The makings of a media business; an interview with Olawale Adetula, founder of TheNakedConvos

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Olawale Adetula is on a 10-year streak, handling digital marketing for big brands in Nigeria like GTBank, DHL and Jumia. While on his journey, he founded TheNakedConvos, an interactive community designed to create safe spaces for young Africans to engage in open, honest conversation. What started out as a pastime has now morphed into an actual growing business.

Since its launch in 2010, TNC has racked up 11,000 newsletter subscribers, a 120-strong army of contributors, over 2700 articles and 120,000 comments, and those numbers are on the rise. This article is a product of a conversation between Bankole, Olawale and a TNC contributor, Omotayo Adeola about the journey so far and what lies ahead for TNC.


I know you are, at least to an extent, the founder, creator, or convener of The Naked Convos. How did it all begin, and was it just you back then?

Olawale: Founder and editor-in-chief now.  Well, even though TNC was founded in 2010, I’d say it started a long time before then. Probably around 2004. I was one of the many young Nigerians that somehow stumbled on this thing called the internet and anonymous forums and what not and I was absolutely intrigued.

I’m guessing you have a Nairaland account then.

Olawale: Well, I had. I was part of several communities not just local ones and what really caught my attention was the fact that people were willing to engage each other, though they knew absolutely nothing about the people on the other side. The “saner” – or should I say more respectable – the forum was, the easier it was for people to interact and engage each other.

So this 2004 iteration of TNC, what was it? A mailing list? IRC? A forum?

Olawale: They were mostly forums back then in 2004, and they were other platforms not TNC.

So when did TNC become a real thing? My earliest recollection of TNC has to do with YNaija. I can’t remember if it was an article I saw, but I remember that it was a full fledged website with stories and a LOT of comments on them, and everyone seemed to know everyone.

Olawale: TNC was founded August 2010 as a full fledged website after I had successfully tested something similar on a personal blog called Thetoolsman’s Blog. The reason why it seemed like everyone knew each other was because of the high engagement level, and this was always the plan from the get go. Following my experience from using other platforms, I knew that engagement was a key success metric for such a site and this was considered every step of the way from content creation to design, look etc.

Engagement has always seemed to be TNC’s biggest value proposition. But I have always wondered if that engagement has not come at a cost – the cost of growth. The camaraderie that makes it such a great community could have made it difficult for new “members” to blend in. Was this ever the case? Or has TNC grown regardless?

Olawale: Quite the contrary, TNC has grown almost as a result of that engagement. A common comment among first time visitors to the site is, “Oh, the comment section is just as interesting as the post.” Now, I can give you some numbers –  in 5 years, we have published about 2500 posts and recorded over 120,000 comments. Thats an average of 40 comments per post. I’m sure you can tell that these are some of the highest numbers in terms of engagement out here in Nigeria. And of course you know we also have engagement off the site as well; on social media and through our offline events.

How does TNC make money to keep all of that going? Or does it keep all of that going specifically to make money?

Olawale: Not at all. My main goal has always been to create that one platform where the average young Nigerian/African can go to express themselves on anything whatsoever without being judged. It is important to note that we achieved all those numbers the last 5 years without spending any money on marketing. However, with a community this large, money definitely becomes an important subject. With a team of 20 people and a constantly growing community we have had to look for creative ways to monetize the site without compromising on quality. We have been fortunate to find partners who keyed into this vision and together,  we have been able to sustain the site so far.

Now, you are speaking of opening the platform up to contributors, who will be paid on a performance basis. We’ve seen this before, in the Huffington Post’s model.  What’s informed this and why do you think it’ll succeed here?

Olawale: Opening up the platform has succeeded because we tested this last year and contributors grew from 20 to over 200 in 7 months without payment. Now that we are introducing payment, it will only get better. But it is important to note here that the payment isn’t the only pay off. We spent all these years building the platform and the level of engagement because feedback is the first form of gratification for most creative people. Exposure is also another important factor and so we are putting more energy into marketing now so that our contributors get increased exposure locally and internationally.

Have you made any stars yet?

Olawale: Of course. Two of our senior editors Pemi Aguda and Wole Talabi have been recognized both locally and internationally for their writing. Also, previous winners of our online writing competition, The Writer, have gone on to be published on and offline both locally and internationally. We have also published an anthology using material sourced from contributors on the site.

I’ve always wondered about all those cool fiction series; whose ideas they were, and if could they have been greater than blog fodder. 

Olawale: It’s interesting you mentioned that because we converted one of those into a script that was adapted for our first stage production last year. And we are currently working on another project which I can’t talk much about right now but I guess you’ll have to watch this space. With respect to “all those cool fiction series,” I can say we have and also attract some of the most creative content creators to our platform. This is why all the content on the site is original, unique and engaging.

Ever gotten compared to Thoughtcatalog?

Olawale: Yes, we have. However, TNC has a wider variety of content and reach. You can’t put TNC into one box.

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How do you deal with all the contributions? You know, managing quality. Lots of people think they can write, but we know it’s a lot like when we think our shower concerts deserve a grammy. Is your community just that smart, and all the writing great? Or do you decline to publish stuff? 

We are not a literary site or a newspaper and so we don’t impose journalistic standards on our contributors. However, we do have several editors whose primary responsibility is to go through every single submission. We have and we will decline every post that is hateful, prejudicial with excessive grammatical errors and no obvious point.

What do you think about the perception that TNC’s audience is niche bourgeoi. Is it just that –  a perception? 

Olawale: First of all, I think people who think that are people who have never actually spent time on the site. Our community members use anecdotes from hopping on bikes, buses and keke napeps to international jetsetting. You have people who share experiences from their time in public and government school who relate with articles written by people who attended Ivy league schools. There are people with puritanical religious beliefs as well as extremely liberal community members

 

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Omotayo, I’m curious about where you fit in.

Omotayo: I’m a contributor who joined the team, so you could say i’ve bitten the TNC bug in its entirety. I first contributed to TNC in 2011, I think, while I was doing a masters in writing. For a budding writer, it was a really great opportunity to be featured on a site – to have my work accepted, and to get feedback. Now, I head the marketing and communications team, with the primary task of increasing exposure of the site and the contributors

I see. The cool factor must count for something, obviously

Omotayo: If you’re saying TNC is a cool site, we accept, thank you.

Olawale: We’ve worked hard to resist temptation and keep the site cool.

Again, you’ve hit on that thing I was trying to get at – when people look at your site and be like, “nah, that’s for cool kids”. You know that cool kids is a thing, right?

Olawale: Everybody should have a voice regardless of where you were born or where you went to school and that is the real “cool.” TNC is the evidence of that.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find nairalanders on TNC though.

Olawale: Actually, No. There are so many of them. We have just worked hard to make sure community members know that trolling is not allowed and if you take that away from the average Nairaland commenter, you’ll find that they actually have more to say.

 

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Let’s back up for a second, do advertisers ever troll you about your Alexa Ranking? What do you think about Alexa rankings?

Olawale: With almost 10 years experience working in marketing, this is something that was always on my mind when building TNC. Up until a few years ago, marketing managers really never had to debate quantity over quality. It almost always seemed logical that more eyeballs = more conversion. However, with the advancement of digital marketing (and maybe also thanks to the recent economic recessions), marketing managers have had to learn how to better justify marketing spend. As a result, I do not think metrics like the Alexa Ranking (which, I’m sure you know can be manipulated) is a fair measurement for performance.

So you are dealing with fairly sophisticated marketers then?

Olawale: More and more of our marketers here are coming around and learning more about content marketing, native advertising etc. but we still have a loooooong way to go.

Omotayo made an astute comment, about how the “space”  is getting overcrowded. Where are you going with this? How is this different? Why will this be important, say in five, ten years?

Olawale: It appears to be overcrowded because everyone else is trying to do the same thing. How many gossip sites can you possibly have?

But TNC is not a gossip site

Olawale: Exactly. There’s a lot of room for quality content. How many sites in Nigeria currently produce original content?

Er…TechCabal? Zikoko? Okay, enough plugging. I’m getting you, there could be more.

Olawale: As with all consistent businesses, in 5 years we will be the go-to community for original thought provoking engaging content on a variety of topics.

I’m pulling the rug out from under you for a sec. Do you think websites, as we know them will exist in five years? If not, what then?

Olawale: We’ll always adapt. We adapted from forums in 2004 to a blog site producing only text based content in 2010 and now diversifying into audio visual content in 2016. So whatever comes with 2020 and beyond, we’ll adapt. There’ll always be room for a place where young people can speak freely and there will always be a medium best suited for that. And whatever happens we’ll be there.