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August 14, 2006

ComicCon & The Power of the Devoted Niche

This is the third part of C3 Media Analyst Ivan Askwith's review of the ComicCon in San Diego that he covered for me recently. I posted this on my blog but thought that it would be relevant here, too, since Ivan is a contributor to this blog. He is beginning work now on a thesis which centers around transmedia and participatory aspects of Lost and Veronica Mars.

In my second dispatch from ComicCon, I tried to illustrate how the studios and networks are already beginning to understand the importance of fan support in the era of convergence culture. And while some executives have a better grasp on the core principles than others, it's fair to say that the entertainment industry are starting to think more seriously about how fans power new business models.

Savvy executives, however, will also realize that ComicCon still has a lot to teach them about the significance of fan support, particularly in economic terms.

While recent entries both here and at Henry Jenkins' blog tempt me to describe what I saw at ComicCon as a living illustration of Chris Anderson's Long Tail. After all, the merchandise selections available at ComicCon range from the super-mainstream to the ultra-obscure, which suggests that there is a market for even the most esoteric and specialized collectibles. If the exhibitors at the Con have chosen to use some of their floor space to offer less mainstream product, should we assume that they've embraced the "we can sell less-of-more" ideology? Most of these sellers have been attending the Con for years, which gives me ample reason to believe that if they didn't think they could sell off their more obscure inventory, they wouldn't bother bringing it.

For all of its strengths, however, I don't think the Long Tail is designed to explain the lesson that I would encourage the entertainment industry to take away from their time at ComicCon: that a small audience of super-committed fans can be worth more, in economic terms, than a massive audience of casual viewers and readers.

This isn't an entirely new observation, of course. Recent literature suggests that viewer involvement has a direct correlation to awareness and retention of advertising messages, and more networks are starting to see the merit of offering niche product through on-demand services.

At ComicCon, however, there is ample evidence to suggest that the industry still hasn't realized just how valuable these niche audiences can be. This became particularly clear during a brief conversation that I had with Allan Caplan, the founder of InkWorks, a company specializing in the creation of trading cards and collectibles tied to popular cult television programs. Their current lineup includes Lost, Veronica Mars, The 4400, and Naruto, as well as such discontinued shows as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Firefly, Alias, and The X-Files. InkWorks might not be operating on Anderson's Long Tail, but they benefit from a similar principle: that small audiences still have big purchasing power if you cater to their interests.

Case in point: InkWorks is preparing to release their seventh line of collectible cards for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, a show that has ended three years ago. One visitor, walking past the stand, asked: "How could there possibly still be a market for new content about a cancelled series?"

(In retrospect, this is an especially odd question to ask in a room where fans are ready and willing to pay well in excess of $1000 for an original out-of-print comic featuring their favorite character.)

Caplan's answer? That every line of Buffy cards InkWorks makes has sold out rapidly, and fans continue to ask them for more. The same is true of other cancelled series, especially Joss Whedon's post-Buffy endeavor, Firefly. Caplan told me that even he had been hesitant to invest in the development of Firefly-affiliated merchandise, until he saw that fans were willing to pay -- and pay well -- for anything connected to the show.

While trading cards aren't an especially new niche business, Inkworks has demonstrated a particularly keen understanding of the fan/collector mentality: in addition to the basic set of cards in each line, there are a number of "bonus cards" distributed at random through the line. The specific content of these cards varies from show to show, but generally includes "Autograph Cards," with actual signatures from cast members and "Pieceworks Cards," which contain tiny pieces of actual costumes worn on-screen during the show. (Other interesting show-specific offerings include invisible ink messages on select cards tied into the spy-fi show Alias, which can only be seen when the card is placed under a black light.)

For reference, a single pack of 6 trading cards costs $2.50.

While I didn't have the presence of mind to record my conversation with Caplan, it was clear to me that he understood (a) the power of creating limited quantities, and (b) that a small, engaged audience can be far more lucrative, especially to niche marketers, than a massive casual audience. After all, as he pointed out to me, there's no market for CSI: Miami trading cards, even if it is the number one show in the world.

One question worth considering: can collectible product lines like this be used as a barometer for the relative popularity of various franchises?

(At some point in the future, I'll be interviewing Caplan, and will post any interesting results that come from that discussion here.)

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