WHY DO ONLINE COMICS
Issue #10 - We, the consumers...
When I go to a restaurant, I have certain expectations about the service I'm going to get. I want my food to come to me as I ordered it (what I ordered and how I ordered it prepared, and not pay more than what it is on the menu), I want my server to be polite and efficient (check in on me when needed, fill my glass when it is low (or if no free refills, ask before filling it), bring me my food and bill in a timely manner, etc.), and I want to be comfortable in the environment I'm eating in (non-smoking sections that actually have no smoke, no one pestering me at my table wanting to make balloon animals or sell me flowers or crafts, etc.). These aren't just things I would ideally like, they are actually my minimum expectations for my experience at that restaurant. The more of these that aren't met, the less likely I am to either a.) tip the server, b.) come back to the restaurant, and/or c.) recommend the restaurant to friends.
People have their own set expectations about being consumers in particular environments. You probably have different expectations about going to a restaurant than, say, going to the mall, or to see a movie in the theater. Recently, I've been doing a lot of thinking on what my minimum expectations are of going to read a comic online. As I think about the experiences I've had with a good deal of the webcomic sites I've gone to, I tend to think a large number of these sites haven't thought much about the consumer's experience past making their comic and somehow displaying it on the web. I think this is why I personally stress good webpage design as a key part of a webcomic I want to keep going back to. Yes, one of my expectations is to come see an entertaining web comic. But if I went to a restaurant and the outside of it was hideously ugly, I couldn't find the door, I couldn't figure out how to read the menu, they sat me on beds of thumbtacks... whatever the problem may be, I won't even get to the meat before I give up in frustration and go somewhere else to eat.
There are many things that will turn me off of a particular site. I am certain not to remember them all now, but a few big ones come to mind. Speed is absolutely the biggest initial factor for me. If I can't actually get to your comic within twenty-thrity seconds using high-speed internet access, I am going to assume going through the archives is going to be a fairly painful process, and I just don't have the kind of time to put up with that. When I have pockets of time to read new strips, they come in five-ten minute gaps. I want to be able to get through a good chunk of the work in that time, to form a better overall opinion on it one way or another. If I have to get through ad banners, navigation that isn't intuitive, and comics whose images themselves haven't been optimized for speed, I'm going to give up fast, and given how many other choices there are out there, the odds of me ever being back are slim. If you are actually asking me to evaluate your comic(s) and then give you money to see more (a subscription based service like Modern Tales, or a premium sort of service like Keenspot has going), then these things matter ten times as much. If I can't load your comics to evaluate them in the first place, chances are I'm not going to be terribly excited about paying for them.
I've spoken before about how important I think the aspect of interaction doing a comic online allows for is one of the most important for a creator to exploit. When I like what someone has done on the web, I've gotten used to being able to e-mail them about it and chat with others about it in a forum. So, if I can't find a link to either of these options on their page, I'm disappointed. Because so many people are doing certain things on their webcomic pages, if you don't do it, you're not conforming to what people are used to seeing, and are alienating yourself in that way. I'm not saying being different or a rebel is always a bad thing, just that once an audience has become familiar with a certain way of doing things, if you do them differently it will make people uncomfortable, so you'd better have a good reason for doing them that they can readily see. I, the reader, do not assume you have a valid reason for not wanting to be contacted by your fans via e-mail, or to not have a forum available to discuss your work. I see the lack of these things and thing "grrrr, frustration, bah, ugh ugh" (or some such) and move on to things my brain is more comfy with.
Something I saw surfacing at the San Diego Comic-Con this year was an attitude that because you are doing x amount of hours worth of work on your comics, you automatically deserve to be paid for this. I do not understand this way of thinking at all. Look, Pepsi came out with Pepsi Blue recently, a berry flavored blue cola. They have been giving it away with the purchase of other Pepsi products, so because it was free I tried it. It is absolutely awful... I have yet to meet anyone who thinks otherwise, and although I am sure there are some out there this appeals to, based on my experience it won't be enough to sustain the product sales long term. Now, does Pepsi just deserve to make money off of their product even though it resembles carbonated bear crap? I say no. High quality product deserves to make money, and level of quality (i.e. what amount of value is place on something) is determined by the consuming, paying masses. I look at my own work right now as going to college, where I actually pay to work rather than the other way around. It is worth it to me to pay my dues now (and my hosting fees), hone my craft to the point where it is reasonable to think enough people might like it enough to pay for it, and then try my best to make a go of it. If I fail, I'll reevaluate and try again. I never will assume it is the responsibility of readers to like my stuff. It's MY responsibility to get people to like my stuff, and that's mostly done through an initial quality product (well written, visually appealing comics) that is nicely packaged (well thought-out web design) and marketed efficiently (trick the people at Penny Arcade to link to it).
I'd love to hear everyone else's thoughts on what makes for a good webcomic experience. Let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.