A while back, I talked about Gag Strips vs. Soap Opera strips, classifying webcomics into one of two rough camps and describing the difference between them. To summarize, Gag Strips are strips that only show the funniest moments (often at the expense of true characterization), while Soap Opera strips are sometimes not particularly funny because they’re telling a story of characters who change in dramatic ways.
But I said something at the time that’s become almost completely untrue, thanks to a new trend in websurfing. The wrong thing I said was this:
“Since nothing important ever changes [in Gag strips], there’s nothing to keep people coming back on a daily basis. They can just drop by every three months and trawl the archives. If traffic’s your goal, the gag strip makes it much harder to get that.”
Well, guess what? A little add-in program came along that renders this almost completely untrue. Nowadays, Gag strips hold a severe advantage over Soap Opera strips, all thanks to this popular little device:
Webcomics, say hello to StumbleUpon.
StumbleUpon is the finest way to waste time on the Internet today. If you’re not familiar, the way it works is this: you choose a list of topics that interest you, from “Acting” to “Open Source” to “History” to “Soccer.” Then you click the Stumble! Link in your browser. StumbleUpon takes you to a random page in that category that someone in the StumbleUpon network has enjoyed, and you decide whether “I like it!” or “No more like this.”
As you mark more pages, the StumbleUpon engine determines what you like, and gives you better pages. (If you’ve rated movies in Netflix, it’s pretty much the same process.) Which means the more you Stumble, the more interesting pages get presented to you.
There are whole zombie armies of Stumblers, relentlessly clicking the “Stumble!” button when they don’t feel like working.
But here’s how it affects webcomics: if you have a funny strip, the chances of it getting disseminated out to a wider audience becomes a lot easier. All it takes is one of the right people to StumbleUpon your comic - someone who's Stumbled enough that he's built up a Stumble reputation - and traffic comes to your door.
Want a real-life example? Okay. On August 1st, I was reading through the archives of BetaPwned, and found a comic about StumbleUpon that I rather liked. I Stumble a lot, so I clicked “I like it!” – and discovered that no one had ever flagged this page before. (You get asked to write a mini-review.)
I often check people’s traffic on Project Wonderful, and you can see a graph of BetaPwned’s traffic here. (While you’re there, think about advertising with them, wouldja?) If you’re too lazy to click the link, suffice it to say that before then, their traffic was somewhere in the hundreds…. But within the next four days, roughly thirty thousand people arrived to look at that comic.
Those numbers aren’t unusual, though. My top referrer for Home on the Strange is invariably StumbleUpon, these days – when I published the infamous Doctor Who-as-God strip, it got Stumbled, and roughly 75,000 people showed up in the next few days. (It still gets roughly a thousand Stumblers a week, insofar as I can tell.) Likewise, when I did the strip on the new Harry Potter book, whoops! Another 75,000 people knocking at my door.
None of that had anything to do with any PR. It was pure voting – someone liked it, and more people clicked “I like it!” and bang. Thousands of people.
And it does not matter how popular your strip is. It could be your third strip ever, and if it’s sufficiently funny, it can get Stumbled big-time. Stumble’s now like a personalized FARK or Digg – except that you can control it by possibly adding it yourself.
XKCD (possibly the most Stumbleable strip ever) and StumbleUpon both rose to popularity at roughly the same time. And I don’t have access to Randall Munroe’s traffic logs, but I wonder whether that’s a coincidence. Part of me thinks that the phenomenon of XKCD couldn’t have happened as rapidly without Stumble.
What this means, of course, is that if you’re absolutely mercenary about creating a webcomic (which you probably shouldn’t be), then gag strips are the way to go right now. If you can write isolated funnies, your chance of getting Stumbled consistently are better – and while StumbleUpon readers are far less likely to go back and read your archives than an inbound link from another, more popular, webcomic, a small slice of a large audience will stay. (If you look at the Project Wonderful graph for Betapwned, it looks like about a thousand of those fly-by readers at least checked out the current comic.)
In other words, if you’re looking to boost traffic, do something funny enough that it can be Stumbled, and you will be rewarded. The more you get Stumbled, the more likely it is that a networked Stumbler will mark your future strips Stumbleable, and thus you'll have other strips that get the Big Thumbs-Up. Soap Opera strips, by and large, can’t get that consistent boost.
Time once was that webcomics got early influxes of traffic from other strips and blogs – we were lucky enough to get an early link from both Websnark and Something Positive, which helped our numbers considerably. Now, the critical mass from an early strip may not come from other webcomics, but from the mass-voting process of Stumble.
I could be wrong here. But it’s definitely something worth keeping an eye on.