The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal - Webcomics: An Important Trend To Note
August 20th, 2007
09:13 am

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Webcomics: An Important Trend To Note

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.

(13 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

Comments
 
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From:badlydrawnjeff
Date:August 20th, 2007 01:32 pm (UTC)
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You're the first person to describe StumbleUpon in a way that makes sense. Thanks for that. Now to waste time!
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From:alicetheowl
Date:August 20th, 2007 02:05 pm (UTC)
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The Stumble process sounds more like Pandora, except that the ratings affect other people's experiences. And it's not music.

I dare not click the link, though; I'm spending too much time online as it is.
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From:andrewducker
Date:August 20th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)
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I keep meaning to add StumbleUpon to my list of tools.

And then I remember that I have no time in my life as it is...
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From:andrewducker
Date:August 20th, 2007 03:25 pm (UTC)
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Also, this does seem to be largely a turbo-charging of the usual memetic traffic that makes up LJ/the internet. It's just that rather than using your friends list to find links you're using the entirety of the stumbleupon user group and some nice AI to do it :->
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From:zane314
Date:August 20th, 2007 06:04 pm (UTC)
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This works to a lesser extent even to the lower traffic areas/stumblers- One of my friends added my site to stumble and I went from 10 hits/day to 300. Unfortunately I hadn't added any stumble links to the site yet so it dropped right back down to 12 a few days later when it dropped off the radar.
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From:partiallyclips
Date:August 21st, 2007 03:25 am (UTC)
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StumbleUpon has, for over a year, accounted for at least 75% of referrals to PartiallyClips each month. PartiallyClips' traffic would be dead in the water without the stumblers.
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From:theferrett
Date:August 21st, 2007 02:19 pm (UTC)
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How's Erfworld doing, anyway? The OOTS lack of updates is killin' me.
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From:tombrazelton
Date:August 21st, 2007 03:52 pm (UTC)
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I tried directing my readers to StumbleUpon back when it was introduced, but there were very few early adopters. Some people were hostile to the add on, wary that it would attract spam to their e-mail addresses or something.

This is an encouraging analysis, however. I might make another push to get Theater Hopper tagged at StumbleUpon.
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From:theferrett
Date:August 21st, 2007 04:12 pm (UTC)
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Well, the problem is that you can't direct them to StumbleUpon. Ratings are ranked (at least partially) via how someone stands in the community, so someone you just got to sign up yesterday wouldn't have the weight that an obsessive Stumbler like me would.

What you can do is maybe add a "Stumble!" button somewhere on the site - though I don't know where, TH's layout is pretty crowded - or encourage your members to Stumble via a call-out.

The good news is that you're way Stumbleable, with topical strips that should get a fair amount of play. The bad news is that that riff on POTC 3 isn't going to work months from now, so you'll only be as good as your last Stumble. (My Harry Potter strips? Not so much, these days....)
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From:tombrazelton
Date:August 22nd, 2007 03:22 am (UTC)
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The weighting isn't something that I considered. What qualifies one as an obsessive Stumbler, roughly?

I guess the idea I had is that if I could motivate the readers to sign up and add Theater Hopper, through networking, the link would be traded and I would see an increase over time. Obviously nothing like a direct, weighted stumble on a particular comic.

I agree that my layout is pretty crowded. I'm probably going to dump the Project Wonderful ads soon. They aren't netting me that much and I could use the space to promote things relevant to Theater Hopper.

Does placing a Stumble button on a particular comic require any special coding, or is it just a matter of getting the image and pointing people to StumbleUpon.com?

A call out in the blog is very feasible. I just need to know where to point them!

Thanks for your feedback. This is very enlightening!
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From:theferrett
Date:August 23rd, 2007 04:25 am (UTC)
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Just out of curiosity, what do you expect out of ad revenue? That's something we're struggling with.

As far as obsessive Stumbling, I don't know. I do know that the author of BetaPwned did her own Stumble-adds, but I probably Stumble roughly fifty times a day and it didn't seem to take off for her until I did it. I suspect that's because I have a profile.

As far as I know, it requires no particular coding. If you can do a link for Digg and such, it should be doable....
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From:tombrazelton
Date:August 23rd, 2007 01:03 pm (UTC)
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What do I expect out of ad revenue? Like, do you want a figure? I dunno... More is always better, right?

At the bare minimum, I would expect to earn enough to cover hosting. But I hope for more. Anything extra goes right back into the site. It affords me the opportunity to produce books, go to conventions or do a little advertising myself - and all of that feeds into the success of the site

What are you saying about the author of BetaPwned? Are you saying she went through every individual page in her archive and clicked "I like it!" or are you saying she manually entered them without a profile? It did nothing? Do you think my odds are any better because I've created a profile?

I went ahead and included a widget called AddThis! that now lives at the bottom of every blog post. So if people like what they read, they can tag the individual page. We'll see if that does anything. It covers quite the gambit of social networks. Not just StumbleUpon.
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From:ted_the_robot
Date:December 5th, 2007 03:02 pm (UTC)
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A number of webcomics people have banded together to increase the power of stumbleupon. See this thread for details:

http://www.thewebcomiclist.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=1019&sid=0cfdf27f1cac369bfacdc59d20146968
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