COMMUTER CONVERTER – EXPOSING THE CAPTIVE AUDIENCE
“The soul and essence of guerrilla marketing is – achieving conventional goals, such as profits and joy, with unconventional methods, such as investing energy instead of money.” – Jay Conrad Lewinson, the father of guerrilla marketing.
The seeds of the Commuter Converter program were planted over six months ago during a conversation with friend and fellow comic connoisseur Todd Hellings. Todd is a director for a bay area firm that specializes in corporate branding and marketing for some of the country’s most well known businesses. He has over a decade worth of experience breaking products into new markets, promoting over-the-top metal bands, and for getting hip, urban streetwear onto the backs and asses of high school students the nation over. Todd is known for his extreme and hilarious life experiences and is one of the most intense individuals I have ever had the pleasure to meet.
We both share a passion for the comic artform and for converting the comic ignorant into members of the ever-growing army of comic militants, and it wasn’t long before we worked up an effective and low-cost guerrilla marketing campaign to do just that. The concept behind the program is simplicity itself, find a captive audience craving short-order entertainment and provide it for them in the form of comic books.
“You wouldn’t believe the shit I’ve seen people reading on that train!” Todd ranted with a sparkle in his eye referring to his daily commute to Oakland. “These pathetic fucks are dying on those trains, I’ve seen businessmen pick up a Walgreens coupon flyer and read it! They’re so desperate for anything to read on that soul-crushing ride on their way to their dead-end jobs these people are practically praying to Jesus for a fucking comic book!”
Over the course of six months, more than three hundred comics have been featured in this guerrilla program and distributed on bay area busses, trains and rapid-transit subways. The cost to start this program has been minimal, basically consisting of bumping my orders on a few key titles by as few as 5 copies. The program has also thrived thanks to generous donations from our friends at AIT-PlanetLar, Absence of Ink, and Slave Labor Graphics who all know a good idea when they hear it.
Every week I provide Todd with a small stack of hand picked books to distribute to the public. Be they mainstream or self published, I take great pains to ensure that the Commuter Converter books are those that will appeal to a broad, non-comic reading public. The message that this program is sending to lucky commuters is that comics are great entertainment and there’s stuff going on in our industry that just isn’t happening anywhere else.
How we let these comic converts know where to get more is equally simple. Each issue is branded with a sticker on either the cover or in the inside front cover that reads “Your commuting entertainment brought to you by your friends at the Isotope” and includes the store’s address, contact information and Web site.
Since starting this program I’ve received numerous phone calls from curious commuters interested in the program, professional marketers, and information-hungry journalists. Several people have asked if the public transport companies have given us a hard time for leaving comics on the busses, but no one from any of these companies have bothered to call. Todd thinks he knows why, “Those MUNI and BART guys have never even seen the Commuter Converter books. Nobody is leaving these things behind, everybody takes their comics with them!”
My favorite phone conversation that the program has generated went something like this:
“Isotope, this is James.”
“Hey you guys are the ones doing that commuter thing, right? Where you give comics out on the bus?”
“Yeah, that’s us!”
“Let me ask you this… so is this ‘Losers’ comic going to be worth a bunch of money someday?”
“In all honesty, it probably won’t be…”
“Well, it was good anyway. Can I buy the next one?”
It didn’t take long for me to realize that aggressive guerrilla programs like these are a great investment for our industry and for my business. Sometimes the best ideas of all are the simple ones and one of the real strengths of this program is the adaptability of it. Any retailer can order five extra comics every week to implement their own Commuter Converter program. A retailer could also choose to simply use available overstock that would just be taking up space in their store otherwise. Scratch and dent or damaged merchandise that retailers have in their backrooms or that publishers end up with are other options in starting up a Commuter Converter program.
But it’s not just retailers who can take advantage of the slow-build effect of a clever, well-targeted guerrilla marketing campaign like this. Creators, publishers and even independent self-publishers could easily use this same program to promote their books to a local population of captive audience consumers. The concept and execution are so simple and low-cost that several of my street-fighting customers have adopted this same strategy for comic indoctrination of commuting consumers. One Isotope regular likes to purchase the monthly periodical installments of his favorite comics and then gives them away once the trade paperback versions are available. Another regular is using the Commuter Converter program to help promote his Mini-Comics.
Of course, I’m happy to provide both of these customers with as many of our Commuter Converter stickers as they want. Not only does this inspire customer love for everything that is the Isotope, from both the people who are running their own Commuter Converter program and those who receive these free goodies, but it’s also additional advertising at no personal cost to my business.
And that’s what they like to call damn good business.
“What I like is watching people’s faces light up when they spot a copy of ‘The Goon’ or ‘Scurvy Dogs’ sitting on the seat, you’d think they’d died and gone to heaven!” Todd is fond of telling me. “Comics are such a nostalgia item for these people that they can’t help but get taken back to their youth, before they had to go blind sitting in a little cubicle and staring at a computer screen all day to feed their ungrateful wife and kids. People like an escape from that miserable life they’re living and comics provide it. When they find out the comics are smart and sophisticated they start to realize what a perfect source of short-term entertainment they are to enjoy on their commute!”
With a passive, slow-build guerrilla campaign like this one, that covers such a large area of the San Francisco bay area which is densely populated with competing comic stores, it’s difficult to judge how effective the program has been. But I do know the program has brought new faces into my store. While the majority of people who have come into the store because of the program have been casual shoppers, the ones that really show how worthwhile this program is are new Isotope regulars John Gavin and Shelly R.
If all it takes to bring a new John and a new Shelly into the Isotope is six months and 300 comics then I couldn’t be happier about the success of this program and the potential for our industry to grow. Both of these new customers are excited to have found comics and their enthusiasm for the comic artform is a beautiful thing to behold.
“I saw this really good looking guy on the BART leaving comics on the seat,” Shelly told me the first time I met her, “I didn’t read comics before but that was a really good way to get me started!” Shelly was first enticed by a copy of ‘Fables’ she read on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and has since found many more comics to enjoy. “James is right about ‘Preacher’ being crack, I just can’t get enough and I hope it never ends.”
The Commuter Converter program is only one of the many take-it-to-the-streets ass-kicking methods of guerrilla marketing that my street team is out there doing. In the next few weeks we’re going to take a look at what the rest of the gang is up to, and how a rabid dedication to spreading the word can and will change our industry for the better.
Above and beyond the call of duty:
The two books that have proven to be the most successful for Commuter Converter program have been Andy Diggle and Jock’s “The Losers” and Eric Powell’s “The Goon.” No other books have created quite the same reaction in our recent converts as these have. If you are not reading them yet, you are doing yourself a disservice.
This week I have Jared Guenther and Ryan “Scurvy Dogs” Yount at the helm, helping me pimp these fantastic books.
“The Losers” is hands down one of the best comics on the market today. Diggle’s sharp, edgy writing makes this CIA-agents-gone-rogue-and-wrong an exciting read and Jock’s gritty and glorious artwork makes the characters and story come alive with heart-pounding consistency. It’s little wonder that this has been so popular with comic readers and non-readers alike. Smart and fun, “The Losers” grabs you by the throat from the first page and doesn’t let go until you agree to buy every issue.
Best sales pitch for “The Losers”: Think “Three Kings”… only better.
(Jared Guenther pairs this book with an extra strong gin and tonic. Made with Plymouth gin, of course!)
“The Losers” by Andy Diggle and Jock
All four issue in stock at Diamond!
Issue #1 (APR03 0242)
Issue #2 (MAY03 0243)
Issue #3 (JUN03 0251)
Issue #4 (JUL03 0249) – In stores this week!
“The Goon” by Eric Powell
Dark Horse Comics $2.99
Issue #1 (AUG03 0142)
Issue #2 (JUN03 0019)
“The Goon: Nothin’ But Misery” TPB (APR03 0020)
Eric Powell’s hilarious action-adventure “The Goon” is a treat for comic readers of all tastes and ages. “The Goon” effortlessly mixes equal parts of the occult, twisted circus freaks, classic comics, hard-boiled western and high testosterone machismo and managers to stun you page after page with Powell’s beautiful artwork… all the while keeping tongue planted firmly in cheek. Great stuff!
Best sales pitch for “The Goon”: Think “Spirit”-era Will Eisner doing “Hellboy” comics.
(Ryan Yount doesn’t screw around, he pairs his “Goon” reading with shots straight out of the Jack Daniels bottle.)