In March 2020, three days before the first national lockdown, Fanbytes, which describes itself as “a team of social media and influencer marketing experts, helping brands to engage Gen Z audiences in the most interactive ways on the planet” opened the first UK content house – Bytesquad, with six creators pumping out TikTok content.
Earlier this week, media journalist Sophia Smith Galer pointed people to a TikTok Live by Lily-Rose, one of the original members of Bytesquad. The influencer was discussing her time in the house and how the six creators were forced to work even when they had contracted Covid-19.
The house closed in 2021 but its legacy is still sending ripples through the social media sphere, from brands creating their own content houses to the influencers themselves.
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The idea came from American TikTok content houses like Hype House and Sway House which have been hugely successful in leveraging Gen Z attention and arguably created the most powerful TikTokers on the planet, most notably Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae.Josh Richards, who created Sway House, is a young gym obsessive who is also on target to be the first TikTok billionaire.
The idea of a content house is simple – it’s Love Island meets Big Brother but the young people have their phones, create content, respond to TikTok trends of the day and, with the amalgamation of their own followings and the house’s account, become TikTok supermonsters. It worked in the US. So why not here?
Six of the UK’s most popular TikTok creators moved into a suburban London house, thus making Bytesquad: KT Franklin, 19, Sebby Jon, 20, Monty Keates, 17, Shauni, 19, Jack ‘Surface’ Sweet, 19 and Lily-Rose, 20. The world was tipping into lockdown and the move was in part to encourage teens to stay home while creating Gen Z specific content.
@bytesquadhq second account👍🏻#foryoupage
It was a smash, with Fanbytes reporting the house had built up 26 million TikTok followers and 1.3 million on Instagram. The CEO of Fanbytes, Timothy Armoo, gushed to Talking Influence, “We were ripping up the playbook by taking individual influencers and building a Gen z brand. With over 27 million fans just on TikTok and over 35 million weekly views, that playbook is working; we’re currently the largest TikTok media owner in the UK.”
Media interest was huge, in an interview with Vice at the time, Franklin introduced Lucy, Bytesquad’s live-in manager Lucy, who did the food shops and helped the housemates schedule their days effectively: “We sit down every Friday and we all talk about what we want to hit, but it’s definitely enforced by Lucy, to make sure we get it. There are days when we’ll talk about how we want to get 300,000 or 200,000 next week, so we want to push more and make more content. But we all want that anyway – it’s just something we’ve all put our energy into getting, so when we do hit those milestones it’s great and a reward for all of us.”
In her TikTok Live this week, Lily-Rose, who was in a relationship with Franklin in the house, talked about being manipulated by management, with the team constantly wanting them to create content around their relationship and its subsequent breakdown and the pressures, as well as working while sick.
She alleged that they were often threatened with eviction and put in polarising positions for clicks. She is now self-managed. At the time, Fanbytes CEO Armoo reassured Vice that the company would be constantly checking the housemates’ welfare.
The fallout from content houses is no different, ultimately from that of those aforementioned reality TV shows like Big Brother and Love Island: creators are vulnerable and expose themselves for the big pay-offs.
Since the house closed, Fanbytes has spun the ByteSquad account into one called ‘For The Vibes Only’ which is a curation of popular content across the site. Former members of the content house are still incredibly popular with millions of followers. Another UK content house, the Icon House is still limping on, but there has been a fallout with some of their residents – The McCloughlin Girls moved out earlier in the year, blaming issues with ‘management’.
Despite the troubles and tensions, the idea of content houses is still extremely compelling for brands. Partly because it’s no different from the early days of YouTube collectives like the Zoella, Joe Sugg, Alfie Deyes clan or the powerful Sidemen, and even the early Mums of Instagram who all went to the same events and talked each other up on their platforms and amplified their audiences.
Brands have been nibbling around the idea for years. Fenty opened a content house for three weeks in March 2020 with five beauty influencers, Makalya Did, Sav Palacio, Dawn Morante, Emmy Combs and Challan. At the time its founder Rihanna said, “Our generation is so innovative. I wanted to create a platform for the next wave of content creators.’ The results speak for themselves, the #fentybeauty hashtag had over 93 million views in three weeks. Fenty Beauty’s TikTok audience grew 1180%.
So mini content houses – with small time commitments – have potential. There was The Vava Club in Northern Ireland announced in June this year to showcase property developer Hagen Homes. Harper Voyager promoted its Young Adult imprint with a content house at Hay in May and The Bookseller reported the publisher as saying “content produced at this year’s creator house had more than 170,000 views. The team were “thrilled” and were seeing “fantastic pre-orders and buzz” for key summer launches such as Saara El-Arifi’s The Final Strife, R F Kuang’s Babel and Juno Dawson’s Her Majesty’s Royal Coven.”
Preppy clothing brand Jack Wills is celebrating a huge win with its recent mini content house. The brand flew 15 influencers to Ibiza for three days: Grace Barry, Kate Elisabeth, Monty Keates, Anastasia Kingsnorth, Joe Bxggs, Ryley Isaac, Regina, Jack Joseph, Moyo, Maddie Grace Jepson, George Clarke, Kyron Hamilton, Chiara King, Miriam Mullins and Max Balegde were just some of those there – #TikTokHouseIbiza has 56 million views and the unfettered chaos is still providing game-changing content for the brand.
As Issy Oakley posted, “anyone who thought Jack Wills was for prim and proper people clearly didn’t watch any of the Ibiza content.” Weeks on, it’s still generating buzz for the brand.
Meanwhile Lily-Rose is one of a billion voices on TikTok trying to set the record straight and get clarity on who she wants to be and how she wants to be represented. After all, everything is content.
By Emilie McMeekan, features director of CORQ. Picture credit: Bytesquadhq via Instagram