With the 2019- 2020 NBA season beginning on October 22, fans will be flocking in droves to one Instagram account to see top plays: House of Highlights.
Since creating the popular social media channel in 2015, Omar Raja’s brainchild has grown to a place where superstar athletes like LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Cristiano Ronaldo are just three of the more than 14 million followers the account currently has on Instagram alone.
But what began as a basketball haven inundated with basketball clips has aspirations of becoming a multi-platform, experiential media brand with plans beyond the Facebook-owned application.
When Bleacher Report acquired House of Highlights from founder Raja in 2015, broadening its audience size early on was not of the utmost importance. To House of Highlights General Manager Doug Bernstein, developing an organic following on one specific platform was.
Since the acquisition, House of Highlights’ Instagram following is growing at a rate of 300,000 followers per month. With over 14.5 million followers to date, it recently became the first US sports publisher to surpass ESPN on a social media platform.
“I think having that clear north star allowed us to do Instagram as well as anybody out there,” Bernstein said. “Once we achieved that place of scale on Instagram, that was a point where we were able to look up and say, ‘how do we go from just an Instagram account to a true media brand?’ And to be a true media brand, we recognized that we needed to have a presence on multiple platforms – we recognized that we needed to build this business out further.”
Bernstein doesn’t deny that in the past, people turned to House of Highlights’ Instagram account for its dedicated basketball coverage. At one point in 2018, 90% of its content was basketball-related and between 80 and 85% was NBA highlights, said Bernstein. Even during the NBA offseason, 25% and 50% of the posts on House of Highlights were NBA and basketball-related, respectively.
This past September, House of Highlights logged one of its best months ever in terms of audience growth, said Bernstein. When breaking it down, only 2% and 12% of its content had to do with the NBA and basketball, respectively.
“We shifted the content focus to be a much broader reflection of Gen Z interest and passion points,” Bernstein said. “You think about Bleacher Report, it’s sports at the intersection of culture, music, and fashion. For House of Highlights, we want to be sports at the intersection of youth culture.”
For House of Highlights to begin branching out as a media outlet, it had to define its target audience, said Bernstein. When identifying where to broaden its reach with 13-to-24-year-olds, it looked first to YouTube.
Referring to YouTube as the “TV for Gen Z,” Bernstein launched House of Highlights on the Google-owned channel roughly 18 months ago. Early on, growth was slow – but it was like that for Raja as well. As of October 18, House of Highlights has over 1.6 million YouTube subscribers, and in June, it earned over 100 million views. It was the fourth biggest US-based sports media account that month – only behind the likes of Dude Perfect, WWE, and ESPN.
Bernstein’s ability to grow House of Highlights’ social media presence through its desired target audience has particularly impressed Ashley Gordon, the associate director of digital investment at Mindshare, a global media and marketing services company. She notes that House of Highlights’ relationship with prominent athletes has helped its reputation, establishing credibility and honesty with followers – traits that other brands have had trouble replicating.
“The fact that athletes are fans of House of Highlights and actively engage with the brand is priceless,” Gordon said. “Millennials and Gen Z crave authenticity from, and connection to, their favorite athletes and leagues. The fact that this connection was built in the social space, which allows athletes to communicate directly – for better or worse – allows them to leverage that authenticity in other spaces.”
Capitalizing on its YouTube popularity, House of Highlights began shifting its focus towards Twitter. In 2018, the duo joined together to host the House of Highlights Show, a monthly talk show featuring Raja at Bleacher Report’s New York headquarters. One episode featuring former Lakers guard Lonzo Ball was viewed by over 1 million people on Twitter – leading to a second-season renewal that premieres on October 22.
Arguably the most telling sign of House of Highlights’ experimentation is on TikTok. With an emphasis on short-form videos, the social media app is quickly rising in relevance amongst teenagers and Gen Z. In late September, it eclipsed 1 billion all-time downloads and – at one point – was the number one non-gaming iOS app in the U.S.
For House of Highlights, the goal on TikTok – like on Instagram and YouTube – was to find a dedicated fan base over time. But like in the past, it happened at a much faster pace. After launching in late July, House of Highlights quickly gained roughly 350,000 TikTok followers. That number grew to 500,000 by September 15, and by the start of October reached 1,000,000 followers.
Unlike House of Highlights’ Instagram following – which is predominantly male – Bernstein says that its TikTok growth has been largely fueled by female followers. Of its roughly 1.1 million TikTok followers, 55% of them are female – and it shows in the content. With videos ranging from high school football proposals to women’s soccer footage, Bernstein sees it as proof that House of Highlights’ expansion to work is resonating, and working, with different audiences.
“Now when we think about what House of Highlights is, we don’t think of it – and we don’t want people to think of it either – as just an Instagram account with 14 million followers,” Bernstein said. “We want them to see it as one of the biggest cross-platform media brands serving Gen Z – with a really large presence on YouTube and TikTok and a successful Twitter show.”
What Bernstein is doing with House of Highlights as a brand is exciting for others, said Gordon. With House of Highlights, brands didn’t see enough opportunities for quality sponsorship and integration on the platform – but that’s changing with its recent growth and expansion.
Since being acquired by Bleacher Report, House of Highlights has been able to monetize through sponsorships deals with McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Nike, Yahoo, Foot Locker, and Jordan. Being able to demonstrate this is something that Gordon thinks will help make other brands and clients more interested in partnering with House of Highlights.
“With House of Highlights expanding to additional platforms and live events, that provides the opportunity to build more robust, integrated campaigns,” Gordon said. “With that comes more opportunities for measurement, additional KPIs, and attribution, which indicates that House of Highlights is reaching a certain level of maturity as a media property and makes it an easier sell.”
Next for House of Highlights is an expansion beyond social media, said Bernstein. When he and his team were growing up, one memory that they brought into adulthood was their time at basketball camps. Wanting to create a life-long memory for its young followers, House of Highlights hosted its inaugural “House of Highlights Camp” on September 21 at Chabot College in Hayward, California, featuring Warriors players Eric Paschall and Jordan Poole. Camp registration was free of charge and open to the first 150 registered players, who were between the ages of 10 and 13.
The event reached maximum capacity quickly, but that’s not Bernstein took away from it. While House of Highlights has received an abundance of social-media engagement since its inception, it can become very easy for kids to “double-tap” on their phone, he said.
Instead of focusing on the content that came from the camp, he paid close attention to the reaction from the young participants. Those are the people he wants feedback from because, given his long-standing background in digital media, they could be the catalyst for determining House of Highlights’ long-term future.
“I’ve seen things be really hot for one minute and not the next,” Bernstein said. “The goal of House of Highlights is not just to be popular today but to be popular 20 years from now. For us, it’s about building a really solid foundation and connection with our community.”
“We’re just as ambitious as everybody, but I think the main thing for us is making sure we don’t take anything for granted,” Bernstein added. “We’re putting everything in place today that allows us to be bigger in the future as opposed to building a weak foundation.”