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Issue #53

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LEAD A HORSE TO WATER

Well, it looks like I was mostly right.

Way back in what was only the second installment of Loose
Cannon,
I wrote this about the then-upcoming Spider-Man
movie: “All Marvel has to do is produce a sixteen page introduction to
the Spider-Man mythos, drawn in a clear style, and reminiscent, at least
somewhat, of the characters and situations as portrayed in the film… to
GIVE AWAY for free at EVERY SINGLE MOVIE THEATRE showing the film. To
the kids and their parents. As. They. Go. In. If I were Marvel, I’d have
half a story inside, the last page of which says, “Want to find out what
happens to Spidey? Call 1-888-266-4226 or point your web-browser to
www.the-master-list.com to find a comic shop nearest you.” AND THEN have
the sixteen-page end of the story waiting there at the shops FOR FREE.”

So, with the success of super-retailer Joe Field’s Free Comics Day,
which, as you’ll recall, was piggy-backed on the release of
Spider-Man, we in comics now see a resurgence of interest in our
art form by those regular folks who, if they thought of comics at all in
the last ten years, probably wondered, “Comics? They still make those?”

So that’s good.

But you still can’t get Spider-Man comics, and we don’t have
anyone to complain to, and that’s bad.

Parenthetically, I want to make it clear here that I’m definitely not
Marvel-bashing with this column. Far from it; in fact, I’ve been very
much enjoying the sea-change that Jemas and Quesada have caused the past
year or so. Marvel’s had a major shift in their business strategy, and
that sort of thing is always going to lead to growing pains. Exactly
because their plan is so different from what has come before,
though, it’s hard for the hoi and the polloi to understand.

I mean, imagine you’re running Marvel, and you have to explain to an
angry mob of pitchfork-and-torch-wielding retailers again why
you’re not going back to press on anything when you’ve got the NUMBER
ONE MOVIE IN AMERICA to get the regular Joes interested in your comics,
and Entertainment Weekly and others reviewing Peter Bagge’s
Megalomaniacal Spider-man to interest the hipster with your indy
street-cred…

And forget explaining that to people who just want to buy the comics.
They don’t care that Marvel’s trying to get retailers to increase their
initial orders. They don’t care that the orders for these books were
placed three months ago. They just want their comics, and if they can’t
get them, well… you know as well as I do they’re going to go spend their
money on something else. Because a pop culture-consuming audience is
nothing if not fickle.

But there are a few things they could do to alleviate the damage, and
this one goes for any publisher of comic books, too: they could have a
team of community managers.

You know what the theory is here, right? That a set of folks who have
access to the different strata of an audience interact with them and put
forth the company line. Not as shills, so much, but rather as trusted
members of the community.

In comics, you’d have folks who evangelize your point of view to the
creators, to the retailers, to the fans. It’s a simple thing, and it
very much helps the different pieces of the value chain get behind your
business strategy.

I mean, I do this all the time, for my company, and I’m just one
guy. Sure, I’m a one-man cross-market customer task force, and all, but
I can still do it in my spare time. Can you imagine if Marvel and
DC and Image and Dark Horse and all the rest had a department of folks
who were out in the world evangelizing their points of view?

It’s so easy (and , to me, so vital a part of marketing) that I kind of
can’t see why they’re not doing it already. Take when AiT/Planet Lar
made the swap-over to a trade paperbacks-and-original graphic novel
publishing plan a few years ago. Even though there are still a few
Johnnies-Come-lately who insist on telling me this sort of thing can’t
work, the rest of the people watching went through these three stages
when they heard the news:

1. Annoyance, because it was a new thing and they just didn’t
understand

2. With some patient explanations, understanding and clarity of the
message was reached

and then

3. Active support of the message, and a furtherance of message to
like-minded audience members

The end result of guiding the message becomes that the most vocal part
of the community gets the rest on board, and everyone sails smoothly
into happily-ever-after.

I want somebody representing Marvel to whom people can direct their
questions about no overshipping. I want somebody visible over at DC we
can ask about book cancellations. I want to know who we can write to at
CrossGen so we can ask them why they felt the need to publicly shame
their printer. You know?

A community manager solves many more problems than he would cause, just
by prioritizing the audience. Having one person (or, of course, a
department) who could be effective by not treating everyone the same,
but by finding out who the influencers are and what it is, exactly, that
influences them… and acting accordingly, according to company interests.
I mean, this stuff is pretty basic, and no one in comics besides me
really does this.

Can someone tell me why?

I could go on: there’s the bottom-up and top-down approaches… where you
figure out who you want to target and why… you could target influencers
individually, which is the bottom-up approach… what retailers call
hand-selling. Put the product or message into each person’s hand and
hope they do some viral marketing for you. This is how everyone had
heard about The Blair Witch Project… or you could do the
“top-down” approach, which is more of a broadband strategy which puts
your message out in front of the community…

…and the thing that kills me about this missed opportunity in the comic
book industry is that it’s nearly free to implement. Because of their
loyalty to comics and the immediacy the web gives for information
exchange, most rabid fans are already on the Internet. If a company had
a fully-loaded head count in a department (or even assigned a savvy
production coordinator from marketing or a junior editorial staff
member) the revenue implications are minimal or could even be accounted
for as advertising costs.

AND EVEN THEN a particularly good community manager would act not only
as a mouthpiece for the organization, but act as a communications
channel from the community back to the organization itself. It’s win-win
for everyone.

Now, some folks sort of do this; there are Marvel boards and DC boards
and Wildstorm boards, and heck, probably even Little Lulu
discussion boards by now… but marketing individually like that is
counter-productive for a good community manager. You don’t want your own
community! You have to look at this outreach as targeting the audience
of comics fans instead of Marvel fans or DC fans or Little Lulu
fans or whatever. Otherwise, you’ll be perceived as just a shill.
There’s a big difference between “force” and “influence” and that’s what
good community management should understand.

Comics fans. Not company loyalists.

Because if you don’t look at the big picture, you’re preaching to the
converted. Or worse, leading a horse to water.


Mail about this column can be sent to larry@comicbookresources.com