It seems like webcartoonists are in a never-ending quest for more page-views – but is that an outdated goal? (More importantly – will it turn us into a fossil just by grasping it? At least it won’t melt our faces off…)

To answer this question, I contacted Thom and Kambrea of Shadowbinders to share with the WA community not only how they grew their readership so quickly, but also if having all those hits was the holy grail it promised to be.

Lessons Learned: Rewards and Risks of Readership

There are few comic creators that I’ve seen try so many innovative things, nor enjoy quite such a quick rise in readership.  Thom and Kambrea Pratt launched Shadowbinders on August 27, 2010.  Six months later it was growing, GROWING, GROWING!  By April 2012, their site was receiving 500,000 hits a month, but it wasn’t all sunshine and roses.  Raising server costs, demands on time, and flopped Kickstarter projects proved that just because your readership is growing fast, doesn’t mean your webcomic business will become self-sustaining overnight.

The Interview

So…what’s the secret to your rapid growth?  Have you found the silver bullet to marketing?t

Kam: The truth is we really don’t worry about it too much.  We are flexible and we do plan some things out, but a lot of times we just go with our gut instincts.  It’s trial and error honestly.  We’re willing to fall on our face to try something new.  We have kind of done everything differently than the conventional “wisdom” of “how to” in webcomics.  What worked 10 years ago doesn’t necessarily work today.  We have kind of done it bass ackwards.

Thom: Like Kam said, according to many webcomics pundits we’ve done just about everything wrong. And what worked for PvP or Penny Arcade or even The Oatmeal won’t necessarily work for someone else trying to mimic their business model. If it was that simple, everybody would be doing it. It’s a combination of right place, right time, right skills and sometimes just blind stinkin’ dooda luck. To truly be the next Penny Arcade or whatever, you’d need to buy a time machine. And be Gabe or Tycho.

There is no Golden Goose – Don’t be the next Penny Arcade.  Be the first YOU with a business model suited to YOUR work!

I think the base of the “secret sauce” to webcomics success — or success in any business — is to just make something that people like and then let everybody know about it.

What did you consider about your story or marketing approach before actively trying to expand your readership?

Kam: We try to think about what we would want to read.  Or, if this were a TV show, what would we want to watch? Put yourself in the shoes of the audience.  We also understood how comics worked before we started this.  We didn’t just jump online and start making comics.  We both had professional print comics credits coming into this. Thom’s background is design, web, publishing, and marketing. Honestly, that has made a huge difference for us as well.

Thom: Yeah, and that’s not to be all braggy and be like “We were professionals… blah, blah, blah. Move aside and let us show you how it’s done, son.” But through various past careers, we picked up some skills that have definitely helped give us a boost out of the gate — a little comics production work here, a little marketing experience there, etc.

Kam: You also can “niche” yourself to death.  There is a large focus on “niche marketing” and you can “niche” yourself out of an audience.  If you look at a lot of the more popular webcomics out there, they appeal to a large audience. Mass appeal is key.

For example, Shadowbinders has several audiences. We have the Steampunk audience, the Fantasy audience, the Slice-of-life audience, the Comedy audience, the Role-playing audience, the Romantic Comedy audience.  If we only focused on one, it would have vastly limited our readership.  Plus we like all of those genres and wanted to do something that reflected that.

Something fun for everyone – the merits of many genres

Thom: Yeah, I get tired of hearing about “niche” marketing all the time — both in comics, and elsewhere. The most successful webcomics out there appeal to a huge mass audience. I’d hardly call gaming a “niche,” as even my grandmother plays video games. Everybody “gets” the jokes on The Oatmeal. We chose a longform webcomic – which immediately limits our audience to people who read that sort of thing – but as Kam said, that’s what we like.

How did your approach to gaining new readers evolve as your audience grew?

Kam:We’ve been pretty consistent from day one.  It took almost two years of consistency to build this.  Word of mouth has helped.  I think that has caused a lot of our upswing.  Going to conventions has helped.  We have a larger archive which comes into play as well.  People don’t necessarily want to read until there is enough to read.Thom: People ask us this all the time. “How are you getting your readers?” I honestly don’t have an answer. I don’t think there’s any secret formula… right place, right time with something people wanted to read, I guess. And we’ve consistently tried to suck less as time goes on. Ha ha.

What is one technique that you used that you have NOT often seen other webcomic creators try?

Kam: I don’t think we do much differently.  If there is anything we do it is probably take more chances maybe.  We are willing to fall on our face…publicly…badly…(Remember the first Kickstarter we tried?)  Other than that we pretty much do what everyone else does– Advertise, go to cons, have a presence on social media, etc..

Thom: If you’re going to fail, fail spectacularly.

One of many methods Thom and Kambrea have used to spread the word about their work that isn’t a Project Wonderful ad — including contests and give-aways!

How do you think your approach would change if you did a gag-a-day strip, or a release-by-issue comic?

Kam: If we did a gag-a-day strip I think we would do more with reddit and social media.  The point is to make something funny and get people to share it.  Like multi-level marketing.  The more friends you bring in, and the more they share, the further you go.

Thom: Gag-a-day is a completely different beast, yeah. A funny strip can spread like wildfire over the internet. Longform creators are immediately at a disadvantage when it comes to social sharing as much more invested time is required to “get the punchline.”

Kam: In the case of release-by-issue, well this is something we might be doing eventually, but not with the main Shadowbinders story.  There is a potential spin-off we are working on that would be print or digital download only.

As far as marketing this? There is a different mindset between people who read “free comics” and those that want a book to keep and read.  I guess we will continue what we currently are doing and find our target audience, and then look at the effective ways you can reach them.

Thom: Many of the people who’ve bought our books don’t read the comic online, and vice versa. Our Kickstarter stats were pretty telling. Many of our backers were not regular readers of our webcomic. Many simply wandered in from Kickstarter itself and just liked the look of the project.

What’s the most important thing for a creator to keep in mind as they reach out to new readers?

Kam: First impression is everything.  Your latest page is your advertisement.  So always try to keep your site looking good and keep your pages interesting.  Right now we are in Mia’s world, and we have noticed a significant drop in page views when we are not showing Belatyr.  So we stepped it up — we wanted to make Mia’s world as fun and interesting as Rhen’s.  The numbers have come up on those pages.

Thom: Yeah, there used to be radio silence on the “real world” pages. Lately, I think people have been leaving more comments than they did on the pages with Rhen’s world. Again, it was a problem we tried to correct by throwing something else against the wall. By the time we have this formula “figured out” the comic will be coming to a close. Ha ha.

What are the pros and cons of rapid growth?

Kam: Pros–There is more of a reward in terms of validation for what you do.  It is great to gain readers and getting positive (and sometimes negative) feedback.  It is really rewarding to know that people are vested in your story.  That is incredible.

Cons-  

Hosting. We did not anticipate that being an issue.  We actually upgraded our hosting package twice over the course of  three months because the server could not handle it.  That becomes extremely expensive very quickly. With increased traffic, you do get higher paying ads — but not enough to completely offset the expense. We really didn’t see that coming going into this.

Mistakes- More eyeballs = more opinions and you are much more scrutinized.  We second guess ourselves a lot on every page before it’s posted.  However, if we do make a mistake we will own up to it.

Thom gave Chris a “derp” eye on one page.  The unfixed version was posted on justthefirstframe.com.  Instead of hiding it, we made an announcement that if you wanted to see our mistake to go there and see it.  You really have to roll with it and have a sense of humor about it.  But mistakes are quick to be noticed when you have more readers.  Who needs an editor? Just let your readers have at it.

More criticism should be expected.  We were once called “Poo” but you just roll with it.  The podcast that called us that had some valid points on how the comic could be improved.  We thanked them and responded in a positive manner.  People remember our exchange and how we handled it.  It never helps you to go ranting and pouting.  You can disagree, but do so gracefully.

Thom: Yeah, I’ve made a few boneheaded art mistakes that were literally caught within seconds of being posted. It’s like “D’oh!” but it’s also cool that people are waiting for those pages to post and care enough to say something.

Disillusionment- You set a goal for yourself and you set off to climb this mountain.  You get to the “top,” only to realize you were on the foothill next to the mountain.  “Success” seems so far away.

Beyond every mountain is another mountain. Not to sound negative, but only a few dozen webcomickers have transitioned into making it a full-time career. If that’s the goal, then it’s a long road. And sometimes aspiring creators have warped views of how ‘successful’ those ‘big name’ creators actually are. The creator of Gunnerkrigg Court just quit his day job this year. He’s been doing the strip for, what, 7 or 8 years now and gets hundreds of thousands of daily page views. He’s considered a webcomics “success story” but only now is able to make some kind of a living off of it. It’s relative, so all successes are not created equal.

Kam: Of course this also depends on what your definition of success is.  For us, we are bent on world domination and everything short of that is unacceptable (of course I am kidding.) Embrace all your successes, no matter how “small” but also realize there can be a long way to go.

If you could go back, what would you do differently?  What would you keep the same?

Thom:  Differently: Well we didn’t have the site completely done when we launched.  We would have gone with our current full page vertical format instead of the horizontal pages we went with.   I think we would have gone with the art style we now instead of the more painterly style we started with.

The early art was coming off of another webcomic I drew (that failed spectacularly.) I sort of continued with that “storybook-ish” style, but wouldn’t do it that way if I had it to do over again. I went with a horizontal layout, because all those print-guys-turned-webcomics-pundits suggested it. I like the 1:1 print ratio we have now. Now, I won’t be going back and redrawing those early strips — as tempting as it is. It’s like airbrushing your high school yearbook. It is what it is, pimples, braces and all.

Kam: Also, WordPress can be difficult when you have higher traffic.  We might have started out with a customized site to avoid this.  Using WordPress played into the server and bandwidth issues.  We never gave it much thought when we started, but we didn’t expect to grow so quickly. Thank you, readers! *HUGS*

Same:  I would keep a lot of it the same.  It’s worked for us so far.

What is one challenge that you think most creators overlook when trying to expand their audience?

Kam: The more popular your comic becomes the more it will cost you.  Yes, you get more money for ads and may sell more books, but you have sink that money back into advertising, hosting, merchandise, etc.  Think of it like a business from day one.  You will have taxes and fees and bookkeeping.  The larger you get, the more you deal with.  For example, we just had to LLC for tax purposes (and other upcoming things.)

You don’t really think much about these things when you are just starting out and have 5 readers.  So start out with a business mindset and go from there.

Thom: Keep in mind that all of this is just opinion based on our own experiences. It’s not gospel. Your miles may vary — in fact, your miles WILL vary. If there was a webcomics “formula” that worked for everybody, everybody would be doing this full-time.

Still have questions?

Thom and Kambrea can be found at:

Shadowbinders.Keenspot.com

Twitter:  Kneon and desert_starr_57

Facebook

 There’s no denying that a strong fan-base is necessary to become self-sustaining…but don’t count on hits alone to make your comic succeed!