The Business of Webcomics
By J.T. Blevins
Webcomics are a fairly new medium. But, as with all other internet ventures, there are some great techniques that can be used to successfully market your ideas, so that your fan base will grow. One misconception about webcomics that hinders many creators is the belief that "If you build it, they will come." But, without the legwork that is required to market a successful comic, all of that hard work will be proven to be completely useless. There are many largely untapped strategies for marketing a successful webcomic, and perhaps even making a good profit from them. We will study those methods here, and how to use our common ingenuity to rebuild some traditional marketing methods to suit our needs as webcomics creators.
Webcomics: The Ultimate Snafu
The whole idea of webcomics that are readily available to the public creates a whole new problem to the entire medium. Using the internet, users are able to surf from site to site, almost infinitely, reading free content that is endlessly available, and is only a click away. Sites link to sites, which link to even more sites, and the chain goes on. But, where does the cycle end, and what is to stop readers from passing up your webcomic, and moving along to the next one? There are TONS of people you've never heard of doing professional quality work on a daily basis that is on a level of that of the Big 3 comic book companies. "But, why haven't I ever heard of these great authors?" you may ask. Well, there are several reasons, and that is what we are going to explore in detail.
A Young Culture
Webcomics are the young generation of comic books. Remember when you read about the beginnings of comic books with the "Yellow Kid," and how comic books stumbled around for decades, without really having a true hero until Stan Lee came along and really turned things around? Perhaps some day this will happen to webcomics, and webcomics creators will all have a chance to make a good living doing something they love to do. Until then, we as creators of online comics will have to find unique and creative ways to make good use of the modern marvel we call the internet.
It may be hard for some, but eventually the realization will set in that webcomics are actually tied in to...you guessed it, websites! And, as websites, creators find themselves in a situation that many artists try to avoid, yet is the most essential part of any kind of entrepreneurial venture. That means they have to market themselves either to bring in new readers, or to make a profit, or both. A lot of webcomics creators nowadays have access to free web servers, such as Comic Genesis or Drunk Duck, so if they don't want to make a profit, they don't have to in order to pay for server costs. But, what this also means, is that if you actually want to make a profit from your hard work, you will have to compete with the thousands and thousands of webcomics that are available today. There are a multitude of venues to market yourself that are free, and there are some that cost little to a moderate amount. Because, to attract attention to your website, you will have to make use of every advertising possibility that is available. Let's take a look at some.
Top Lists can be a good way to gain readership, but the trick is getting enough people to vote for your comic, which in turn boosts your rating, bringing a link to your site closer to the top a very highly trafficked page. As easy as this sounds, this can be a lot of work for you. Most web surfers will skip over any "support me" links to check out what you've got. Usually only the most devoted of fans will even vote for you once, much less come back to vote for you again repeatedly.
One very important internet marketing technique is to make sure your most important links are visible as soon as the webpage is loaded. So naturally, the best place to put your vote button is near the top of your website.
Most webcomics creators offer some sort of incentive to get people to vote for their comic. Usually, they offer some sort of exclusive content, not available anywhere else. Some offer special comics, some offer free wallpaper downloads. However you decide to treat your visitors, make sure that they are aware of why they are clicking this link, and how it helps you. In most cases, if the visitor is confused in any way about the link, or not sure where they will be taken, the "back" button on their browser will begin to look a lot more appealing than potentially being taken to another site before looking at yours, or even to a porn site. Surfers know that clicking questionable links can be risky business, and may even contain viruses. Links with graphics often look like advertisements, so if you include a graphic, you may also want to include a short caption about the link.
I will say that one main technique for success is laying a solid groundwork for your webcomic. Yes, this can mean doing a lot of planning and hard work to reach the level of success you are looking for. Many creators feel that it's not worth it to participate in message boards, because it takes up a lot of their time, when they should be writing and drawing comics. It is true that it can take up a lot of time, but when you're doing your own webcomics, YOU are the publisher. You are the one that has to get the message out. Your visitors won't do it for you. They don't care about sending your link to a friend, or even mentioning your site to anyone else, unless they just happen to be a really hardcore fan. Word of mouth advertising is great, but it has to begin somewhere. Your potential fans have to see your work before they can spread the word. And, if you don't show it to them, then you've already lost business. You have to stimulate this growth in every way you can, or let's be honest, it just won't work.
Always keep in mind you don't want to blast your message, no matter how innocent it sounds, or people will begin to get irritated at your continual interruptions in their threads, and possibly having you banned by a moderator. Be knowledgeable. If you go around posting your link to every topic on the site, other members are not only likely to skip your "advertisement," but also to keep away from any links, emails, or advertisements that even mentions your webcomic's name. Think of it in terms of telemarketing. No one likes to be interrupted. If your link is handy for the reader to click at their convenience, not yours, you're a lot more likely to have a happy visitor when they arrive at your website.
Also, choose forums and topics that you are interested in, and where your website may be of interest to the other members. Remember that you can generate traffic a number of ways, but hits don't really make a difference unless they are targeted to the right people, who will want to keep coming back to your site. For instance, an elderly lady posting to a quilting techniques forum would be much less likely to click on your webcomics link than a 21 year old male visiting the Digital Webbing forums for advice on penciling comics. There are a number of forums out there that specialize in the different facets of comics: webcomics, writing, penciling, inking, marketing, publishing, and the list goes on.
Say you posted 2 or 3 messages to a message board, which included a link to your website in the signature. When you first posted the messages, you may have received about 10-15 hits a day per post for the first few days. Several months later, people were still going back and reading the posts, and clicking on the link. You continue to receive 1 or 2 hits per post a day this way, which doesn't seem like a lot, but this is coming from a post several months old. If you continue to post messages to several different forums on a daily basis, the hits can really add up.
One common internet marketing technique (which is actually part of search engine optimization) is to form link exchanges with other websites, which means two sites exchange free advertising. This can serve as a double-edged sword, so it is wise to be careful when considering this approach to marketing your webcomic. One thing to remember is that you are trying to draw visitors, and to keep them there. And, to keep them coming back. One thing you will want to try and avoid is displaying links to related sites on your main page (unless your website is popular enough to offer paid advertising, which will be covered later.) The last thing you want the visitor to do is click another link right away, essentially skipping your site altogether. Links pages are acceptable, because without them, your search engine rankings could suffer. Otherwise, always try to keep the links to other websites to a minimum.
Most link exchanges can be put into one of two categories: link swapping, and webrings.
Link swapping means asking other websites to link to yours in return for a reciprocal link. One thing you want to make sure of is that you are aware of what kind of content is offered by the other website. If your comics don't contain nudity or offensive language, make sure the other website doesn't contain them either, or you may have some offended readers wondering why you sent them there. In short, if you're not a regular visitor, then take a few minutes to scope out what kind of material is presented, who the author is, and the overall purpose of the website before you decide to ask for a link.
Webrings again bring up the problem of visitors easily browsing through, and casually moving along to the next site before your website has been able to present your comics and merchandise. One technique that some webmasters use is putting all of their webring links on a separate hidden page. Webrings can bring a steady flow of traffic, and they can also display your logo, images, and message to a large audience, but in the long run, it is best to leave them alone, and use good, old-fashioned marketing skills and search engine optimization.
The internet is a vast place, with an almost unlimited amount of space for advertisement, where virtually anyone can now create targeted ads, and display them in high-trafficked places, including at the top of search engine listings. In order to determine whether or not paid advertising for your webcomic is right for you, you have to decide how much you are willing to spend, and how much you aim to gain in return. Paid advertising is not always the most reliable way to gain steady traffic, but if you have a few extra bucks laying around, it may not be a bad idea to experiment, and see how effective your ad campaign is. Using your web stats program, try and pay attention to how much traffic comes from those websites, and which banner was effective. Keep a log of statistics. This is one way of knowing what your targeting audience likes. Television companies, comic book companies, and major corporations all rely on statistics to effectively market their products.
There are many paid placement programs you can use, but we will use the pay per click method (PPC.) How most PPC programs work is you bid on how much you are willing to pay each time someone clicks on your link, which is displayed at the top of certain searches, depending on which keywords you choose for your paid placement campaign. You only pay for each click, not for each impression. If you bid $.10 per click, and 1000 people click on your ad and view your website, you have to decide how many people will have to purchase your merchandise in order to bring in a profit. If you are selling shirts at $10.00 each, and you have paid $100 for advertising, you will have to sell 10 shirts just to cover the cost of advertising! This comes out to 1 in 10 visitors, which really isn't a realistic goal for a new webcomic site (or even most well-established comic sites!) In early stages of marketing your website, you will need to concentrate on developing your readership first.
A slightly healthier alternative for beginners are sites which offer paid advertising at a flat rate. This means that you pay for a certain amount of impressions, or a set amount of time for your banner or advertisement to be displayed. This way, you can set aside $10 for X weeks, and if you don't sell that one shirt to cover the cost of advertising, then at least you have started something that could be an important part of getting your name to be recognized by potential readers: recurrence. Also, if readers can associate your comic with some of the bigger names in webcomics, then this adds to your credibility, and people will be more likely to pay attention when they see your logo.
If done incorrectly, banners can make your comic look unprofessional, or worse, they can misrepresent what you are trying to convey. There are lots of things to remember when creating your web banner. There are lots of tutorials available on the web, so I will keep it brief here.
One thing to remember is to go light on the gimmicks. I see too many banners that flash and spiral and jump around and make me want to go into a seizure. You want to gain the reader's attention, but you also want to use a design that represents your comic well. You don't want them to cringe in fear and go hide in a corner.
Choose a color scheme. One way to support branding of your comic is to use colors that are primarily used on your website, or in your comic. My website uses a lot of purple, so I try and make it a point to include purple in my ads when I can.
The wording should be concise and to the point, not to mention with good spelling and grammar. One thing that will turn an audience off is when you include an obscure reference to something on page 8,903 of your comic. You have to ask yourself, why would this interest new readers if they haven't read page 8,903 to get the inside reference? Just try and state your purpose the best you can in the least amount of words. If you're good, you can do it.
Timeframe - one marketing technique is to include a timeframe for the user to click on your banner, like: "now!", "today!", or "for a limited time", or "right now, you stupid son of a--" Okay, I'm getting a little carried away, but you get the point. Don't let them just skim over you and not give you a second look. Grab their attention, and give them a reason to click--right now!
Chatboxes and Guestbooks
Chatboxes and Guestbooks can be a good, but only temporary, form of advertising your comics. Guestbooks are becoming less and less popular, but many webcomic sites have chatboxes. Chatboxes are the little boxes set into the page that incorporate a scrollable message board. These are a good way to get critiques from your visitors, or just general comments.
If you notice, most chatboxes will allow you to include a link to your website, when visitors click on your user name. As with message boards, it is generally not a good idea to go around posting your web address with no message. People read chatboxes for information about the comic they are currently reading, not about some stranger who decided to post his web address to a website they have never heard of. You're simply not seen as credible, and people will almost always totally ignore you.
However, if you take the time to read someone else's comic, and decide to make an attempt at giving some valuable feedback, you're already establishing an audience by capturing their attention about something they already know about, and giving a credible comment about the site you're on. People respect your giving your opinion, as long as you present yourself in a reasonable manner, and not shouting incoherently about some really wack freakin' crazy page that's dope fresh, G! You get my drift.