Behind The Click: Ken Gibbs
by De’Juan Galloway
Are you friends with any of your favorite African-American brands on Facebook? Perhaps you follow them on Twitter or you’re a loyal visitor to their websites. Whatever connection you have with them, more than likely, this young, innovative entrepreneur has been instrumental in building that brand online. Meet Ken Gibbs, a techie at heart who has taken part in developing some of the most important African-American media properties online including Essence.com, AOL Black Voices and Interactive One. He is one who believes that African-Americans should not be waiting on a Fortune 500 company to create media products for them. Instead, he believes they should take advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities in our age of do-it-yourself media. He has certainly done so himself with his online strategy company, Moving Market. We recently caught up with Gibbs to discuss his varied experiences with, and his insight on, digital media brands, trends and innovations.
TAP: What drew your interest in technology?
It has been a passion of mine since I was a fourth grader in Massachusetts, where I was a part of one of the first public school classes to get computers. Right away I loved it—I won a graphics contest [making animated movies] on Logo, which was an early graphics program. Fast forward about ten years and then came the internet and AOL. The opportunity and possibility to go anywhere and do anything, without being physically there, was fascinating.
TAP: What were some of your first professional experiences with online technology?
I started out at Design News, a technology magazine. This was a time when companies were going online. I followed my skill set and passion as a technical writer, writing on programs [about Rockets]. I was a young guy coming out of school looking for ways to get rich quick and repay student loans and the opportunities as a result of the dot com boom seemed very attractive. I started applying online to web companies that were based in Massachusetts. I ended up at Africana.com as a staff writer and eventually became the music and entertainment editor. Shortly after I joined the company, we were purchased by Time Warner. It was like my dream come true. I began at an African-American start up that got the opportunity to operate on a larger scale. Following the Africana.com acquisition, Time Warner merged with AOL and AOL bought Black Voices from The Tribune Company. Black Voices at that time was the second largest online African-American community. There was no Myspace or Facebook. The Tribune Company did not offer much content so they combined their community with Africana’s content. As a result, we built AOL Black Voices into the number one leading product it is today.
TAP: What are some other significant experiences you’ve had in the digital space?
After I left Black Voices I went to Interactive One and helped the company with Blackplanet.com, Newsone.com, TheUrbanDaily.com and worked on a strategy to bring their radio stations online. Subsequent to Interactive One, I joined Essence.com as the site development director. I helped them with the relaunch of Essence.com. The relaunch was already in process when I joined, so I mainly helped them with digital initiatives they had planned for the coming months. They did not have a strong digital presence so this was one of the things I tackled. We achieved record ticket sales for The Essence Music Festival through digital only awareness.
Essence also has The Real Black Network, a vertical ad network that, prior to Essence’s management, did not have the best reputation with publishers and was managed by a third party organization. Essence saw the opportunity to repair the image in the digital public. The intention was for The Real Black Network to benefit Essence not only from a revenue stand point, but from a traffic and digital positioning stand point as well. I rebuilt RealBlack.com and managed the site in house and got publishers to bring in traffic to Essence.com. This accounted for 45% of Essence.com’s traffic as of December 2009.
TAP: With such an extensive resume in the digital space, what are some of the challenges you have encountered? How have you overcome them?
There have been challenges in producing content because producing content online is much different than producing content for a magazine. People are expecting a much more immersive and rich experience. You are no longer working in one medium; you are now working on a platform that is a combination of all available mediums so you need to think of stories that can be told through multiple contexts.
TAP: Is there ever a tug-of-war between traditional media and new digital media at organizations that have both physical and digital products, such as a magazine?
The profits from Essence magazine exceed that of its digital product by far. The publication is what they are known for and it is a powerhouse as a magazine. Because they have somewhat of an older demographic, these readers are more apt to click on a brand in which they have history with than a site that may offer similar content but is unrecognizable to them.What can be frustrating as a professional on the digital side of a traditional publication is that the publication is still, for now, bringing in the lion’s share of the profit and receives favor. It’s not personal, it’s a matter of business.
TAP: A conversation about new digital media is not complete without discussing social media. How can businesses effectively use social media?
Social media is a just a conversation. In all honesty, if you want to find out who your consumers are and you’re not afraid to have conversation with them in public, that’s what you use it for. Social media is nothing more than a direct conversation with your customer. And how direct it is is up to you as a business. If you have one million followers, do you have the structure on the back-end to answer every tweet or direct message and do you need to? It all depends on the nature of the business.