By Elise Czajkowski • LMA contributor
When the owners of the Dallas Weekly began planning their Best of Black Dallas campaign in 2020, they knew the year had special significance. The pandemic had hit small businesses particularly hard, issues around racial equity were at the fore of the popular discussion, and the country was bracing for a major election.
Owners Jessica and Patrick Washington, who took over the newspaper in 2019 from Patrick’s father, wanted to make a bold statement about the paper’s new management and revived focus on South Dallas. The paper’s director of services, Jeremiah Long, suggested that they tie the campaign to Texas’s early voting period, encouraging readers to vote both on their website for local favorites and at the ballot box for the country’s leaders.
The campaign was a massive success, drawing 10,000 votes and winning Best Contest or Promotion in the 2020 Local Media Digital Innovation Awards. And the team pulled the entire thing off working remotely; in fact, most of the current staff of the Dallas Weekly have never even met in person.
LMA: Can you tell us a little bit about the 2020 Best of Black Dallas campaign? What were you thinking when you started it?
Jessica: We wanted to do what they say in the media world, and “land grab.” We wanted to raise a lot of attention and draw people towards our brand. The general election was happening. God knows, we all know about the social unrest that was going on during 2020. And us being a Black newspaper, we were like, this is a perfect opportunity to corral people. And especially on a personal note, I found that a lot of people were commiserating, and going through a lot of grief. There was memorial after memorial after memorial. And I was like, I’m tired of crying. We need to celebrate.
Jeremiah: One of my personal mottos is, you can’t just make the best thing in the world, you’ve got to tell everybody about it. And the Dallas Weekly has such great tendrils into each of the parts of the community that everyone knows who’s really doing what.
We wanted to make sure that the idea wasn’t just the best of the community, but it was also the time to go vote. We’re trying to tie the idea of, if you’re willing to vote for your favorite establishment in the community, don’t forget to actually vote. So we tied that in very deeply.
LMA: Can you talk a little bit about how people came across the campaign?
Jessica: We actually did a pretty robust marketing campaign. Basically every week, we had a strategy based on how the engagement was going. Because although we’ve done Best of Black Dallas historically in the Dallas Weekly, we’ve never done it like this. I call it the Beyonceé marketing tool, where you’re constantly saturating people with your stuff. Everything is relatable back to Best of Black Dallas. Even if we were posting about something else, we’d say, hey, this person is a nominee in the Best of Black Dallas. We oversaturated our entire content platforms during that campaign with Best of Black Dallas. And that’s really, I think, why the engagement was so broad.
LMA: And what kind of tools did you use to make this happen, both public facing and behind the scenes?
Jessica: It was all hands on deck. So if you had a position in our company, then you were responsible for distributing the Best of Black Dallas information. Even if you are a writer or a journalist, bring it back to the Best of Black Dallas. It didn’t matter what your position was in the company.
Jeremiah: When we first engaged with it over the summer, the only thing that we had completely planned out was the categories. Our digital team started digging in, creating the graphics because we had to do a lot of reproductions of graphics — because before the winners, we had hundreds of people who had entered and that were involved in each of the categories. And we had a separate nominations page.
And we worked with Second Street to produce the contest portion of it. They had a really great way of embedding their landing page directly into our website, which worked really well for us. And then it was very data-intensive too. It gave us a ton of more emails. We gained 1,600 verified email addresses through our nomination process.
And then we did a second campaign that was centered around [the nominees]. We built a graphics package that we gave to each of the nominees, emailed out through Canva templates. We’d already made everything for them, essentially.
Jessica:. And that was definitely another way that we got the word out, was getting the nominees themselves involved. Like, you market this yourself.
Jeremiah: And then Jessica would do live streams, using Streamyard. She was streaming and telling the winners for each of the different categories, and that was when a lot of the backside engagement really picked up too.
LMA: Can you tell us a little bit about the feedback you got from the community, from your regular readers, and from the businesses who were nominated?
Jessica: Yeah, it was astounding. It’s something that we are still benefiting from as we speak. For instance, best broadcast journalists, that was an opportunity to just really engage with the bigger media outlets in the city. And that has kicked off so much more media coverage for the Dallas Weekly, to expose the fact that we’re the new owners, we have a new way of doing things in this market.
That allowed us to have this momentum, so that when we do things, people are paying attention. So our numbers continue to increase and we’re just continuing to grow. And I definitely know for a fact that more eyes are on us because of that campaign. So we’re just going to keep this thing going. We are definitely doing another Best of Black Dallas. It’s gonna be bigger — I’m saying it, 10 times bigger than last year.
LMA: Can you tell me a little bit about what you learned during this campaign?
Jessica: I definitely took more good away from any kind of bad. The good that I took away is just being transparent and being truthful to the community. If you’re trying to be fraudulent at all to your audience, it never works. And no half-stepping. On a personal level, it definitely connected me with people I never thought I would be connected to, beyond just business and networking. It just really was empowering to know that you’re bettering people’s lives.
There were a lot of businesses suffering during this time. And so many people basically hit me up and said, “You changed our entire life and this was very pivotal to us.” We had people in the music group that said this was almost like a Grammy. It completely changed their perspective of how they wanted to engage with the community. It was definitely life changing.
Jeremiah: I was really glad that both Patrick and Jessica were like, “We don’t know exactly what we’re doing, but let’s stumble through and see if we get to the finish line.” And then we realized we not only got to the finish line, but we won. And that was huge. We didn’t try to make it perfect. We got started, and we kept adjusting and improving and getting better and better. And now when we come back for round two, we’ve run the race once now, we’re the veterans now.
LMA: You mentioned that you’re working on a special issue now. Tell us what you’re working on, and what you have coming up.
Jessica: June is Black Music Month, and so we have major things coming up, virtual events. So many cool things coming up when it comes to celebrating Black music. We have a tech issue coming out in September. And then again, the Best of Black Dallas we plan to have out in November, or at least before the end of the year.
Jeremiah: I’ve been writing about the NFT space and what that actually means for unique publishing. And so the Dallas Weekly is going to experiment with publishing an art project. Our PDF edition, on May 12, we’re going to publish that as a single edition NFT. And it’s going to have a local artists design the cover, and I’m writing a cover edition that is about all about NFTs and about how that relates to whether Black, Indigenous, Asian, people of color and minorities and underrepresented classes, like low-income, are any of them getting paid from NFTs? And is there a market that’s going to grow so they can get paid for it? So that’s something that we’re really excited about.
Jessica: And my ultimate goal, honestly, is also to have an in-person event to celebrate some of the people that we’ve been talking about virtually. That’s my fingers crossed. Fly everybody into Dallas and celebrate our successes.