How Jarrett Carter successfully built an audience around a niche topic

We invited Jarrett Carter Sr., author of HBCU Digest, to host a workshop on how he thinks about writing for a niche audience. Jarrett’s newsletter is a resource covering news and commentary on HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Read on for Jarrett’s insights.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. You can watch Jarrett’s talk in the above video.

Takeaways

  • Stay intimately connected to your topic. Understand the experiences of your readers and stay up-to-date with what they care about.

  • Share your own personal perspective and analysis. Create trust by explaining the topics you’re covering. Use your voice in a way that resonates with your specific audience.

  • Don’t be afraid to be opinionated. Build respect by providing perspective on your topic from different angles.


HBCU Digest is a newsletter and blog that focuses on historically black colleges and universities, culture, politics, and finance. Over the last 10 years, we’ve built a niche audience, which surprisingly is not just students and alumni and faculty of HBCUs.

We've developed a sizable following that includes state and federal legislators, college presidents of higher education institutions, and industry folks that do business with colleges and universities. We've taken an idea that was initially bred to provide information to a very specific constituent base and diversify it, because a lot of people are interested in what HBCUs are doing and what the challenges are.

Establish trust with your readers

February 19th was the first day that I took my content over to Substack. Incrementally over the last 10 years, from our content being shared on a lot of social media platforms, we have about 80,000 followers on Facebook, 60,000 on Twitter, and 14,000 on Instagram. 

How did we build an audience? Social media is the way. You have to be an effective user of hashtags, and you have to be an effective and willing participant in group conversations. Some of them may be controversial, and some of them are just run-of-the mill giving people information and coverage.

Over the last couple of years, [the journalism] business has transitioned into almost more entertainment than information. You have to be able to balance the two with the consumer. There are so many places where your audience, even if it's a niche one, can get information and cultivate it to help shape their ideas and awareness of certain topics. The best way to do that is by participating in the conversation and having personality when you inject yourselves in those conversations.

The second thing we were able to do that helped us to build our audience is to really focus on breaking news. We have a pretty successful podcast that we've been doing for nine years. We've interviewed in excess of 50 HBCU presidents, as well as state lawmakers, business people, heads of accreditation agencies, and celebrities who deal with HBCUs. We've carved out an area where the most exclusive content that you can get on HBCUs is probably going to be on the HBCU Digest.

Once you start getting high-profile interviews, you start to get information from industry insiders. We're regularly breaking news on hirings and firings of presidents and chancellors, decisions about athletics, marching bands, and policymaking at state and federal levels. People tend to help us to cultivate and deliver content because they know that we can be trusted. The trust factor is major. 

Another thing that helps is if you are a part of your niche audience and understand it. I'm a graduate of a historically black college—I graduated from Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland in 2003. I'm someone who grew up on a HBCU campus, and I've worked at an HBCU campus in administration. I'm an alumnus, and I'm also a donor. So there are a lot of different areas where I experience HBCU culture. 

If you don't have that intimate relationship with your subject matter, it's going to be hard for you to speak with a voice that people in that area can resonate with. You can be a higher education reporter for the better part of 40 years, but covering higher education is not the same as covering historically black higher education. 

If you don't have that intimate relationship with your subject matter, it's going to be hard for you to speak with a voice that people in that area can resonate with.

I see folks [writing about] entertainment, green energy, jewelry—if you love these things and you've been a part of these cultures, your voice is going to be that much more authentic and you're naturally going to draw people to you because they're going to realize, "Well, there's only a few places I can get this information. The person who's providing it thinks just like me. They act just like me. They talk just like me." Particularly when it comes to the lexicon of your topic, the authenticity that you're able to provide in your voice is key to being able to develop an audience.

Take a stance on your topic

You have to have an authoritative voice on what you're covering. I can't cover every single thing that occurs within an HBCU community. There are 100+ colleges and universities all throughout the Southeast and the Mid-Atlantic United States that I choose stories from. But for things that I can't break news on, I have to be able to provide a sense of what that news means. If a president gets fired, then I have to follow up with an editorial or a commentary on what that firing means. 

Don't feel the pressure of having to be the be-all and end-all for all points of information on the subject matter. What you have to be is the one who is willing to take a strong stand on issues or willing to offer really strong advice or perspective on issues, even if you can't break a story. For a lot of us, we're not talking about topics where we’re breaking news. We’re talking about topics that people just have a general interest in.

Don't feel the pressure of having to be the be-all and end-all for all points of information on the subject matter. What you have to be is the one who is willing to take a strong stand on issues.

TechCrunch, for example, doesn't take a lot of positions on Facebook and privacy invasion. They don't take a lot of stands on the Chinese government using apps and software on different people inside and outside of their country. But what they will do is give you feedback on what things mean. Instead of taking an opinion, they will say, "Well, here's a list of the apps that are commonly being used by China to conduct surveillance." That's a way that TechCrunch can provide information and build awareness that really doesn't force them in a position to be political or divisive among their readership.

That's one thing that you have to consider. Are you willing to be divisive? Are you willing to be controversial? Not everybody's going to agree with every single thing that you say, but you would like to have the audience respect everything that you say. Even when they disagree with you, they should still want to come to you for information that is valuable and helpful.

When you think about what we write and how we distribute information, there are two things that you want to do with a niche audience that trusts you. You have to be willing to annoy or affirm. If you do one of those things every single day, you'll have an opportunity to have people comment on your content. You're going to have people sharing your content. They're going to be cussing you out and praising you all in the same breath because you have struck the human interest nerve with your readers.

If you are able to give them information in such a way that they become annoyed that they have to accept what you're saying as a good and sound fact-based opinion, or you affirm their belief in a particular topic area, you’ve struck gold. You don't want to be just one or the other. You don't always want to be the one that's the cheerleader. You don't want to always be the villain. You want to be regarded as somebody who can call it down the middle. 

That way you help to build audiences and communities around two separate ideas. Either I hate what you say or I love what you say, but I respect everything that you have to say. I respect that it's factual. I respect that it's thoughtful. I respect that it's heartfelt. Those are the keys to building that authenticity behind what you want to write.

Help your readers know what to expect

In terms of the technical aspects of delivering our newsletter, I don't deliver my content one story or one article at a time. What I try to do is choose a certain day in the evening and do a rundown of some key stories that have happened in the sector. An edition of the newsletter may have three articles in it. One news brief, two editorials. That's one of the ways I try to make sure that people get a wide exposure to a broad section of news and information at one time.

With my particular sector, you may have somebody who goes to Howard University who couldn’t care less about Paul Quinn College. Or you may have somebody that goes to Morehouse College that could care less about Morgan State University. But by consolidating information, I'm catching their attention with one thing that they may like and giving them an opportunity to be exposed to another topic that they could consider following or another school that they might consider supporting. I don't overwhelm my users with one post at a time—I don't want to fill up their email inbox.

I pace my content out to be 12 to 15 stories a week, which comes out in about 4 to 5 emails weekly. I try to do them all in the evenings so that people get a sense of when they can look forward to the content coming out. You don't want to have too much coming in at one time. You also don't want to have an up-and-down with content where some stories are very provocative, some are breaking news, and some are less interesting to your audience. You want to be as consistent as possible. 

You don't want to have an up-and-down with content where some stories are very provocative, some are breaking news, and some are less interesting to your audience. You want to be as consistent as possible.

If you watch CNN, you know what you're going to get with Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo. If you watch Fox, you know what you're going to get with Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. Even if they're talking about the same topics, you know what you're going to get in terms of personality and delivery. That's what I try to focus on with my newsletter. Diversifying the content, but making the personality and the delivery format much of the same.

Allow readers to test-drive your writing

I give people the opportunity to sign up for free. Of the 12 to 15 articles that I produce a week, about 6 to 7 of those will be free, and very rarely will they be different from the articles that you get as a paid subscriber. Why do I do that? Because I give people a taste of what they'll be able to experience if they subscribe. 

I let people test drive it, to say, "If you like it, you might want to invest in this." If you give them an opportunity to test drive for an extended period of time, maybe they’ll join you for free, or maybe it'll take two months for them to pay. But something will strike a nerve with your content, with your consistency, that will make them say, "You know what? This thing is worth $50." 

My pay scale for subscription comes in three tiers: you can pay $5 monthly for full access, you can pay $50 yearly, or you can pay $150 for a lifetime subscription. That seems to be in line with what my consumer base is comfortable with paying and what they find to be value added for their dollar.

I'm basing my subscription strategy on the notion that I'll be able to stay at a relatively healthy 10% paid subscription base of my total subscribers, which hopefully I'll be able to get to 50,000 total over the next few years.

Know who’s reading your work

I’ll give you a little bit more background about the platforms that I've used over the years. I've used WordPress, Medium, and Squarespace. I have found that Substack really provides the delivery mechanism and the editing platform that I am most comfortable using and that my readers are most comfortable consuming. 

The average reader of HBCU Digest is the middle-aged black woman who makes about $150,000 a year. She might be on Facebook, she probably is not on Twitter, and she's not on Instagram at all, but she is checking her email daily. She probably lives in Georgia or Florida or Houston, Texas or Washington, D.C.

Why is that important to know? Because if you know that your average reader fits a certain demographic, you want your content in some ways to speak to the realities of that demographic. I would encourage everybody who hasn’t done so already to sign up with Google Analytics and embed the code into Substack—the analytics and social media integration are intuitive. You want to get a better picture of who your reader is so that you can speak to their needs and reward them for their investment or for their subscription.

I also love the Substack writing community. For journalists, it's easy to find practicing, former, or aspiring journalists on the platform and to see other writing styles and content strategy. Substack is a great equalizer in understanding how content drives people: all sites for the most part look the same. The type is the same. The strategy on pictures and videos is the same. You get to see what it is about other people’s content that really moves their particular audience. With niche audiences, you get to see how the way that you're developing content provides a certain experience.

Give your followers and your readers a true experience in your particular subject matter area. Whether you're writing about flowers or agriculture, you want to be fully immersed in your topic and use the language that people in the field use. You want to show you're not just somebody who has read on it – you're somebody who is innately connected with it.


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