Here's a familiar problem: You write a webcomic that's not getting nearly as many readers as you think it deserves. You're already sending press releases to the newsmagazines, you're posting announcements in the webcomic forums, you've joined web rings, and you've slapped your logo on every product Café Press offers. Still, your readership is modest, at best. You need a more aggressive marketing plan.
One problem: like most of us, your entire marketing budget comes from between the cushions on your couch.
So, buying banner ads on comics websites is not an option. That's okay – if banner ads were really all that effective, there'd be fewer bodies in the dotcom graveyard. Print and broadcast advertising are light-years outside the realm of possibility. So what else is there?
Two words – indirect marketing.
Indirect marketing, in a nutshell, is the process of selling your product by selling yourself. And despite how it sounds, it's not dirty! The theory is this: if people know who you are, and if they find you interesting – whether it's because of your insights, your sense of humor, or just simple charisma – then they'll seek out your work out of a simple desire to know more about you.
Sounds unlikely? Think about some recent interviews you've read with creators whose work you weren't familiar with. Now, which of those authors inspired you to check out their work – the ones who spent the entire time talking about their comic and why it's great, or the ones who offered genuinely interesting insights about creating comics, or about the comics industry, or about life in general? For many people, it is definitely the latter.
Of course, knowing how to handle an interview is only helpful if you're already successful enough that people are interested in interviewing you. Fortunately, there are a number of more proactive (yet cost free!) approaches even a complete neophyte can take.
The most basic and most widely practiced form of indirect marketing is networking. In the world of webcomics, this primarily means participation in the various forums, such as the Comixpedia forums or TalkAboutComics. This does not mean spamming all the forums with "read my comic!" posts (which would just be advertising, and rude besides). This means actually getting involved in discussion, offering real opinions, and generally letting people get a sense of who you are and why they should care that you also happen to make a webcomic. Of course, you should also have a signature file that points to your comic, but it doesn't need to be flashy – it just needs to let people know that there's something to see.
It can't hurt to have a forum of your own as well. It sends the message that you appreciate feedback from your readers, and it encourages your reader loyalty. This, of course, encourages them to spread the word about your comic. If they like you and your work, they'll be all the more likely to promote you. James Kochalka's American Elf forum offers an excellent example of a well-used forum. Kochalka is not only active in responding to reader feedback, but posts about a variety of interests, developing a sense of community around his comics. As a result, his readership is all the more active in promoting his work to their friends and associates.
Another well-established form of indirect marketing is fan art. Many established creators enjoy receiving graphic tributes to their own work, and will post such tributes on their websites, along with links back to the fan's own site. Not only does this let you borrow that creator's popularity, but it even lets you put up a sample of your own artwork in a way that's not at all spammy. Of course, if you're going to try this tactic, be sure to pick a creator who does post fan art (and remember that creators are never under any obligation to post anything you send them… so try to pick someone who you know will post it). And if his or her comic happens to be in a similar vein to yours, all the better – fans will likely stick around if they find familiar territory when visiting your site for the first time.
A more ambitious yet community-minded method is the charity auction, such as Justin Pierce's custom Killroy action figure, which he sold to benefit UK-based charity Comic Relief, or Scott Kurtz and James Kochalka's auction of Kochalka's original cover art for issue six of Kurtz' PvP, sold to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. In addition to earning good karma, these auctions also create good image. Of course, you should always notify your intended recipient charity of a planned auction. After all, it's in the charity's own interest to promote the auction, thereby indirectly promoting your comic.
Another great way to contribute to the community, while getting some attention for you and your work, is by writing for any of the various publications devoted to comics. What you write doesn't necessarily have to relate in any way to your own comics. You might interview one of your own favorite creators, or review someone else's comic. You might write a technical tutorial, or a business piece. By establishing yourself as someone who's really thinking about comics and how they work, someone's who's not just a member of the community, but is a public voice in the community, you guarantee that eyes will be on you, and consequently on your own webcomic. Just don't forget to tell folks where to find it – that's what your contributor bio is for.
Another increasingly common form of indirect marketing is the daily blog. Like writing articles for other publications, a blog allows you to generate interest in your own ideas and commentary. The readers you attract to your blog will then be far more likely to be interested in checking out your latest comics. Even better is the fact that your blog can keep readers coming back to your site, even when there aren't any new comics. (Notice how Scott McCloud's blog is continuing to update, even while he's taking time off from The Morning Improv?)
Of course, for this to work, your blog needs to be about more than you and your comic. Established readers may like to hear these details, but nobody who isn't already a reader of your comic is going to care. A blog needs a specific topic of real interest if it's going to be a draw for readers in itself. The most obvious topic, naturally, is comics, whether focusing on print, web, or comics in general. And that's fine. But what else is there? The answer is another question: What is your comic about? For instance, T Campbell's comic Fans is about science fiction fandom. So what's his blog about? It's about science fiction and sci-fi fandom. Similarly, Eric Milliken's frequently political Fetus-X is supported by a heavily political blog. In both these cases, this means the blogs are reaching out not to just potential readers interested in the specific subject matter of the comics, but also that they are reaching beyond established webcomics readers; they're reaching out to people interested in science fiction or politics respectively, and offering a bridge to get them into reading related webcomics.
And the tactic of reaching beyond the comics community doesn't just apply to blogs. One of the chief reasons why gaming comics have achieved such popularity is because their creators tapped into the video game community. For instance, if you write a comic about a group of musicians, you might try writing articles or reviews for music magazines and websites, or you might spend some time in message boards devoted to your favorite bands. If you write a science fiction comic, you might try submitting book reviews to sci-fi magazines – or better yet, submit short stories, if you happen to write them. If readers enjoy your stories, there's a very good chance some of them will want to see your other work. Whatever your comic is about, there's bound to be another community outside of webcomics that you can tap into. The outlets available to you are limited only by your imagination.
One caveat that applies to all of these methods – be sincere. Don't try to hang out in a forum populated by people you dislike. Don't run a charity auction for a charity you care nothing about. Don't send fan art to a comic you hate. Don't try to write articles on topics that don't interest you. All of these techniques are geared toward building a public image, but it's important that that image be an honest one. If your efforts really are nothing but publicity stunts, that fact will be obvious – which is bad for both you and your webcomic.
And friendly warning number two: none of this means anything if you aren't devoting yourself to producing a good comic. The power of indirect marketing is in reputation building – but if you have don't have a reputation for producing the best comic you can, reliably and regularly, it won't matter how interesting people think your blog is. They still won't read a bad or inconsistently updated comic. Simply doing good will do more than anything else to get your readers talking about you.
Finally, it's worth noting that indirect marketing is not meant to replace direct advertising entirely. Quite the opposite – it will make whatever other advertising you try more effective. If readers already know your name, they'll be far more likely to click your banner ad or read your press releases. They'll be interested in your comic because they're already interested in you.