Kevin Cheng  

Blogging for Money… by Learning from Comics

March 19th, 2006 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

The [keynote][1] with [Jason Kottke][2] and [Heather “Dooce” Armstrong][3] was recorded you can listen to their [podcast][22]. While we took some liberties with the exact sequence of the keynote, the points made were pretty much covered. Yes, including Kottke calling himself a failure.

Before the riveting [presentation][4] and [workshop on comics][5] next week at the [IA Summit][6], I got to participate on a panel earlier this week at [SxSW Interactive][7]. The panel, [How to Blog for Money by Learning From Comics][8], was partly motivated by Jason Kottke’s [announcement last year][9] that he was going full-time with blogging by taking small donations from his readers (micropatrons, he calls them).

[One year later][10], he announced that he would not be repeating the fund raising drive during the keynote. This entire experiment, from beginning to end, garnered a lot of attention and buzz from the blogosphere and even press. As Tycho, from the most successful webcomic out there [Penny Arcade][11] put so eloquently, “[What I resent is the idea that what he is doing is somehow bold.][12]” The issues probloggers wannabes discuss: audience trust when going with advertising, what business models are sustainable, how you garner advertisers, merchandising, etc. are all topics that numerous webcomics have not only talked about, but lived. As much as bloggers like to believe they are constantly trailblazing, sometimes, they are not.

And thus, we set out to share what we did know at the most bloggerific conference there is. Our panel included:

- [John Gruber][13], author of Daring Fireball and our “token blogger” to give perspective from the blogging side
- [Bill Barnes][14], co-creator of Unshelved, a webcomic centered around librarians
- [Dave Kellett][15], syndicated artist of Sheldon and member of [Blank Label Comics][16]
- [Kevin Cheng][17], yours truly, representing OK/Cancel as well as [Off Panel Productions][18]
- [Nicole Lee][19], moderator, comics fan, blogger and [journalist][20].

We’d ask Tycho or [Scott Kurtz][21] but they’re far too busy. Our discussions were not so much prescriptive, “this is how you make money” so much as, “here’s some things we and other comics are trying or have tried, the issues faced and the successes garnered. Take it, apply it where applicable, and don’t spend a year and $40,000 to learn a lesson someone else already learnt.”

Some highlights of our discussion:

A big concern with Kottke and other bloggers is that it brings a third party to the site. Someone other than the content creators and the audience. Would it affect the content? Would there be less trust from the readership? Bill Barnes mentioned that advertising is only a problem when it is out of place. Otherwise, it may in fact improve the experience as the content is interesting. Similarly, John Gruber recently signed on with [The Deck][23] which is solely focused on advertising for design centric sites. Advertising in essence becomes an extension of the site’s voice rather than a detriment if handled correctly. Here at OK/Cancel, we’ve manually excluded ads from Google AdSense that we felt were not helpful for our audience and we’re selective about our direct advertisers.

With comics, there’s the additional element of using our characters in the ads which can generate more revenue for both the advertiser and the creator and improves the cohesiveness of the site. We also talked a bit about product placement within the comics themselves. All of us pretty much have the line of not introducing paid placement within the comic itself which we consider different from using the characters in an advertising spot. That’s not to say we won’t feature products we feel like within the comics, they’re just not paid to be there.

One resonating point that Gruber and Barnes made often was the power of rewarding readers with something physical. To paraphrase Gruber, ones and zeros are less tangible. Offering something physical such as a T-shirt gives the readers an avenue to support you financially in two ways - financially and through wear/advertising of your merchandise. Gruber believes that Kottke could have quadrupled his annual subscription had he offered even a simple T-shirt. Nobody is pretending that the shirts are _worth_ $20. I mentioned that some, like older Penny Arcade and [Ctrl-Alt-Del][24] give their members a wallpaper or other such digital artifacts but Barnes mentioned that many of these seem to have failed.

We also talked about vendors and the logistics in general. Merchandising is a hard problem and requires some learning. There’s ordering, printing, inventory, payment processing and distribution. A couple of us recommended [Brunetto][25] as the place to go but I also mentioned that places like [Spreadshirt][26] or [Zazzle][27] shouldn’t be overlooked because of their convenience and on demand fulfillment. The margin is much lower, though.

###Garnering Traffic
Some of the audience asked questions around generating more traffic or what kind of stats program we use. The key here is to concentrate on quality content but even more importantly, _regular_ content. One of the reasons comics are such huge draws is that you know when you’ll get a new dose. Bloggers tend to be much less predictable in this regard. The makers of [Red Vs. Blue][28] emphasized a similar point last year in their own panel.

Bill and I also talked about how we sometimes draw in spike traffics - both accidentally and deliberately. Bill once mentioned Joss Whedon’s Firefly and started drawing a huge crowd whenever he did strips which mentioned the show. OK/Cancel has drawn some interesting personalities (pun intended) to the site due to our caricatures of them.

###Subscription Models
Kellett claimed that from observing past comic sites, the model of subscriptions doesn’t work when it involves hiding some of your content to non-subscribers. The more content there is to draw the audience, the better. [Modern Tales][29] is a subscription site that gives its subscribers access to archives of all the artists on their network and then profit shares the subscriptions with its artists. From what we could tell, the highest earning artist on Modern Tales makes less than any given artist on our [Off Panel] network. Gruber has an interesting model where his content is available to all on his site, but subscribers are given more convenience through things like full content RSS feeds.

Overall, the panel seemed really well received. It was relaxed and everybody seemed to have a good time (if not an educational one). Although most attendees opted for the [Design Eye - Craigslist edition][30], I hope some bloggers and creators got some interesting insights from our experiences.

The [podcast][31] will (hopefully) be up at some point. You can also read what others [wrote about the panel][32].

[1]: “Heather Armstrong and Jason Kottke Keynote”
[2]: “Jason Kottke”
[3]: “Heather Armstrong”
[4]: “Communicating Concepts Through Comics”
[5]: “Creating Conceptual Comics: Storytelling and Techniques”
[6]: “IA Summit”
[7]: “SxSW Interactive 2006″
[8]: “How to Blog for Money by Learning From Comics”
[9]: “Going Fulltime”
[10]: “Oh What a Year”
[11]: “Penny Arcade”
[12]: “Penny Arcade on Kottke”
[13]: “Daring Fireball”
[14]: “Unshelved”
[15]: “Sheldon”
[16]: “Blank Label Comics”
[17]: “kev/null”
[18]: “Off Panel Productions”
[19]: “Nicole Lee”
[20]: “C|Net”
[21]: “PvP”
[22]: “SxSW 2006 Jason Kottke & Heather Armstrong Keynote”
[23]:http:// “The Deck”
[24]: “Ctrl-Alt-Del”
[25]: “Brunetto T-shirts”
[26]: “Spreadshirt”
[27]: “Zazzle”
[28]: “Red vs. Blue”
[29]: “Modern Tales”
[30]: “Design Eye for the List Guy”
[31]: “SxSW Interactive Podcasts”
[32]: “Technorati: Learning from comics”

10 Responses to “Blogging for Money… by Learning from Comics”
Laura Moncur wrote:

I loved your panel and I don’t regret not seeing the Design Eye panel. It was really helpful to hear your input.

WillR wrote:

Overall, it was one of the most interesting and honest forums of SxSW. I liked your comment about breaking design principles in order to position your ads effectively - jibes well with the recent hoohah about high daily $$$ but otherwise ugly sites.

Beyond the panel, I appreciate your courtesy in listening to my China concerns at the Fray Cafe event…

Ed Kohler wrote:

I don’t know if Kottke would agree with this, but advertising can be valuable to visitors. For example, if Kottke took advertising from search engine optimization companies, you can be pretty darn sure that they’d be reputable firms rather than the latest snake oil salesman.

Why not take advertisements from companies you can comfortably endorse? Who gets hurt there?

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Why not take advertisements from companies you can comfortably endorse? Who gets hurt there?

Agree completely. I think Kottke understands this now, or is accepting of it. I just think he could have figured that out without relearning lessons already learnt.

Ed Kohler wrote:

Like it or not, there aresome trade-offs involved in making money. Asking and receiving $40,000 isn’t the end of the world, but I’m sure Kottke could make more in ad revenue than that.

Sebhelyesfarku wrote:

John Gruber, “token blogger”? I thought he’s a Mactard with his head all the way up in Steve Jobs’ ass.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

> John Gruber, “token blogger”? I thought he’s a Mactard with his head all the way up in Steve Jobs’ ass.

well we tried to get you on the panel but you don’t seem to have a blog - mac related or not.

db wrote:

I would be totally keen to hear the podcast, but I couldn’t find it on

Do you have any idea how I could get a copy? Cheer cheer.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

db, according to the release schedule, our podcast for this panel won’t be up until 6/20. we’ll post a link when it goes up but you should also see it on the page you mentioned.

db wrote:

Thanks bro, look forward to it.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?