As the President of Bleacher Report, Rory Brown is one of the minds responsible for the popular publisher’s rise from blog to brand. In this week’s Agents of Change soundbite, Brown discusses the keys to monetizing content that lives on third-party platforms, posits that House of Highlights and Bleacher Report are stronger as separate entities, and explains how leagues are using the pair of platforms to reshape their social media strategy.
Read or listen below to learn how Bleacher Report is monetizing House of Highlights and building the Instagram channel to be a brand that other brands believe in.
This is the way the media world works now, where a lot of content is living on these third-party platforms, which means you don’t control everything.
There are algorithm changes, whether its Facebook or Google, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. But at B/R, we do diversify our audience quite a bit across platforms. We also have an app that has a ton of loyal users so we have owned and operated inventory so that we can be a little riskier when it comes to some of these plays.
In House of Highlights, we didn’t just see it as “Here’s our way to grow Instagram traction quickly.” We’re doing that through B/R pretty effectively to begin with and we continue to do that.
We think about the funnel of users and B/R is good at appealing to 18-35 year old sports fans. But you just heard Omar say it, he’s got something that really appeals to 12-24 year old sports fans so that’s that point where you’re figuring out who you are, and we have not been afraid to lead in the areas where the monetization strategy is not crystal clear at first.
We know the audience is there, we know the consumption habits are there, and now we have to go out and educate the market.
[Right] now it’s still really an invitation-only approach to how we monetize House of Highlights. We’re careful.
We don’t want to screw up the brand, but we’re making money through House of Highlights and credit to Omar, Doug [Bernstein], and others for coming up with inventive ways. It’s a much more consultative approach with clients where were saying, “Hey, what problem are you trying to solve? How are you looking to reach young audiences? Here’s how House of Highlights and B/R–a combination of the two–could do it” versus saying “Hey, here’s a homepage. Take it or leave it.”
Howard Mittman who’s our CRO and CMO has this line that I like a lot. “There’s no such thing as branded content. There’s good content, and there’s bad content.”
Branded content can be really good. The Curry Challenge was an example of that. Branded content can also be awful. Normal content without a brand attached to it can be awful.
So I think for us it’s just ideating and coming up with things that we know young people are going to respond to. Then, once clients see that, it’s like, “Okay, we want what that brand had.” The Curry Challenge was effective not just for Under Armour, but other brands were coming to us and saying “How do we do that?” and we would come back and say, “Well, you’ve got to give us a lot of control over how we’re gonna do this thing because we know the audience.”
We know the [HoH] brand versus working within the confines of a very specific RFP which may or may not relate that well to young people.
Outside of sports there are not a whole lot of other opportunities for young people to want to sit in front of the TV with commercials and watch something for 3-3 ½ hours. That’s a foreign concept for a young person to do with anything. That’s three episodes of Stranger Things or something way more valuable.
So at that point, you’ve gotta go where the audience is. That’s where at Bleacher Report we’ve always been very accepting of where we own audience and where there’s an audience out there we need to get. It was one of those build or buy situations. With Omar, he was already building something so impressive that, we’ve already built a lot of great things at B/R so why don’t we supercharge them with House of Highlights and vice versa instead of trying to build something brand new?
It’s the same way that Turner looked at Bleacher Report six years ago when we got acquired. So you’ve just got to go where the eyeballs are.
One of the better things for Omar is– it’s no secret he was just running with some content beforehand. And credit to the NBA that they get the big picture and want as many people around the world seeing their content, players, teams, and uniforms. There’s a lot of NBA highlights on YouTube that could’ve been taken down. I’m sure we all saw Major League Baseball and other leagues be a lot more aggressive. Omar just kind of ran with that and then who better to work with than Bleacher Report who actually through Turner owns those rights?
The NBA is fascinated by House of Highlights, by Bleacher Report and how we view social as a way to grow brand and audience but not think about it in traditional “traffic back to the Bleacher Report website” way. We’ve seen the leagues, and honestly, a lot of other media publishers follow suit and start to think about it the same way.
I use this example a lot: Damian Lillard is an [NBA] superstar for sure, but he’s interested in music, and he’s rapped before and these other things where if you tried to do that with a top 30 NFL player I don’t think you’d know as much.
With that comes a level of investment from fans. Yes, they view these people as superhuman athletes, but they also see them as people that are just like them and their friends on social media.
We have a whole sizzle that we show sometimes that shows athletes being goofy on the House of Highlights account by tagging people and talking sh*t in the comments to each other. It’s great because you can see this human side of athletes that you don’t get to see, whether it be a post-game interview or a press conference, where Lebron or whoever is honestly just trying not to say something that’s going to get taken out of context. They are being themselves.
With House of Highlights, we never saw it as an Instagram account, we saw it as a brand that people feel invested in and believe in. Once you start talking about brands you’re not constricted by just another media company.
I’ve said this to Omar, to Doug, to the senior Bleacher Report content and programming leaders a lot. It’s really important to me that Bleacher Report and House of Highlights stay differentiated in some ways. It’s important that they collaborate where it makes sense, but let’s not make House of Highlights another media company. Bleacher Report is already a media company that’s owned by a bigger media company in Turner, that’s owned by an even bigger media company–Time Warner–that just got bought by a telephone company. We need to keep House of Highlights separate from that and run it as a business within the business.
With that comes monetization brainstorming where it’s not just about traditional advertising; it’s about merchandise, and it’s about events. There are people graduating from college, or high school, or people in undergrad now that desperately want to work for Omar, to be Omar.
We should take advantage of that and not ask for dollars but make it this a cool place to work. Again, Bleacher Report is a great place to work too, it’s just separate. So there are more opportunities to build the brand, and with that comes different strategies.
There are accounts in sports and other media accounts that have huge followings. You’ve got millions and millions of people that follow these accounts, but if they were to suddenly shift on a dime and start posting the same content as Omar–which we see that quite a bit–but try and use the same voice, people would be thrown off by it.
I respect what my dad thinks of Led Zeppelin, but I don’t respect what he thinks of the Drake- Pusha T feud. That would be out of place. I think that there’s already a reaction to that where you’ll see some media accounts post things and it’s like, “Guys, come on. House of Highlights posted that 7 minutes ago.” They’ll post it with a similar caption, but it just doesn’t work.
With that being said, there’s no room for Bleacher Report and House of Highlights to get lazy here. We need to continue to be industry leaders when it comes to all things, especially social where we really are best in class.
One thing that’s important to me is that the team continues to innovate and come up with new types of content, new ways to frame content, and new ways to build the brand. We can’t just rely on a playbook that we’re really good at.
Rory Brown spoke during SportFronts, a digital content showcase of the leading media companies, publishers, and platforms serving the connected fan. Learn more here.