Simon’s Cat: On social media, engagement and the importance of the story

Feature When Simon Tofield first started creating videos about a charming, yet mischievous cat, it was simply to teach himself a computer program.

Six years on, with book deals, syndications and millions of fans under his belt, he explains that he never expected the success Simon’s Cat has brought him.

“I had no idea it would ever really touch as many people as it has,” he tells MarketingTech. “I think the main reason it has done is because there’s a lot of cat fans out there and the Internet seems to love cats.

“When Simon’s Cat came out, cats weren’t that big on the Internet, so we were one of the first I think,” he adds.

It’s a well known theory that the Internet is run by cats – there have even been scientific studies to explain it. As with any viral phenomenon, however, anyone who jumps on the bandwagon late will be called out and asked to come up with something a bit more original.

There’s no worries on that front for Simon’s Cat, however, which started back in the days when YouTube’s ad revenue strategies were practically non-existent. Simon’s Cat was one of the first channels in the UK to be enlisted in the YouTube Partner Program, which offers a share of the advertising money.

Currently, there are more than a million channels in the Program, as of October 2013. And as brand manager Mike Cook explained, it’s beneficial for both parties.

“I’m sure [YouTube] are pleased every time we released a video, because we do get a lot of views,” he says, adding: “We actually had two of our most successful months ever in February and April.”

For Tofield, he saw his first book deal as a real turning point.

“Back in the day YouTube wasn’t really paying anything, these films were for free, but when Canongate, the publisher, came along, I realised then that actually I could give up my day job, which was doing commercials, and concentrate solely on doing Simon’s Cat,” he explains.

The viewing figures are mightily impressive, as you’d expect: nearly five million views in a month for the latest short, Crazy Time, as well as approaching three million subscribers (2,933,455 at the time of writing) and the biggest one of all – breaking half a billion views overall.

Our short films are our core audience...we don't want to stop them

These numbers are proof that cats remain popular – even more so if you put an intriguing twist on a campaign. Earlier this year, Toronto-based firm Bulk Cat Litter Warehouse sprayed catnip on its direct mail shot, with expectedly adorable results, as well as an upturn in sales.

Like every businessman, Tofield isn’t resting on his laurels, with plans for longer, Kickstarter-funded full-colour videos in the offing. There aren’t any plans to stop the shorts, however.

“Our short films are our dedicated and core audience, and we don’t want to stop them and we enjoy making them,” Cook explains. “We know people enjoy watching them and there’s no slowing of growth, they’re still very popular films.

Cook adds that the funding round is necessary for the expansion.

“You have to remember that the films on YouTube are released for free to the consumer, so there’s a very limited amount of income that we receive towards them,” he notes. “We’ve used most of it up making the short films, leaving nothing spare for experimentation or the chance to explore making something longer or in colour, which is what we’re hoping to do.”

“We’re still very early days, but I think the plan will be we’ll always keep up our short films on YouTube, but also at the same time work on a slightly longer format production,” Tofield adds. “[It’s] just to try new ground really, and to push Simon’s Cat out a little bit further.

“But we’d always make sure we’d always keep up with the short films, because that’s our mainstay.”

Each short film takes a deceptively long time – on average it takes between 12 and 25 drawings to create one second of film. The pain-staking results are then posted on YouTube, as well as various social media channels and the official Simon’s Cat website.

Do the huge viewing figures on YouTube take some focus away from the official website? Cook and Tofield aren’t too fussed.

"We’re actually happy for people to gather wherever they’re comfortable,” Cook explains, “as long as they’re enjoying the content, and they’re enjoying it in a way that allows them to freely share it.

“The social media sites are geared up for ease of sharing. We’re happy for people to consume it on YouTube or on our website. It doesn’t really bother us, as long as people are enjoying it.”

“And happy,” Tofield adds, chuckling.

The official website of Simon’s Cat is an open door to an entire community, with various engaged posters putting up pictures of – yes, you guessed it – cute cats.

Cook notes that the social media strategy was originally quite an ad-hoc operation.

“Back in the early days, we were actually just watching where people naturally found themselves,” he explains. “We were looking at Facebook one day and we realised that there was a very large fan group dedicated to cats.

We're happy for people to gather wherever they're comfortable as long as they're enjoying the content

“So it was our fans who told us, in a way, that that’s where they’d like to congregate.”

It’s not just about Facebook however, with Simon’s Cat active on Twitter, Google+, Tumblr and most recently, Pinterest. “If a new platform exists, and a Simon’s Cat community appears, we’ll try and support it,” Cook adds.

“It’s just the ease of sharing,” he continues. “Everyone’s watching this space, and it’s evolving quickly, and people are rewriting their platforms to better perform against the competition.

“We’re doing exactly the same thing – we’re just watching, enjoying as well, reading what our fans write, but we want to reach new audiences as well.

“So if a new platform comes along that’s looking promising, we’ll consider it and, resources allowing, we may adopt it.”

The moral of this for marketers is straightforward – remember to put all your emphasis on the story in your marketing output.

MarketingTech has mused on this subject before – but as Cook says: “It’s all about story, especially if you’re with us making films. It all hinges on a great story, in the end.”

Tofield’s advice is equally straightforward. “Any ideas you have, write them down,” he explains. “The amount of ideas I’ve forgotten by not having a sketchbook with me – always keep drawing, and keep those ideas for as long as possible.

“Hopefully if your ideas are good and strong, whatever platform you go on, the popularity...should do the work for you. It’s about a good idea, really.”

Watch the latest Simon’s Cat short film, Crazy Time, below:

Picture credit © Simon's Cat Ltd. 2014.

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