One of causes of head-scratching among newer webcomics creators is the question of quality as it relates to popularity. Why are there popular comics that suck? Why are there great comics without much readership? (There are plenty, if you look.) If your comic’s readership isn’t growing much after a year (or two, or three), does it mean it isn’t good enough to "make it?"
These questions lead creators to all kinds of blind-alley conclusions. It’s as wrong to say, for example, that "high traffic indicates high quality" as it is to say "quality doesn’t matter to traffic." It’s also wrong (but maybe a little less wrong) to blame the webcomics audience for having such crappy taste.
The truth is, quality is one contributing aspect – a more important factor: appeal.
Appeal is the main engine that drives readership growth. It affects everything. How likely is a reader of one of your strips to read the archives? How likely is a reader of the archives to bookmark your site? How likely is a given reader to link your strip from their LiveJournal or email a link to a friend? How likely is a creator of another comic to want to link to you? The decisions you can’t control are driven by your comic’s appeal.
And how is that different from quality? I’m defining quality here as, “doing the difficult things well.“ Exceptional art and/or writing and/or humor and/or storytelling are usually the factors you can point to when you talk about a high-quality comic.
Take a meteoric success such as Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew. In my opinion, the quality of the writing and the humor in OOTS put it in the top handful of the several hundred titles I read each year. But what about the art?
On a convention panel in March 2004, I plugged OOTS to the room as "the best-drawn stick figure comic I’ve ever seen." This got some dubious snickers from "real" artists like Jon Rosenberg and Randy Milholland, who hadn’t yet seen it. The quality of the art in OOTS is debatable (and as a guy who uses clip art, I’m one of the least-qualified people in webcomics to critique it), but the appeal of Rich’s art is undeniable. The simple lines and bright colors make it accessible and inviting. He executes the drawings brilliantly within the constraints of the style he has chosen. The style itself fits the content perfectly.
You could see someone going to a major art school, working for years at their craft, getting a degree in illustration, starting a webcomic mainly to get feedback on their art, and then being very discouraged to see a comic full of circle-faced stick figures blow by them on the BuzzComix top list. But the question of the quality of the art in OOTS is academic. For the vast majority of its potential readers (like me), the art very much adds to the overall appeal of the strip. Appeal drives its readership.
Staying with OOTS as an example, there is another distinction which can be drawn between quality and appeal. Imagine a full page, full color stick figure comic, with all of the quick wit, insider jokes, clever situational humor, neatly-timed dialogue, appealingly diverse cast of characters and fast-paced plotting of OOTS…
…only instead of being about classic AD&D-style adventure gaming, it’s set in the USSR during the Russo-Finnish war of 1939, and is full of biting insider jokes about Communism, Russian culture of the mid-Twentieth Century, and the world political situation in the years leading up to total world war.
That’s right, instead of jokes about perception rolls and infravision, our imaginary comic is presenting equally clever jokes about the poor quality of Soviet field artillery pieces and the long dead stars of the Bolshoi Ballet. I’m talking about a comic which all English-speaking Russian historians would find hysterically funny. Call it, "The Passion of the Stalin."
So here you have these two comics, theoretically equal in quality. Both creators make the same effort to promote them. Their updates happen at the same time and their websites are based on identical templates. Where are they in two years?
We know where OOTS is. Many comics have plugged it, including Penny Arcade. It just made the bCx Hall of Fame. Rich has a development deal with Wizards of the Coast for a new strip. OOTS runs with the pack leaders now, and rightly so.
"Passion," on the other hand, funny and entertaining as it might be to those who’d get it (and even enjoyable on other levels by those who wouldn’t), would probably be languishing at a readership of a few hundred.
Its target demographic, English-speaking Russian historians, tends not to overlap much with the demographics of the bulk of webcomics readers. A fifty-year-old PhD is relatively unlikely to be cruising for webcomics. And for every student Russian Studies major who read it, there’d be a thousand student RPG players reading OOTS. Even assuming the less likely chance that Tycho reads "Passion" and enjoys it for what it is, he’s also a whole lot less likely to share the link with PA readers. Being too unlike PA is a crime that too many webcomics have committed, at least in the eyes of the PA forumites.
So what is appeal? It’s an intangible process that happens inside the mind of every person who is exposed to your work. They ask themselves if there is value in what they are seeing: "Am I entertained? Entertained enough to return? Would my friends also be entertained (and therefore give me the ‘cool points’ for bringing this to their attention)?"
To appeal to a reader, your work must make a meaningful connection inside someone’s head. Maybe they loved your art, or laughed at your joke, or identified with your long-suffering main character, or got your obscure references to their special area of interest, or have the hots for your catgirl eye candy. Maybe they read it and said to themselves, "That’s true, but I thought I was the only one who saw it that way."
And where does quality fit in to appeal? For some, quality itself is meaningful. If you are an artist, it is worth studying the work of better artists, to admire and learn from it. If you are a writer, you read stories you couldn’t have written. Quality is sometimes obvious, but usually it just infuses the work; you can’t necessarily get at why something particularly appeals to you. So…
Quality is the connection between the creator and the work.
Appeal is the connection between the work and the reader.
Quality to appeal is therefore an indirect, double connection. It’s possible that one connection is weaker than the other. A reader who is drawn to the quality of the stunning art in a Mac Hall or Applegeeks may not see the quality in something like "The Passion of the Stalin." Likewise, a poor-quality comic can sometimes speak to a massive demographic, one which assigns its own meaning to it. I won’t cite any examples of low-quality webcomics with broad appeal, but consider the quality of, say, "Badger Badger Badger" relative to its popularity.
Which leads to "mass appeal." If quality is the connection between creator and work, and appeal is the connection between work and reader, then…
Mass appeal is the connection between reader and reader.
After something becomes popular, it tends to have more appeal to a given individual. There are a disturbing number of people in this world who make all of their preference choices by simply cueing off the people around them. This “popularity disease” runs especially rampant among the late teens who constitute the hump of the webcomics reader demographic curve.
Popularity makes a comic harder to ignore or criticize, and easier to champion. There is also an inherent value in the communities which sometimes form around comics. It’s more fun to enjoy a comic with other people who also enjoy it. The community members drive mass appeal, with only a very loose relation to the quality of the comic. Creators of comics with mass appeal take a lot of unfair flack for the collective behavior (or misbehavior) of their readers. But creators have even less control over mass appeal than appeal.
So even if "The Passion of the Stalin" keeps growing steadily for ten more years, it will probably never have mass appeal going for it. Until and unless your comic reaches a level at which mass appeal is a factor, then appeal is going to be the driving force of your readership growth.
Sure, you can do some things to promote your comic, and other people have written long articles about that. Pimping does work, at least in terms of bringing in new eyeballs. But it is the appeal of your comic which will ultimately form the curve of your readership growth.
The best way to think of it would be an imaginary number N, treated as something like an interest rate which compounds your readership monthly. If you look back over a year or more of traffic stats, you can calculate N very roughly by measuring any consistent stat (say, unique visits) as a percentage increase or decrease over the previous month. Then, average these averages. Once you have that, you can apply it to your current readership to see roughly where you’ll be in a year.
The compounding-interest idea also goes a long way in explaining readership discrepancies between comics. Readership is determined by growth over time. Large readership is either caused by explosive growth over a short time (a few examples) or good growth over a long time (almost everyone else).
At a 10% monthly growth rate (decent), your readership will triple each year. At 20% per month (good), it will go up by nine times in a year. If N=2% for your comic, it will take you three years to double your readership even once. Start with 100 loyal readers, maintain a 20% per month average growth for a little under four years straight, and only then will you have the readership of Sluggy Freelance, with its 8 years and 2500 archived strips. (Of course, if Sluggy grows at only a 2% monthly rate during that time, then in 4 years you’ll only be halfway there.)
So be patient, and be fair to yourself when you are benchmarking your traffic against other webcomics. Quality comparisons between webcomics are less useful than they seem (and often lead to pointless arguments and hurt feelings). If your appeal is not as high as you would like it to be, you might want to take constructive feedback to heart and change what you do.
As a final word, there is a large segment of webcomics creators who do not give a crap about their readership numbers. They are focused on the quality of their work, that connection they have with what they create. They usually put their work on the web in case others might connect with it in the same way they do. But they have no intention of changing what they do to appeal to anyone but themselves. These people are called "artists," and they have what is known as "integrity."
I’d say to be nice to them, but most of them secretly look down on the rest of us clowns.