I was talking to David Davis earlier this week. Davis is the creative force behind Cosmic Dash, a webcomic about the crew of an independent transport vessel that shuttles goods across the galaxy. Personally, I kind of liken it to Firefly, although Dash Kameku and his crew aren’t running from law enforcement and the overall tone isn’t nearly as cynical. (That’s not meant as a jab, by the way! I’ve been a Browncoat since the original broadcast episodes!) It’s a good series, and one I’ve been following for about four years now.
One thing Davis asked me about was connecting with his audience. Not necessarily building his audience, which I gather he’s done reasonably well with already, but just getting more interaction with them. Davis doesn’t have a store yet where he can monitor sales, so without reader feedback, it’s hard for him to guage how well he’s doing and where he could improve things. He’s mostly limited to checking his site statistics right now.
As I see it, there are two ways, as a webcomic creator, to really connect with your audience and develop that rapport where they willingly and openly share feedback. First, you can be just a phenomenally talented individual and your work is so astounding (or astoundingly awful, I suppose, if you’re phenomenally talentless) that readers are in awe. They’ll respond to your work with “Oooh”s and “Ahhh”s and the occasional useful bit of criticism. But let’s face it, very, very few people are really that talented and you’re probably not one of them.
The other option, which is decidedly more common, is to put out more than just your comic. And what “more” is that? More than your comic means you need to put more of yourself out there.
Let me throw some names out: Scott Kurtz, Jerry Holkins and Matthew Inman. These guys, and many others like them, are almost as synonymous with their respective webcomics as they get. Just like Charles Schulz, Jim Davis and Gary Trudeau in newspaper comics. What they’ve done, in different ways, is inject themselves into the picture as much as their creations. Holkins is a particularly good example here. If you go the Penny Arcade site, you are not presented with the latest comic strip. You’re presented with blog postings from Holkins (and his partner Mike Krahulik) with a link to then go to the latest comic. Readers are returning as much for what they’re putting out there about themselves as their comic. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that characters Gabe and Tycho are transparent avatars for the two of them.)
Part of using social media effectively is not just a matter of broadcasting when your latest comic has gone live, or even dropping tidbits about your personal life to put a human being behind your work. It’s about interacting with others. That means saying congratulations when someone else achieves a milestone, or pointing to helpful answers when some asks an open-ended question, or commiserating with somebody when your favorite sports team loses. Not just your friends, but anyone who’s also following you already because of your comic.
While that won’t be a direct road to building an audience, it does help to entrench yourself with your existing audience. (As long as you’re sincere about it, of course. Insincerity, as Linus taught us, will leave you sleeping out all night in the pumpkin patch.) But those little comments, over time, build up a trust and sense of friendship that help connect you to your readers. They become as interested in reading your strip for your sake as much as their own entertainment, and they will then start to help you improve by providing suggestions. Furthermore, when they want to see you succeed like that, they’ll also help to drum up more of their friends as readers.
It’s not a quick process, by any means, and it’s one that you need to continue for a long time, if not indefinitely for the life of your comic. But you wind up gaining an audience that’s invested in both you and your strip, an audience that helps to build on itself, and, best of all, maybe a few good friends along the way.