ComicCon & The Power of the Devoted Niche

This is the third guest post written by Comparative Media Studies graduate student and media analyst Ivan Askwith about his observations at Comicon. Askwith is beginning work now on a thesis which centers around transmedia and participatory aspects of Lost and Veronica Mars.

In my second dispatch from ComicCon, I tried to illustrate how the studios and networks are already beginning to understand the importance of fan support in the era of convergence culture. And while some executives have a better grasp on the core principles than others, it’s fair to say that the entertainment industry are starting to think more seriously about how fans power new business models.

Savvy executives, however, will also realize that ComicCon still has a lot to teach them about the significance of fan support, particularly in economic terms.

While recent entries both here and in the C3 Weblog tempt me to describe what I saw at ComicCon as a living illustration of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail. After all, the merchandise selections available at ComicCon range from the super-mainstream to the ultra-obscure, which suggests that there is a market for even the most esoteric and specialized collectibles. If the exhibitors at the Con have chosen to use some of their floor space to offer less mainstream product, should we assume that they’ve embraced the “we can sell less-of-more” ideology? Most of these sellers have been attending the Con for years, which gives me ample reason to believe that if they didn’t think they could sell off their more obscure inventory, they wouldn’t bother bringing it.

For all of its strengths, however, I don’t think the Long Tail is designed to explain the lesson that I would encourage the entertainment industry to take away from their time at ComicCon: that a small audience of super-committed fans can be worth more, in economic terms, than a massive audience of casual viewers and readers.

This isn’t an entirely new observation, of course. Recent literature suggests that viewer involvement has a direct correlation to awareness and retention of advertising messages, and more networks are starting to see the merit of offering niche product through on-demand services.

At ComicCon, however, there is ample evidence to suggest that the industry still hasn’t realized just how valuable these niche audiences can be. This became particularly clear during a brief conversation that I had with Allan Caplan, the founder of InkWorks, a company specializing in the creation of trading cards and collectibles tied to popular cult television programs. Their current lineup includes Lost, Veronica Mars, The 4400, and Naruto, as well as such discontinued shows as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Firefly, Alias and The X-Files. InkWorks might not be operating on Anderson’s Long Tail, but they benefit from a similar principle: that small audiences still have big purchasing power if you cater to their interests.

Case in point: InkWorks is preparing to release their seventh line of collectible cards for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a show that has ended three years ago. One visitor, walking past the stand, asked: “How could there possibly still be a market for new content about a cancelled series?”

(In retrospect, this is an especially odd question to ask in a room where fans are ready and willing to pay well in excess of $1000 for an original out-of-print comic featuring their favorite character.)

Caplan’s answer? That every line of Buffy cards InkWorks makes has sold out rapidly, and fans continue to ask them for more. The same is true of other cancelled series, especially Joss Whedon’s post-Buffy endeavor, Firefly. Caplan told me that even he had been hesitant to invest in the development of Firefly-affiliated merchandise, until he saw that fans were willing to pay — and pay well — for anything connected to the show.

While trading cards aren’t an especially new niche business, Inkworks has demonstrated a particularly keen understanding of the fan/collector mentality: in addition to the basic set of cards in each line, there are a number of “bonus cards” distributed at random through the line. The specific content of these cards varies from show to show, but generally includes “Autograph Cards,” with actual signatures from cast members and “Pieceworks Cards,” which contain tiny pieces of actual costumes worn on-screen during the show. (Other interesting show-specific offerings include invisible ink messages on select cards tied into the spy-fi show Alias, which can only be seen when the card is placed under a black light.)

For reference, a single pack of 6 trading cards costs $2.50.

While I didn’t have the presence of mind to record my conversation with Caplan, it was clear to me that he understood (a) the power of creating limited quantities, and (b) that a small, engaged audience can be far more lucrative, especially to niche marketers, than a massive casual audience. After all, as he pointed out to me, there’s no market for CSI: Miami trading cards, even if it is the number one show in the world.

One question worth considering: can collectible product lines like this be used as a barometer for the relative popularity of various franchises?

(At some point in the future, I’ll be interviewing Caplan, and will post any interesting results that come from that discussion either here or in the C3 Weblog.)

Comments

  1. I’ll be tracking back here in a little while, but I wanted to drop a note directly, and thank you for a thought-provoking entry, Ivan. You put your finger on something that doesn’t quite fit into the LT discussion, and I say that as someone who’s a big fan of Anderson…so thanks…

    cgb

  2. For many years I avidly collected comics (started in the early 70’s because I thought I smelled a business opportunity after meeting a collector, only to later learn just how big that industry was after seeing his huge collection). While living in San Diego during the 80’s I was front row to the changes that transformed the industry; especially those centered on creator rights and the emergence of independents like Pacific Comics (anyone remember them?). I also watched with disappointment as many of them closed shop shortly afterward as the industry went through spasms and contractions. Dark Horse survived and few others (Image came later iirc), but not many.

    I collected until the early 90’s when a return to college limited my spending power. I did however continue to watch developments as I’d (re)developed an interest as part of my growing general interest in business. I kept looking at all the intellectual property and wondering why it was that I was reading about (among other things) financial problems at Marvel Comics. It seemed as if there was not only a huge disconnect between creators and company execs, but between the fans and the suits (which, iirc, opened the door to the second wave start ups like Image).

    Toward the end of the 90’s I spent some time working in Japan and happened across an article discussing how comic/manga properties were often developed. (Note: I’m aware that the companies actually developing the properties may not see much of the money, at least according to some things I’ve read, but that doesn’t change how things are apparently developed). The process documented in the article (I believe it was an English-version BusinessWeek) was interesting and explained how comics were sometimes used as a kind of testbed for Japanese companies; the media entry point for a new property. Because comic books have no cultural stigma attached to them as they still have in the U.S., Japanese companies used them in ways that we in the U.S. wouldn’t think to try. Popular comics were converted to other media channels based on their popularity among fans. Other than the recent onslaught of Hollywood superhero movies, which are arguably the product of get-rich-quick deals to leverage valuable IP that’s had decades to permeate the culture instead of a methodical process taking a new IP from a low-cost media entry point to a full-blown $100M+ movie investment, the leveraging of comics and more generally the fan input to determine how a property is developed and how much is invested in moving it to other channels, is unique afaik. The Japanese at least seem to see the potential and have been using it for years.

    Now, the Japanese may not be listening to the fans in quite the way you’re suggesting and in ways now possible through the internet (which is a big part of how the Long Tail is allowed to function on a practical level), but the article I read suggests they do have a better understanding of how to listen to the users/fans in this regard. If and when the U.S. – specifically and generally – catches up to this way of thinking is anyone’s guess. I give it another ten years since I don’t believe the current executives truly grok everything that’s happening. I’m thinking we need a new Executive SKU.

  3. “The Japanese at least seem to see the potential and have been using it for years.”

    Yup, a pet peve theory of mine for years. Our creation paradigm tends to be perceived as one of breakthrough, one where producers try to assess the form, fonction and content of the market in order to produce the product most fitting to their and/or their public’s needs and wants till someone succeeds. The japanese creation process appears to be perceived as one of growth, the cycle going somewhat like this:

    1) Constant creation of new IPs indifferently of content and purpose.

    2) Nurturing and refinement of those IPs that hit enough of a nerve to generate an active community via more or less heavy and/or perfectly calibrated advertisement.

    3) Endemic devellopement of said IPs, diversification in as many forms as possible of the sources of income.

    4) After a period of stagnation and drying of profits, cut the IP sustenance machine off and let it to the fans to maintain the community. Continue maximizing you profit from the shrinked fan-base core. Prepare future cash-ins via nostalgia inducing produced for years to come.

    Don’t like the word (it’s become too much of a linguistical mana to feel confortable), but hey, seems like we have a rhyzomic model here.

    Exemples abound, but three almost archetypal ones I can think of right now would be: the Sakura Taisen series, Love Hina, Pokemon. You could easily find dozens of them at every level of growth and profit, though.

    The perfect calibration of the japanese propaganda machine makes the process frighteningly effective. Frighteningly so, because I do not find it to be that empowering, at least not where it matters. The community model it promotes is an extremely conservative, extremely un-challenging one, when you put it down to it, both personaly and socially.

    Which is as much a strength as it is a defect, I agree, but my own sensibility is more affected by the defective side.

    (I realise I’m may be too elusive here, so mixing with one of your more recent post, let’s put it this way: who needs the figure of Big Brother, who needs the minute of hatred, when you can have Big Brother the show ? Why acknowledge an outside when you can work all of those (perceived ?) needs inside, without the need to question them ?)

    Thanks for the blog, by the way. Nice one. Added to my list.

    PS: while thinking about it, I don’t know how much it would work for the American market, but instead of using only cards, why not try the number of derivative products the commnunity can/does sustain ?