Friday, January 25, 2013

Don't Follow Your Analytics

When I launched a few weeks ago, the very first day's stats blew my mind. They were so good, in fact, that I stayed glued to them for the majority of the morning, then into the afternoon, and then later into the evening. I stayed up late that night, just so I could hit refresh on my browser a few more times before hitting the sack.

Google Analytics is a great tool, and if you're a website proprietor, chances are you use it as well. Unfortunately, gluing your face to a computer screen to monitor your site stats' every move is an amateur mistake.

The day after the Sylvanna website launched, the site stats dipped to more normal levels, and the day after that they went down some more. This wasn't exactly disheartening because the numbers were still pretty high, but to some people out there, it might have been. To understand why we shouldn't follow our site stats like hawks, we need to delve into what we're really trying to analyze within them, and more to the point, we need to identify what launching our creative endeavors online will garner us in terms of success.

As I said -- analytics are a good thing and a great tool to gauge your audience's interest in your product. But there are a few problems with just counting numbers:

The tribe versus the casual reader: As I've said before, your tribe is your most important entity. Whether it's a dedicated group of a dozen people or a rabid cluster of thousands, your real fans are what count -- not the number of one glance and they're gone, types. You should have ways of ascertaining the interest of your core tribe beyond analytics, and be able to tell if those fans specifically, are getting their needs met. If you get a few more along the way, that's great, but a dropoff in casual readers isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it should be expected.

The inspired reader versus the  glancer: If you're a writer, then your most obvious successes come when people honestly read your stuff. Tell me: would you care more if someone stopped you on the street to have a lengthy discussion about how much he loved the plot of your first book, or would you prefer the attention of people who might come up to you at a book signing, having never heard of you or your work, asking to get a copy signed just so they can say they met you? I know which I'd choose. Casual readers don't take the ownership you and your dedicated tribe does, in what you write. They are the most likely people to stick with you into the future, and the best bets for spreading the word about how wonderful your stories are, to the rest of the world.

In the land of Internet-based writing, hits are good, but readers are even better. Don't focus on your analytics as much as you focus on treating your core audience well. It is the core you are trying to grow, not the mildly-interested passer-by merely sneaking a peek at the next big thing.

Friday, January 18, 2013

How NOT to Market to People Online

I've worked for a lot of advertising agencies over the years. I'll never forget one, early in my career, where the designers were lumped in with the salespeople during office hours. The entirety of the graphics team was treated, day-in and day-out to cold calls being made in search of new customers for our business. One salesman in particular comes to mind when I think of those days, and not because he was good, but because he was perhaps the worst salesperson I have ever known.
Let's call him "Bill". Bill was a guy who would come in at 6AM, three full hours before the office opened, to maintain the outward appearance of being a diligent employee. Of course, on the days I came in early, I would always find Bill paging through a newspaper while was featured prominently on his computer screen. He missed the mark while selling, too. Constantly. Where the others on his team would ring their sales bells on an almost daily basis, I can't recall ever hearing Bill's bell go off.
The thing I remember most about Bill was his sales calls. He would pick up the phone, give the person on the other end his full name, title, company, and the address where our office was located. Should the caller have the resolve and the stomach to sit through that (most did not) he would then open with the worst sales proposition in the world: "Is now a good time to talk?"
I don't know about you, but when I hear "is now a good time to talk?" either from my spouse, my boss, or some stranger on the phone, I know it's not going to be good news. I am at least, delighted that they gave me the option of getting out of the call by asking if the timing was right. For even the meekest among us can say, "No, not really" if given an opportunity to dodge what is so obviously going to be a pitch requesting either precious time, money or both, and hang up.
The time of cold-calls, I really do think, is past us and I imagine Bill is having a hard time finding work, these days. Whether it was on a sales call or taking up office time to do non-work while appearing busy, Bill's biggest problem was his authenticity. Today, now more than ever, the authenticity of you and your belief in what you have to sell is crucial. Audiences can see through a pitch in the blink of an eye. Why? Well, one big reason is the Internet, of course! Long gone are the days of reaching a market you have nothing to do with in order to sell them something they don't need for a price they can't afford. Chances are they can get something they do want, from someone they do trust, at a price they like, online. You, digital storyteller and master of Internet marketing, have got to be genuine: with your product, with your pricing and most of all, with your sales pitch. And the best way to do that is to give no sales pitch at all.
Now, I'm absolutely not saying that you can't market something, online. Just see my previous posts on the subject, for example! You absolutely can sell online, and you absolutely should, but let's imagine for a moment that you're a person who is happening upon your website for the first time. Let's say, upon your first visit, you are greeted not with a website, but a pop-up asking you to "Sign up for a Newsletter - It's FREE!" before you even got to see the first piece of content or anything having to do with what the site is about. Would you sign up for that newsletter, not even knowing the bare minimum of what the site had to offer you? Would you close the pop-up and be annoyed for the rest of your visit that what you just stepped into was not so much a fun, interesting site, but a sale waiting to happen? Would you just turn around and leave?
It's highly likely that you would do one or all three of those things. As Internet-savvy consumers, we know when a website is genuine and when it's just someone's slickly-disguised sales pitch. Sometimes, but rarely, the content is good enough that we stick around anyway, but that's almost certain to leave a bad taste in your mouth in the end.
Merely selling to your audience is not taking care of them. Pop-ups, landing pages with special offers, and my least favorite thing in the world, pay-to-view sites, do not work. I once had a friend who had made a brilliant comic which he wanted to put online. He claimed, out of fear that someone would steal his idea, he was going to charge people to read it and make a million dollars. Long story short, without anything for them to see beyond a meager amount of pin-up art and very small JPEG snippets of his brilliant online comic, his audience didn't care to pay the $5 fee to see his pages and he never ended up having a community at all. Why? Because ten-thousand other webcomics were giving their wares away for free. Some were better. Some weren't. Either way, they didn't require a fee to get in, so they got the audience he could have had.
When you ask your audience for money, be careful. There's an old analogy of a man going to his fireplace, demanding that it make fire for him before he throws the logs in, which, I feel fits quite nicely to this scenario. Give your audience something and they will give back to you.
In a nutshell: Don't be afraid to be a salesman, but don't forget to be a storyteller, first.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Building a Tribe: The Basics of Marketing Your Stories Online

I remember when I was about fifteen years old, just a kid on the internet with a dream, publishing my first webcomic. I thought it was going to be great because, after all, it had everything anyone ever needed in a webcomic: action, adventure, cool characters, an interesting back-story... How could I lose, right?

Fast forward just a few months after launching the site upon which the comic would have its run and there I was -- a loser! And I lost for a very obvious but highly-common reason when it comes to creating and sharing webcomics: I failed to produce a product on-time.

Don't get me wrong! The pages that I did get finished were great. There were, I think, three of them? But that was all! And worse, they didn't come out on a regular basis. The first page shot out of the gates as soon as the website was online. The second followed shortly thereafter, but that third page was where I got stuck. As I recall, it didn't come out for a good three months after I'd finished the first page. Yowza. I had made an amateur mistake: I got a boost of inspiration from working on a new project and figured it would carry me until the very end. I was very, very wrong!

To do webcomics or any kind of serialized storytelling, you have absolutely got to get your schedule in order. But how do you do that when you may be competing with work, school, a social life, family life, or a combination of all of these elements?

As they say, organization will set you free. The key is not just to see your hobby-writing as your job, but to see it as a way to serve people -- your readers, whether you have them now or not. It's worth your time to think of these people in your head as you work. Think of how wonderful it would be to have a crowd of fans coming to your site every update, eager to see a new page. That is what you're writing for, correct? To share a story? I sure hope it is.

Master marketer, Seth Godin, describes the people to whom you're selling your work as a "tribe". You may have heard them called something different: Subscribers, readers, or a fandom. Regardless of what you label them, your tribe and keeping them happy should be your top priority as a slinger of fictional writing. Now, let me be specific: If you're a webcomic writer, this doesn't mean your fans get to control what you do in your comic, but their opinions of it and the means by which they are kept happy and reading, should not fall on deaf ears to you.

For example -- your fans may latch onto a particular character and request that he or she be featured more often. If it's within the scope of your book to do this anyway, or if it's possible to kick up their presence just a little, then go for it. If it's not possible (say, the character in question is dead) then you may have a more difficult time of doing that or may not be able to accommodate that at all. At the end of the day, it is your story, after all. Perhaps a piece of art featuring the character would suffice until you could find a way to work them into your story, or until your audience shifts their focus to a different character.

Your tribe will be kept most happy when they feel as if they have a say in the direction of your book, but that doesn't mean you have to hand over the steering wheel and write or draw it to their every whim and wish. The beauty of working with an audience online is how instantaneous the feedback is, but that too can be a curse. Don't think for a moment you won't make people upset when you write something which disagrees with what your audience wants. Most of the time, this will be temporary and people will move on when they see where you eventually go with your story. Too, some people will leave you permanently. But that's okay -- perhaps new fans are right around the corner!

Art is not a democracy. If you have an idea that you know is great but might upset a few (or a lot of) fans, then do it anyway. See what happens. Make adjustments, afterwards, but be true to your art and the story you want to tell.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Making it Big With a Webcomic

Every year, a string of game conventions known as the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX, is held across the United States and the world. These are huge events and it's no secret to anyone familiar with PAX that the whole thing sprang from the minds of two webcomic creators. Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik had already made it big with their series, Penny Arcade, in 2004 when PAX began, and today they have over 3 million regular readers of their comics. They recently launched Penny Arcade Sells Out on Kickstarter and were successfully funded to the tune of almost $530,000. The goal of their Kickstarter? To run their site ad-free.

This type of success is often what up-and-coming webcomic artists and writers imagine when they first set out to create the next online comic sensation. Of course, Penny Arcade is an anomaly. Most webcomics are lucky to see a year "in print" online, largely due to misconceptions about the work needed to keep a series afloat combined with cost and an initially small audience to show for it.

But in all, webcomics are a wonderful thing! No more are aspiring comic book or comic strip artists who hope to get their own creations off the ground, stuck with sending their ideas to publishers in hopes of recognition and a juicy contract. We all have the means of creating a comic online, and that goes for you as well as it does for me and the people living down the street from us!

Like anything, webcomic authors and illustrators are often not of the overnight success type, and there's plenty of work to be done before anyone will start reading. Before you sign up to do a webcomic, consider the following:

  • Do you have the time to commit to regular updates? This is the number one reason a webcomic will fail: The creator can't be counted on to update. Perhaps you have another job or perhaps it's your family life that's getting in the way of your updates. Perhaps you have neither of these and you just don't want it bad enough. Either way, if you don't commit to the time to make the actual comic, your comic is going to fail. The simplest of business logic applies, here: People can only buy your product when you have one to sell. Make sure you're good at keeping a schedule and working ahead of time to weather bumps in the road that could pull you away from updating your series on time!

  • Are you an artist or are you a writer? If you ask this question to a lot of first-timers, their answer will inevitably be "both!" This could be true, but all too often, it is not. I myself have written plenty of comics and non-comics alike and have been lauded for my writing skills, but I consider my artistic abilities far superior. I am therefore an artist first and foremost. Want to be both? Read about the one you're weaker at or study the techniques of artists or writers that you like. If you're hopeless, consider going in with a collaborator who can pick up the artistic or writing chores for you. And please, if you can, pay them or share the profits.

  • Can you take harsh, direct, instant-feedback criticism? People on the internet are brutal and sometimes they have good reason to be. If your webcomic isn't up to snuff with the other thousands and thousands of good comics out there, be prepared to hear about it. This too, can be a good thing. Instant feedback allows you to immediately correct the mistakes you make, if they seem to be popping up frequently in comments people make about your work.

  • Do you love it? If you don't, quit now. More than money and throngs of adoring fans, it takes love for the craft to keep most webcomic creators pushing on. For a while, you may only have love for what you're doing, but if you keep at it and keep pouring love into it, the other things like money and readers, will come.

If you're new to the whole webcomics thing but you're certain it's what you want to do, then I personally want to welcome you to the fold! I hope you find this blog insightful and helpful as you make your webcomic journey and I wish you all the success in the world!