For the old and the digitally unaware, House of Highlights is Bleacher Report‘s meme-filled Instagram account, which it acquired in 2016 and is specifically catered to its younger audience. The account, run by 23-year-old Omar Raja, documents daily sports events while also partaking in the culture and jokes du jour. House of Highlights is Bleacher Report‘s way of proving it can be relevant with the young folks.
When I profiled Raja earlier this year, the account had nearly 8 million followers. Now, House of Highlights has hit a big milestone: 10 million Instagram followers. The media company is surely thrilled–expect celebratory posts from Omar and big thanks to the account’s followers this week; Bleacher Report is even changing up House of Highlights’ logo to differentiate it more from its parent company. I recently chatted with the brand’s GM, Doug Bernstein. We discussed this new benchmark as well as where the Instagram account goes from here.
Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Fast Company: How do you contextualize this growth when talking to someone who isn’t enmeshed in the sports Instagram world?
Doug Bernstein: I think 10 million, on the surface, when you say that number, kind of immediately stops people. I was at a baseball game with our neighbors yesterday, and they weren’t aware of what I do and weren’t aware that you can have a job in sports Instagram. Then, when I kind of paused and said, “yeah, the main account is about to hit 10 million followers,” they immediately stopped, and they’re kind of like, “10 million followers? Oh, my god, that’s crazy!” I think just that number in and of itself just has that bigness to it.
FC: Has the growth rate been increasing or stabilizing?
DB: It’s been increasing. It’s been pretty remarkable. When we last spoke [around nine months ago], we talked about maybe gaining 10,000 to 12,000 followers a day. Now we’re seeing growth in the 15,000 to 20,000 neighborhood a day.
And we had a prolonged period growing at the peak of NBA finals during the month of June. We were growing 25,000 to 30,000 new followers a day, which is something that we had never experienced before.
I kind of was like, “Did Instagram do something?” And I went around and looked at all of our competitors to see if everybody was experiencing this same bump, and I did not see that.
FC: As the account has figured out how to monetize and added more ads and branded content to the mix, has engagement changed?
DB: Late last year, we were just kind of kicking off the process of launching with brand partners. It was something that was incredibly new to us. We had–and we still have–a very small team. We were given, at the beginning of the year, a very aggressive revenue target. It’s really exciting that we already, halfway through the year, hit that really aggressive revenue target.
FC: What was it?
DB: I can’t say that. I’d love to tell you, but I can’t say. But it was aggressive.
The coolest thing I would say about working with brands–and how we’ve professionalized and how that’s impacted engagement–is the fact that our work with brands performs equally, if not better, than the organic content.
The last time we spoke, we talked about [YouTube star] Supremedreams, Mark Philips, who we signed. We’ve done three videos with him for Adidas, and they’ve averaged about 1.5-1.6 million views. And the videos that he’s done for Adidas have performed better than the videos that he’s done organically for the account. It’s unbelievable to me that when he’s doing something for a brand it’s going to be 32% better than when he does something on his own.
The way Omar and I look at it is: Instagram is just an entirely different platform for consuming content. You wouldn’t make a radio commercial and put that on TV. You shouldn’t put a TV commercial on Instagram. We haven’t gone about creating television commercials. We don’t have the skills or the talent to do that. What we have been able to do is create commercials that work specifically for Instagram. So everything that we shoot looks and feels like every other post. It’s shot on an iPhone and we do it with one person going out there as if he were just an everyday regular user.
FC: How many brands have you worked with since you first working with them over the past years?
DB: I think it’s about 20 brands.
FC: Have you noticed competitors trying to crib on House of Highlights’ style?
DB: I think there’s always been this pattern of House of Highlights being a leader in the space. You see a lot of content that surfaces on House of Highlights first, and then it kind of makes its way around Instagram and around the internet–and around culture at large. But I haven’t seen competitors try to copy our branded strategy. And if they did, I wish them the best of luck because it is not something that’s easily executable.
I think one of the things that makes House of Highlights so unique is if you attempt to duplicate our strategy or our voice . . . the problem is, people know who Omar is. That voice is so distinctive to Omar that when you see that voice trying to come from somewhere else, it feels so forced.
FC: What do you do when Omar gets old and stops connecting with the audience you’re hoping to attract?
DB: That’s funny to think of Omar as too old. The thing with Omar is he’s always evolving. And I think his voice evolved with the audience. We hope to build with Omar for a long time. One thing you’ll see is maybe he spends less time programming the Instagram account and more time being on-air talent.
This fall we’re launching our first show on Twitter. We’re one of the select few partners that Twitter is working with. And Omar is going to be a front-facing talent for that.
You’ve interviewed Omar. You’re aware of who he is. He has that charisma. He has that kind of “it” factor. He’s got the look. So I think he might not be as involved on the Instagram account five years from now. There may be somebody that’s the new Omar–the 23-year-old next Omar. But he will always be very critical to the House of Highlights brand and its voice.
FC: You went from zero to 10 million followers from 2015 until now. What’s the growth plan from here?
DB: For us, we just don’t want to be a singular Instagram account. We really want to be a brand. As part of that brand, we don’t want to be 100% reliant on one platform.
We’ve seen the way platforms change and the way algorithms change. And we love Instagram, but we know we have to be smart and we have to build the House of Highlights brand on places outside of that platform. As important as it is to grow on Instagram, it’s equally–if not more–important that we’re growing on other platforms.
We launched our YouTube around February of this year in earnest. And over the course of five, six months, we’ve grown that account rapidly. We’re already up to over 250,000 followers. We’ve done 30 million views in a single month. So we’re growing on YouTube really, really quickly.
We talked about the Twitter show. So we’ll be, you know, growing our presence on Twitter. And a big part of that will be having a live Twitter show this coming fall.
I think for us it’s about kind of how do we grow the brand, not just how do we grow the individual account.