On June 18, 2012, Great Black Speakers launched version 4 of its service. Each version of the site has been a major improvement over the previous and version 4 is no different. The path that we have taken with GBS is modeled after one of my favorite internet companies, Mailchimp. In May 2008, they announced version 3 of their website & business model and have experienced massive growth since then. What people don’t know about Mailchimp’s history is that they were a 7 year old company at that time. So, the success that people perceived as overnight was actually many years in the making.
Great Black Speakers has gone through a major change in terms of our mission and business model, similar to what Mailchimp experienced in 2008. I no longer view GBS as a speakers’ bureau, but more as an information disseminator whose goal is to deliver powerful messages to the masses. Since I started working with my other startup, Ujamaa Deals, I have had a revelation in terms of what GBS is selling and I have outlined my thought process in this article for TheGrio. At its core Great Black Speakers is a depository of expertise and our job is to make sure that knowledge gets consumed by as many people who are willing to pay for it.
The new GBS system is heads and shoulders above the previous version. However, we are no longer an agency like Black Speakers Online, Elite Voices, American Program Bureau, or Washington Speakers. We are a web platform that provides a set of tools for our speakers to use to grow their brands. With our new strategy, there are two key things that potential speakers need to know:
GBS is an awesome service, but only for the speakers who invest in their own brand and look at GBS as a supplemental resource instead of their primary avenue for getting opportunities.
The consistency & quality of content produced by speakers are the major determining factors that will separate the winners from the losers on our platform.
Since I started Great Black Speakers in January of 2007, I have noticed four key changes and challenges facing speakers.
For the first three months working for my brother, Dr. Boyce Watkins, my job was to cold call every campus activities and multicultural affairs office in the nation on his behalf. Although I was successful in booking 15 engagements for him using this method, it took a tremendous time commitment and left me little time for anything else. Fast forward 6 years and you see that cold calling produces an even lower ROI than before. This is because of search engines and the unwillingness of an event planner to interrupt their day to talk to a speaker that they have never even heard of. Now, it is more important to place yourself strategically where event planners find you instead of you having to find them.
Another thing that the internet has done is lowered the average price per speaking engagement. In years past, you had average speakers getting $10 – $15k per gig. Two things happened: the internet and the recession. As a speaker, you have to now justify why you are worth that amount when an organizer can just go to TED.com. Also, training and development were some of the first things cut when the recession happened. Although there are still those high paying speaking engagements in the marketplace, the number of those types of opportunities are dwindling.
The solution is that speakers now need to find additional sources to monetize their brand.
Pareto’s Law is definitely in full effect when it comes to speaking engagements. 20% of the speakers are getting 80% of the money and opportunities. What separates the 20% of speakers from the rest? From my experience, it comes down to brand building and becoming a micro-celebrity within your specific niche. Expertise is nice, but in many ways it is secondary. There are many people who have expertise, but event planners want people who can put people in seats and keep them engaged.
The solution is that speakers need to put an extra emphasis in developing their brands and raising their level of credible expertise.
It is harder to do everything on your own while building a speaking career. In the past, it may have been somewhat possible, but guess what? The competition has gotten 10 times better and the market has been flooded with even more speakers. A challenge for speakers is how to build a team and create a great system at a reasonable cost? When I was working for my brother, we wasted probably close to $20,000 to figure out what worked and who to work with. Most new speakers struggle with this reality as well and is a huge impediment to your growth.
Our entire product is centered around solving the four challenges listed above and we do this in a number of different ways.
If you search for any term related to black speakers, african american speakers, etc. chances are that GBS is the first organic search result that pops up. For many of our current speakers, their GBS profiles show up before their actual websites do. We have done an excellent job of placing our company on the web where it will be found by most people looking for qualified speakers. This wasn’t by accident and we invest heavily to expand our web presence.
You will be hard pressed to find other bureaus who have invested as heavily as we have in the technology and operations of our company. Every new feature that we implement has a clear path back to our mission of becoming a great information disseminator of black thought leaders. One of the biggest improvements is with our speaker profile pages and its ability to offer meeting planners enough information to make an informed decision about our speakers. Other innovative platforms that we have/are adding are Great Pro Speakers, GBS Store, GBS Partner Connect, GBS University, and GBS Media Connect. You are not going to find another company that is consistently improving their product as much as we do.
We are in the process of forming partnerships with many media outlets that cater to the Black audience. Sites like The Grio, The Root, Black Enterprise, Ebony.com, Essence.com, Madame Noire, etc. What’s great about GBS is that we have our own internal distribution outlet built through our very close partnership with Your Black World. YBW currently gets about 1.5 million page views per month and their email distribution list is approaching 90,000 subscribers. As a member of GBS, your content will be distributed to their audience freely.
Many speakers that we work with have a great package, but are stuck as being local or regional brands. GBS can help accelerate you to either regional or national prominence.
Great Black Speakers is a supplemental tool, so it is important for a speaker to build out their own system of getting opportunities. One of the biggest concerns for speakers is finding the right companies to partner with to help move their brands forward. Luckily for you, we’ve wasted close to $100,000 over the past 5 years to figure this answer out for you. In your speaker dashboard, we have our recommended partners section where you can find qualified individuals to actually complete services for you like web development, design, publicity, etc. Most of the service providers provide discounts as well just because you are a member of GBS.
Great Black Speakers is definitely not for everyone. Here are some things that we cannot do for you as a speaker.
When I was working for Boyce in 2006, I spent 60 – 70 hours per week helping him get booked for speaking engagements. On top of our time, we were burning close to $2500 a month in marketing expenses. The result was about 16 speaking engagements over a 4 month time period with average fees of $3500-$4000 per engagement. That’s how much time and money that it took us to accelerate his speaking career. The reality is that there is only so much that we can do with a $59 – $129 per month investment. If you are expecting a fully developed team of specialists for that price, unfortunately we cannot meet that expectation.
We market the entire company to organizations looking to book speakers and then they decide which speaker they want while using our service. This means that there is a level of internal competition amongst our speakers and the ones who have the better brand succeed more often.
If you are not continuously developing your brand, then there is very little that GBS can do for you. As mentioned earlier, it is the speaker’s brand that determines if he/she is a speaker that gets paid in the industry and one that doesn’t. There is a positive relationship between those speakers that are actively growing their brand and the amount of opportunities that they get through GBS.
Content, content, content! This is the most important thing that a speaker can provide to us. Without the content, it makes it hard to promote a speaker because it is the fuel of our entire system.
Currently, the results for speakers varies widely. Some speakers can get booked within their first month while others may take 9 months or more. This is the 80/20 principle is showing its head again. The results are correlated on how well a speaker’s brand is resonates with the marketplace and how well known that they are.
I think that potential GBS speakers should look into all of their options before using our speaker services. Some bureaus that you may want to look into are Black Speakers Online, Elite Voices, BlackSpeakers.com, Washington Speakers Bureau, and American Program Bureau. As a tool for speakers, we are a non exclusive organization. This means that you can use our services with other organizations as long as you do not sign an exclusive contract with anyone.
If you skipped here directly from the top; Bottom line: Great Black Speakers is a top notch set of tools that can help accelerate your speaking career. We are a rapidly growing company who invests heavily in developing our networks and our technology platforms. I am confident that there are no other companies in the market who are doing things as innovative as we are in the African-American speaking space. However, if you are not consistently building your brand and creating new content, there is very little that we can do for you. Results can vary greatly from speaker to speaker, but the opportunities are there for those who properly use our services.