Growing an Innovative Media Company for LGBTQ Women with Ebone Bell

A few weeks ago I’ve had the opportunity to interview Ebone Bell, the founder and Editor in Chief of Tagg magazine, a media company dedicated to serving the LGBTQ women community covering culture, news and events.

They started seven years ago and today they produce a print magazine and online version, podcasts and events.

We talked about serving their community, expanding to a national audience, the importance of having the right mix of channels to grow and engage their audience. And we also discuss their experience with newsletters, monetization and more.

You can listen to the interview below or just keep reading!

 

To begin, can you tell us a bit about your work and how you got started?

I started a company called Tagg communication September of 2012 and that’s how we started Tagg magazine. It’s specifically a print publication and website geared towards the LGBTQ womens community.

As I was looking around and other competitors and LGBTQ news sources, all I saw were nothing but men, gay men.

So I wanted to start something that shared our stories as well. I started locally, in Washington DC. Eventually, within a few years or so, we were able to branch our content out online as well as with two podcast shows. And that’s Tagg nation podcast and HOMOGROUND, which is a LGBTQ music podcast show.

What kind of content do you create for your audience?

We decided that when we started, we wanted it to be a little bit more lifestyle. However, you know, things are always happening… and the news and politics.

Our main focus is lifestyle. And what I mean by that, we profile people. So for example, on a few covers ago we featured three LGBTQ black women that are politicians, and they’re the first of their kind in their States.

So we want to make sure that we’re telling stories like those, so people can really feel empowered. I always say that it’s important for people to see themselves represented.

We do stories of local people. For example, this last issue. A lot of times we get women who are what we call more masculine, like not really feminine, but they want to wear suits. I’ll personally get emails, like, where do I go to get a suit for my wedding? Or I have this church function, or whatever the case might be. So we did a whole feature series on LGBTQ owned companies and accessories, as well as LGBTQ friendly folks as well.

We do arts and entertainment. Travel, sex and relationships. And then of course we spotlight community members.

How big is the magazine today and how, how many people do you reach?

When we started, I always joke and say, we looked like a little brochure. And again, as I mentioned before, we were local, so we only were distributed in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, what we call the DMV area. But since then, you know, I had a small reach of maybe like a few thousand as far as print readership.

We’ve grown in seven years to about 18,000 plus readership. Even though our publication is free in the area, people do subscribe across the country as well, so that’s also helped grow our numbers. Our website views have changed significantly. Our podcast show started off with a couple hundred listeners and now averages anywhere from anywhere from 3,500 to 8,500 listeners an episode.

Our first issue was probably just a few pages, like we literally started from nowhere. I just hit the ground running with no money and a dream. And so I was able to get a few advertisers and when I say a few, I mean a few like three or four!

As soon as people started seeing that we really had a product, we’ve grown print wise, readership wise. We have a newsletter which has grown from 6,000 to now 15,000 plus subscribers. I’m really grateful people see the importance of the content and we’re adding value to our readers and our listeners.

What were the key lessons you learned over the last few years that enabled you to grow so fast and to these numbers?

The first thing is you can’t do it alone. If I were to give anybody advice as they go in their entrepreneurial journey or start any sort of anything, don’t do it alone!

Because then that’s when things, you know, continue to get hard and you start to grow slow. And I tend to be somewhat of a micromanager. So I was doing… everything! You know, for the first year, maybe even almost two years, I was even distributing the magazines myself and going to three different States, DC, Maryland, Virginia, to drop off our magazines and our pickup location and it just wasn’t feasible!

I had to be working on the business. Today I have an amazing team and delegation is a beautiful thing.

You just find good talent. You find people who are just as excited as you are. To see this company succeed and also sees the value of what we’re doing. That’s probably what allowed me to grow tremendously!

Everything from having a personal assistant to a social media director, to advertising sales director, and then of course our writers and photographers and graphic designers.

That’s probably the biggest thing that helped us grow. Bringing on a team of people who are passionate – it gives you time to build the business.

What are the key challenges you’re facing today in growing distribution for your content?

Obviously, everything is moving online. We’ve seen a lot of publications, but especially LGBTQ publications close out.

So I think a challenge is just making sure that we are keeping up with the times and we’re keeping up with our readers.

We are very lucky that our print publication is so going strong and is growing. However, not everybody is going to pick up our print publication. A lot of people go to our website, listen to our podcast shows.

So how else should we be engaging our readers and our listeners?

We also do events throughout the year to bring our readers and listeners together.

A challenge is always making sure that we’re keeping up. Not changing with the times can absolutely be a business killer. One of the next things we’re doing is a video series coming out called NOW with Fiona.

So I think it hasn’t only been a challenge now, but I think it always has been, and I think it always will be. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing cause I think it keeps us on our toes.

What are you doing to keep your current readership engaged and coming back more often to your content?

I think we do a really good job of looking at multiple ways of engagement. Like we can’t be so focused on Facebook, you know?

I think we’ve succeeded in making sure that we look across all of our platforms at what our readers and listeners like.

Some articles hit better than others. Some episodes hit better than others. So we take that information and, say, our readers love, gifts or means or whatever on Instagram. They love this stuff. So that’s the way to keep them engaged. Or, people love lists like the top 10 soup companies or whatever. Let’s do more of that content and get people engaged on a non-digital level of face to face level.

We do events. So people can come and meet people that are like minded. We create a safe space and we still have our company brand on those events.

And so folks that may not know of Tagg, now they do. It’s just different ways that we can engage people online and offline.

Can you, can you tell us a bit more about how you guys make money? How are you working towards building something that is sustainable?

Everything we have should be monetized. Yes, we’re magazine, but we’re a media company.

So we, we do print, we do digital, we do podcasts, we do videos. We have a newsletter.

We have advertisers on our website and in print. We have sponsors for our podcast shows, and we also have people that advertise within our newsletter.

I’m always thinking, what’s the next thing? So obviously for video we’re looking for sponsors as well. For anything new that we do, the first thing is value. We want to always have value for our readers. That’s how we keep the engagement.

But in order to stay in business, obviously we need revenue. So every decision we’re making, everything that we do, we need to be asking ourselves, how are we making money off of this?

The next question is how do we monetize it and how do we make sure that businesses are connected to the LGBTQ community? Because that’s the value that we have for our advertisers and our sponsors.

How do we add value to the companies and add value to our readers and listeners and still make sure we’re able to make money off of that so we can continue to offer our content.

You guys are deeply rooted in your local community, but you’re saying you’re becoming more and more relevant at a national level. Can you tell us a bit more about the work you’re doing to become an international source of information for the LGBTQ community?

When we started, we were basically Washington D C. focused and then we started realizing that people from across the country were visiting. We were focused on DC, but we had articles that are evergreen that apply to anyone, like how to save money or how to travel as a LGBTQ couple.

Anybody can read those. So once we saw that, we knew clearly was a need there.

Print is working great here where I am, so I’m not going to change that because it’s working and we want to continue to grow that locally.

But changing things online is super easy because anybody can see it. So that’s when we started brainstorming. How do we make the content available to everyone?

We now have an event section on the website. It’s one of the most popular pages on our site because women want to know where they can go to meet other people. Because, you know, there aren’t a lot of spaces. We used to have DC, Maryland, Virginia. Now we changed to cover events to across the country, so any organizer or promoter can go right on our website.

We now have content from across the country. Events in Portland, Oregon to New York, to DC, to Los Angeles. They are listed on our events calendar that gets people excited and going to the site.

We’ve always offered resources. And when I say resources, things like support groups or LGBTQ affirming churches. So we’ll list LGBTQ centers that are in your area when they meet. And we decided to do that across the country.

So it was really about adding value to anyone no matter where they’re located. And then of course, the content changed. So instead of spotlighting local women, I had my team go out. I have writers from all across the country.

I think the good thing about having writers across the country is that they have their ears to the ground. We hear about things that we may not know over here. I believe that when you create a team or a staff, it should absolutely reflect the people you’re trying to reach.

So that’s in a nutshell how we grew nationally. It was just really paying attention and making sure that the content, events and resources spoke to everyone.

You have mentioned you recently added newsletters and it seems like newsletters are having a sort of revival. They’re becoming an incredible platform for new media brands. Can you tell us a bit more about your strategy around that, how you started and how you see it evolving in the future?

It took us a while to grow our list. But I’ve always felt that being able to show up in people’s inboxes is a great way to engage without having to personally meet that person.

Things were tricky because we didn’t know what people wanted. And so it probably took us a year or two to kind of see, okay, what are people opening? What are some catchy subjects we can use? What are people clicking on within the newsletter?

Analytics are so important. Because there’s ways to use your analytics to monetize as well. And that’s kind of where we are right now, we’re seeing people engage and we’re seeing people sign up more. But now, how do we use the data?

So what we’re looking at right now is the importance of segmenting. I think personalizing newsletters is something that is becoming more popular.

We want to look at who are our loyal openers and how do we engage with them because we should be engaging with them a little differently.

I feel like people can be very successful with newsletters if they pay attention. What people are clicking on, what people are opening with subject lines, you have to work for people to open.

You can have a lot of success with newsletters because, obviously, to be able to tell the advertiser we have an 50% open rate is huge. That’s huge. And so for us, that’s kind of where we are.

We’re in a great spot. I’m always trying to figure out how can we do more. And that’s exactly where we are with this newsletter.

Is there anything that you are doing with social media to create even more connection or create opportunities for people to interact with you, with your team, with your writers, and also between themselves?

We try to be creative when it comes to social media. It’s huge. Facebook is huge.
Instagram is huge.

We want to show the great content we have and we want people to click on it and read our articles on our website. That’s basic, but we’ve seen things that really engage people. We’re trying to do more. We don’t want to just post articles.

Contests are huge. We get a lot of engagement as far as people commenting, and then they comment to each other on it. I love to see our readers engage with each other.

Even if it’s just asking question or doing polls on Facebook, it’s amazing how much engagement that role will give you.

We’ve done all, we’ve done other contests where people can win t-shirts. We’ll ask people for pictures or to nominate enterprising women. I really think it’s about how you engage the people on social media.

I think we can all appreciate mindless things, you know, that are just fun. You just want to have fun and you want to talk to other people and you want to find a funny caption so you can win a free subscription to Tagg.

We’re just always trying to stay ahead of the curve ball and trying to figure out what people are gravitating towards.

We have a Tagg scholarship fund. If we do something like “get us a hundred more likes and this organization will be able to donate $100 to our scholarship”. People want to feel like they’re a part of something.

You mentioned the scholarship fund. Can you tell us more about this initiative?

Our Tagg scholarship fund was created two years ago, and it’s specifically an opportunity for our community.

To give young queer women of color access to a college education. Essentially. I looked at the numbers as far as graduation rates and who’s attending college as far as our LGBTQ youth, and the numbers are very low when it comes to black and Brown queer students. Especially women.

And so as a LGBTQ women’s magazine, I wanted to make sure that we are giving back to our community.

Depending on how much we’re able to raise, we give one to two scholarships to young, empowering women that we know have the potential to become future leaders in their community.

Last year we had Ayana Mercer. She’s a young student. She’s very passionate in the field of STEM, and for those who may not know, you hardly see women of color in STEM. So it’s so important to empower young women that have a passion for that. She’s one of the people that received our scholarships this year, and now she’s off to Florida attending university.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us today. Where can people learn more about you and the work you’re doing?

We’ve been talking about Tagg magazine. If you’re interested in that, go right to our website or search for Tagg on any social media platform.

We would love for you to follow us and myself, Ebone Bell.

I would love to talk to you on Facebook on Twitter. I always like listening and hearing from other business professionals, so feel free to reach out.

Written by
Pietro Saccomani

Pietro is the founder of MobiLoud, where he helps site owners grow their audience on mobile with their own mobile apps.

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