I nearly called this article “Everything I know about blogging I learned from comic books” but I was afraid too many people would take it literally, ha. In fact, there might be an element of truth to it. My formative reading material was dominated by muscly, spandex-clad guys and gals fighting crime and shooting laser beams out of their eyes. Like most geeks who grew up in the 1980s, I have been heavily influenced by Marvel, 2000AD/Judge Dredd, and to a lesser extend, DC comics.
Other than the odd graphic novel purchase, my interest was put to one side due to time, family, and so on. Recently though, due to the Marvel iPhone app, I have a renewed interest in buying comic books. This has made me look at them with a new perspective and I realised just how much content creators can learn from these publishers, writers and artists. As Stan Lee would say … excelsior!
- Excitement & Anticipation – Comics are all about capturing interest, building and maintaining it. When you get to the end of each issue, what is there? That’s right … a cliff-hanger! Want to know what happens next? Look out for the next issue. Fans look forward to the next new comic, they devour it, discuss it, swap it, then look forward to the next. And on and on! Even when re-issuing older archive stuff, like on the iPhone app, they still serialize the content and make you wait. Why? It builds anticipation and means you will buy a piece at a time.
Lesson: Build anticipation, tell your audience the great stuff that is coming, drip-feed content, syndicate, and make sure you deliver on those promises.
- Visual impact – Half or more of the joy of comics is in the visuals. In fact, you don’t actually need the words a lot of the time to follow the story. Comic book artists are masters at telling a story visually and making everything that much more compelling. Combined with the occasionally really great plot (Dark Knight, Watchmen), this makes the medium really engaging and addictive.
Lesson: Don’t rely on a wall of text. Spice up your content with visuals. Rather than try to describe everything, use illustrations and visual guides. This aids learning and consumption, which means your content will be far more successful.
- Cross-selling – Comic books are experts at cross-selling. It’s not just in the comic book store or full page ads within the comics, it is actually in the content. One thing lots of people notice when getting more involved in reading comics is buying one series is not enough to get the full story. First there are usually years of back story, inside jokes, plot twists, but then while one plot line is taking place, the rest of the story is unfolding in sister comics, for example “* See Avengers #517″. That is a strong enough pull for many a fan to discover new characters, series, artists, and so-on, but for the truly addicted collector, it never ends.
Lesson: Where another piece of content or product is relevant, mention it. Keep adding and creating more relevant content or products while the demand is strong. Predict what people will want, need next and deliver it. Create an environment where a customer can discover more of your great stuff.
- Human Drama – The stories in these comics never stay still, and while much of the action is crude (people fighting or spoiling for a fight), they also have the power to move you. We feel involved, we want to know what happens because we care. Although based in science fiction or fantasy, the drama is most importantly human. Peter Parker was a bullied school kid who, yes, got bitten by a radiactive spider, but also had relationship problems, career issues, and suffered loss. The Hulk is profoundly lonely. And so on. The web is now very much social, which is about people. People engage with people, they connect with the person over the brand. Especially important if you are a non-profit, the human-interest story is your key to making connections.
Lesson: Bring your content alive, show humanity, connect on a personal level. A lot of the time drama is actually something people in business distance from. We seem to relate drama with emotional instability. But people want and like drama when it is the right kind. Drama might not be your thing, but the point is about discovering ways to lift your content, from adding a simple joke with a surprising punchline through to colorful, lively, engrossing stories.
- Longevity – How many characters and storylines can continue decades? Even in Television long-lived stories are rare, but in comics it is pretty much the norm. Superman has been around for generations, in print, radio, TV and film. All the ingredients mentioned here have counted towards that, but in addition they are always moving with the times, changing, evolving, testing, trying new things, but not breaking their core.
Lesson: Don’t be afraid to experiment but keep true to what your audience and customers love you for. You will be rewarded with loyalty.
- Customer-focus – Following from the last point, these brands still exist because they have the customer in mind with every decision. Yes, there have been times when they have stepped out of line. The fans can be cruel in their vocal reactions sometimes. But these publishers and writers know how to correct their mistakes, know what the audience likes and they give it to them, and because of that are forgiven when their experiments fall flat. Most started out as fans before getting into the industry. They are still fans many of them. Conventions, workshops and meetups allow the industry and fans to get together, plus now more than ever the customers have a voice that can be heard loud and clear.
Lesson: Keep in tune with your audience and customers. Know what they are thinking. Let them know you are listening. Deliver what they really want, take chances, and don’t be afraid to surprise your audience (in a good way).
- Brand management – I have mentioned a few times that the comic book publishers really know their audience, but are willing to experiment. A couple of times I also mentioned brands. The characters and series are brands, and they are much-loved (to the point of obsession occasionally) brands at that. This means there is a delicate balance between pushing the boundaries while also staying true.
Lesson: Knowing what the brand really means to people is vital, and making sure you stay consistent and do not betray the promises you set up.
- Skimming and Sound bites - As well as visuals, these stories are told in sound bites. Unlike a novel, there are very few words used to convey the story, with most of it dialog (even internal dialog). Short, clipped sentences, speech bubbles and information boxes. This means the stories can move fast and get across the information required very briefly. Perfect for distracted, excited, readers. This format also means that it is very repeatable and quotable. Characters develop catch phrases, which means playground word of mouth. Consumption is increased because a reader can get through several comics in one sitting.
Lesson: If you want to get your point across quickly and not lose your reader’s interest, make your content into compact and easy to consume. Use lots of quotes, images and sound bites.
- Multiple media – As mentioned above, once a character gets a following you can expect to see it everywhere from action figures all the way through to the big screen. The fans watch them, read them and wear them. You can even read the comics on computer, or on your phone.
Lesson: Be where your customers are and in the format your customers want. Try video, audio, print, ebooks, long and short formats.
- Repurposing – As content owners we often create something then let it rot, even though a lot of what we produce is evergreen. Not so with comics. Initially comics are serialised weekly, fortnightly or monthly, but then there will be collected comics, specials, repeats, graphic novels, re-issues, and as mentioned above, storylines are recycled into other media. You can even subscribe for an all you can eat plan online for $60 a year over at Marvel.com (which I am tempted to do, although I can’t understand why they don’t extend that pricing to the iPhone …).
Lesson: Be on the look out for how you can repurpose your existing content in new ways. Perhaps republish an article, extract a bonus from a product and sell it, or bundle up content into an ebook?