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Issue #53

LEAD A HORSE TO WATER

Well, it looks like I was mostly right.

Way back in what was only the second installment of LooseCannon, I wrote this about the then-upcoming Spider-Man movie: "All Marvel has to do is produce a sixteen page introduction tothe Spider-Man mythos, drawn in a clear style, and reminiscent, at leastsomewhat, of the characters and situations as portrayed in the film… toGIVE AWAY for free at EVERY SINGLE MOVIE THEATRE showing the film. Tothe kids and their parents. As. They. Go. In. If I were Marvel, I'd havehalf a story inside, the last page of which says, "Want to find out whathappens to Spidey? Call 1-888-266-4226 or point your web-browser towww.the-master-list.com to find a comic shop nearest you." AND THEN havethe 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 ofSpider-Man, we in comics now see a resurgence of interest in ourart form by those regular folks who, if they thought of comics at all inthe 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 haveanyone to complain to, and that's bad.

Parenthetically, I want to make it clear here that I'm definitely notMarvel-bashing with this column. Far from it; in fact, I've been verymuch enjoying the sea-change that Jemas and Quesada have caused the pastyear or so. Marvel's had a major shift in their business strategy, andthat sort of thing is always going to lead to growing pains. Exactlybecause 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 anangry mob of pitchfork-and-torch-wielding retailers again whyyou're not going back to press on anything when you've got the NUMBERONE MOVIE IN AMERICA to get the regular Joes interested in your comics,and Entertainment Weekly and others reviewing Peter Bagge'sMegalomaniacal Spider-man to interest the hipster with your indystreet-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 theirinitial orders. They don't care that the orders for these books wereplaced three months ago. They just want their comics, and if they can'tget them, well… you know as well as I do they're going to go spend theirmoney on something else. Because a pop culture-consuming audience isnothing if not fickle.

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

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

In comics, you'd have folks who evangelize your point of view to thecreators, to the retailers, to the fans. It's a simple thing, and itvery much helps the different pieces of the value chain get behind yourbusiness strategy.

I mean, I do this all the time, for my company, and I'm just oneguy. Sure, I'm a one-man cross-market customer task force, and all, butI can still do it in my spare time. Can you imagine if Marvel andDC and Image and Dark Horse and all the rest had a department of folkswho 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 ofcan't see why they're not doing it already. Take when AiT/Planet Larmade the swap-over to a trade paperbacks-and-original graphic novelpublishing plan a few years ago. Even though there are still a fewJohnnies-Come-lately who insist on telling me this sort of thing can'twork, the rest of the people watching went through these three stageswhen they heard the news:

1. Annoyance, because it was a new thing and they just didn'tunderstand

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

and then

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

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

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

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

Can someone tell me why?

I could go on: there's the bottom-up and top-down approaches… where youfigure out who you want to target and why… you could target influencersindividually, which is the bottom-up approach… what retailers callhand-selling. Put the product or message into each person's hand andhope they do some viral marketing for you. This is how everyone hadheard about The Blair Witch Project… or you could do the"top-down" approach, which is more of a broadband strategy which putsyour message out in front of the community…

…and the thing that kills me about this missed opportunity in the comicbook industry is that it's nearly free to implement. Because of theirloyalty to comics and the immediacy the web gives for informationexchange, most rabid fans are already on the Internet. If a company hada fully-loaded head count in a department (or even assigned a savvyproduction coordinator from marketing or a junior editorial staffmember) the revenue implications are minimal or could even be accountedfor as advertising costs.

AND EVEN THEN a particularly good community manager would act not onlyas a mouthpiece for the organization, but act as a communicationschannel from the community back to the organization itself. It's win-winfor everyone.

Now, some folks sort of do this; there are Marvel boards and DC boardsand Wildstorm boards, and heck, probably even Little Luludiscussion boards by now… but marketing individually like that iscounter-productive for a good community manager. You don't want your owncommunity! You have to look at this outreach as targeting the audienceof comics fans instead of Marvel fans or DC fans or Little Lulufans or whatever. Otherwise, you'll be perceived as just a shill.There's a big difference between "force" and "influence" and that's whatgood community management should understand.

Comics fans. Not company loyalists.

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

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

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