By Anthony Caponiti • 9 min read
In his role as VP & GM of House of Highlights, Drew Muller and his team oversee strategy, audience growth, revenue development, programming, and content creation.
This includes including all social media accounts and IP (e.g. Creator League, BroadcastBoys) for the HoH brand. Under his leadership, HoH has become the fastest-growing US sports media brand on Instagram and the first sports media brand to reach 50 million followers on the social media platform.
- Authentic voice and persona at scale
- Engagement over vanity metrics
- Content decisions based on art and science
- Central focus on creator-led content
In a chat with Hashtag Sports from the Warner Bros. Discovery offices in the Flatiron District of NYC, Drew tells us how HoH differentiated itself early on Instagram, remained committed to its brand voice and persona as it scaled on the social platform, and evolved into a media brand that collaborates with some of the biggest blue-chip brands, athletes, and creators.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hi Drew. Thank you for joining us, and congratulations on a huge milestone in the nearly 10 year history of House of Highlights (HoH) reaching 50 million followers on Instagram.
What makes HoH the fastest growing US sports media brand on Instagram for the last four years running?
The biggest element has been voice and a commitment to that voice so early on HoH was a different thing in Instagram than anything else that media or other types of sports publishers were doing and the difference was that highlights and content were coming from an individual like a person's voice.
HoH felt like something that you would see in a group chat or something that would be texted to you and keeping that commitment to how we deliver content, how we choose which highlights go up, and which viral clips go up has been the difference.
Over 10 years, as you said, it's easy to jump on different trends or take lefts or rights depending on how platforms change or algorithms change, but the way that the HoH feed looks and feels right now is very similar to how it looked and felt eight or nine years ago despite having 49 million less followers than we do now.
People see and recognize that, and it's given people a reason to follow HoH in addition to any of the other accounts that they follow. HoH feels different and that's important in a cluttered space.
HoH has more Instagram followers than the NFL, MLB, NHL, and MLS combined. More than Overtime and Sports Center combined. More than F1 and NASCAR combined. More than Adidas, Puma, and Under Armour combined.
More than any athlete in the NBA besides LeBron James and Steph Curry. More than any athlete in the NFL, MLB, NHL, NASCAR, MLS, and F1. More than Netflix and Disney.
What does an audience the size of 50 million followers mean for fans of HoH?
For fans, it comes back to what's been in the bio for a really long time which is everything you need to see in sports and youth culture. What has allowed HoH to command such a large audience is that by following HoH you're getting the kind of entire sphere of what you would want to see as a sports fan whereas some of the league accounts or entertainment accounts are a little bit more singularly focused on just football, just basketball, etc.—so an advantage of HoH is putting your arms around everything that a young person would want to see in their feed as a sports fan.
What does it mean for brand partners and advertisers?
For brand partners and advertisers, the biggest difference is that it doesn't feel like you're just buying a niche audience or an influencer account. What has enabled HoH social sales to really take off is that we're now getting top of the funnel mass awareness campaigns for blue chip brands that want to spend millions of dollars to reach millions and millions of people.
There isn't a better place to do that than on HoH Instagram. There's no account that is doing more scale and is able to deliver both for a sponsored perspective and a branded perspective to that large of an audience in the US.
Marrying it with amazing creator relationships and our branded content studio, Playmaker, gives us the ability to master each type of top of funnel campaign but also get down to direct response campaigns and smaller brands that want to speak to a more targeted audience that maybe are only NBA fans or only creator content fans. We can get specific with how we make packages.
Audience scale is important—no doubt—but engagement is the key metric of success in reaching an audience in a meaningful way. In Sept 2023, HoH drove more total views and more engagements per post than any other US Sports Media.
What does audience engagement and fan engagement mean to you, and how does HoH think about it in terms of content strategy?
It is everything. I don't think that's hyperbolic. There’s been tons of moments where we could have pursued different strategies to only chase views, only chase scale, only chase followers. If you ask the social programming team that sits outside these doors, they will tell you the most important metric is engagement per post.
The reason for that is HoH has always prioritized the audience's experience and trust. As Instagram users, it's easy to get alienated from accounts that post too much or lower the bar of content—so we’ve always focused on protecting follower trust and the expectation of a high bar of content.
We often remove a post that HoH puts up on Instagram that doesn't meet that bar of engagement and expectation from the audience and often debate which posts meet a certain bar. The hardest part of the job but the most interesting for social programmers is to say I really believe in this content while someone else is saying I don't think it's there. The vast majority of decisions are no. We typically post fewer things than we think could work just because we really want to have that high bar for engagement.
And again, as soon as we waver from that approach, we start to see follower counts drop and metrics that attach to that kind of drop in scale too.
Whether an algorithm changes or the carousel reels, whatever it is, if people are engaging with the content, each post that you choose becomes that much more valuable and important.
How much of your audience engagement strategy is determined by data science and algorithms versus what you just know is the pulse of the sports zeitgeist?
We talk about this a lot—the art versus science part of it. You see a lot of accounts that go way too far into the science part, and it feels calculated, stodgy, and a little bit too “publisher-y” is the way that I would put it. If it's way too based in numbers, you begin to lose voice and purpose. How the content is presented is that it should feel like an individual is making the decisions and not a big publisher.
You also see folks on the other side of the spectrum where it's too much art and too much gut. There's importance, I would say, to creative expression and telling certain stories that maybe aren't always the most engaging but are important from a brand perspective. At the end of the day, what social media has allowed is for brands to get direct real-time feedback and that's obviously so different than the TV era.
So for HoH, it's really been a matter of saying we can believe in something to the “nth” degree, but if fans don't engage with it and the feedback isn't positive, it doesn't matter what we think. We exist to serve the people that are saying yes I want the content. All that to say, it is a balance.
We are daily, minute by minute, looking at numbers we have different benchmarks for when an Instagram post goes up in terms of how much engagement it’s supposed to see—at the five minute mark, the ten minute mark, the fifteen minute mark and so on so that we can be as objective with evaluating the post’s engagement as possible.
We have always instilled in the social programming team the approach that you should program for the audience and the channel but not for yourself. There a lot of times you can get a little bit too personally attached to content decisions, and that's where posts usually take a right or a left.
It's really about being celebratory, relatable, accessible, raw, and authentic and not trying too hard, and as long as content decisions have funneled through that framework, we’ve maintained success by staying true to our voice.
How important is it to your content strategy to lean on the ethos of HoH’s origins while evolving the voice and content to where the audience is today and where the audience is going tomorrow?
The origin story is what defined the brand voice and continues to define it. If it wasn't started by Omar Raja in a college dorm room as an individual presenting content, you don't have that first person approach to captioning and to packaging and the account feeling like a teenager doing these things on their phone or on their laptop.
Keeping that ethos as the core North Star of the voice has been the difference maker. With that said, HoH has matured in different phases of the brand based on what the opportunities are for us internally within Bleacher Report and Warner Bros. Discovery but also with league partners.
Ultimately, it's really been about finding that balance of never wavering from what makes the account and the voice really special but, at the same time, leveling up how we approach content planning and partnerships with major creators, athletes and leagues.
We have the capability to go into a room and interview the biggest athletes in the world and at the same time go into a meeting with a major sports league and say this is why HoH is justified in asking for more opportunities or more access to games.
Naturally, it has been a growth process going from one person to three people to five to ten to now upwards of 30 people and hiring for many different skill sets along the way that enable you to level up the game.
How much, if any, do HoH creators and shows influence or accelerate audience growth on Instagram?
It's been a huge part of it, particularly the creator-led content that we've done. If you look at some of the other big US sports media companies that are in the same general category of Instagram followers, they haven't really branched into creator-led content and the relationships with the creators that young people love most, and that's been a huge reason why it's worth saying “yes, I'll also follow HoH in addition to whatever I've already been following on Instagram.”
As we move into 2024, the average Instagram user is becoming more and more selective about who's worth following and how efficient it is to follow a single account versus maybe five accounts similar to it.
For HoH, it’s critical to our strategy to marry your daily diet of sports highlights with your daily diet of amazing user-generated content with your daily diet of your favorite creator who maybe you usually only engage with on YouTube or Twitch but is also on HoH now.
It’s a much more engaging experience to say I get everything that I want to see from HoH and my daily feed, and again, that's been a huge catalyst to the HoH follower growth in areas that maybe we wouldn't have brought fans in if we didn't lean into a creator culture and creator-led content.
HoH is active on Threads. In the backdrop of 50 MM followers on Instagram, where does Threads fit into your strategy right now, and do you think branded content can succeed on Threads?
It is a growing part of the strategy. I would say it's kind of like in that test and experiment phase. We've always been very intentional about whether we think we can truly add value on a platform, and win.
For example, you don't see HoH very active on X (formerly known as Twitter) because to win there would require so much resource and effort, especially when Bleacher Report already does that so well—it is the most dominant sports media brand on X—that we don't feel like we're necessarily adding enough value relative to the investment.
With Threads, the first couple of months has been evaluating if there is a value-add lane for HoH to come in and say, okay, if you're on Threads, it's worth following HoH because we're doing something different.
We’re still in that experimental phase to see how many people engage and create a habitual behavior to return to Threads and spend time there, but early on, we've seen surprisingly quick growth on the platform.
We already have more than 2 million followers on the HoH Threads account, and we're excited by the opportunities it creates to do more static content or just text-based content, which is different from what we do on Instagram.
From a brand of content perspective, Meta has been best in class at creating partnership tools for publishers to use and some of those tools have already extended to Threads. So it's really just a matter of the audience behavior and being able to demonstrate month-over-month habitual use of content on the platform so that when we go to market we're able to say these people are here and deeply engaged and not kind of here one week and gone the next week.
I'm definitely optimistic about Threads heading into next year once we kind of have a good six months or so of data looking at how people behave on it.
Is there a specific moment or HoH team success this year that stands out to you and that you are particularly proud of from a fan engagement perspective?
Yes. Hitting 10 million subscribers on YouTube was a huge moment for the HoH crew just because we were the first sports media company to do that.
Crossing that threshold is very rare on YouTube—less than 1,500 channels globally have 10 Million subscribers—so being in that rarefied air was a really special and important moment. On a human level, it still makes the team kind of go crazy anytime we get those Tier 1A athlete engagements like LeBron or Ronaldo on the HoH Instagram account.
Celebrating LeBron's NBA Year 20, and then seeing that he wants to repost that because he feels he's celebrating that moment with us. It’s a fun moment.
Well, you said it's community driven and celebratory.
What about Messi?
He's engaged with HoH on Instagram, but he doesn't follow. He’s one of the white whales. I think he only follows like 300 accounts or something. Maybe he has a burner account that he follows HoH on, but he hasn't come around yet.