January 31, 2008

How Spider-Man Got on the Web: Inside Peek at Marvel Comics’ Online Subscription Service

SUMMARY: Like other publishers with a vast content archive, Marvel Comics saw an opportunity to make thousands of Spider-Man, X Men and other comic books available online.

But the marketing team didn’t want to cannibalize their print copy sales, and they needed to attract hard-core comics fans as well as new readers. We got an inside look at how they launched their digital archive. Includes three landing page copy tests.
Many publishers can offer a vast archive of titles online to readers through a subscription service. But they don’t want to compete with their own print sales as they develop a business model for online subscribers.

With its huge archive of historic titles, marquee characters and loyal readers, Marvel Comics was in an ideal position to take advantage of online content. But they still spent years experimenting with business models and user interfaces to find the right way to present their comics library to an online audience.

Marvel launched Digital Comics Unlimited in November 2007 after carefully considering display technologies, interactive features, and a business model that wouldn’t compete with its ongoing print sales. The service charges subscribers $9.99 a month or $59.88 a year to read more than 2,700 comic books from Marvel’s 60-year history.

“We thought we were going to get people’s attention and hold them for a longer period of time, with access to the library in a subscription model,” says John Dokes, VP Online Operations and Marketing. “Also, by going out with this model, we’re not interfering in reality or perception with our ongoing print business.”

The launch attracted so much interest that the company’s servers could barely keep up with demand the first day. Although they won’t disclose figures, Dokes and his team say new subscriptions have continued to grow and they’re seeing very strong month-over-month renewals from customers who chose the monthly billing options.

Dokes credits that growth in part to three approaches:
o Careful development process that answered key questions about marketing the service
o Interactive features that make a digital subscription appealing
o Avoiding conflict with print comics retailers

Here are the five strategies Dokes and his team employed to launch their digital comics initiative:

-> Strategy #1. Develop and test custom reader interface

They decided against allowing users to download complete comics to their computers. They wanted to protect the company’s intellectual property and avoid the appearance of cannibalizing print sales. Instead, they created a custom interface that streams high-quality pages online.

A Marvel developer created a Flash-based digital comics viewer. It loads automatically in a browser window and doesn’t require users to download and install special software.

They also focused on a few important features to improve the online viewing experience:
o Single or double-page layout
o Zoom feature to let readers focus on particular pieces of art or text bubbles
o “Smart-panel” feature for readers new to the comic book experience that automatically advances through the sometimes confusing order of art and text on a page

“It’s not always easy to know what to look at next in a comic book, so the smart panel allows us to show them what order things should be viewed in,” Dokes says.

The team spent a year testing the digital reader through a limited, unpublicized digital comics initiative on the company’s website. Industry insiders and avid comics readers knew that digital comics were available at the site, and Dokes’ team collected quantitative data about user behavior while also soliciting feedback from these users about the interface.

The process yielded dozens of refinements to the digital reader. For example:

- Data showed that most readers chose the double-page layout, leading the team to set that option as the default mode. They had previously set the smart panel browsing feature as the default.

- Reader feedback changed the label for a navigation-bar button offering choices for how turning pages would be displayed. The development team referred to page transitions as “animations,” because the viewing technology simulated a turning page. But the term was confusing to users. “They would expect the characters in the book to start moving around,” says Jesse Goldstine, Director Online Planning.

They renamed the button “Page Transitions.”

-> Strategy #2. Offer search and customized features

The promise of thousands of comics spanning 60 years is appealing and daunting to comics readers. Dokes’ team made sure subscribers can find their favorite content -- as well as titles they may have missed -- and keep track of the comics they’ve already read. They chose search and organization features that enhance the value of an online subscription.

Users can sort by:
o Specific book title
o Character name
o Writer or illustrator
o Series
o Date of publication

Popular groupings and themes include:
o Famous character first appearances
o Milestones: death of certain characters or the first time characters appeared together
o First runs of famous titles -- such as issues 1-100 of The Amazing Spider-Man

Subscribers can customize their accounts and keep track of their reading with:
o Must-read list -- users can create this by clicking on any title in the archive
o List of comic books already read
o User ratings
o Recommendations based on reading habits and ratings

The team is working on an update to the subscription service that will incorporate more customization and social networking features.

-> Strategy #3. Develop landing page copy to appeal to all fans

The digital comics initiative is designed for two audiences:

- Hard-core comics readers already familiar with the company’s characters and famous titles.

- Newer comics fans, particularly those recently introduced to characters like Spider-Man from recent movies and video games.

That means online marketing and their subscription landing page have to offer a range of information that compels both groups to sign up for a subscription.

For avid readers, landing page/registration page copy focuses on improving their comics reading experience:
o “Instant access over the Web (no need to download)”
o “Discover new comics and old favorites”
o “Tons of milestone events and long runs”
o “Highest-quality images available online” -- an appeal to users who may have seen pirated digital copies of historic comics available on file-sharing services

For new readers, copy focuses on the size of the collection and available titles with high name recognition among non-comics fanatics:
o First original run of X-Men
o Issues 1-100 of Amazing Spider-Man
o Issues 1-100 of Fantastic Four

-> Strategy #4. Test landing page options

Using paid-search marketing campaigns, the team tested three different versions of a landing page that combined those text elements, along with art, calls-to-action and page designs (see creative samples):

- Version #1 minimized promotional copy and product description available on the primary landing page. Feature and benefit details were available behind tabs, while the main page was dedicated to a few bullets about the product and a large call-to-action -- “Sign up Now!” -- with a yellow arrow pointing toward monthly or annual subscription options.

- Version #2 highlighted product features and subscriber benefits in a header at the top of the page, and showed a grid of cover art representing free samples prospects could browse. The call-to-action was minimized, with a small button at the top of the page that said, “sign up now.”

- Version #3 eliminated the bullet-point text about product features and benefits, and offered only a grid of free sample titles. This version placed visitors directly into the archive and offered registration options once inside.

To the team’s surprise, the first version of the landing page delivered the best performance; it converted 20% more visitors than the next best option.

“The in-your-face offer got people to convert a lot quicker, rather than showing them a lot of free samples online,” says Dokes.

They chose the second version of the landing page as a supplemental information page linked from the landing page by a button that said, “Limited Time Only – 250 Free Samples.”

-> Strategy #5. Offer free samples rather than a free trial

To convert prospects, the team lets visitors preview the digital comics viewer and explore the content available to subscribers. Rather than offering a free trial period, they provide 250 free sample comics that prospects can read online.

They chose to offer samples rather than a trial for two reasons:
o Appease comic book retailers concerned about losing business
o Prevent readers from having unlimited access to the any title they want to read; it eliminates the incentive to purchase a subscription

“This is not music. You’re going to listen to your favorite song hundreds of times, but you don’t necessarily read a comic hundreds of times to get the story. If you give someone a time-based free trial, you could give away the farm,” Dokes says.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from Marvel Comic's subscription site:

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited:

Marvel Comics:

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