An Easy Win for Marvel

By | Tuesday, May 05, 2020 Leave a Comment
Marvel comic shop promotional ad
Marvel just announced that it's making a decent number of mostly recent comics available for free digitally via their Marvel Unlimited program as well as comiXology. I can't find any explicit marketing messages from them that are tied to this, but it seems as if Marvel is doing it as a means to keep readers interested in their comics until their printed comics make it back into stores. (Their current schedule has books beginning to roll out on May 27.)

What they're releasing digitally for free -- temporarily, it seems -- is actually a good chunk of stories, many of which are the entire run of limited series like Secret Invasion, Secret Wars (2015), Captain America: Winter in America, Straight Out of Brooklyn, Captain America: Sam Wilson, and Dr. Strange: The Way of the Weird as well as some older material like Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 and Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne vol. 1. Plus some collected runs of ongoing titles like Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, Venom, and Incredible Hulk. There's a not insignificant number of comics in there!

I don't know how/why Marvel selected those particular ones to make available. There's clearly some intent on getting a variety of characters (with the notable exception of the X-Men) but whether or not these tie into any upcoming new stories, I can't say. And while it's mostly newer material, the inclusion of some 1960s Spider-Man and 1980s Fantastic Four might be of interest to older fans. So the intent seems to be to appeal to a reasonably wide variety of fans.

This does two things for Marvel. First, it keeps their characters more towards the forefront of readers' minds. There's enough material there to keep readers busy for at least a little while, and it's hopefully enough to tide them over until the end of the month. Second, it makes Marvel look pretty benevolent. "Hey, fans, we know you want to read more of our comic stories, so here's a bunch for free!" But the thing that I feel compelled to point out here is: this costs them nothing. Literally nothing.

These aren't new stories, obviously, but they're not even newly scanned or anything. These are all comics that were already in their system; it took a developer all of ten seconds to switch the prices on them to zero. There was more cost involved in whatever meeting Marvel had to decide which comics to make available.

There's not even an opportunity cost here! The most recent comics here date from 2018; pretty much anyone who was going to buy either the single issues or the trade paperbacks has already done so. The handful of people who might buy one of those trades now will likely do so because a retailer already has it in stock -- meaning the retailer already purchased it and Marvel made it's money a long time ago. Plus it's not like people aren't going to buy the Secret Invasion TPB because it was available for free digitally for a month (or however long they opt to leave these free). We've known for a while now that, generally speaking, digital comics readers have almost no overlap with print comics readers.

I say none of this as any sort of condemnation of Marvel. It's a pretty obvious business move, honestly, and I'm more surprised they didn't do this earlier. (Didn't they have a promotion several years back where they released, like, 1000 issues for free for a limited time?) Less surprising, but more revealing, is that DC isn't doing anything comparable. DC's digital policies seem unchanged, and they continue to hold a very tight leash on what they make freely available. How/why in 2020 they continue to have such a Luddite approach to marketing/selling comics digitally, I have no clue.

Seriously, this is an easy win for Marvel. Like I said, zero cost for a huge amount of goodwill and promotion. And especially next to DC's archaic position, Marvel looks golden. It really is mind-boggling to me that DC can't seem to get their act together on digital. This decision is a no-brainer that any first-year business undergrad could make. Sure, they still make the majority of their sales in print, so I wouldn't expect them to be super adept at digital marketing and sales, but to be so obtuse when it comes to digital requires a LOT of effort!
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