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It’s part of Black Ballad’s mission to be a safe place on the internet for Black women, who have few places where they can come together online without experiencing verbal abuse. When it launched, Black Ballad was a blog without a paywall, and as their reach grew, so did the abuse their writers and commenters suffered from online trolls – a tradeoff for growth that Black Ballad wasn’t willing to accept.
First, they shut down comments. Then, when they launched their membership program in 2018, they created a member-only Slack workspace to be the safe place they knew their readers needed to feel supported and protected. That Slack group, which Black Ballad moderates with a very light touch, has become a steady stream of feedback on what their members care about and what Black Ballad should be paying attention to.
Why this is important
Many news organizations say they want vibrant online communities, but end up turning those spaces into yet another way to push their journalism out to audience members. For Black Ballad, the community is the end goal – and that’s evident in everything from how they think about the purpose of Slack channels to the community guidelines.
Black Ballad also demonstrates that offering emotional safety and inclusion can be a competitive differentiator – something Membership Puzzle Project also found when studying member-driven movements beyond news. They’ve made it routine to use the insights they gather from being in conversation with their members to make audience-centric editorial decisions. The positive feedback loop encourages further member investment in the community.
What they did
Black Ballad began as a blog without a paywall. That helped grow its reach, but co-founders Tobi Oredein and Bola Awoniyi found that when their articles went viral, the writer and others who engaged in the comment section received significant abuse. Oredein and Awoniyi knew something needed to change.
“Even before membership, we were adamant it be a safe space for Black women and if we can’t provide that on our site, what’s the point?” Awoniyi said.
They removed comments on site entirely while they figured out their next steps. The challenge coincided with the design of their membership program, which launched in June 2017.
They briefly considered reinstating the comments section and making it member-only, but decided that comments would be too limiting. They wanted to enable conversations about anything important to Black women, not just things that Black Ballad wrote about.
They ultimately decided on an invite-only Slack workspace for their premium members, who pay £7a month or £69a year and make up about half of their 1000+ paying members. After they join, premium members get an onboarding email (“Welcome to your private safe space for Black women”) that walks them through setting up their account and establishes guidelines for the community.
They also began sharing important internal decisions in the group, treating it as a de-facto community advisory board. In June 2020 they decided not to send a reporter to cover the Black Lives Matters protests in London because COVID-19 infection rates were still high, particularly among Black residents, and they did not want to put a Black journalist at risk.
They shared the decision in the Slack group before making it public. The positive feedback they got helped them feel comfortable sharing the decision more broadly.
More than 350 members currently have active Slack accounts. There are 15 to 20 channels at any time, on topics ranging from motherhood to TV and movies. Black Ballad has learned over time to keep the number of channels limited and to keep the majority of the conversations in the #general channel so they don’t get too fractured.
They’ve also figured out the rule of thumb for when a conversation in #general should get kicked over to a topically relevant channel: “If this was a WhatsApp group chat, at what point would the messages become annoying?” (That’s typically a thread about 15 to 20 messages deep, although if there are several people engaging and it’s lively, they’ll let a thread go on much longer than that.)
Meanwhile, they’ve distilled the criteria for creating a new channel:
- The topic is a top interest mentioned in the onboarding survey for all members (this is how motherhood became a channel),
- The channel has been requested by many members (there’s a #BBsuggestions channel), or
- There’s strong but limited interest in the topic in the #general channel.
They did that for TV shows like Insecure to avoid spoilers and because not all members watch the show. They also did it for the activism channel in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020 because they knew that some of their members needed the Slack group to be a place where they could go for a mental health break.
For Awoniyi, the best moments are those when they spot members helping each other without any prompting from the Black Ballad team.
At one point a woman in the group shared about a workplace dispute she was having. Another person active in the group at that time worked in human resources, and stepped in to advise the original poster and others about how best to protect their rights in the workplace.
Awoniyi sees many more opportunities to foster peer-to-peer mentorship in the future, as well as a more robust onboarding experience to teach members how to make the most of the Slack workspace and a newsletter sharing personalized recommendations for conversations to check out.
While Black Ballad rarely assumes any sort of formal moderator role in the group, it does pay close attention to the conversations and incorporates the insights into coverage decisions. The informal, ongoing feedback loop empowers the community to play a key role determining the topics covered by Black Ballad, making the site a user-led initiative.
“The Slack platform is for more than talking about the articles. At its credence, it is a pipeline of data for Black women who want to talk about issues most important to them,” Awoniyi said.
What they learned
“When it comes to community, the best, first thing to do is listen.” You can set up all the Slack channels you want in the world, but if they’re not based on things you think you have heard, they’re not going to be successful.”
But editorial discretion remains key. “Yes, getting direct feedback from listening is useful,” Awoniyi said, “But that’s not always an indication of what a community wants, its an indication of what they’re talking about right now”
It’s about the intersection of your needs. Awoniyi says the key is creating a space that is suited for what your organization wants to do, and finding where that intersects with what your community members want to use the platform to discuss and explore. “The more you can make those two things align, the better the platform should perform,” Awoniyi said.
Key takeaways and cautionary notes
Community members can tell when community isn’t the point. Community members can tell when an online community exists solely to broadcast your journalism at them. The vibrancy of Black Ballad’s community has a lot to do with how little Black Ballad tries to steer the conversation any particular way. That also means that the insights they gain are more organic.
Underpinning all of this is a clear sense of the purpose of Black Ballad and, by extension, the Slack group: to create a safe space online for Black British women. It is not about exposure, or reach. Black Ballad does not treat the group as a way to get people to read more of its journalism (although their journalism does often end up discussed in the group, and the staff might share it if the topic comes up organically). Choosing an invite-only Slack group over comments or a Facebook group limits the reach of their work, but it also deepens the trust and relationship they have with their existing members – and for Black Ballad, that’s a worthwhile tradeoff.
- Black Ballad, resource: Slack community guidelines
- Coral Project, resource: Community guides for journalism
Disclosure: Membership Puzzle Project supported a separate project at Black Ballad through its Membership in News Fund.