and soon became Zikokoâs Editor-in-Chief, which he has since moved on from. The publication also gradually shifted from focusing primarily on humour and listicles to telling more culturally impactful stories.
âWhen I joined Zikoko, the [content] was relatable. It was mostly humour and funny content. But frankly, I don’t feel funny. At the time, I knew that I wanted Zikoko to explore beyond the short-form format and listicles. I wanted more. I wanted people to see themselves in the stories. I wanted stories that had more depth. In hindsight, it feels like strategy, but it was mostly slapping things on the wall until something stuck,â Lawal tells me.
Over the years, Zikoko went from subsisting on stories like â16 Signs You Are Just Like Your Nigerian Motherâ to stories like â5 Nigerian Widows Talk Life After Their Husbandsâ Deathsâ. Both are listicles, quite alright, and they both requireÂ varying levels of work. But they also typify the publicationâs evolution. Humour remains elemental to Zikokoâs existence, but it is no longer the fence that encloses its identity.
âOne of the things that we decided on during Zikoko’s design sprint and personality exploration is that it is limitless. And so, we don’t see any limits to the forms in which we explore [stories],â Aladekomo says.
âZikoko today is committed to telling the stories that matter, to capturing all the things that are important to young people, telling stories about them and examining them in a range of different formats. That’s everything from written articles to listicles, to newsletters, podcasts (which are coming), and video content. We want to be sitting at the heart of the most important conversations that young people across Nigeria are having. We want to be influencing those conversations. We want to be their voice and reflection. And we want to be shaping the culture.â
How Zikoko taps into youth culture
Integral to Zikokoâs new identity is that its content is now built around interests (which are then curated intoÂ âStacksâ). Think about it like this: Zikoko used to be known for listicles and memes (formats), now it is known for its series of stories covering topics that interest the average Nigerian youth:Â sex,Â relationships,Â money,Â emigration,Â feminism,Â masculinity, etc. Exploring the Stacks is almost akin to rummaging through Netflixâs content library.
In theory, each interest (or Stack) can be presented in multiple formats: long-form articles, listicles, videos, newsletters, podcasts, native social media formats, etc.
Beyond the format variety, each of these Stacks can one day be spun off into a standalone publication, developed into a community, packaged into a paid event, or maybe even reformatted into a video series. Naira Life can become Zikoko Money. Sex Life can become Zikoko Sex. Man Like can become Zikoko Men. Zikoko Her can become, well, Zikoko Her. All of these can become TV shows. The stacks present an opportunity for Zikoko to go as deep into any topic of interest as it wants and be as creative with its presentation as money and time allow, as long as it is important to young Nigerians.
Aladekomo says that part of Zikokoâs raison d’Ãªtre is to touch the cultural nerve and speak about the things that are important to young people. âThat can be their careers or money, but it can even be as simple as whether egusi soup is better than oha soup.â
One of the ways Zikoko builds its audience is by factoring habit-formation into its products. For example, each major Stack has a newsletter, and each newsletter runs on a strict schedule. Naira Life, for instance, arrives at 9 am every Monday, such that everyone subscribed knows to expect it at that time. The logic behind this is that schedules ensure consistency and create expectations around the content.
Building this engine of consistency and deliberation requires tremendous investments in talent training and development. It requires the editorial staff not just to be good with words but to deeply understand the content ecosystem they operate in. (Itâs why Zikoko writers often go on to occupy prominent roles in the content industry.) But it also requires significant financial resources. Itâs often difficult to retain this quality of talent once they reach a particular industry threshold, as IÂ explain in this essay. (Donât be surprised if Big Cabal Media raises capital in the near future.)
Monetizing culture: Ideas are great, execution is the devil
Saturday, August 28, 2021, answered a question Iâd been pondering for some years: how will Zikoko expand its monetization potential?
In hindsight, the answer is obvious, but when youâre there in the beginning, in the publicationâs early days, the answers are not exactly clear. Even when you are in the middle of the madness (as some of the people I talked to for this essay are or have been), the answers are difficult to come by. Ideas are great, but execution is the devil.
That day, I sat on the barstool, trying to savour the moment but mostly looking around at the hundreds of young people who had gathered forÂ Zikoko Fest 2021Â in Victoria Island, Lagos. Some were dancing, some were buried in conversations, some were lost in their food, some were taking pictures, some others were playing games, and some were purchasing Zikoko merch.
I thought about this: if 300 people had gathered at that venue to enjoy themselves, paying N5,000 (~$9) each to get in and possibly spending more on food and drinks, what would it be like when this movement grows bigger and events like this become more frequent?
Zikoko made money throughÂ native advertisingÂ (branded listicles and quizzes) in its early days, but the potential to diversify was always there. The question was how the company would pull it off. That evening, I realised how far along its efforts had come.
âOne of our fundamental thesis [at Big Cabal Media] is that having a single revenue line is death for any media business. For any media business to thrive in the long term, they need to have multiple revenue streams that are working well at any given time,â Aladekomo tells me.
Native advertising remains important to Zikoko, but it has added to the mix newsletter sponsorships, sponsored social media posts, paid events like Zikoko Fest, merchandise sales, and sponsored editorial projects such asÂ Jollof Road.
Perhaps the best way to distil Zikokoâs story is to say that its evolution mirrors that of youth and Internet pop culture in Nigeria. Lawal says, âI feel like Zikoko is holding a mirror [up to society]. That’s why people see stuff there and recognise themselves, even though it was mostly funny stuff. There were heavy cultural themes to it. I think that Zikoko is also working to be a magnifying glass for society. [It focuses] on stories that people would normally ignore and never stop to think about. I don’t think there is anybody in this country doing it the way Zikoko is doing it.â