These are interesting times for folks in my line of work. By “my line of work” I mean people who write and draw things and publish them…and by “interesting times” I mean that I’ve added weight training to my workout regimen, so that next year I can get a job loading trucks at the UPS depot and maybe start earning a decent living wage for once.
No, no, it’s not that bad. But the business is changing. You’re no longer a writer or an artist. Nowadays, you “produce content.” And oddly enough, if you want to build and hold on to an audience online, the important thing is to give your readers more freedom, not less. It’s like holding on to Jello: the tighter you squeeze, the more you lose.
This was on my mind as I read through a PR pitch about the revamped Dilbert.com site, detailing all of its (“Gutsy!” “Unique!” “Compelling!”) new features. Scott Adams is arguably the most successful cartoonist currently in worldwide syndication. If he’s suffering for readers and revenue, the only tangible sign is that he can only afford one $250,000 ticket on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, and will be forced to go into space without putting his feet up on an empty seat next to him.
And yet the reinvention of his site is indeed ambitious. It’s a great example of what an independent, scrappy creator would need to do in order to succeed in online publishing.
First and foremost — and virtually unprecedented in a “big syndicate” strip — the Dilbert strip has a full RSS feed. I don’t need to visit Dilbert.com every morning; I can simply subscribe to the strip via Google Reader or Bloglines or any other content reader on my desktop, notebook, or my phone, and the daily strip is delivered to me automatically via my mechanism of choice.
It also illustrates the need to relinquish control of how your work is read and accessed. This is a particular bugaboo with web strips, which only make money when readers visit the creator’s site, where they can buy merchandise. Very few strips offer Dilbert.com’s hyper-flexibility.
But there’s a serious downside. I love Danielle Corsetto’s “Girls With Slingshots” (daniellecorsetto.com; sometimes not work-safe) but without any sort of feed, I have to remember to visit every day for my strip fix…and that doesn’t always happen. Even Player Versus Player, arguably the best online strip of them all, only offers “partial” RSS feeds. The feed only offers the strip’s title and a link that takes you to the actual strip on PVPOnline.com.
Each creator needs to make that sort of decision for themselves. It’s completely understandable that creators don’t want to give their readers so much freedom that it never occurs to them to send a little cash your way from time to time.
But you must build your audience before you can bilk your audience. And thus it’s critical that you make it as easy as possible for people to find, read, and get hooked on your content. Full feeds are the very best answer.
The new Dilbert.com also offers archives of every strip back to 2001, with the goal of ultimately putting the entire archives online. Terrific: never forget that content is king. In traditional publishing, putting material online for free when it’s also in bookstores for $12.95 is a seriously itchy idea. But it helps build an audience and for now — for now — the numbers indicate that web archives just make the printed editions more valuable. It builds and maintains interest in the property.
And once you have a large archive, you need to take advantage of the awesome power of your audience to market your content for you. Which takes us to another thing that the new Dilbert.com is doing right: if a Dilbert reader likes a particular strip, they can MySpace it, Facebook it, Twitter it, and all kinds of other verbs that didn’t exist before Web 2.x came along.
Linking to a favorite strip is the modern equivalent of slapping a clipping on a cubicle wall. If you don’t give your readers the ability link directly to your content, you’re just running on two cylinders.
Dilbert.com has added another feature that’s very buzzword-ey: now, there’s “user-created content.” You can submit your own punchlines for selected strips. This was done first, better, and breathtakingly illegally with “The Dysfunctional Family Circus,” in which visitors to Spinnwebe.com were encouraged to add decidedly less-wholesome captions to “Family Circus” panels.
User-created content is a smart addition. It helps to build communities of users…intensely devoted readers who feel a certain amount of pride in being part of the group. This is a fine compliment for your work. This is also a rather lucrative group of suckers. Pick one up by his or her ankles and shake them until the majority of their cash has clinked to the floor and they’ll be pleased to have been singled out for special hands-on attention.
And once the flywheels of the user-content area of your site are up and spinning, thousands of people are updating your site with fresh content for free while you’re off somewhere getting waffles. Which in itself will expand the popularity of your site. Folks keep coming back if they know that they’ll find new stuff every time they visit.
But user-generated content is less useful for an established property like Dilbert. People are coming to see Scott Adams’ jokes, not mine. And although me pitching in to create content for Dilbert.com is a nice demonstration of the old Dunkirk Spirit, I mean, come on: look at Scott Adams’ car and then look at mine. Who should be doing free work for whom, here?
These are hard lessons for traditional publishers, and the phrase “people just don’t get it” is glib, callous, and overused. But it’s a fact of life: giving readers more power today will absolutely put a creator in a better position to make money and keep publishing tomorrow.