Marketing to the #comicsmarket: How to Avoid Hashtag Hazards
Hashtags. They’re a necessity for marketing on social media, but for corporations, their use is a path dotted with pitfalls. In the democratic environment of Twitter, users are sensitive to being manipulated and pandered to for corporate gain, and a “hashtag fail” can result in viral public embarrassment for a company. This is particularly unstable ground for comics publishers, since comics readers have long formed strong online communities and are particularly savvy to corporate attempts to infiltrate those spaces.
Comics publishers have used hashtag marketing campaigns with varying degrees of success, but none has become truly viral. The most successful comics-related hashtags, such as #IAmComics, #ComicsAreForEveryone, and the more utilitarian #NewComicsDay, were made popular by readers, critics, and retailers — not publishers. How, then, can publishers use the hashtag as a tool?
For this piece, I corresponded with two influencers in the comics community about their experiences with using hashtag campaigns on Twitter: Dean “Tee” Vixen (@MizCaramelVixen) of the pop culture websites Vixen Varsity and Black Comics Month, who created #BlackComicsMonth in February 2015 to coincide with Black History Month; and Christine Dinh (@chrissypedia), brand communications manager at Boom Studios, who has continued to refine the Push #ComicsForward initiative, even after it was met with that most dreaded foe of marketing professionals: backlash. (DC Comics declined to make anyone there available for an interview.)
From our correspondence and observation, I’ve gleaned what the most important elements of a successful hashtag campaign are.
DC Comics’s new DCYou initiative included the tagline “What are YOU ready to hashtag?”, which the comics commentariat met with snickers and skepticism, including here at ComicsAlliance. DC did, however, recognize one central truth of hashtag marketing with their question: Successful hashtags must appear to arise organically. Reader-generated hashtags tend to gain more traction than corporate ones. Unfortunately for DC, however, their suggestion that their readers create hashtags about their comics comes across as manipulative and grasping at coolness.
Boom Studios, in contrast, is a publisher that seemingly should have no problem exuding cool; they’re the publisher of the ultra-hip Lumberjanes and Adventure Time comics. However, the Push #ComicsForward campaign, which seeks to promote diversity in comics (not just Boom Studios comics, as Dinh is quick to point out), was met with backlash, even after it had gained some momentum with powerful influencers like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Gail Simone using the message. As the hashtag spread, some comics fans resisted what they perceived as a corporation’s manipulative use of themes of social justice to promote their products. Then the campaign was formally announced with interviews with Boom Studios’ CEO Ross Richie, reinforcing the “top-down” nature of the campaign.
A campaign that could have gained wider traction had it originated from an individual and then continued to spread in a “bottom-up” fashion, rather than having been created and endorsed by a corporation, was undermined by an authenticity gap: The motivations of the messenger created a perceived conflict with the message.
Indeed, Dinh said that the biggest challenge of the campaign is skepticism. “Mainly, skepticism that this is just a marketing campaign that will run its cycle,” she said. “We hope people can see that this is bigger than Boom Studios, and that we ourselves are committed to this message.”
Controlling a message on Twitter is almost impossible, as has been demonstrated when a hashtag is “hijacked” — used in a way that is counter to its original intent. (Prominent examples of hashtag hijacking are #NotAllMen and perhaps the most disastrous hijacking of all, #CosbyMeme.) However, part of dispelling the specter of inauthenticity is relinquishing full control of the message — even if that means opinions and views that are uncomfortable for the originator of the hashtag are brought to light through it. Companies can use these responses to adjust their messaging and respond to their customer base’s concerns.
“We cannot control the message, nor did we ever try to,” said Dinh, “and I think that helped us see a lot of the topics that are important to those within the community and the issues bubbling over that need addressing.”
After a wave of hijacking and backlash, through consistent use, Push #ComicsForward has settled into its second life. "Being sincere is important to us, and we were able to express that this was more than the team comics sentiment floating around the web," said Dinh. "This conversation wasn’t limited to any comics gatekeepers."
Before a publisher can create a successful hashtag campaign, its social media space has to be perceived as a community rather than as a bullhorn. Interaction with fans, posts that do more than sell its titles, and a “voice” or personality that matches the tone of its titles go a long way in creating a company image that readers feel they can relate to.
In our correspondence, Vixen hit on an essential truth about hashtags: They have to mean something to people. In order for a hashtag to take off, it needs to be inspired by the conversations that people are already having. Coming up with a hashtag in an attempt to start a conversation is akin to walking into a room where friends are talking to each other and trying to make them change the subject.
This was something Dinh and Boom Studios kept in mind as they developed Push #ComicsForward. “There have been several conversations happening in the comics community, and we wanted to support and amplify those messages,” she said. “The hashtag was used to unify what fans, retailers, comics professionals, and other publishers — ourselves included — were already doing to push forward the change we wanted to see.”
On the other hand, hashtags can also serve as icebreakers, encouraging people to interact and have fun. Vixen gave the example of Gail Simone’s #BatmanSongs as one of many hashtags that the comics writer has gotten to trend on Twitter.
“She can get anything to trend just because people love and adore her,” Vixen said. “Publishers don't have that rapport with their followers, Marvel isn't going to randomly start a hashtag that is just for laughs. Their purpose is to promote entertainment which will eventually make them money.”
Independent comics powerhouse Image Comics (in interest of full disclosure: the publisher is my former employer) has used several hashtags in marketing campaigns over the last few years. The most recent of these, referenced on the Image’s Twitter page, is #OwnIt, which refers to the publisher’s creator-ownership model. The problem with this hashtag is that it is vague, with no clear connection to comics. In addition, it has already been in heavy circulation on Twitter, where its use has spread across multiple subjects. A Twitter hashtag search on yields no Image Comics-related tweets --- in fact, no comics-related tweets at all.
For a hashtag to be both useful and useable, it should relate directly to the message of the campaign. People should see it and automatically know how to use it, and once it’s circulating, the hashtag should connect tweets with similar information.
When Vixen came up with her #BlackComicsMonth campaign, she took all of this into account. “All hashtags on Twitter are searchable, so I wanted something that people could search and tweet out that wasn't going use a lot of characters,” she said. “Since #BlackComicsMonth was happening in February, which coincided with #BlackHistoryMonth, it was a no-brainer to use that hashtag. The hashtag pointed out the message that I was attempting to convey, which was bringing awareness to black comic book characters as well as black comic creators.”
If all of these elements aren’t in place before a hashtag campaign is put into place, chances are the campaign will fail, like any brand marketing campaign that lacks the necessary foundation to build upon. Before embarking on any campaign, comics publishers (and any company, actually) should ask themselves:
How are we perceived? What is our company image and will our messaging be aligned with it?
How do we interact with our readers? Do our readers feel a connection to us?
What is our brand message? Are we communicating it as clearly as possible?
If the answers to the first question in each pair is, “I don’t know,” or the answer to the second question is, “No,” keep working. Finally, this may be reductionist, but the ultimate question is, “Do we need to do a hashtag campaign?” Given the consequences of failing and the nature of their customers, comics publishers may find that they can use hashtags effectively without launching any of their own. Embracing and using those created by fans (#NONCOMPLIANT, anyone?) can allow publishers to be part of the conversation and gain the brand recognition they crave, without placing their credibility at risk --- all while placing the most important element of marketing, audience, front and center.
Note: A previous version of this article identified Image Comics' hashtag as #OwnShit, which is what it appeared as on Image's Twitter homepage at the time the article was written (and which the author of the article screen captured on June 10, as seen below). Image Comics' official response is: "#OwnShit was the result of a Twitter hack, something that is being looked into currently. In the meantime, the hashtag has been changed back to the original #OwnIt."