If you build it, they will come: Lessons in Online Audience Building

Marvel is on Comixology Unlimited, which means Comixology Unlimited subscribers can now access Marvel titles. This is probably gibberish to people who do not read comic books, but trust me, it’s a very big deal for anyone invested in the comic book world. For everyone else, it’s a lesson in how content publishing is changing.

Comixology Unlimited is basically Netflix for comic books. Comixology Unlimited is an offshoot of Comixology, an online store for digital comics, but Unlimited uses a subscription model. Marvel is a major brand in the comic-book world. For six USD a month (the service is not yet available in Canada) users have unlimited access to a practically endless library of rotating titles. It has practically everything from superheroes, to manga, to graphic novels — just no DC, and a up until this month, no Marvel.

Many comic book fans, digital planners and businesses strategists never thought this day would come. The fact that Marvel is now on Comixology Unlimited shows how the power dynamics between aggregators and publishers have changed, thanks to digital media.

The Internet is vast and overwhelming, making aggregators a necessary step between publishers and consumers. This means reaching people involves researching the type of users or customers you want, learning where and how they prefer to interact with similar content, and optimizing your content so your audience can find it. Advertising will only go so far. People will want something, but if it’s not available in the most convenient form, they’ll settle for something close. For example, they will want to watch a certain show, but if it’s not on Netflix, they often end up settling for something similar that is available through the streaming service.

To grow an audience online you need to make sure people can find your content in the easiest way possible. Increasingly, this means putting your content in an aggregator, like Netflix. In this instance it’s Comixology — just like TV shows need to be in Netflix and websites need to be in Google, (eventually) comic book publishers will need to be in Comixology Unlimited.

So why did Marvel decide to join up? It’s not like they need the money — you might have noticed they make some pretty big movies. This month, more people will watch the second installment of Guardians of the Galaxy than will download Comixology Unlimited’s app for the entire year. But, while Marvel has media channels beyond comics, Comixology has done some very good work winning over comic book readers, which is slightly different than winning over comic book fans. Despite having Mickey Mouse and Robert Downey Jr. in its corner, Marvel still has to play the aggregator game in order to reach the users it wants — in this case, people that actually read comic books.

Marvel is not putting its entire catalogue on Comixology but it’s a very good selection. Comixology deserves a lot of credit for making this happen. Perhaps knowing it would not be able to offer Batman or Spider-Man, Comixology Unlimited went for all the other publishers. This was a smart move: people who like more obscure titles tend to be more devoted readers and are more likely to first, stay subscribed to Comixology Unlimited, and second, try different titles from another publisher recommended through the app. And for Marvel, this also makes sense. By offering some of its most popular books to the most engaged reading audience, Marvel increased the likelihood that one of these people will read one of its books and eventually become a devoted Marvel customer.

The applications for public affairs are obvious. With a world of practically unlimited content options, publishers have to identify their audiences. With Marvel, this means recognizing that not all comic book fans actually read comics, and even that not all comic readers buy digital editions. Marvel’s first wave of Comixology Unlimited titles are deliberate. Marvel didn’t join Comixology Unlimited to reach just anyone. It wanted digital comic book readers.

This is obviously good for Marvel and it also helps Comixology Unlimited grow by attracting users from Marvel’s considerable audience who might be looking to read less mainstream comics. For many, Marvel joining Comixology Unlimited is a victory for the little guy. The smaller digital reader/aggregator got buy-in from one of the industry giants. In a way, the new X-Men will have the same prestige as the latest issue of Saga, which is cool for comic book readers, but Marvel probably doesn’t see it that way. What it sees is an opportunity to use an aggregator to grow its audience.