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.

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