Over the last two days, I went overboard explaining what exactly we mean when we talk about comics marketing, and then I took a deep dive into where comics marketing is today. To close out accidental Comics Marketing Week here on SKTCHD, I wanted to share a few things I’d like to see more of, with each of these not from my comics brain, but my brain as a marketer. By day, I work as the digital marketing director of an advertising agency, so a whole lot of my time actually focuses on delivering results for my clients instead of thinking of Stilt-Man. 1
And as a marketer, I see a lot of opportunity. Not just by using tactics related to what we already know works, either, but by digging into the bag of tricks available to any modern day marketer. Each of these potential tactics is designed to do one of two things: expand the audience available to comics, or to reach potential customers – and retailers – with more precision. Would they all work? Who knows?! I’d like to think so. Most of them are outside the norm for the comics industry, though. But there’s a lot of potential here, even if it’s outside-the-box, and room for marketers to play in if they’d like.
1. Co-Op Marketing
Let’s start with an oldie but a goodie. For those that don’t know – which I have to imagine is the majority of you – co-op marketing is a tactic that requires collaboration between multiple entities, or, more specifically a mothership business fronting some or all of the money for advertising if companies tangentially connected to them mention said mothership in the advertising. An example of this would be when a state or country-based tourism organization – let’s say, Travel Oregon – presents an opportunity for towns or cities to advertise on a more significant platform at a reduced cost by sharing the space with others. So if you’re Astoria, Coos Bay and Eugene, three towns or cities in Oregon that don’t often advertise because they can’t afford it, this is very attractive. You’re gaining the benefit of broader reach and greater visibility with the costs mitigated.
At a certain point, I’d like to think that direct market publishers realize that more traffic into comic book shops or a greater volume of digital customers benefits all of them simultaneously, so making a concerted effort together to make that happen might make a bit of sense. Co-op marketing could help with that. While each of them doesn’t have a big enough budget for a real campaign, together they might. There’s three potential ways I could see this playing out, two with a mothership and one without. They are:
- Diamond acting as the mothership, subsidizing a digital video/banner ad campaign in which smaller comic publishers – or at least the size of Image on down – talk up a new or popular release before a call-to-action driving customers to Diamond’s Comic Shop Locator, with each ad linking to that site as well
- ComiXology acting as the mothership, doing roughly the same thing but said ad links to a special page on ComiXology featuring all of the featured comics on one page, ready for purchase
- The publishers – or even creators! – say “no thanks!” to the mothership idea and just team up to do their own thing, using their collective buying power to have more reach and visibility than they would get individually
This idea is definitely unlikely, because most publishers aren’t in the business of helping one another out. But when I think of comics marketing, I can’t help but think of tight budgets as a considerable issue, and how the one time a publisher was able to utilize a more significant media buy – DC with The New 52 – it wasn’t just one publisher benefiting, but all of them. The influx of customers in comic shops generated huge lift for the entire direct market for years. The readers may have come for DC, but they stuck around for Marvel, Image, BOOM!, First Second, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Viz, and any number of other publishers. I feel like there’s something here, even if it would be tough to pull off.
Now we’re talking! This is another phrase that probably makes no sense to you, so here’s a quick explanation. Geofencing is effectively drawing a line around a building and then advertising to anyone who walks into that building, whether it’s for a minute or for an entire day. Not only can you advertise to them when they visit said location, you can deliver to whatever device they bring into it whenever you want afterwards, and you can do so with banner ads, video ads, and really whatever options you’d like.
The obvious move to me is to create a list of every comic shop in the entire country with addresses included and then use geofencing to reach high probability customers – after all, they’re in a comic shop – with ads promoting a new release. Even better, some partners for this kind of thing – you’d typically find it with a programmatic advertising outfit, and honestly, let’s not even go down the path of explaining that – would be able to deliver the nuance necessary to delineate between those who stay there for long spans of time (i.e. retailers) and those who are there for shorter periods, like readers. Then you’d put them into distinct buckets. From there, you can serve messaging about upcoming comics that are approaching final order cutoff to the former and sales-based messages to the latter, or even get each to sign up for email newsletters relevant to who they are.
That’s a win for everyone! Retailers get a more significant sales push on current or upcoming titles, readers get delivered relevant advertising, and a publisher’s sales/orders might increase. You might even expand your email newsletters audience! Over time, you can learn more about these lists and build them into specific segments that make your life easier and your ads more impactful. Everything would just improve the further you went along. Also, this is even better if you’re a shop who works with ComicHub, as their online ordering portal is incredibly easy to use, so you can just send customers there. That’s a direct response result, which is truly rare in comics.
Here’s the rub: working with these outfits can come with significant minimum spends each month. However, the advertising – at least on the banner advertising side of the equation – is very inexpensive, getting you significant reach to the right people at a low cost. Even better: if, perhaps inexplicably, a comic publisher had someone on staff who was cross-trained as a programmatic ad buyer, you could do this yourself to a degree. That would be the dream.
3. List building and list leveraging
I’m obsessed with lists. They make a marketer’s life so much easier. So when I say lists, rather than a list like this or something like “five times Wolverine proved he’s the best there is at what he does,” I mean lists of consumer information (like emails) that help you contact them later with relevant content, sales messaging or to better target them with advertising. If I were a publisher, I’d be focused on building lists – all above board, of course! – and then using those lists to improve customer outreach while trying to drive specific actions with each contact you make.
Here’s a good example. I’m a long-time Marvel Unlimited user, and fairly regularly, I receive emails from Marvel about new comics being added, a piece of content they created to guide me down a path towards reading more (like reading lists), and beyond. That’s great! That can lead to a better experience, and considering Marvel has this information for every Marvel Unlimited user – which I have to imagine is a significant number – it’s likely very beneficial.
But I never receive emails pitching me on “X of Swords: Creation, out this week! Don’t wait until it’s Unlimited, pick it up today!” linking me to that aforementioned Comic Shop Locator and where you can get it on ComiXology. That to me is a huge miss given that I’ve clearly indicated that I enjoy Marvel comics. It seems likely that they’re analyzing the data in a useful way, as my latest email was driving me to read Doctor Aphra comics after I had been reading a ton of Star Wars comics on Marvel Unlimited lately. They’re just using this information to drive more usage within Marvel Unlimited instead of additional gains.
There’s value to leveraging that information in this way. It creates stickiness, or, in layman’s terms, increases the probability that I will continue to be a Marvel Unlimited subscriber. But there’s more there for Marvel, and it could lead to a more exciting experience for their fans as well. If I were a publisher, I would be using every reader interaction to build my lists and, eventually, potentially, drive sales. Have an exciting new comic coming out? Reveal a preview first to people who share their email on your site! Hosting an event on your site? Make it open to everyone, but give people who share their emails extra benefits, like asking questions during said event.
These are win win situations once again, and they seem like things that should be happening. And let’s be honest: they are, at least to some degree. But they should be happening more often, and then being leveraged more significantly.
4. Thinking outside-the-box – or at least the comic box – online
Two of the three ideas above cost money, something that is dangerously limited on the marketing front for both comic publishers and creators. That makes most advertising options difficult. Marketing is still obviously possible without a robust budget, but it requires a few variables to be effective. Time, which presumably most comics marketers can make. Effort, which is not something any of them lack in. And content, which, hey, people in comics have a whole lot of that! So, there’s opportunity out there for an eager, opportunistic creator or marketer, the vast majority of which resides on the good ol’ internets.
For some perspective on this one, I turned to a pal who knows what he’s talking about: Blake Bowyer, Digital Director, Integrated Accounts at Nike. I asked him for his perspective on what low budget tactics comics marketers might use to reach new readers, and I asked him specifically because he’s a complete outsider – he dabbles (or at least dabbled) in comics – and because he knows what’s what about promotion, marketing and advertising. Let’s run through some suggestions he sent my way, turbo style, because he gave me several and they’re all great. They included:
- Tapping passion communities: I mentioned this in yesterday’s feature, but as he told me, Facebook Groups and Subreddits in particular are known for housing “super-fan communities.” They’re already loaded with people that have identified themselves by that fandom, which means they’re likely eager to chat. Work with them on product launches, build hype by revealing tidbits to them early, schedule AMAs or Facebook Lives with creators, or any number of other things, but the point is this: connect. This is a great place to do that.
- Shareable internet language: I previously wrote a feature about memes and comics, and honestly, they overlap quite a bit. This is what people online already like, so lean into it by using the content you already have at your disposal. Create meme templates featuring your comics! Build a selection of reaction panels for users to leverage on social! Heck, work with an animator to turn your panels into gifs! These are already part of the language of the internet, so if you make your comic part of that, you have a path to greater visibility. That’s a win.
- Bit-sized email: Bowyer specifically said he’s a “big fan of crisp, nerdy newsletters.” He suggested a hero/heroine a day type set up. I like that idea. What if it was, let’s say, Marvel highlighting notable yet under-appreciated characters from its history in an email newsletter with – just throwing this out there! – their own version of one of the old Marvel Universe trading cards that highlights key information about them with great art. From there, it’s linked to a reading guide of that character’s best comics as well as where people can buy those comics on ComiXology or read them on Marvel Unlimited. There’s potential there! Bonus: this works off idea #3!
- TikTok/Instagram Reels commentary: Bowyer cited a trend online of people with personality reacting to scenes or videos, i.e. this guy who guesses paint colors. 2 He suggested getting someone – anyone, as long as they’re fun – to do the same thing but with comics. I think this would be effective for two main reasons. First, comics are insane so there is a lot of opportunity to have fun with this. 3 Two, the potential for user generated content is through the roof. There’s an easy path here.
- Video commentary/supercuts: Some publishers do this kind of thing already, other YouTubers work with similar ideas, but the premise is basically explaining notable stories, annotating scenes, or just narrating the comic to connect potential readers with these stories. As Bowyer told me, without movies right now, giving people movie-watching type experiences is super valuable. Most publishers have both access and content for days. Use that to create interesting video content that is shareable on social and helps foster interest in your own YouTube channel, eventually connecting it with a sales message driving people to purchase these comics as well.
5. Broader Outreach…by Connecting with Adaptations
“There is a much larger audience eager and hungry for comics, but they are not equal to the efforts made to reach them.” That’s what comics marketing consultant Tara Ferguson said when I asked whether comics marketing should make more of an effort to reach new readers. And you know what? She’s exactly correct.
I believe a key place to focus on is the adaptations that people already flock to. 4 Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I’ve probably already said it before: these adaptations rarely drive results, and that’s at least partially because some people just don’t want to read comics. Which is true! There are some people who love The Avengers to death but just wouldn’t read a comic no matter how easy you made it on them.
Here’s two things I’d say about the premise I noted above: first, just because some wouldn’t doesn’t there aren’t people who would read comics; and second, it’s hard to say that these adaptations don’t drive results given that most publishers have barely even tried to connect the two. There are plenty of examples of comics that have seen huge lift – just this year there was Old Guard, but most prominently there were The Walking Dead, Scott Pilgrim, and Watchmen – so we know it can happen, even with just a little bit of a push. Here’s the difference between those titles and, say, anything with The Avengers: it’s really easy to pick up those four titles and just start, because they’re either one volume or a series with an obvious starting point, unlike the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. So, the first step is identifying one easy starting point that’s vaguely similar to whatever is being adapted and use that as your marketing focus.
From there, it’s all about promoting around key trigger points, not unlike the sales cycle in the direct market. Those would be announcement, trailer release, during the promotional window for the show/movie, upon release, and then if it’s a show, as the finale approaches. As my pal Bruno Batista from Big Bang Comics in Dublin has told me before, the trailer is actually one of the biggest drivers in interest for comic adaptations, so don’t just lean into the release of the movie or show – especially considering at that point it becomes the text for whoever watches it – but during the build-up when people are still getting excited.
What would the tactics be? They could be anything! Pitch entertainment and comic sites on big stories about the specific comic you’ve targeted and how it’s leading to the movie, with those articles timed for the release of the trailer! Create reading guides well before release so people know where to start before the movie! Release an early look of the trailer or special, “can’t find it anywhere else!” content to people who order that comic! Release a code at the end of the trailer that allows a free download of the first chapter of the collection you’re focusing on, with the last page containing links to where they can find the rest of the story for purchase! Connect the purchase of that comic to sneak previews or to regular tickets! I don’t know. There are tons of options, and too many to possibly list.
Here’s one last one…advertising, a true rarity in comics! The people who are getting excited about these adaptations online are legion, so delivering targeted digital advertising to them with a special offer for the book – either in print or digitally – should be a slam dunk. Don’t get me wrong…a lot of people would ignore everything you do. But some wouldn’t, and even if 1% of the people who watched one of these adaptations jumped onboard, that would be a massive influx of readership.
The cool thing is this week, as I was putting this together, it was revealed that the upcoming M.O.D.O.K. show coming from Jordan Blum and Patton Oswalt on Hulu will be doing exactly this. The end of each episode will have a slate promoting the pair’s upcoming M.O.D.O.K.: Head Games series – in graphic novel form, of course – telling people that a) it exists and b) that they can buy it somewhere out in the world. Blum even added on Twitter that the pair will be creating comic “playlists” of the stories that inspired each episode. I love this. That’s a great idea, as it reduces the distance between adaptation and comic, improving the chances that someone might check the comic out simply because they now know it exists.
Ferguson also suggested that comics needs to focus less on the promotion of individual titles and more on overall awareness of the medium and comic shops. I don’t disagree with that, but here’s one thing I’ll mention: I believe one element that’s missing from the promotions made around these adaptations is specificity.
As I said earlier, The Walking Dead, Scott Pilgrim and those others thrived post-adaptation at least in part because they were easy to get into. Making it easier for people to understand where to start with your comic by connecting it with a specific story, whether you’re a Big Two series or the deepest of indies, is essential to making this work. You don’t want to make it a challenge for these potential new readers to get onboard. You want to have something for every retailer or website or bookseller to point to and say, “This is what you want.”
Once they have the comic, that might be their last comic. Or it could be their first of many. This is about creating a gateway. You got them onboard. Now the comic just has to do the work, and you have to help them find their next favorite comic.