Loose Cannon: Issue #53

Fri, May 31st, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Larry Young, Columnist

LEAD A HORSE TO WATER

Well, it looks like I was mostly right.

Way back in what was only the second installment of

href="http://www.comicbookresources.com/columns/index.cgi?column=loosecannon&article=797">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

href="http://www.ait-planetlar.com">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.

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Mail about this column can be sent to

href="mailto:larry@comicbookresources.com">larry@comicbookresources.com

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