Here’s How Social App Whisper Has Quietly Become a Marketing Force

CEO Michael Heyward defends his platform

Headshot of Christopher Heine

When Secret—a much-hyped "dark social" platform—closed shop in April, media observers assumed websites and mobile apps that offer anonymity were just a fad. Since then, the similarly themed Whisper has proven otherwise, touting more than 10 million users, 10 billion pageviews a month and a whopping 1 million app users every minute.

The Los Angeles-based startup is making noise in advertising circles, running promos for Coca-Cola, Hulu and 20th Century Fox, among many other brands. To increase its marketability, CEO Michael Heyward (pictured) recently hired digital veterans Mark Troughton as president and Shelby Huston Haro as the app's first vp of sales. In October, Whisper is slated to run ads for the Ad Council in a goodwill-marketing effort, which follows Coke's anti-cyberbullying initiative earlier this month.

Michael Heyward co-founded Whisper.

20th Century Fox's Poltergeist advertises on the app.

Such advocacy work flies in the face of one of Whisper's hard-to-shake accusations—that it facilitates cyberbullying since its users are incognito. Here, Heyward makes his case on why advertisers should see the light when it comes to dark social.

Adweek: Why do people use Whisper?

Michael Heyward: The core motivation behind sharing on Facebook or Instagram is to show everyone how awesome and cool I am, right? It tends to be very ego driven. The whole idea with Whisper is allowing people to share things like, "Hey, I'm 19, and I've never had a girlfriend." You are probably not going to share that on Facebook.

Is dark social here to stay? Is helping people get things off their chest really a business plan?

[Anonymity is] a kind of a core human need. You know you can go to the Sistine Chapel, which has little confessional booths, and people confess to their priests. This is an idea that has been around for many centuries—way before the Internet.

You have $61 million in funding. Is revenue growing from ad sales?

It's significantly higher than what it was last year, and it will be significantly more, I am sure, next year.

You've just made hires and advertising-minded moves that suggest you're very serious about making money off of brands.

We have been working on some cool ad products for a while that never had a sales component. I think we are at a point where we're being more proactive in [brand-related] conversations.

The platform offers brands keyword targeting that zeros in on users' interests. What specific examples of data might interest marketers?

We tend to look at macro-based trends around places and topics. We can tell you more students talk about cheating on their exams at Cornell than any other university. Or we can tell you what [ZIP codes] have a lot of young people who think Donald Trump is interesting. But they may not be posting about it on Facebook because of whatever stigma there is. I saw a post the other day and someone said, "Both of my parents are hard-core liberals, and I am turning 18 next month. I'm embarrassed to tell them I'm voting for Trump."

Will 2016 candidates like Trump advertise on Whisper?

We don't comment about conversations we have with potential ad partners.

Well, you've attracted big brands like Coca-Cola, 20th Century Fox and MTV, which have run ads. Are they coming back for more?

Yes. We've worked with most of them multiple times.

Cyberbullying was the focus of the recent Coke effort, but many folks have said that your anonymous platform makes bullying too easy. 

People have an affiliation in their head that anonymity equals bullying or saying things without accountability when those two things don't always go hand in hand. We've always been very clear that we only allow people to use anonymity as a shield and not a sword. And we have, actually, over 130 full-time human moderators combined with [automated moderating].

What's something non-Whisper users wouldn't guess?

That in reality, it's about community. I mean, people have gotten married after meeting on Whisper.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.