When people first started considering that they might be able to make money from doing webcomics, there were a flurry of different approaches. After all, since webcomics were a new thing, no one knew how to actually make a living off them yet, and people were trying anything they could think of. Some people tried paywalls, others tried just selling t-shirts, others tried advertising… There was a lot of looking at non-digital methods of making money from comics, and trying to find a digital equivalent.
Advertising, in fact, turned out to be one of the early “winning” financial models. That is, creators could basically rent space on their site and charge advertisers a price to receive placement next to their comic. And the more popular the comic was, the more they could charge advertisers. It’s essentially the same model network television has used for decades; the content itself is free, but you have to put up with somebody trying to market their widget to you.
This worked with webcomics for a while. But while network television still gets a large portion of their revenue through advertising, webcomics do so less and less. In fact, I know many webcomics whose creators have dropped advertising entirely since they were getting so little money from it.
So what happened?
In a word (or two): ad blockers. Because web browsers have configurable software, other people are able to craft extensions that hide ads from appearing on a website. Television is a closed system and doesn’t have that capability. As it becomes less and less difficult for regular users to install and take advantage of ad blockers, more and more people are using them. In 2014, it was estimated that about 15% of users had such software. That had increased to 26% by 2016, and it’s expected to rise up to a full third of all internet users sometime this year. Use of ad blockers on mobile devices is projected to increase by over 60% just this year!
That means that, even if traffic to a webcomic site increases every year, the number of people viewing the ads on that site is still decreasing. And that’s before even getting to some of the delivery mechanisms that bypass the site altogether anyway, such as displaying the comics through social media or via an RSS feed.
That’s one of the reasons why it seems as if many webcomic creators are clamoring to crowd-funding venues like Patreon and Kickstarter; they’re trying to claim new revenue streams specifically to replace what they had been earning via advertising. In many respects, it looked a lot like those early days of people trying to figure out a viable webcomics business model, with the difference being that many creators had already switched to relying on their webcomic as their sole source of income, thus making their search more immediately pressing.
That’s one of the reasons webcomics continue to evolve as a business; outside forces can come up in and completely disrupt the entire industry without even trying. Which means that, in order to remain successful, a webcomiker needs to be agile enough to change with whatever new curves get thrown at them!