For Penguicon, I’ll be on a panel entitled “Promoting Your Webcomic On A Budget.” Today’s a sneak preview of that, because I’m about to tell you the biggest and best way to promote your comic… Assuming you have one, of course.
Unfortunately, the easiest way to get your creation into the hands of new and eager readers involves something you had to choose before you wrote the first line. That’s right; if your webcomic’s hit the net, it may already be too late. You’re locked in stone, forevermore.
Choose the wrong subject, and you’ll be forever behind the eight-ball.*
Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, once proposed an interesting theory: he said that 20% of any comic audience read comics for the clever writing. 20% read them for the pretty art.
The remaining 60% read them because they want to see their own life echoed in the comics.
They want to open a strip and go, “Ooo! That’s me! Or someone I know!” It sounds crazy, I know. But originally, Dilbert was a moderately popular nerdcore strip dealing with bad puns and occasional philosophy. Then he stumbled into greatness by making fun of the place where everyone was hanging out these days: the office. And oh, how the money did flow.
What else explains the popularity of Garfield? We’re all a little lazy, we all love to eat too much, we all hate Mondays. It’s not particularly funny - but yeah, there’s a bit of me in Garfield. (And probably more in Jon, but I’m not talking about that.) That is, for better or for worse, why people read the ‘field.
The rule’s not ironclad, of course. If you’re lucky, you can get people to buy into your characters so that they become a part of your extended family, the way that For Better or For Worse, Doonesbury, and Something Positive have effortlessly done.
But if you want the easy way to get people to read you? Emulate their life. And then be funny on top of that.
Let’s talk turkey for a moment and talk about my personal obsessions as a comic creator; I’m continually comparing my traffic against those of other, comparable strips. What makes that possible? Project Wonderful, which in an attempt to entice you to purchase ads allows you to view any strip’s traffic at a glance. If you assume that “traffic” is the only metric that we all have in common (for “quality” and “cleverness” are all debatable), then PW gives us a ruler. And I can – and do – compare HotS to just about everyone.
For a strip that’s a little over a year old, Home on the Strange is doing pretty well. But you know what’s doing far better, with roughly the same number of strips? A funny little comic called The Noob, which has almost four times our numbers.
(This isn’t about The Noob, by the way. But The Noob is relevant, and it’s a pretty good read, too, so bear with me.)
Home on the Strange has gotten a lot of early traffic simply because it’s about nerds. There are a lot of nerds online. If I manage to successfully replicate the home environment of some happy nerd somewhere, there’s a damn fine chance that said nerd will send the link to his friends to go, “Hey, man, this is us!”
But The Noob is about World of Warcraft and Everquest and other MMORPGs. And that’s a much larger audience than just the quasi-vanilla nerddom that HotS is about. If Roni and I knock one out of the park, we get a bunch of nerds linking in. Whenever The Noob knocks one out of the park, I’m sure they get a bunch of WoW fans linking in – and since that’s a much larger community, they’ve grown at an exponential rate that outstrips ours.
That’s a self-promoting webcomic, man. You don’t have to do anything; people do it for you because they identify with you.
Now, keep in mind that quality does enter into it. There are a shitload of WoW comics out there, and the fact that the MMORPG comics aren’t dominating the charts is because most of them suck. (Most of every kind of comic sucks, actually.) The Noob has floated to a successful position because it’s funny, and consistently so, and has characters that people like.
But that WoW tie-in? That’s the nitro fuel on the stock car. It supercharges them. I’m not saying that’s the only reason they’re clobbering us in that tenuous metric known as “traffic,” but I know damn well that it’s a reason.
(And no, it’s not a race… But it’s one of the few things we can keep track of. Every author I know has at least sniffed their Amazon rankings, too.)
So what does it take to develop a self-promoting webcomic? Choose an audience that’s widespread. Mock their lifestyle in a way that people can shake their heads and go, “Yeah, I know that life.” And wait for the inbound links.
But – and this is a big but – there’s a potential drawback. You can get too in-depth. Like real life, you can make it so insular that outsiders don’t get it. So you have to strike a fine balance: strike home with the die-hards who will belly-laugh, but make it accessible to newcomers who may not grok The Lifestyle.
That, my friends, is a balancing act that +EV pulls off with grace.
+EV is a comic devoted to online poker. That sounds boring, but the amazing thing is how consistently funny +EV manages to be within this little realm; yeah, there are gags about poker that I don’t get because I don’t play, but that’s just part and parcel of the narrow-casting.
The ones I do get, however, are hysterical. Hell, today’s strip slays me, wherein a hardcore poker nerd is informed that it’s possible to play poker in real life… And the punchline is fabulous.
The characters are simple and easy to get: there’s the lead character, who’s quit his job to play online poker full time, for $70,000 a year. He has a daughter, who is slightly corrupted by the lifestyle, and a supportive (if sarcastic) wife who is now pregnant again. (She gives him a shirt entitled “All-In Baby” to inform him of this, which is something you’ll only get if you’re sufficiently pokerized.)
The thing is, as David Sirlin has noted, the core societies of every type of game are much the same. There’s a strange sort of synergy that occurs when you devote your life to being the best at an intellectual game with arbitrary rules, and so the Poker scene isn’t that far removed from the lives of Magic or Scrabble nerds. In fact, poker is sort of universal, so +EV often winds up speaking for everyone. After all, what online denizen hasn’t blown up local events into wild proportions like this? Who hasn’t accidentally bitched in the wrong location like this? And I know I’ve wanted to do this after a horrific game of MODO.
….Er, that’s “Magic Online” to you non-spellslingin’ folks.
Then there are the strips for the real fans. I don’t get every reference in this, but I marvel at the brilliant way he set it up so that poker and zoology neatly collide. And I have no clue who the hell the poker stars they keep referencing are, but I’m happy to sit out a hand or two.
Doing the funny so that people can laugh if they’re not part of the world and laugh harder if they are is a tough sell. But +EV does it with style and grace. And I approve.
(And as always, if you have an underappreciated webcomic you think I shouldreview, leave a comment and I’ll take a look at it. Reviews will be only for strips with less or equal traffic to my own strip, Home on the Strange, in order to highlight smaller comics; as such, the reviews will always be at least mostlypositive. If you note any traffic I’ve sent your way and feel the urge to shower me with gratitude, feel free to plug HotS in your own comic. Danke.)
* - Yes, I’m aware that Websnark had a similar take. But sadly, the timing of my Saturday panel was too good to pass up. Consider this a fleshing out of some thoughts put forth there, if you like, from the perspective of a ruthless guy who sometimes goes, “Is there a way I can mock Harry Potter so I can pull in HP fans?”