Webcomics: Building Readership
What is a webcomic without readers? Let’s face it, most of us creator types aren’t putting our hearts and souls into a comic creation that we don’t want any one to read. We put it on the web and out into the world to garner attention and interest, entertaining and communicating with the masses. Without some masses to communicate to, it seems pretty futile. For that reason, its no surprise that every webcomic author is eternally looking to build, rebuild, or expand a current readership. But how do you accomplish this task?
The best way is to tackle this problem from multiple angles with a sort of ‘master plan’ in the worlds. Webcomics are a field of innovation, but there is also some etiquette involved, especially when it comes to flogging your wares. But lets look at this in order.
Step 1: Make sure you are ready
Before you start trying to draw readers in, make sure you are ready for them. A lot of beginning webcomic artists get really excited that they have their first few pages on the web and are desperate for feedback and so promote themselves prematurely. Remember: THERE IS NEVER A SECOND CHANCE TO MAKE A FIRST IMPRESSION. Don’t let your enthusiasm ruin your chance to make a splash with readers!
In order to BE ready, you should have the following done. Feel free to use this as a sort of checklist:
1) Have a functioning website. This means that your graphics are all in place, there are no ‘under construction’ pages, any extras like shoutboxes or forums are ready and tested, your archives work, character pages are up, and if you have one gallery and tipjars are operational and populated. Make sure your site isn’t blank! Ideally everything is all spit and polished, tested and retested to make sure that when a visitor arrives, its easy for them to find the comic, the archives, and the way to other parts of your site. If you have any doubts, recruit a handful of friends to help you test it all.
2) Have an archive of AT LEAST 10 pages. This is one a lot of people get lazy about and trip up on. Ideally for a long form comic you want at least one full chapter in the archive before any sort of heavy promotion. Why? so that you have something to really hook readers with. Most longform chapters are 15-20 pages, but I’d say about 10 pages min for story or short comics to give the reader something to anchor to. Comic s with archives hook better than comics without archives. Getting readers invested is what keeps them coming back. Don’t get lazy on this step! You don’t have to have 10 comics when you put up your page, but wait until you have ten before you proceed to the ‘marketing’ phase of this list.
3) Decide on an update schedule. This is VERY VERY VERY important and will have the most direct impact on your readership and if you gain or lose readers. It is vitally important that you decide on a schedule you can keep. If you can only do one page a week, only commit to one page a week. If you can do three, great, do three, but make sure you can keep it. In the beginning stages of your comic, test how many you can do as you build your archive but BEFORE you update. Try to do as many as you can. Depending on the complexity of your comic and your personal speed, you’ll come up with a number. The general rule of thumb regarding updates is the more the better, but even more vial is to choose a number that you a) can keep up with, and b) won’t burn you out. A point also to keep in mind is quality control. Don’t put out shit just to make numbers. Its better to produce less, high quality pages, than a lot of shitty pages. Why? Because quality counts. People will come back even over long spans for awesome webcomics, but they won’t do that for crummy ones. That, and you will probably end up restarting/redrawing your comic at some point. No one likes to repeat, and nothing kills readership faster than reboots. Trust me on this.
A lot of you might wonder which are the best update schedules. The ideal is 3xs a week, the most ideal days being Monday/Wednesday/Friday. Its one of the most popular and one that’s proven to work very well. If you can update more often, you can decide if you want to update 5xs a week (many dailies do), or only twice or even once a week. The best days to update are usually Mondays and Fridays. Avoiding weekends as a primary update day is good, as a lot of people are offline on weekends and tend to check comics when they get to school/work on monday morning, or on friday afternoons when they are bored from the week. If you have particular days you can or can’t work, you may want to schedule your updates around your own personal life, which is fine, but if you work in advance, you can do both. Work on the days you can, and update on a ‘prime’ day. Keep in mind however, the more you wait inbetween updates, the less chance people will remember to check back at your comic. And if you miss promised updates, people get VERY pissed off. Do it repeatedly, and they will stop visiting your comic. This is why you need to pick a schedule you can keep.
4) Based on your chosen update schedule, build a backlog of at least 2-3 months and work in advance. If you’ve decided to update once a week, you need a total of 8-12 pages in your backlog before you move onto the marketing phase. If you choose 3 times a week to update, you’ll need 24 -36 pages in backlog. You might be wondering ‘why the hell do I need to work that far in advance?’, and here’s the answer. When you move on to marketing yourself, you may find that your comicing time is slightly reduced because you are busy keeping up with social media, posting on websites, doing fan art for other popular comics, and following the marketing section. To keep fans coming back it is vitally important that you don’t miss updates. It also takes some time to build trust, and get readers in the habit of checking your comics on the update days, and making sure that there is always an update waiting, reliably and on time will keep them coming back. Three months is a good solid amount of time to start building positive buzz around a comic, and if you are prepared you’ll never miss an update in that time.
4) Do splash art. You will need a good deal of it for the website, for your ads (that you will create) and to use in avatars and signatures on the web. Its important to have a stash of it handy also for things like merch later. Make sure however, that the splash art you do is extremely similar to what you are offering in your comic. If your splash art is too much nicer than your comic, when people visit your comic expecting to see quality artwork that you advertised with and they see something crappy. If you plan on using comic panels, make sure you keep some of your finished art without lettering to use as splash art.
Some guidelines for what you should have ready: Individual shots of main characters, some composites of up to three main characters, a few action shots with decent backgrounds.
Step 2: Marketing
This is the step that most people like to jump to right away, because its sexy and people are impatient. But if you haven’t done the “getting ready steps” you’ll have to go back and do them anyway to make this section work. Why? because you need to have prepared to do this section. So make sure you’ve completed everything from step 1. To make the most of this section you cannot miss a single update.
While your comic is updating regularly, and with an archive set up to hook readers, you can now start to put the word out to people that you exist. There are several ways to do this, and it keeps changing and evolving as time goes on. Given that most people also don’t have a lot of cash, doing stuff on the cheap is really important.
Strategy 1: Social networking
In today’s internet, this is pretty important. Everyone looks to social networks to provide recommendations of content and get updates about what’s going on in the world that matters to them (basically, what’s up with friends). Getting a facebook page for your comic and adding a join button on your site, is pretty top priority, with facebook being the #1 social networking site in use today. Twitter is also pretty popular with webcomic people and readers, and make sure you have an RSS feed for your comic. Other social networking sites you may want to join can include Myspace, comicspace, bebo, digg, Stumbleupon, del.icio.us, etc. If you want to go all out, there are many more that aren’t as commonly used, but I suggest looking at a tool such as Ping.fm to manage posting to a lot of social networks at once.
Just being on these social isn’t enough either. You have to contribute to them and build relationships with readers. Literally, you have to make friends and alliances. Usually this means friending other, influential people, posting relevant useful information (articles, tutorials, videos) and generally being a nice person. Getting involved is key to making these sites work for you. You can’t sit on your laurels and expect people to come and see you. You have to engage. This is why its important to have all your comic work taken care of, so you can focus on updating a lot on these networks. You can’t really just flog your comic, but your comic has to be ready to be flogged, so when you people visit your page, or listen to your tweets, or read your latest blog about art, or webcomics, or whatever, when you DO say you’ve updated your comic, people are motivated to go and read it. They also constantly see you on their radar, they put more stock in what you have to say. These days, its not just good enough to put out comics, but you have to build a positive reputation and quazi friendship with your fan base.
Strategy 2: Getting Listed
While the above helps you generate interest, you need to make sure your comic is listed in places where webcomic readers go. Also, people often use specific trackers to see when their webcomics update, and its a good way to remind them to come and visit. Certain webcomic toplists are also a place that people will go to cruise for new comics. Don’t underestimate going to where the readers are. There are a number of these lists around, and make sure you are submitting to them. Search engines are also important so make sure your site is properly optimized for search engines (SEO). Some examples of lists sites include: The Webcomics List, Onlinecomics.net, The Belfry, Piperka, and WebcomicZ. There are a more out there, but some come and go with the wind. Some lists to consider would be Topwebcomics.com or Webcomics Super 100 list. Comic Rank is also an interesting toplist as it helps you track your readership more reliably than stats alone. It also functions as a toplist. You may decide to submit to all or only a few of the above lists. As a new site listing your site in many places can increase your link backs and page rank, but if you are an older comic looking just to rebuild or increase readership, I tend to suggest only picking the larger of these sites.
Strategy 3: Get Involved with the webcomic community
As with social networking, this one requires interaction on your part, and I don’t mean just posting links to your comic. But there is a HUGE community out there of webcomic readers and authors on various forums and through community sites that create hotbeds of potential readers. A lot of these are on forums, and through webcomic communities such as Drunkduck, Comicgenesis, Spiderforest, and SmackJeeves, but a lot are independent such as Webcomics Community or webcomic.net.
There are a ton of them out there, and getting involved in some of the choicer ones that you feel your comic fits well as a part of will not only garner you visibility with other authors and fans, but allows you to cultivate relationships between your comic and others. This is important to the next strategy.
Strategy 4: Get Linked with other comics
Ultimately, the best way to get traffic is from other, like comics to your own. If you aren’t sure what I mean, its pretty simple. If your comic is about asskicking demons, you’d probably get more traffic from comic with other asskicking supernatural characters than say, a romance comic. Basically try to find people who write in a similar genre as yourself and find a way to trade links with them. Sometimes it can be as simple as listing their site in your links section and dropping them a note to request they do the same (but don’t require it, that’s kind of rude). This tends to work well with smaller comics, but larger ones tend to get requests all the time, so you have to be a bit more creative. Its still possible, but requires more effort.
The best way to get linked back is often doing fanart or a fan story for a comic you really admire and think fits well with your genre and comic. When you send them the artwork, make sure you include your comic’s URL as a part of your signature of your email. A lot of fan art is put up in a site gallery and the artist is linked back as a ‘thank you’. Doing a fan comic or one shot is also a good way of promoting yourself and your skills to a new audience. Most webcomic authors use fan filler at some point, and its a perfect opportunity to gain exposure on a bigger comic without paying for advertising.
Strategy 4: Advertising
A lot of people still think that advertising is a dirty word, but today, through services such as Project Wonderful, its really easy and cost effective to get advertising on many comics one might otherwise never get exposure on. Also, in getting involved you can also start generating a bit of revenue for yourself to either sustain your comic’s hosting, or reinvest into advertising on more expensive comics without having the money actually come out of your pocket.
Generally when advertising, its best to only advertise on days you update. This ensures that whenever people click through the ad, its a fresh new page they will be seeing. Don’t advertise if you haven’t updated in a long time, or if you only update once a week, try to advertise on only the few days after you update. Bid on comics that fit your comic’s genre and demographic, and make sure your ads reflect the actual comic art, not just the splash art.
Project wonderful isn’t the only place you can advertise, but its one of the most highly aimed at webcomics specifically. However places such as facebook, where highly targeted advertising tools are present, make good places to fish for new readers.
Step 3: Create additional content on the site to hold readers
Marketing will help bring new eyes to your site, and while the comic is good to keep people coming back, people don’t generally STAY on the website unless there is more to keep them interested. Content is king on the internet, and the more you have, the better your site will do in keeping people coming back, even on the days your comic isn’t updating. This helps keep your views up for ad boxes (revenue generation), as well as provides additional ways to interact with readers.
Adding a blog, art gallery, character bios, twitter feed, forums, games, etc. All add value. Keeping people coming back even when there isn’t a new comic helps create opportunities to continue interacting with your readers, entertaining them even when nothing is going on.
Step 4: Update. On time. Everytime.
This is the most critical point. While people might love your additional content, always remember, they are there for the comic. If you say you are going to update every wed night, then update every wed night. Nothing kills comics faster than missed updates, long term hiatuses, and erratic schedules. Believe me, I know first hand. If there is one piece of advice I could give any aspiring webcomic creator that is iron clad, it is this one. This also happens to be the single hardest task in making and maintaining a webcomic. Keep this up, and your audience will grow steadily.
That all being said… a caveat to readers:
While all this will definitely help you bring in readers, it will not necessarily drive them to you in droves and guarantee instant popularity. There are many factors in making a comic ‘popular’, and marketing is only a means of getting the word out that your comic exists. You will gain readers over a period of time. Most audiences are built over the course of several years. You need to make sure you give yourself time and don’t become discouraged when you aren’t instantly popular. The world of webcomics is always changing, always evolving, and you need to keep rolling with the punches.