LGBTQ Advertising In The Digital Age

commando ad agency
Steve Levin and Luke Anemone of COMMANDO Ad Agency

The Power Of LGBTQ Advertising

LGBTQ consumers in America have an estimated $1 trillion in buying power. Same-sex households tend to have 23% higher disposable income than straight households. LGBTQ consumers are twice as likely to be loyal to brands they trust than straight consumers. 

Statistics like those make the LGBTQ market one advertisers covet. Yet for the longest time, the LGBTQ market was elusive to advertisers. 

That’s not true anymore. The LGBTQ market is one advertisers can now target more easily than ever before. 

Ironically, pinpointing the LGBTQ market came into its own largely because of mobile apps. The app that played a giant part in targeting LGBTQ customers was Grindr. 

Steve Levin and Luke Anemone, founders of the LGBTQ advertising agency COMMANDO, were two of the people tasked with selling advertising for the gay men’s dating app. They put together a sales team for Grindr that helped revolutionize LGBTQ advertising through mobile apps.

As Levin explained during a recent interview with WEHOville, prior to Grindr, mobile apps were primarily a subscription-based service. Levin, coming from a print advertising background, viewed selling ads on Grindr the same way you would sell ads on any other media. 

“Even back then, everyone wanted to find and reach the gay audience, they just didn’t know how to do it,” said Levin, a West Hollywood resident.

There was some initial hesitancy on the part of advertisers to use Grindr since it was a gay hookup app, which somehow made it seem dirty and less attractive to advertisers. 

Levin and Anemone learned they had to confront that perception head on. 

“Who cares what guys are doing on that app, it’s eyes; you have potential customers viewing this,” explained Levin. “It doesn’t matter what they’re doing it for, whether they’re playing a game or trying to find a date or whatever it is, these are legitimate people who are potential customers for you . . . Ultimately, getting customers was more important for advertisers than the potential awkwardness of what people are doing on that app.”

Once they got advertisers to see the potential in Grindr, sales started pouring in. They routinely exceeded sales goals and help propel Grindr, headquartered in the Red Building of the Pacific Design Center, to be one of the most profitable apps around.

Levin and Anemone departed Grindr soon after it was purchased by a Chinese company in 2016.

How LGBTQ Advertising Has Changed In The Digital World

Anemone started his own advertising agency and quickly brought Levin in. They called the new company  COMMANDO.  Using what they had learned while at Grindr to target LGBTQ advertising, they bill themselves as “LGBTQ Advertising Specialists.”

“There’s still a hunger to reach the LGBTQ market, but a lack of understanding about how to do that,” said Anemone. “Many of our clients reached out to us and said, ‘Since we are not ad experts. We don’t understand this environment. Can you help us’?”

While they often still recommend using mobile apps like Grindr when appropriate, they now have an entire arsenal of social media and web-based products to “focus on targeting the community in a way that’s a lot more inclusive of just one app” as Anemone phrased it.   

They’ve learned when they take on a new client, they need to do an assessment of exactly how well the client understands the LGBTQ community. Depending on how much the client understands, a lot of their initial interaction involves educating the client about the LGBTQ community they are trying to reach. 

“We are often educating them on the community and what the community needs,” said Levin. “We certainly made recommendations and did things for our clients that never benefitted us financially, that really wasn’t the point.”

Because the team at COMMANDO is gay, they have a personal understanding of the needs of the LGBTQ community and how messages will resonate within the community. 

They also learned to take a very hands on approach to all aspects of the advertising, making sure the message being sent is appropriate for an LGBTQ audience. 

“The creative side of it is just as important as where the message is being sent,” said Levin. “We like to have our hands on that creative direction. We are very hands on. We do photo shoots. We have a photo library that we can offer to our clients. You can’t pander to this community. You have to speak to us in a way that we will believe that you care about us.”

A lot of psychology goes into ad sales – understanding what the client needs as well as what the customer needs and how the customer needs to be approached. 

They’ve ended up working with a lot of nonprofit agencies that want to target the LGBTQ community. One such campaign was for a Music City PrEP Clinic in Nashville, trying to get more people on free prescriptions for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent HIV transmission. They helped increase Music City PrEP Clinic’s patients from 500 to over 5,000 via the social media and apps campaign, results that surprised even them. 

“If you were to tell me we’d get 200, 300 patients in the state of Tennessee for PrEP on a monthly basis, I’d have told you that you were crazy,” said Anemone. “But we did it.”

A lot of the success of that campaign came from addressing the notion that using PrEP implied you were a whore. Understanding that societal attitude existed in the South came from being part of the gay community themselves.

Another successful campaign came last summer when UCLA needed help getting recruits – males and females, gay and straight – for a COVID case study. In this instance, the challenge was confronting the idea that taking a vaccine was somewhat taboo. 

“In this case, it was super-duper effective, which was really good to see because at the time, it was almost taboo for someone to take a vaccine. It was like you’re on the edge, you’re a risk taker to do it,” said Anemone. “I was a little scared about what the results would be, but literally, within a week, they got all the people they needed. It was amazingly effect and they were extremely happy about those results.” 

They also learned how to target very specific demographics within the gay community. 

“We can get things down to a micro-level,” said Levin. “We can target very specific audiences like never before. Changing miniscule settings in your targeting can completely change the outcome of a campaign.” 

They expect that advertising on mobile apps will continue, but at an even more accelerated pace. 

“The question is what is going to enhance the experience of being on the app?” said Levin. “We want the advertising component to be as much of a factor on why people are on the app . . . we’re so intertwined with our mobile devices that advertising is looked at as a positive thing now because usually the message that you’re getting are really directed at you and that’s important. We at COMMANDO, we’ve been so hyper focused on that ability to target that we uniquely learned how to do it better than anybody else.”

As a result of all this, they’ve really changed the face of LGBTQ advertising.

“[Targeting the LGBTQ audience] isn’t a novelty anymore,” said Levin. “The acceptance level is so high now, whereas back in the Grindr days, we were having to bust down doors to make people see us as legitimate . . .  before, we were doing things on a gut feeling, but now there’s a lot more science involved.”

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