A digital media and consumer analytics company that inspires black women to realize how they can change their world through every click they make and every conversation they have
Black Ballad aims to be the leading digital and physical space for creating economic empowerment for Black British women. In pursuit of that, they publish stories about Black women’s experiences, host events, support a vibrant member-only Slack community, and survey their audience members formally and informally. Their relationship with their readers and members is strong.
All of this has helped Black Ballad position itself as an organization that reaches, serves, and knows the 25 to 45-year-old British Black professional woman better than almost anyone else. They had a hunch that knowing this community would not just help them grow their membership program – it would help them unlock other revenue opportunities, too.
In 2020, they tested that hypothesis by packaging their insights and journalism into an editorial campaign about Black motherhood. They used informal feedback from their Slack group to design a survey on the topic, distributed that survey to more than 2,000 women, and used the results to guide editorial coverage, add new knowledge to the conversation around Black motherhood, and secure a paid partnership to bring the conversation to mainstream media.
Why this is important
When people talk about membership revenue, they stop their calculations at the revenue from membership fees. But if you have a strong feedback loop with your members, that relationship can be the genesis of other mission-aligned revenue opportunities.
“Learning about what audiences care about and what they find important are more important data points than just surface-level statistics that capture general population behaviour,” co-founder and publisher Bola Awoniyi says. “If you’ve done a good job defining who your publication is for… then you can craft a business that’s based less on your scale and more on your understanding.”
But gaining the level of member engagement you need for that work requires mutual trust. A core part of Black Ballad’s mission is to create a space online where Black women can feel safe and thrive. By continually fulfilling that mission, they are making deposits on the trust that they draw on every time they ask their members to take time and energy to share personal insights.
While few organizations have an audience as specifically defined as Black Ballad, these same principles can be applied to specific audience segments for organizations with larger audiences.
What they did
Black Ballad knew motherhood was an important topic for their members because it was consistently one of the top three topics members expressed interest in in the member onboarding survey. But the catalyst for the editorial campaign was new, critical statistics on Black women’s material experiences and Serena Williams’ and Beyoncé’s decisions to share their stories, both of which launched the topic into the mainstream.
Black Ballad already had a strong sense of how their members felt about the topic. In May 2018 they created a #motherhood channel in their members-only Slack group. A year and a half later, they used those informal insights to begin designing an editorial campaign around Black motherhood, which they launched in January 2020 with a letter from editor-in-chief Tobi Oredein. (Disclosure: Membership Puzzle Project supported this editorial campaign with a grant from its Membership in News Fund.)
They began that project with a 100+ question survey, which asked questions such as:
- For biological mothers, how prepared did you feel for your most recent child’s arrival?
- For biological mothers, in what ways did you look into your own and your partner’s fertility prior to pregnancy?
- How long were you trying to conceive your first child?
- For biological mothers, during your current pregnancy, how would you rate the care you received from the following NHS [National Health Service] healthcare professionals?
- For foster parents, how long did the process take in being assessed for adoption/fostering from the start of the process, to child placement?
- How different has the reality of motherhood been from your expectation?
- Overall, how would you rate the support postpartum you have received?
- For stepmothers, how involved would you say you are in decisions related to your stepchildren’s upbringing?
- In what ways do you anticipate becoming a mother impacting your career, or in what ways did becoming a mother impact your career?
- To what extent does/did money feature as a factor when thinking about having a family and how big your family should be?
They used facts about the Black motherhood experience as hooks to help the survey spread on social media, beyond their existing audience.
That survey had a 60 percent completion rate and 2,600 respondents, with 40 percent of responses coming from outside London, where Black Ballad is just beginning to grow its membership.
For the next several months they published on the topic continuously, using the survey data to add immediacy and depth to stories on topics like infertility. They continued to drive conversation and gather additional insights for months after by resurfacing data points and quotes via atomic social media posts.
Amid the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020, Black Ballad secured a partnership with HuffPost UK to talk about Black motherhood. For a week in August they took over HuffPost’s lifestyle section, parts of their homepage, their politics podcast, and several other owned assets. HuffPost is also paying the Black Ballad freelancers commissioned to do stories for HuffPost. They also secured a deal with the podcast company Acast based on the motherhood survey results and editorial work that will be coming out in fall 2020.
Black Ballad also fielded inquiries from a university that wanted to license access to the Black motherhood survey data for use in their sociology program and talked to several brands about partnerships. Although the pandemic disrupted both, Black Ballad sees them as indications of future opportunities, which were picking back up at the time of publication.
Awoniyi now thinks of the Black motherhood project as a case study they can use to pitch future projects. He sees opportunities to monetize via sponsorships and grant underwriting, paid media partnerships, membership drives, and partnerships with academia and other institutions who find this type of data useful. They will use the steady stream of feedback from their onboarding survey and the Slack group to identify future high-interest topics worthy of this level of coverage.
Each “package” is likely to have the following elements:
- A detailed kick-off survey to gather quantitative and qualitative insights from Black women
- Editorial commissions based on the survey results (sometimes a specific result was the genesis of a story, but more often the responses pointed to something interesting in the data for Black Ballad to explore more broadly, Awoniyi says)
- Media partnerships and takeovers
- The packaging of data for other organizations who can use it in their work
Informed by their experience with the Black motherhood project, in May 2020 Black Ballad launched the Great Black British Women’s survey, a 100-question survey aiming to find out what issues most influence Black women’s lives. “We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of mainstream media and have one overly dominant voice, but claim to represent an entire demographic of people,” they wrote.
Awoniyi anticipates that revenue opportunities connected to audience insights will “make up the lion’s share of Black Ballad’s revenue” in a couple years. “It’s much easier to rely on a £35,000-a-year deal from a university to license the data than however many thousand users it would take to replicate that in membership fees,” he says.
That doesn’t mean the members are any less central to their mission. Although other revenue streams remove some of the financial pressure to relentlessly grow the membership program, Black Ballad still sees member growth as a key indicator that they’re continuing to create editorial content and experiences worth paying for, and they know they need to continue serving their existing members well for this model to work.
Awoniyi foresees Black Ballad collecting a wide range of data points via surveys, from how much Black women spend on a certain item a month to how Black women in different parts of Britain feel about hiring nannies. Their goal is to build a database that individuals and companies can subscribe to in order to access survey response data stripped of any personal information – particularly appealing amid the move to first-party data.
What they learned
You need to know more about your members than their newsletter open rates. Black Ballad has a multi-layered picture of who a Black Ballad member is – and that makes it much easier to design high-interest, high-impact editorial campaigns. She is:
- A Black woman, typically 25 to 45 years old
- A “socializing young renter” or mother with a young family
- Likely part of an educated family (85 percent of their paying audience has a university degree, 45 percent have a master’s degree, and 10 percent have above a master’s degree)
- Online a lot, especially on her smartphone
- Highly social, likely active on Black Twitter
“We call her professionally ambitious, culturally curious and socially conscious. … She wants to experience the fullness of life and figure out the best way to avoid the pitfalls that systemic racism and systemic sexism have laid before her. Black Ballad’s job is to help her figure out how to live her best life and how to maximize her life with every click she makes and conversation she has,” Awoniyi says. “She is in pursuit of how she can become her best self.”
Conversations are data too. The Slack group began as a safe place for Black women to gather online and build community, and that remains its primary goal. But, Awoniyi says, it has also evolved into “a pipeline of data for Black women who want to talk about issues most important to them.” Although anecdotal, when systematically collected, that data can be used to shape surveys, events, and editorial campaigns with stronger traction.
Monetizing these insights requires deep trust. Awoniyi knows that these editorial campaigns are only possible because they have their members’ trust. In their Black motherhood survey, they asked deeply personal questions about tough topics such as fertility and miscarriages. If Black Ballad takes steps toward becoming a true consumer insights platform, they’ll have to be explicit with their users about how Black Ballad uses their data.
Key takeaways and cautionary tales
It’s all about knowing your community. “The superpower of digital businesses is that they have the power to really understand their audience. More than anyone else, media businesses do very well when they focus on the community they serve and the topics that trickle down from it,” Awoniyi says. “I would definitely encourage other media brands to go back to first principles of ‘What does this audience need to fulfill whatever objectives they have and what do the people who want to reach this audience need to fill the objectives they have? If you’re able to do that, a bunch of revenue opportunities that are specific to the people you’re experts in should come your way.”
And having their trust. The other thing Awoniyi mentions as critical to the success of this approach is trust. Black Ballad is asking women to share their lived experiences with them (albeit in an aggregated, anonymized way) so that they can package that information and monetize it. “Because we built our brand on putting Black women first, trust is implicit. Black Ballad isn’t going to violate any trust that the audience has in them. We want to take a more robust approach in how we sign off usage of that data as we figure out how to use it commercially. But it’s not just that people pay for membership and trust us. In order to make it successful, trust is not just necessary, it’s table stakes.”
Make your onboarding survey work for you. Many of Black Ballad’s ideas originate with their onboarding survey, which includes the question “What three topics are you most interested in?” That survey has a 55 percent completion rate, with a mini incentive to encourage participation: you have to fill it out in order to get your coveted Black Ballad member pin. They use the onboarding survey data to inform everything from what channels to offer in their member-only Slack to what they should focus on in future editorial campaigns. And because its distribution is automated, it’s a form of always-on audience research.
- Black Ballad, survey: Onboarding survey