Issa Rae is a true digital success story. Inspired by an article in Clutch magazine titled, "Where's the Black Liz Lemon?" she started her web series, "The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl." The show resonated with viewers and went viral, earning tons of media attention, and winning the Shorty award for Best Webshow in March. Rae spoke to iMedia about how the show blew up, her partnership with a premium YouTube channel, and the freedom of creative control that digital provides.
iMedia Connection: Tell me about your show, "The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl" (ABG). When did it start? What's your audience? How have you seen it grow? How did you cultivate your audience online?
Issa Rae: Awkward Black Girl started in February of 2011. My audience consists primarily of women (80 percent) and ranges from ages 17 to 55. We air monthly, and I've watched the episodes grow in numbers with each debut. I've been cultivating my audience online for years, with my own film/TV blog, my Facebook page, and, more recently, Twitter. I would seek out blogs that I felt would appreciate my digital content and send my videos to them, in addition to friending a bunch of YouTube users.
iMedia: Did you deliberately target your audience demographic?
Rae: No. My initial target was family and friends.
iMedia: Was there a "tipping point" for the show (a clip being featured somewhere, someone tweeting it out, etc.) or was it more of a gradual thing?
Rae: Literally the first episode, when two of my favorite blogs featured the series (Clutch Magazine and Shadow and Act.) They were, unbeknownst to me at the time, my core demographic, and that's when it began to snowball into something bigger every single month.
iMedia: How does ABG make money?
Rae: ABG makes money through the YouTube RevShare partnership, through merchandising, donations, Kickstarter (we raised over $56,000 in 30 days), and through our college tour.
iMedia: What are the benefits to having an online show?
Rae: Creative control, no gatekeeper to tell you "no" or "change this," instant feedback from your audience, audience engagement, and interaction. It's just a great place for content creators -- but you must have thick skin!
iMedia: What's the next step in terms of growth strategy?
Rae: We've partnered up with a YouTube premium channel, and we're hoping the attached name will draw more eyeballs. We're also actually going to put funds into marketing for season two, as opposed to letting word of mouth take its course.
iMedia: What opportunities does digital entertainment provide that traditional can't?
Rae: I see digital entertainment providing tons of opportunities for people of color. Traditional media isn't really paying attention to people of color in terms of content. Digital entertainment allows us to tell our own stories and find our own audiences.
iMedia: What are the big breaks in digital? What does a startup web series do to create "buzz"?
Rae: I think the big breaks for digital are in the platforms. YouTube opened the floodgates for digital video consumption, and now other platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are following suit with original, professional content. These are exciting times.
I think the key to buzz is talking about something that's either very, very current or representing something that isn't prevalent in mainstream media.
iMedia: According to the DCNF website: "The great divide that separated digital content from broadcast media is shrinking. The time people used to spend watching is now spent interacting and what was a simple search engine yesterday is now a go-to source of news, information, and entertainment." How do you feel about that statement?
Rae: I completely agree with this statement. It makes me excited about the possibilities of the future. Our sound engineer also said it best that, "TV is afraid of the internet, but the internet has nothing to fear."
To hear from more viral voices, check out our interview with Shawn Kohne.
Lucia Davis is associate editor at iMedia Connection.
On Twitter? Follow Issa at @issarae. Follow Awkward Black Girl at @awkwardblkgrl. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.