If you look at the Top Grossing Apps list this morning in iTunes’ iPad section you will see the same market leader you usually see on any given Thursday -- Comixology’s Comics reader and storefront app. Wednesday is new comics day for the hordes of proud geeks. And instead of just trekking down to the local comics shop (although many still do) waves of graphic novel and superhero fans pore over the scores of new titles that now appear in the Comixology app on the day and date they also appear in stores.
Now present on all of the major tablet and smartphone platforms, Comixology users have downloaded nearly 75 million digital comics so far. To my mind, this app may be the single best example of smart content publishing and merchandising on the iPad, rivaled only perhaps by Zinio’s very smart magazine storefront. Comixology has better content merchandising than Apple itself in iTunes and a better content consumption experience than any digital magazine I have seen.
“Comics are getting adopted in digital faster than books did,” says Comixology CEO David Steinberger. Precise numbers on the share of comics now being sold in digital formats are hard to come by. Generally, a very small percentage of print magazine sales are coming from digital right now, but according to Steinberger, digital comics have roughly five times the share of their print market as the rest of the periodical industry.
Comixology started before the iPhone and iPad as a company dedicated to providing comic book stores, publishers and users with digital tools for advance ordering comics. But with the arrival of the devices in 2007 and 2008, Steinberger and co. started developing both a digital comics reader and storefront platform that both aggregates titles for sale from multiple publishers and also is the engine for DC, Marvel, IDW and other publishers in their storefront.
Aggregation was key for this publishing genre, but it wasn’t obvious at first. Major comics publishers were turning their comics into lifeless slide shows and issuing each comic as a separate app. For comics consumers who wallow in piles of titles each month, having an individual app for each comic was impractical. But more to the point, simple cutting and pasting comics panels into the iPhone interface was not that compelling.
The term “experience” is tossed around loosely lately to describe the mission of app developers. But Comixology is an object lesson in making good on that promise. “Our focus is on the consumer experience and the reading technology,” says Steinberger. Everything is about getting people to the right comic book so they come back and purchase again and again.” In fact, 70% of buyers in the app are return customers -- a phenomenal number.
The merchandising of content in the Comixology app is designed to find audience niches and keep the user coming back on a daily basis, not just on Wednesdays. “We have multi-dimensional browsing,” says Steinberger. Comics shoppers come in from different angles -- looking for titles, for story arcs for creators for publishers. And so both the interface and also the merchandising are aimed at these niches. “Just about every day there is some sale targeted at some group,” he says. On one day Marvel titles may be 99 cents each. On another a creator is discounted, or titles related to recent pop culture events or film releases.
For decades, the publishing industry has been scheduled around the Wednesday weekly cycle, but with Comixology’s encouragement other titles are now being released digitally almost every day of the week. Some titles are “digital-only” and “digital firsts.” A regular section is devoted just to people who are new to comics and are looking for easy entry points.
In short, what Comixology does differently from just about every other publisher on iPad is actively, thoughtfully, and with human managers, actively merchandise their content. They use free samples as a tool for drawing people in. They leverage discounts and offer timing to capture audience interest and cultural buzz. What they don’t do is just drop an app into the Newsstand with the standard Adobe “library” interface and rely on a monthly or weekly iOS alert to bring people back for each issue. They create a store in the old-fashioned sense -- a place of discovery that suggests humans are at work here.
It took a couple of years for publishers to warm up to the idea of releasing digital versions on the day and date of print release. Cannibalizing print and undermining the then-dwindling comic shop sector has been a persistent concern. This no longer is the case. Both digital and print sales of comics are growing in tandem. How comics fans are choosing to go with print or digital versions of their favorite titles is not yet understood. But Steinberger does know that the digital platform is pulling in new fans. I mean, really. Now you don’t need to go to the comics shops and risk getting your ear chewed off by the true-to-type shop owner who argues over minutiae of multi-dimensional time travel in the latest Marvel crossover series.
“We do know we have a lot of pop culture audiences that will come and buy Watchmen for the first time,” he says. “We saw terrific results in an increase in visitors to the apps around the time "The Avengers" movie came out. I think there is s strong correlation to people just being interested in the subject matter.”
Among the many unique aspects of the Comixology app is that it blends the sales and consumption experience in one package. At the heart of what makes the app work is a guided reading technology that moves the reader through a comics page frame by frame, but in an intelligent way. As the panels fill the frame or the “camera” moves across a lushly illustrated page, this doesn’t feel like a slide show. “Part of the secret is that we have human beings setting up the guided view. We have people in our office who put in some thoughtful analysis of what the storytelling goal is on every page.” In fact, some publishers are learning to leverage this guided view in exploiting the fade effect between pages, using slight changes in the same image to create a small animated effect. A number of digital-only titles are now realizing a deferred dream of Web comics -- enhancing the form with animated and audio effects.
It should not surprise us that in both its merchandising and its reading technology, the essential ingredient in Comixology’s success is the same -- the human element. Thoughtful merchandisers are considering what that app looks like to visitors every day they open it and how it relates to the market and world around them. The reading experience is driven by people actively thinking about how narrative works and how technology deepens experience. Algorithms don’t do that.
This is no small lesson. If devices are more intimate media platforms than the desktop, TV or films ever were, then users will respond best to experiences that feel more human -- that feel as if there is a person on the other side. Stores that seem dynamic -- interfaces that have a brain -- get us beyond the engineering aesthetic that made the Web such a dreary, officious, task-driven space. We have to do better here than we did on the Web. The intimacy opportunity is too great to squander on apps that feel like file folders and interfaces that can’t break loose from the browser mindset. Go back to the basics of the device -- it is a tool for communications. Then, app experiences should feel more like conversations. Apps are people, too.