Marketing Comics in the 21st Century Redux

By | Wednesday, November 25, 2020 Leave a Comment
I wrote the following back in 2009, so I've been sitting with these ideas for over a decade. I think they're all still perfectly valid, but I don't know how widespread this type of thinking is among comics folks, so I thought it might be worth coming back to it again. I've gone through and updated some of the topical references, but the basic points remain.

Cultural capital.

Attention economy.

Social media.

Three phrases that are rolling around in my head right now, and I'm trying to wrap my head around all three concepts as they pertain to comics. How about I start with some definitions so that we're all on the same page?

Cultural capital is a term that was introduced in the early 1970s by Pierre Bourdieu. He argued that there were three forms of capital: economic, social and cultural. Economic capital is what we typically think of when we use "capital." We're talking about money and assets. Social capital is a more analytical view of social standing; it's not unrelated to popularity, though there are some differences. Cultural capital is the knowledge, skill and experience one has tied to a particular culture or sub-culture. In terms of comicdom, it's how well you know the Spider-Man mythos, whether or not you can recite the Green Lantern oath from memory, being able to determine who inked a comic just by looking at the style... that kind of thing.

Herbert Simon noted in the early 1970s that we, as a society, were beginning to experience information overload. People were bombarded by so many messages and ideas that the attention they could give each one was being substantially diminished. This information overload gave rise to an attention scarcity -- there's more information than attention to receive it. The problem wasn't so much getting your message out there, but filtering out everybody else's. You're battling for people's attention. The number of viewers matters. Your ratings matter. This is an attention economy.

Finally, social media are outlets which foster communities and personal interactions. It's easy to cite things like Facebook and Twitter which showcase popular social media, but old school BBSes and message boards certainly qualify too.

Here's where things get tricky. There seems to be a connection there, like all three notions are somehow related, but it's hard to verbalize cohesively. I think, though, that by trying to walk through a particular example -- in this case, comics -- might help facilitate some understanding. Let's start with social media, since that's probably what most people are most familiar with.

What happens when a creator puts a webcomic online? A group of people find the comic, and presumably some like it. Many, if not most, of the online comic publishing options available include some sort of feedback option, so readers leave a note about how they like the comic. Maybe the creator(s) respond(s). Maybe somebody else just says, "Yeah, I like that too!" Sometime afterwards, a small community develops around the comic in question.

People have a natural inclination to seek out others similar to themselves. It produces a feeling of self-worth and validation, certainly, but when you get down to it, it makes life more enjoyable when you surround yourself with people you're comfortable with. And the use of comics is essentially just a bridge to achieving that end. It provides a common ground for everyone to start from as they get to know one another.

"Hey, you like Questionable Content? I like it too! What do you like most about it?"

It provides a direction for your introduction into a group, as opposed to walking into a room full of strangers and being asked, "Tell us about yourself." That's a totally open-ended question, and anyone could go off in a million different directions. By focusing on one aspect -- your enjoyment of a specific comic -- you can introduce yourself in a more directed (i.e. less ambiguous, more comfortable) manner.

Now, as you probably know, any group is composed of individuals. And each individual is going to bring different knowledge and experience to the table. And what is the sum of our knowledge and experience but cultural capital? This means that, in a group of people founded on the enjoyment of a shared resource, a hierarchy of sorts will emerge as each person reveals their cultural capital relative to that group.


Let me explain via a personal example.

One of my favorite comics for years was The Fantastic Four. I read everything about them I could get my hands on, and I developed a pretty keen awareness of the characters and their fictional histories. In the mid-1990s, I started developing a website to collect all my knowledge about the FF. Some of it was strictly factual (who worked on what issues) while some of it was theoretical (how the story from issue #5 could be reconciled -- and expanded upon -- with very real accounts of the historical Blackbeard). I participated in FF fan groups and garnered a name for myself on various message boards and the like. Over the course of the next decade, I became relatively well-known as THE expert on the Fantastic Four. And I eventually came to be asked to assist on a number of official FF products; you can see me credited in Fantastic Four #500, Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four vol. 10 and the extended edition of the Fantastic Four movie DVD among other places. I was being sought after by others precisely because of the cultural capital I developed over and above what most FF fans accumulated.

Now those people with a relatively high amount of cultural capital in a given group? Those folks are what might be called influencers. The group has high regard for them, and are more likely to follow their lead on various opinions. "After all, they are experts, so they must know more than I do on the subject." This is essentially an old practice. Magazines devoted to a given subject are often given review copies of products related to that subject, in the hopes that the magazine will review it favorably and get others to buy it. In the 21st century, though, expertise has less to with having your name in print, and more to do with actual expertise. (Or, more accurately, perceived expertise.) The experts are now Twittering and Facebooking and YouTubing. They're accumulating their cultural capital through social media. Which means they're capturing people's attention.

(See where I'm going with this?)

The people who are out there, developing their cultural capital, are ALSO developing an avenue through which they can break through people's attention filters. People have ALREADY decided that those with cultural capital are attention-worthy, and allow those messages to pass through their filters. Regular readers of this blog have a pretty good idea what to expect when they come here. I've generated whatever cultural capital I have and become an avenue for a certain type/style of message. And if you, as a creator, think the people who typically receive that type/style of message overlaps with your intended audience, then it's a prime outlet to target YOUR message. I have obtained something of value (readers' attention) that can be exchanged for something else (money, comp. copies of comics, etc.). But, it should be noted, it's only of value if my audience, such as it is, is who you are targeting. While I certainly don't have data to back this up, but I doubt my audience has a lot of overlap with, say, The Beat's or CBR's. If you're trying to target the folks who read those regularly, it's probably not worth your time treating me like an influencer because, for that audience, I'm not.

Still with me? On to practical application.

Most comic creators don't have the PR budget of Marvel and/or DC. Options are limited because of resources. Whether we're talking about webcomics or pamphlet books, creators need to understand our three subject areas specifically as it pertains to their creation.

Who is the target audience? There is no comic anywhere that's for everyone. (Even yours.) So creators need to first identify what sort of people are likely to enjoy it. Are they people who read Fleen, fans of Cat and Girl, anyone who kind of likes the Hulk, what? It's crucial to understand who a creator is to speaking to (generally) to understand who a creator needs to speak to (specifically).

Once the general audience is identified, a creator then needs to determine A) who has significant cultural capital in that group (the influencers) and B) what social media does they tend to gather around. Webcomics have something of advantage here over pamphlet comics since most social networks are technologically oriented like webcomics delivery systems themselves. Pamphlet comics certainly can and often do use those same social media, but not necessarily, and not necessarily in as concentrated locations. Fans of Sinfest tend to hang out right there at the dedicated forum; fans of Action Comics have quite a few more locations available to them. But some extended research is probably required; popping up out of the blue and asking, "Hey, who's got clout around here?" isn't likely to garner the best responses. A creator might have to sift through messages for quite some time to get a sense of who might have sway over the group.

Once the influencers are identified, the creator then needs to assuage their attention economy. How much do they feel their eyeball traffic is worth? Are they happy just to look at any new work? Are they so swamped with other things that an extra incentive (like an original sketch) is necessary to stand out a little more? Are they small time and happy to speak to any creator, or do they operate more professionally and have a specific address for review material? A creator needs to do more research, essentially, on how to influence the influencer.

Bear in mind that winning over the influencers isn't a sure sign to financial rewards. It is likely to win some cultural and possibly social capital, but economic capital is another matter. Like it or not, we're still in a society that runs on economic capital and I'm fairly certain we won't be counting Whuffie any time soon. But without making exchanges in the attention economy, monetizing a comic is a lost cause. The greatest comic in the world, after all, has no chance of improving your bank account if no one knows about it.
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