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Insights on growing a membership-driven media business, from Black Ballad

This week, we hear from Tobi Oredein, Co-Founder and CEO of Black Ballad, a UK-based lifestyle platform for Black British women. She talks about what drove her to found the site, why they decided to launch memberships ahead of the curve in 2016, and the impact of their recent HuffPost takeover. She also outlines how their Future of News Funding will help them better serve and grow their audience outside London.

In the news roundup, the team goes deep into Trump v. TikTok and its implications for publishers, looks at what good news means for The Telegraph around subscriptions, and discusses the BBC failing to close its gender pay gap. A slip of the tongue leads ‘directors’ to become ‘dictators’.

See the full transcript here, or edited highlights below:

What drove Tobi to set up Black Ballad?

It really came from a place of passionate frustration…I was freelancing a lot, and I couldn’t get a permanent job. I didn’t quite have the language to think of why…but being completely honest now, I just didn’t fit what a staff writer at a women’s magazine looked like at that time.

I was kind of like, if no one can see what I’m offering, if I can see that everybody looks alike and I don’t look like these women who are getting these jobs, I need to change tactics. I need to, a phrase we use in media, I need to pivot! And I decided to start Black Ballad because I wanted to give myself a job. I thought, if no one’s going to take a chance on me, I might as well take a chance on myself.

On starting a media company rather than a blog

I realised that my opinions didn’t represent every black woman. And that was why I knew that it needed to be a fully fledged media company. It couldn’t just be based on my opinions and values as a black woman, because with all categories of women, or identities, there’s always nuance.

So I was like, it can’t just be me, it just can’t be my thoughts or feelings and opinions. I want it to be a diverse range of black women who are speaking to another diverse range of black women.

Launching memberships ahead of the curve

We weren’t getting anything in advertising, because advertising, especially back then, was about scale, how big is your audience. Black people make up 3% of the country, if black women make up half of that, that’s 1.5%…people didn’t see the scale, they didn’t see the value. So we knew that advertising was not going to bring us money, especially at that time, because we had a much smaller community then.

So [co-founder Bola Awoniyi] was like, ‘The only way we can make money really, at this point is to have a membership.’ The membership gave us a sustainable income that didn’t rely on brands, but actually put black women first in terms of, we have to make the membership the best it is, so black women actually pay us. And then the flip side of that is by having a paywall, we’re actually protecting black female writers who don’t get opportunities to write about their stories or interview people that they want. They get to do that in a safe space as well.

Proving the doubters wrong

We were so early [to memberships], and if I’m honest, people didn’t think it was going to work. There was a thing of like, this small, independent brand led by a black woman is having the balls to make people pay for content. People did not think it was going to work. But three years on, we are still standing and the membership has grown so, so much.

On the importance of their business directory

Media functions as a platform to advertise businesses, and black businesses don’t often get those opportunities to advertise to customers, because they don’t get funding for their businesses to pay the rates that you would have to pay to be a mainstream magazine.

So for us, that’s our version of advertisement in terms of, we create very fair prices for black-owned businesses to be in that directory, and hopefully do some content with them and around their business to advertise to members. And then it doubles up as a nice lifestyle perk. It’s nice that black women, or whoever’s a member can see this black-owned business and be like, ‘Oh okay, that’s a great product for my hair,’ or ‘That’s a great service.’

Finding voices outside London

One thing that I’ve been very clear on to the team is that I’m not going to repeat the mistakes of mainstream media. And what I mean by that is, there’s not going to be one dominant voice in this publication, and that dominant voice is the black female Londoner.

So for nine weeks later on in the year, we’ll have an editor from a specific region in the country take over Black Ballad with all content from their area…from Scotland, Wales, the North West, East of England, South West, South East. And the stories and content that’s being produced, I’m just so excited for it.

I want to be clear, this isn’t just the beginning and the end of us doing content that really puts a spotlight on black women outside London. It’s just the beginning.

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world

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