Whisper Is Growing Its Audience and Ad Business, but Challenges Loom

The anonymous app is speaking louder to marketers

While some anonymous social media apps are known for their bullying, Whisper wants to be known for being a safe, welcoming space as it seeks to bring advertisers on board.

Whisper, the 4-year-old Los Angeles-based startup that lets users anonymously share secrets with each other, in September opened a New York office as a launchpad for pitching brands and advertisers on targeting users on something different from demographics: emotions.

Steven DeMain and Brian Liebler Whisper

The app has grown quickly, increasing its total monthly users from 20 million late last year to a total that the company says now exceeds 30 million. (A sales deck used by Whisper mentions 17 billion pieces of content are seen each month by 250 million people across its app, mobile and desktop websites, social channels and publishers.)

Armed with machine-learning tools to fight trolls, an executive team expansion and several upcoming ad products, Whisper is canvassing New York's advertising world in hopes of stealing dollars away from competitors like Instagram and Snapchat. Brian Liebler, Whisper's vp of advertising sales, joined this summer alongside svp of revenue Steven DeMain to lead the New York office.

DeMain said the team has met with 70 agencies and brands in the past month. "As a company, we see ourselves as a media company of the future," he said. "We don't necessarily see ourselves as this anonymous social network or this anonymous social media app."

Major brands like MTV, Disney, Hulu, Warner Bros., Pandora and Coca-Cola have already run campaigns on Whisper. More will debut later this year, including a major CPG beauty brand that will be the first to test Whisper's new third-party measurement partner: Moat. Along with letting brands target words that can then be turned into user-generated content featuring branded filters, Whisper also will begin curating viral pieces of content that can then be sold to brands and pushed through social channels.

Winning advertising dollars could be an uphill battle. Many agencies say they're hesitant to bring their brands onboard. Other anonymous apps like Yik Yak (and the now-defunct Secret) have festered, becoming a place where anonymity and vulnerability can't safely coexist. Some apps have gained a reputation as a hotbed for hate speech, threats and other types of bullying. Yik Yak, which recently switched anonymity to user handles to add accountability, has seen its ranking in the iOS app store plummet.

What separates Whisper, and in fact might be its secret weapon, is its machine-learning system that reviews every Whisper to make sure it meets criteria for creating a safe and welcoming environment. Advertisers running campaigns can also request certain words not run alongside branded content.

"It's not just how quickly we can remove content, but also how we can make sure that bad content never sees the light of day," Liebler said.

Still, several agencies expressed concern about wading into still-murky waters. Jill Sherman, svp of social strategy at DigitasLBi, said brands want assurance that the platform will be safe for the users it's reaching. Orli LeWinter, svp of strategy and social marketing at 360i, said her agency is exploring a number of campaigns with Whisper on behalf of entertainment, auto and CPG clients. She likes the potential both for authentic user-generated content in a place where users are more authentic. While Yik Yak is more hostile, she said Whisper is "just emotionally raw."

According to Matt Tepper, chief strategy officer for Wunderman North America, platforms like Instagram are about people displaying their ideal selves while anonymous apps let people reveal their real selves. "With these platforms, we'll be able to get at that human part more directly because there's nothing obscuring it," he said.

This story first appeared in the November 7, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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