Dream and Hustle

How to Create a Digital Storytelling Agency for the Black Business Community

Thursday, April 25, 2019

As the digital information economy grows, digital content will need to do more than provide data points. Digital content has to tell a story to create connections with humans. Web sites will need to be updated with background stories, sales campaigns need to convey a theme and events need to serve a purpose and prideful moment to create a landscape behind doing business and interacting within our community.

This demand for storytelling on digital platforms created an enormous opportunity for those who can tell stories for others and reach the critical mass. In the European fintech industry for example, marketing people and writers are being hired at a greater rate than programmers for firms to help convey the mobile-first lifestyle story. Think about it – you will need to say more than scan a QR code or tap your device over the terminal – you need to describe the mobile-first lifestyle as a story of interaction.

Black communities face a huge challenge telling stories because of the illiteracy rate within the community as well as cultural lack of self-respect such as fun-shaming and success-shaming progressive black people from telling a great story about themselves. Owning our story is necessary to owning our freedom and a critical component of establishing black empowerment is the communication framework.

With that said, let’s revisit and refurbish Great Migration black typing pool models we used to do 100 years ago and apply it to our current digital age.

The Story of Black Stories

If you look at our ADOS history, we failed to capture a lot of quality stories about our journey to today. When blacks traveled from the South to the North during the Great Migration in the early 1900s, many efforts were made to establish storytelling for the black community such as black newspapers and black radio to keep the black community informed. However, the black storytelling framework problem in the early 1900s was a “chicken and egg” battle of how to fund the operations. On one hand, black businesses don’t got money to advertise and the other side black media has to accept “seedy” advertising revenue from shady sources like the juke joint and promoted the club instead of promoting the black-owned preserves and jarring company.

Today, we have a perverted form of storytelling in the black community. Shallow and rent-seeking black media like Black Enterprise focusing on bougie stuff and cornball conferences; black bloggers like Media Take Out spreading lies and rumors on black celebrities and vloggers on YouTube and Instagram talking about black relationship conflicts or conspiracy theories and ineffectual sports and politics. Black nightclub flyers got light-skinned women with their curves sticking out. That’s what we call black media and black storytelling nowadays.

If we look at other emerging groups around the world, we see 21st century storytelling collectives from social media armies, chatbots, product review writing camps, search optimization specialists and influencers designed to convey stories that serve their interest and their base. Why do you think Wired, Fast Company and CNET keeps their magazines stuffed with white male faces portraying Silicon Valley as the tech mecca in their propaganda tech magazines? Because the global tech industry is very diverse from Indians to Chinese to blacks in America to women but Silicon Valley used storytelling with tech media promote the image of tech as white male privilege as the narrative.

We got to change this narrative in the black community and start focusing on authentically telling our stories. Because right now, we got a non-ADOS people running black radio, running black blogs and running black video channels that exploit ADOS with negative programming for personal profit.

The Storytelling Opportunity

African-Americans need to be aware we approaching a new paradigm of ledger-first content; meaning the content we will consume will come from our banking ledgers, not some editor-in-chief trying to shape a biased story narrative.  There is no better source a person read and take seriously than a receipt, a billing statement or any statement because the ledger is their personal money. With new paradigms such as Open Banking, we are going to be able to drive content and storytelling from people ledgers instead of some cornball magazine trying to “influence” us.

Another paradigm factor is reality-based programming and documentary-style reporting. These are the formats you see on NPR and video shows like VICE showing a narrative where the person gets to speak their testimony with another person reporting on the facts and show the story as-is. The days of scripted fluff articles like Blavity format showing a photo of a smiling cornball crossing their arms are over – the people want to hear the NPR/Vice style straight from the person who is the story and told from their own words and expressions. 

Let’s be very clear and there is no going back - the days of black boule cornballs writing fluff articles at Black Enterprise magazine and Blavity are over – we are now in a new paradigm where businesses can tell their own stories to their consumers, distribute it through direct-to-consumer via social media and local digital media spots and this transformation is a very big opportunity to help black businesses  and entrepreneurs engage with the community through storytelling.

Real World Storytelling Use Case in the Black Community

Storytelling is not the same as copywriting. Storytelling is becoming an author or bibliographer of a business as a stakeholder. A storytelling agency becomes part of the venture/entrepreneurial journey. The storyteller knows the background of the founders, the history, the turmoil. For example, Mary Jo Foley entire writing career was covering Microsoft story while Walt Mossberg was an Apple columnist his entire career.

A good storytelling agency would know not just the businesses in their community, but the street corners and who used to be run a business, what school they went to and be able to described in local detail to connect with the audience about Lady Ann dog barking at the kids as they walked to school. This cannot be an outsourced operation – the storytelling has to be embedded in the community.

If we look at the digital storytelling needs of businesses and entrepreneurs in today black community, here are some examples of use cases:

Services. These are auto mechanics, nail salon, barbershops, cleaning solutions. In the black community, most of these stories are legacies and come-up where a person father or uncle or aunt may have inspired or handed down the business. Backgrounders are good for storytelling, then allow them to talk about the dedication to service to their community.

Retailing. When it comes to retailing with paradigms like drop culture and pop-ups, a theme is definitely required and hype has to be built for the release of new products. The store owner or employees should have to describe the product in front of a camera or a podcast to engage the readers and this is told as a documentary.

Membership. A sense of belonging or exclusive access is the storytelling approach for membership models. Talk about the “culture” and who fits and who does not fit. Activities and events and new recruitment drives as part of the story that is passed around as well. The senior members engage in the depth of their organization while new members cover the trial by fire.

Third Spaces. These are cafes, lounges, public spaces, churches, exhibits and more there the story is location, experience and entertainment. Who is coming to town or what exhibit is being showcased? Make the space a staple of the community in the storytelling where everybody will learn about it and become more aware of the surroundings in their community.

Entrepreneurs and Talent. Avoid the bragging about accomplishing this or that which is just ego-stroking. Our research around the world show that what is best covered is addressing the daily life and challenges and pulling in the audience if this person going to do next – the basis of most reality TV shows – this is the type of storytelling to focus on – a natural life the people can identify with.

One thing is very important in storytelling –cover the stories of adversity and challenges as well as the good things regarding a venture or entrepreneur. If there was a bad, rude customer cussing out the staff, make it a story and learning lesson on how the manager listened to the rude customer and didn’t escalate and sought to resolve the matter. Just publishing this story may help the other merchants in the black community learn to manage their relationships as well.  Check out negative feedback and ask your clients if they like to cover their side of the story with your agency to publish and disseminate throughout the community.

The reason why is the past problem is we like to only write happy and goody articles about black people going for theirs and then when a challenge come along, the bad thing is treated as a scandal or controversy. Focus on the good and bad, the glories and the setback to show a well-balanced journey and story to the top because the only story that mattered is that entrepreneur or that business didn’t give up – that’s the real story to capture as a storyteller of black people and the black community.

Establishing the Ecosystem

Your storytelling agency need the stories produced to be distributed to channels that reach the people in the community. While social media comes to mind, you have to compete with everybody else posting selfies and clickbait on a reader social media timeline. Instead, you want hard touchpoints throughout the black community to show where your stories end up.

Print Magazines. We saw how effective lifestyle magazine worked in Tokyo and Hong Kong targeting a subculture with stories, products and categorization. Paid magazines can be acquired by QR codes and distributed as PDF files or sold in local stores. Free magazines are more promotional and can be positioned for pickup at third spaces like train station entrances.

People Power. People can pass out flyers on busy corners, perform flash mobs, carry promotional signs and give out trinkets. People can show up in numbers at parties and events as the fan base. People who are engaged show other people they can be engaged as well. People also spread the message word of mouth and educate others when they make mistakes. People are the best distribution in the ecosystem.

Public Access TV. This is the most underutilized resource in the black community. We all know shameful embarrassing history of black crazies talking goofy on black-orientated public access TV. Today, we have better filming and recording setups and actual social media influencers and the type of topics to make public access TV work for us.

Treat these local channels as your primary ecosystem as social media is more passive in storytelling in communication. If you think about it, you use social media on YouTube to showcase a public access TV programming for replay, use Facebook to show videos of people power in the streets and use Instagram and Twitter to showcase pictures and previews from print magazines. Use podcasts to talk about the street events as news and information instead of trying to invent news on social media.

Establishing Operations

A storytelling agency can be bootstrapped from almost nothing – we can even go as far and say you can start your business at a public library computer with the client present using web-based text-editors. Or you can as big as securing a nice building with chamber of commerce style amenities or partner with a co-working space as an additional service. The startup and ramp-up options are about as bare bones or full accommodations as you need it to be.

For initial research, we looked at a Japanese anime on Netflix called Violet Evergarden where the series theme centered around a European letter writing agency called CH Postal Company during the first World War in an alternate universe. The anime was very detail in the letter writing business model where it gave us an idea of how to launch the model. In the anime, the CH Postal Company was structured in the following format:

Reception Area. Where clients come in and meet with a writer to work on a story. The business owner is greeted by a receptionist and either has an appointment or a walk-in to communicate what is on their heart to tell as a story.

Writing Department. This is the writing pool area that create the content. These are writers who sit behind the typewriters and create the content. The client is speaking to the writer who translate their message into a summarized and well-written letter.

Billing and Reporting. This section is responsible for account payable and account receivable and reporting on the performance of the business as a whole. The invoices are sent out and payments are collected.

Sorting and Delivery. This is important – when the letter was written, the letter was sorted in a slot and delivered to the recipient of the letter. If we modernized this it would be an Enterprise Service Bus where a document is submitted to a hub and transformed to be sent to the various appropriate channels.

I really loved how the business model was established in this anime and it taught us a lot on how to proceed. Let’s talk about how we can get a storytelling agency started in the black community.

Acquire Computers. We can get cheap laptops or small desktop computers that are 3-4 years old for around $100 at pawn shops and used computer stores easily. Chromebooks sell cheaper for around $50 and just as good because the focus will be using open source software to create documents and other content. What is highly recommend is to get good corded USB keyboards to type on.

Obtain Cloud-Based Source Control. If possible, we recommend Microsoft DevOps but the most popular option is GitHub. Both platforms use Git protocol which will allow writers to check-in their works and review previous edits and allow other writers or senior staff review and make corrections if necessary. Once the document pass final review and final check-in revisions, the document can become a published document

Obtain Cloud-Based Storage.  There are plenty of free cloud services from Google Drive, iCloud and OneDrive. What you want to do is create a proper information repository to manage the documents of both your business and your client. Like the “sorting hub” in the example we showed above, create a /clients folders with an /inbox subfolder for incoming material to write against and /outbox subfolder to deliver to the channels or customer. Then you create an /operation folder for yourself to store templates such as contracts templates to sign up new customers and invoice templates to fill out and send. You can even store your spreadsheets of your financials in folders on the cloud if you like but always keep a local copy backup.  Before I continue – never let anybody on-premise know about the cloud – you can use a computer to be a file server to drop files in then push them to multiple cloud providers as a backup.

Introduce Yourself to Potential Clients. Show up at network meetings or the business presentable with a business card. Make sure you tell them you are not a social media promoter and not a marketing agency and your goal is to tell your story to reach the people directly. Make sure the business understand you are focused on the local community and creating a communication framework to tell the stories to engage the people and places together. Create a leads database most people call a CRM and there are free one,

Meet Face-to-Face with Client for Story Authoring. You are not providing a writing service; you are an author and creating a story and this story journey has many chapters. It is important you sit down physically with the business and let them talk and listen to what they say. If you do not have an office to meet, use the business location to sit down or meet at the local diner or café to talk.

Distribute and Bill. Keep in mind your story will have different touchpoints – it could be a poster on the barbershop wall clients read; it could be on the restaurant menu first page or part of a pop-up shop swag bag. You will need to know everywhere the story should go based on the type of business and entrepreneur you are working with. Once the story goes out, you send a bill or an invoice for your client to pay. You can establish a tab and aggregate the individual works into a monthly statement.

For the black community, we recommend invoicing – there is no real startup costs to you to demand payment in full and the reality is black businesses do not have a lot of money upfront. The ultimate goal is to get the businesses in the community more business through storytelling and they find value to stay a client.

A Critical Component of Empowerment

The community cannot be empowered until they own their own story. We cannot rely on so-called “black media” that is basically focused on bougie stuff; the greatest black business stories are the stories from the entrepreneurs and black businesses themselves.

It is easy to setup a storytelling agency with today cheap access to computers and free wi-fi and free cloud services. The real work is not real work, it’s a real passion to tell the world who are the people in the community striving to serve, produce and uplift their neighborhood.

One benefit you should quickly realize is by becoming a storyteller of the community, you rise in prominence with the bankers, doctors and lawyers in the black community in terms of social status. This is a great opportunity in the shifting landscape of digital content distribution and we encourage local entrepreneurs looking to create a venture look at the storytelling model to start having a local voice heard in their local communities.

The Photo

The photo above is a historic example of stories not well-publicized as history of our people. The man standing is William Coffee, a leading cryptologist and code-breaker during WWII. The people in the photo is who he hired and he is the one standing in the picture. This is his story from the NSA gov web site:

In April 1946, William D. Coffee was awarded the Commendation for Meritorious Civilian service for his wartime leadership in exploiting critical enciphered messages. During a time of harsh racial discrimination, he excelled and became the acting supervisor of a segregated office that made impressive contributions to the nation's cryptologic achievements.

In June 1944, Mr. Coffee's skills were called upon to recruit African-American cryptologists to work at Arlington Hall. When the head of the cryptologic branch of what was now the Signal Security Agency was having trouble finding qualified African-American cryptologists, Mr. Coffee took a leading role in recruiting them. He brought on board about 100 African-Americans with proper qualifications for cryptologic activities.



Ed Dunn

From Chicago West Side to Worldwide