Building a New Audience for Comics

In last week's column, I explained how Mile High Comics made the transition, in 1997, from being a traditional stores and mail order comics retailer, into being primarily a DotCom retailer. I gave details about how our transition was made under extreme duress, with compelling need being our primary motivator.

The reason that I gave you that inside information about that dreadful period in my company's history was because the analysis that I employed to bring Mile High Comics back to wonderful prosperity was one that I think that the new comics publishers would be well advised to use today. Specifically, I stepped back away from my personal history as the sole owner of Mile High, and asked myself what I would do to salvage the company if I had just purchased it from other owners. Taking this very dispassionate approach allowed me to make changes that were previously unthinkable. Several of the new strategies that I implemented in 1997 were very risky, but taking a "no tomorrow" perspective made taking even a dangerous risk a far better option than simply waiting for the end to come. Clearly, my risk-taking paid off, as Mile High Comics has had record years in terms of both gross sales, and earnings, for the past three years in a row.

The risk that I see the mainstream comics publishers taking right now is that they are not working aggressively to build a new audience for comics. They are sitting on their hands, while watching unit sales of mainstream comics steadily decline. Their only real answer to this problem has been to continually offset their unit sales declines by repeatedly raising cover prices. This is a strategy of doom for comics as we've known them for the past 70 years. We may see an evolution of comics and graphic storytelling becoming primarily a trade paperback medium, but the 32 page comic book that so many of us love cannot survive many more rounds of price increases.

What I would like to see is a far more aggressive utilization of the free marketing capabilities of the Internet by the mainstream comics publishers. To this date, I see no mainstream publishers working to create a mailing list of fans interested in their publications. Most publishers are also doing a very lame job of utilizing their websites as a way to build a "community." For whatever reason, the larger publishers view their websites as only a secondary tool for building interest in their books. Even in Marvel's case, where they have put together an innovative and interesting mechanism that allows the pages of sample books to "turn" themselves (and zoom up panels in sequence), they greatly limit the appeal of their previews by including very annoying ads. This is wrong, wrong, wrong! The website is already an ad for Marvel upcoming products. Dramatically diluting the positive impression of Marvel's new products by taking the short-sighted view that the website must somehow justify its own existence through ad revenues, is completely counter-productive. Sell comics, not ads! Make the experience of reading sample comics online as fast, easy, and pleasurable as possible. Anything that interferes with that core goal should be eliminated.

Going even further, I would suggest that all the mainstream comics publishers admit that they are currently surviving on a platform that is quickly failing. If they were to take that approach, the concept of completely reorienting their companies around their online activities might not seem like such a risky change. It worked for me, and I can see no reason why it couldn't work for the mainstream comics publishers. The key, however, is for the publishers to start viewing the capture of new readers from the incoming stream on online visitors as their primary goal. Instead of being totally paranoid, like DC Comics, and severely limiting advance online information of upcoming projects, go crazy! If you've got a great book coming out, put up some of the pencils, before they're even inked! Build up a fan mailing list with a Guest Book, and actually send out advance samples of upcoming books to fans who have asked to be on the list. Why the heck not? Our experience has been that the more information provided to fans about their favorite creators, titles, and characters the greater their propensity to purchase upcoming items. Sheesh, this isn't rocket science...

I guess what really frustrates me the most is the blindness of the mainstream comics publishers to the strength of their own online brand names. DC Comics, for example, has an incredible array of popular characters, which have caused (according to Netscape) over 8,100 websites to link to DCComics.com. In spite of that huge number of links, DCComics.com (again, according to Netscape) is not that much more of a popular site than MileHighComics.com, which has only 900 links. Why? Because the DC site isn't terribly useful or interesting. It's a relatively static site, with only periodic updates, and no real sense of community. You can get far better, and more timely, news about DC projects by going to other websites, rather than by visiting DCComics.com.

What's wrong with this picture? I'm not saying that DC should compete with online news sites, but rather that fans should be able to discover unique and interesting content on the DCComics.com site. Consider for a moment that DC has well over 10,000 unique online visitors per day. At the same time, the individual SUPERMAN titles sell only an estimated 60,000 copies per month. With 10,000 unique visitors per day, it sure seems that DC online could be doing a far better job of boosting sales. But DC management, and their peers at other companies in the mainstream comics publishing world, just haven't made that mindset shift into realizing that their online operations should now become the core of their marketing strategy, rather than just an adjunct. Let's all hope they figure things out, before it's too late.

Please send your e-mails to chuck@milehighcomics.com, and your letters to:

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221



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