During a talk with the fine creators of Oops Comic Adventure they suggested I might be able to lend some people a hand with the whole self promotion thing. I work in digital advertising and I read a stupidly large number of online comics (around 200 at current), so I spend a lot of time thinking on the subject. Here's a general run down of what I've seen and absorbed as a fan and professional:
1. Update on some kind of schedule.
I know it's hard to keep to a schedule. I used to run a blog for a literary magazine. You always feel like you have all this great content you should be sharing with your fans, or even more often have to scramble just to make the arbitrary deadlines you've set for yourself. Why bother?
The answer's pretty simple. Consistency builds trust. It's relatively easy to come by and shoot off a bunch of entries when you feel like it then lose enthusiasm and let the project fall by the wayside. And without a schedule you probably will. No project is ever all sunshine and flowers. And your readers know this. Creating a schedule you can keep and sticking to it keeps your project from fading away. It's the mark of almost every successful comicker in the business.
That leads us to my next point.
2. Suit the update schedule to your content.
The creators who do get away with sporadic updates tend to be posting material that is for lack of a better word, dense. It has enough jokes, plot, and/or art in one update to satisfy readers who might go for months (and in a couple notable cases years) at a time before the next post. Dresden Codak, The Lesson is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible, and Kagerou are all great examples of comics fervently followed despite their slow posting and unpredictability.
This also goes for comics with just slow posting schedules. If you go close to a month between posts, each post is ideally self contained enough to entertain on its own. Thin content can lose readers who have already mostly forgotten what the last post contained.
As a counter example, a traditional three panel, one joke strip typically needs to update more frequently to have a hope of acquiring any sizable fan base. This is ideally every week or two if not several times a week.
Unfortunately, as the creator of a piece, you might not be in the best place to judge whether your work has enough “density” at the rate you intend to put it out. You're going to need to talk to people. Find friends who will give you honest answers, post the question on forums like this one. People with a decent knowledge of themselves can tell you, yes, that is a comic I'd read if it came out X times a month. No, this one would have to come out Y times a week before I'd be interested.
3. Work ahead.
The easiest way to miss an update is to wait till the last minute. Do it often enough and odds are something is eventually going to happen that keeps the comic from getting out.
Want to update on time every time and steadily build your fan base? Have the comics ready in advance. I'm a habitual procrastinator, so I know just how much that can go against the grain for some of us. But remember that lit mag blog I mentioned?
There was a week we had four articles due. I was confident because we only intended to run two that week. But all our writers were college students, and we'd all forgotten to mark that week off as midterms. We didn't publish once. Long story short, we ended up instituting an article buffer so that would never happen again.
Stuff happens, and working ahead is the only real insurance you can have against it. Also if you work or plan ahead far enough you can prevent writing yourself into a corner. But how can you build up that buffer if you're already putting out comic?
4. Give yourself the time you need.
It sucks and it feels like it goes against the first item of the list, but scheduled breaks can be both helpful and necessary. Scheduling hiatuses between chapters or scenes can give you a way to rebuild your buffer without slowing down your typical posting rate. Successful comickers who do this include Ashley Cope of Unsounded and Minna Sundberg of A Redtail's Dream and Stand Still Stand Silent. And they've shown that it can work very well as long as you don't lose focus in the interim. If you announce the break in advance and especially if you schedule a clear date to your return it's likely you won't see much of a drop in your established fan base.
You can also adjust your scheduling rate if you simply can't make your comics as fast as you're posting them. But then your “density” takes a hit, and depending on your work habits, human nature might mean you don't actually get much more done (or you end up in a vicious cycle that kills the comic).
But wait, none of these are about active promotion!
You're right. These are elements of organic promotion, creating a product that people want and putting it out in such a way that it steadily gains traction over time. But the most important factor in a successful promotion campaign is often whether the product can stand on its own two legs once you've gotten it the necessary exposure. In fact:
5. The ideal time to start actively promoting a comic is only once it has enough material to pull in readers.
It's a simple marketing concept. If your comic site can “sell” people on the on the idea it's worth coming back to read on a regular basis you won't be wasting your active promotion. But unless you can push anticipation based on your reputation alone you're going to have to offer something to convince people to stick around.
At work we never launch a website until the necessary content is in place. We need a functional website that does everything a user expects of it. A comic strip needs to do the same. A webcomic is by nature a work in progress, but users who come across your comic will need sufficient evidence to convince them that they should come back for more.
Maybe the conversion point is half a chapter of a plot driven graphic novel. In other cases it's five to fifteen, three panel gag strips. This is another time when trustworthy group of test readers is an invaluable tool. It can be hard to say no to the call of additional admirers, but if you can be satisfied with test readers till you get the green light, you will likely find a much better conversion rate once you start advertising.
One note: an alternative is to have the initial set of comics prepared ahead of time so they can be released at a relatively rapid pace. The promise of more pages quickly can keep otherwise hesitant readers coming back till they're hooked.
Hopefully people find this useful. It's pretty basic, but might not come as second nature to everyone. If anyone has any questions I'd be happy to try to answer them. I specialize in organic and content based search but I'll do my best to answer anything that comes my way. Feel free to point out anything I'm missing thanks to my lack of experience with comic authorship (I promise to join your side of the fence sooner or later, just gotta find the time).
If questions aren't specifically related to the post please message me directly. I can add a separate post or answer you in person to keep topics separate.