It took a while for me to get my footing. We got in about 2000 when everything was new, and the market was still figuring itself out. So, we, like everybody else, had to find our way.
Who is we?
Sharon Sanders is my fellow co-founder/publisher. She focuses more on the technical aspects. I focus more on the strategy, outreach, marketing, and public relations side.
In the beginning, it was just us, and we were running it from basically the bedroom of the house on laptops. As we stuck with it, we saw the market change. And most importantly, the technology changed. We made sure we kept up, and we were able to persevere. We were able to find our voice, and that was the critical part.
Now, it’s the two of us plus a host of contractors: web developers, programmers, writers, marketing folks, photographers, and PR people.
Describe a business-altering aha! moment.
Two defining moments fit that category. First, I thought all the Black businesses were going to advertise with me. That turned out not to be the case. But that’s when one of those aha! moments happened.
As a marketing company, I knew I had to do some type of newsletter. A lot of my friends were saying there's never anything to do in Columbia, so that’s where we started. We’d send out different events on the weekend that we could go to, and all we would do is slap our logo on it. I started with my friends, sending it out every Friday morning. It was called the Weekend Wing. It was just supposed to be a marketing tool.
Then, I got an email from a lady who said she was interested in advertising in the newsletter. When I called back and started talking to her, I could hear that she was a white female.
I was like, “Well, you know we are a minority publication.”
She said, “I know. All my friends get your newsletter, and a lot of the people I know.”
So, right there, two lights went off. Number one, I had to redefine who I thought my audience was, because clearly, it was other people besides who I thought it was. Number two, I’d never thought about advertising in the newsletter. It just didn't dawn on me. Today, 60% of our income is derived from advertising in that newsletter, and I would have never thought of it.
This is where a lot of businesses go flat; they don't understand their audience. Your audience is individuals, and I realize that my audience were individuals that cared about diversity and inclusion. They wanted fairness in the community. They believed in a certain political ideology, and they wanted to make sure the companies we were working with were other companies that presented that type of mentality. And that's why 40% of my audience identifies as non-minority.
What was the next important aha! moment?
That was trying to figure out who we were. As a marketer, I am good at branding, but I was having trouble branding myself and the company.
We were telling clients we ran a news website. People have the impression that news is free. “So why would I pay?” But in reality, we are equally part news agency, part marketing firm, and part tech firm, because we do a lot of algorithms. Having a conversation with clients about this was very difficult, and when clients are confused, they don't buy.
Then I was watching a “60 Minutes” episode on this whole conversation around identity, transgender and gender fluid, which I’ve never really understood. I'm a heterosexual Black male, grew up in a Baptist church, and come from a traditional Black family, so I knew traditional male and female genders.
I don’t totally get it, but as one person talked about understanding who you are, being comfortable, able to describe it, and being able to let the world know who you are, I just had never heard it put so eloquently; it made sense.
Then it dawned on me that the identity of a business, the brand is the identity of the business, and that we were who we were. I was trying to figure out a word that fit me. But in reality, I was a definition in search of a word. But the word didn't exist, so I created it: a news-style marketing firm.
Once I identified who we were and who I was, I was off to the races. Everybody understood when I said it that way. That changed the trajectory of the company.