By Brett Schenker
Two years and some months ago, I posted the first study of what Facebook told us about comic book fans. 45 or so posts later on the subject, I’m still gathering data with various breakdowns of not just comic fans but other fandoms as well. At Small Press Expo, I talked with Heidi about these types of statistics and mentioned what I’ve been doing when a discussion about studies and surveys began. While what I do isn’t perfect, it does give us an idea of the trends over a period of time. But as Heidi asked more questions, it was clear what I was doing might not be obvious to most folks, so she offered me a chance to go a bit more in depth about the topic, covering how I get this information, but also why it’s important.
The reason I began this was simple, some comic “experts” were debating how many comic book fans existed in the United States, stating it was between 300,000 and 400,000 fans. While it’s impossible right now to get a proper survey done, like the Entertainment Software Association does every year for video games, there were data sets that existed that could be used to give a rough idea. Working in politics, I deal with data daily and use it to get candidates elected or advocate some issue. I decided to take what I learned in politics and apply it to the comic industry, hence this.
The Methodology (aka How the Hell I Do This)
The first study I did imediately blew that belief of 300 to 400,000 people out of the water. I quickly found over a million fans on Facebook in the United States alone (that took me just a few minutes to do). Since it was first done, the system I manipulate in Facebook has improved and evolved allowing me to expand my search and find even more individuals. The way I do all of this is Facebook’s advertising platform. Facebook isn’t just a social network, it’s a massive database of information, the information you provide when you put your location, age, gender, and your “likes.”
It’s those “likes” where I find the data I aggregate. Anyone can do this really and marketers do it every day delivering ads they think might be important to you. For instance, when I recently got engaged and changed my relationship status, I started to receive ads for tuxedo rentals and buying houses, my fiancé received ads for bridal dresses and wedding items.
What I do is compile a list of “likes” I think are relevant to the comic book industry and fans. I use terms like “comics,” “graphic novels,” and the names of numerous publishers among other terms. I stay away from characters or authors. Just because you like Superman or Neil Gaiman, doesn’t mean you like DC Comics or comics in general. Movies, television, and video games are kept separate as well. In all over 50 terms are used (I stopped counting a while ago) and I max out the number you can do in Facebook’s system.
Today, the terms I use regularly return over 11 million fans in the United States alone. At that 11 million mark, each term I add brings back less and less, showing a lot of overlap (Facebook tells you how many fans a term has before you add it, so you can figure that part out). Even when I add characters names, like Superman, I max out at 22 million and have struggled to get higher than that.
Obviously the first flaw is that this is based off of what people tell you, but so is a survey. A “like” does not equal someone who goes to comic shops, but I then retort and ask why they don’t. If someone is a “fan” and “like” Marvel or DC and not buying comics, it is a failure of this industry in not getting them to do so. They are fans, they are just not engaged. In the political flipside, this is the equivalent of my motivating someone to get out and vote. I do this type of work every day, it’s a pain in the ass, but it is possible.
There’s also a flaw in the data, period. The first being, those under the age of 13 are under counted due to privacy laws. This would be an issue in most cases though.
The second is, women generally make up the majority of Facebook users in the United States; globally that’s not the case (and in my global studies, I look at 22 total nations). However, that’s not as off as you’d think compared to the general population of the United States. Women in the US account for 50.8% of the population as of a 2012 estimate, for Facebook they account for 53.41%. If anything globally, they’re underrepresented making up 46.29% of the Facebook population but in the actual world, the percentage is very close to 50/50.
Often in studies we see the count of female fans increase so they’re the majority. I often contribute that to how the general Facebook user stats shake out. So, this should be kept in mind when looking at what I present.
So why does this matter?
Here’s the dark secret about politics, with a little bit of information, I can tell you how you’ll vote. By knowing your gender, education, and income, for examples, I can tell you what party you belong to and how you’ll vote. We also have massive databases going back years with that information too. We look at when you have voted to determine if you’ll vote in the future. If someone goes to the poll every primary and election and is doing so in Democratic primaries, I can probably count on them to keep doing so. That simplifies it all, but hopefully gives you an idea of where I’m going.
So, let’s take that logic and apply it to comics. I’ve talked about looking at customer differently in the past, and why data and databases are important, but here’s the simplest scenario. You have comic “A” which is enjoyed by men that are 30 years old primarily, and comic “B” that’s enjoyed by 30 year old women. If you wanted to find more buyers for comic “A,” you’d target 30 year old men and “B” target 30 year old women. To treat the audiences of these two comics as the same is a mistake and bad business.
I’ve shown that fandoms differ. Doctor Who fans are 50% female. Transformers fans are almost 59% male. Fans of female comic book characters are over 62% female! Fans of comics, and geek culture as a whole, is diverse with each niche’s make-up differing from the next. We need to wake up and realize this and use the knowledge and data that’s out there to our advantage, getting the right interests in front of the right people, sharing our love of our hobby.
[Brett is a political consultant who resides in Arlington, VA. He grew up in Cleveland, OH and Buffalo, NY and attended the University at Buffalo, majoring in Political Science. Since then Brett has made his mark on politics working in various positions such as a Legislative Staffer for the Erie County Legislature, Special Assistant for Senator John Kerry, as the Database Administrator for Forward Together PAC, Deputy Internet Director for Chris Dodd for President, and Internet/Database Director for Virginians for Brian Moran, and Email Deliverability Czar for Salsa Labs. In 2007 Brett formed 5B Consulting providing his expertise on database solutions, new media and email strategy. He’s a long time geek, reading comics since he was a child and learning to spell his name on an Atari 800. When he’s not working, he’s reading comics, playing video games and relaxing with a nice cup of tea. You can follow him on Twitter @bhschenker]
If I recall correctly, that number was used for fans of superhero comics generally. There hasn’t been much reason to revise it, because the market for (printed) superhero comics hasn’t grown. The market for comics-format publications is undoubtedly much larger, but publishers have the responsibility to devise marketing programs to reach those readers. For most people, reading fiction is a leisure activity, not a hobby. Marketing influences what they buy.
Obviously the first flaw is that this is based off of what people tell you, but so is a survey. A “like” does not equal someone who goes to comic shops, but I then retort and ask why they don’t. If someone is a “fan” and “like” Marvel or DC and not buying comics, it is a failure of this industry in not getting them to do so.
I think this is the part of the disconnect I (and maybe some others) had with the analysis in the previous article: we’re using different definitions of “fan.” How I usually define it is people who are regularly or semi-regularly still engaged in the hobby, not people who are “lapsed.”
Regardless, a good question I should have also asked before is how expansive is your net? Are you including manga, comic strips, and web comics, or is this research only looking at US fans of comics from US/European publishers?
@Johnny totally understand that disconnect.
My terms are pretty broad and I do include manga (and the many terms surrounding it), have to double check on webcomics.
You’d be surprised at how hard it is for people — even people with fully functional marketing careers — to distinguish between marketing to a product’s broadest category of audience or that specific product’s actual, much narrower audience.
A book is not a book; it’s a mystery, a romance, a period drama, etc. Likewise, a comic is always more than just another product on a shelf in a comic book store, yet it’s so, so easy to leave it at that and so it often is.
Is there a link to where you get this info? Or a “how-to” somewhere? I just want to play with the facebook stats!
For those interested in giving it a shot, this’ll get you started, https://www.facebook.com/help/154630584708161/?ref=adcf-destination
Thanks for explaining the methodology. I am really eating up your stats articles. I find it incredible that the top selling books sell around only 100,000 books but there are over 12 million people who identify in some way as comic fans. It seems like we are leaving a lot of money on the table.
One part of your article I wonder if you could clarify for me. You say:
“You have comic “A” which is enjoyed by men that are 30 years old primarily, and comic “B” that’s enjoyed by 30 year old women. If you wanted to find more buyers for comic “A,” you’d target 30 year old men and “B” target 30 year old women”
My concern though is that by following that logic don’t we run the risk of never growing the target audience. Take Transformers for example which you said is liked 69% by men. You also however said that female characters get more female readers. The Transformers books due to a strange story decision only have one female character in them. Wouldn’t it be worth trying to introduce more female characters to see if you could grow your audience, or since the book is read primarily by men should it only ever be marketed toward men like in your comic A example above.
Just thought I’d ask because I wonder if one of the reasons there are so many fans but so few books sold is because the books are targeted and written for a much smaller market than what really exists. I just wonder what book publishers like the one I work for can do to attract some of those 11 million lost fans to give comics a try.
Thanks for the great article.
Does Facebook take in effect overlap? EG. the same person “likes” Comics and also likes Graphic Novels, do they count as 2 people or just 1?
Also, I’m not sure if there is any independent way of checking this out – but is there any evidence that facebook doesn’t “puff up” their numbers in any way to encourage advertisers to spend money (or pay higher rates)?
@Jamie, these don’t overlap. The reason I think that is it gives you an audience of the “like” you’re about to add, but when you add it the real number is different when you have other terms already selected. The more terms I add, the more difficult it is to boost that number because of overlap. I don’t think they puff up numbers (unless you mean fake likes) as these numbers are pretty public. Fake likes do exist though.
@Jason I get what you’re saying, but in a hypothetical situation… if I wanted to expand the Transformers audience to women, knowing women like female characters more, I as a marketer would try advertising female Transformers to that audience.
If the example I gave with book A and B, it’s more complicated than that. But, as a marketer, if my goal was to immediately boost sales, knowing that stat, that’s the first place I’d try to increase sales.
If in this case as the simplified example I gave “only 30 year old males” liked the book and no one else did (an exaggeration of what reality would be) to advertise outside of that demo would likely be a waste to start, right? Once I think I’ve maxed out that audience, I’d see what else I could do.
To give an example of politics, we start with the most likely people to vote for our candidate, then the next likely, then the next likely, then the next likely, until you’re left with nothing but the opposition. Resources are scarce, so focus like a laser.
Thank you so much for answering my question. Keep up the good work.
>> if I wanted to expand the Transformers audience to women, knowing women like female characters more, I as a marketer would try advertising female Transformers to that audience.>>
“RISE OF THE EMOTICONS!
“Under the leader of Cosmeticus Sparkle, who transforms from a blow drier to a giant robot pony, these new arrivals have challenged the Autobots and the Decepticons to a dance-off! Who! Will! Survive!”
—some Hasbro executive, right about now
Actually, funny story, the Transformers fan creation of the year was a female transformer, and the female Transformers fans are starting to rally around new female comic writer Mairghread Scott, who has been reintroducing old female characters like Firestar in her book. She is doing some cool stuff in her book Beast Hunters. Also the latest show has a decent female following.
Herein, I think, lies the rub. Let’s assume there are 400,000 people buying comics every month, but 12 million who say they are fans of comics. We want to increase sales of Superman. Who is the most likely target – someone who fits all the demographics of a Superman comic purchaser who is outside the 400,000, or someone who is within the 400,000? Which of those people is more likely to be moved to do what is necessary to buy a Superman comic, i.e. go to a comics shop or download the DC Digital app? And maybe that’s the answer – you target the person within the 400,000 for the print version, and the person outside the 400,000 for the digital.
I targeted everyone who knew Superman’s origin.
Superman: Red Son
“What if Superman’s rocket ship landed in Soviet Russia in the 1950s instead of rural America?”
I myself didn’t read the comic until the trade hit the shelves.
Or you could do what Marvel did:
Have Spider-Man meet President Obama.
HOW they get a copy doesn’t matter. LCS, newsstand, bookstore, library, digital…
The success of the Obama ASM issue didn’t get more people to buy the subsequent issues of ASM, though. Marvel has tried the same thing with “death” issues.
From a marketing standpoint, it’s better to promote the author than it is to promote the character. If a reader decides to follow the author, there’s her backlist, and, if she’s a genre author, other authors in the same genre. Promoting graphic novelists can work the same way. It’s only with superheroes that a reader can honestly be told that reading superhero comics is a hobby. It’s not for everyone.
I recall that Stan Lee remarked that, in Hollywood, he was confused by marketers asking “Who is the target audience?” Back in the day, they just tried to make good comics, and figured anyone who liked good stories and artwork would buy them. Maybe that approach is a little too simplistic these days, but then again there may be something to that.
@Rich — I think that’s the difference between creative and marketing. As an editor and writer, Stan Lee may have just been making the best comics he could for an audience of whomever liked comics. But a marketer needs to know who is most likely to buy that comic if they’re going to spend their (usually) very limited marketing dollars on an effective campaign. And often, the first person a marketer might seek out when trying to determine the target audience is the person who created the book — they’ll have unique insight that a marketer coming in cold won’t have.
I don’t think Stan’s comment means that there was a simpler time long ago when creating commercial art was free of marketing concerns, only that his particular job never really required him to think about it.
Stan pretty clearly thought about marketing a lot, and it was one of his greatest strengths.
The idea that anyone working under the Comics Code didn’t know who their target audience was is kind of goofy — Stan knew he was writing for an audience assumed to be children, and he knew that, say, AVENGERS was aimed largely at boys and PATSY WALKER was aimed largely at girls.
He also thought about targeting new audiences and expanding the market — that’s why he kept plugging away at the idea that Marvel comics were popular with college students, in hopes of hanging on to readers as they hit middle school and high school. He knew the differences between the target audiences of CONAN THE BARBARIAN and SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, and lots more. As editor of the line and chief promo guy, his job required him to think about marketing and targeting more than anyone else on the creative side.
But Stan also knows how to talk a good game, and “Target audience? We were just trying to tell the best stories we could and hoping you nice people would like them” makes for a nice story.
This was a guy who, after getting complaints from Southern distributors, didn’t use the Black Panther’s superhero name on a cover for years, referring to him as “the Panther” or “T’Challa” on covers so the books would get onto the newsstands.
He thought about marketing.
Stan probably did think about marketing … but probably not to the extent that goes into the books these days. I’m not naive enough to think that he never gave marketing any thought. But I suspect there was more “hunch” in Stan’s marketing in the 1960s and 1970s.
“But Stan also knows how to talk a good game …” I’ve been saying this to friends who insist that Mary Jane Watson was more popular than Gwen Stacy. I’ve read somewhere where Stan said Gwen was popular … blah blah … now, years later, he often remarks thar MJ was more popular, but I think that’s just to appease the MJ-crowd who probably never read an early issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.
Bottom line: the Big Two Publishers are still trying to ignore a lot of the money currently on the table…or the money that might be moved there. Sooner than later, with the right incentives.
Re: Stan Lee’s marketing, I’m reminded of that story the founder of CD Baby told, where an old cabbie in Las Vegas said to him “I miss the mob”, because when the Mafia ran Las Vegas, all they cared about was that more money was coming in that going out. But then it got taken over by MBAs and marketing suits with their charts and metrics and profit margins so now you have to pay an extra 25 cents for ketchup packets, which, in the words of this cabbie “sucked all the fun out of this town.”
There’s a profound difference between a Hollywood marketer or a Vegas MBA and a guy who’s been working at his uncle’s publishing house since he was a teen being given free rein to do what he wants and making the product he creates/commissions successful. Stan Lee definitely thought about marketing, but he didn’t need spreadsheets to do it, he just intimately knew the product he was selling.
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