While DC's launch of the New 52—a line wide reboot of their core superhero characters—was the big story of last year, it didn't come without a lot of questions about who was buying the books and why. To find out more about sales and their customer, last September DC launched a comprehensive survey, undertaken by Nielsen, to find out reader attitudes towards the New 52 and buying comics in both print and digital. To that end three groups were surveyed: in-store customers, online readers, via a survey anyone could take; and digital customers via a survey sent to users of DC's own app and comiXology.
DC has released the bullet points of the survey late last week:
· The launch of DC COMICS-THE NEW 52 galvanized the traditional fan base for superhero comic books: male readers, who were already—or have at one time been—comic book fans.
· The survey results are not a reflection of all comic book readers or the broader audience for graphic novels. This was a survey of consumers who specifically purchased DC COMICS-THE NEW 52 comic books, either in print or digital format.
· DC COMICS: THE NEW 52 appealed mainly to avid fans and lapsed readers. More than 70% of those surveyed categorized themselves as avid fans who visit the comic book store every week. More than a quarter of in-store consumers were lapsed readers. The survey indicates that 5% of those polled identified themselves as first-time, new readers.
· More than 50% of DC COMICS-THE NEW 52 readers were between the ages of 13 and 34. And more than 50% of in-store DC COMICS-THE NEW 52 consumers had an annual income of $60K or less. The data supports and arguably validates our philosophy of holding the line at $2.99 which DCE is committed to maintaining.
· The majority of titles generated strong interest and likely reader retention.
· Avid Fans purchased up to 20 titles out of the 52 titles.
· Digital: of dual mode readers, digital is far from replacing print.
· Impulse buys: Up to four-in-ten respondents reported that a NEW 52 title they were interested in (at a physical store location) was out of stock. Nearly two-thirds made a spontaneous purchase.
DC Comics executive v-p, sales, marketing and business Development John Rood was also available to discuss the results in more strategic terms.
PWCW: One of the things people noted right away was that only 5% of the survey was new readers. Were you surprised? Do you think it's low or high? Are you satisfied?
ROOD: I think the study is not indicative of the actual system wide performance, in light of the fact that I would imagine that avid fans are more apt to participate in a survey in the first place than a new fan, whether that survey is through the in-store recruiting, or the website that was solicited to the in-store and digital shoppers, and the digital buyer list we targeted specifically. Of those three samples I think you would get greater compliance from passionate ones. I don't think that 5% is an absolute. I think it's interesting that self-identified new fans were right at 4-5% regardless of the three samples. It was very consistent.
Regarding lapsed fans, the third sample—digital purchasers from our digital list—was a higher percentage of lapsed: 30% lapsed vs. 14 and 12% for other two groups. The other distinction was self-identified avid fans; it was 70% and 69% for the first two groups in store intercepts, and overall website, but then down at 47% self-identified avid for the digital shopper.
PWCW: So the digital fan is more casual?
ROOD: Yeah, per this reporting more lapsed than avid or more lapsed than the other two samples. Again, what we want to do over time with the help of Nielsen and retailers is find a study that is more representative overall. It will have to be an ongoing study that isn't just on Wednesdays, isn't just in September and isn't just around new #1 big and some passionate press activity. We're very pleased with the study but we can't suggest the results are representative until we do a consistent study with multiple data points and have a tracker over time.
PWCW: That's fantastic, as you know there has been a dearth of demographic information, or at least publicly known information, for quite some time. Just to clear up one thing, I know some people were taking the survey and then at the end were told, "you do not qualify." It seemed to be very curious. Do you have any insights on how that worked?
ROOD: I can't speak personally to how someone was disqualified. There was no intent to skew the results. One novel way to get disqualified was to check a title that didn't exist, Nerak, and Nielsen put that ghost title in there to help make it more qualified. We definitely wanted participants to identify that they had indeed been purchasers of The New 52. That made it very distinct, almost an anomaly versus the overall customer at shops.
PWCW: Were there any other variables among the three groups that were significant in your view?
ROOD: The in-store and the online exclusively —group 1 and group 3—those were both 93-7 in male/female skew. The middle survey, online only which was open to any self-identified shopper, was 77-23 male/female. So was there a glut of activity specific to wanting to register certain feedback? I can't say whether females found their voice in that survey or whether they had specific female related issues to report on, but this is something that stood out.
One other thing that wasn't a distinction, but stood out: the idea that over half of our purchasers have a household income under 60K suggests that our drawing the line with 46 of the 52 titles at $2.99 [cover price] seems to strike a chord.
PWCW: Is there any indication of whether the lapsed readers are sticking around? That is part of the larger data, I know.
ROOD: As this survey sampled was late September and early October, the stick around is born of other data. But yeah, nothing like having your #5 titles sweep the top ten in January to affirm that there is some stickiness. Another thing I would offer is that we are just plain holding to a higher line-wide percentage, and to a higher number of titles over 100,000 than ever before—things that we look at the top of the line and up and down the line to say that this has a staying power we never expected.
PWCW: As far as lapsed readers in the initial survey was there an idea of why they left and why they came back?
ROOD: What the shortcomings of this hastily gathered survey and relatively short survey time kept us from doing is getting a better sense of individual intent, history and change in behavior. But we heard that the reason for purchase was things like wanting to check them out and wanting to check the beginning, and far lower was the idea of speculating or new to comics in general. What was important to them was the stories and characters. Not broken out by lapsed and new and avid, but as expected there were reading format preferences. Those who chose hard copy exclusively liked the collectability and the sharing quality and the cool quality, and frankly they found the on screen experience of reading comics poor.
The reasons among the self-reported digital shoppers for their preference was that they liked the immediate access and convenience. Retailers understandably want to know: where are [digital readers]? Are they miles away or right next door to the shop? And that's the kind of information we didn't drill down deeper on.
PWCW: What about the information on the New 52 itself. Was it backing up what we know, that people like Batman and Superman, or were there any surprises?
ROOD: I can't say that there was surprise associated with any of these results. But it was still valuable to us in that it confirmed some hopes and confirmed some intent with making a change that's so very radical and, dare I say, fearless.
The majority of the titles were generating the strong likelihood to continue purchasing was great to get that news back in October, and certainly the numbers have bore that out since. Early in research we identified some darlines like I, Vampire, Animal Man and Swamp thing and the sales data in the months since has backed that up. But by and large both in either character interest and popularity you've got our franchise characters like Batman and Superman and then you've got our publishing franchise titles like Action and Detective at the top of the list in both print and digital.
PWCW: I guess the other thing people are very curious about is the digital aspect of that. ICv2 had a lot of statistics about that. Was there any actual idea of what percentage of readers are buying digital comics? Was it consistent among the three groups?
ROOD: That's not in this study because we didn't control the samples to the actual sales performance. For what it's worth, in-store we had 167 completed, the online survey was over 5000 completed surveys and then from our online list that we solicited via third party email, the people on our digital purchase list, we had over 600 completed surveys. We can't draw any absolutes about the share of physical vs. digital buyers. But we can work it out via our own sales results.
To the question of what has surprised me, it's the fact that the digital percentage was immediately set and hasn't changed. I can't find any exception to this note. From issue #1 digital as a percentage of physical found its footing, and it's somewhat different by title and it's somewhat different from issue 1-6 but hardly at all. There's no growth of digital, which suggests there's no gobbling or cannibalization. ComicsPRO attendees were very happy or curious to hear that, and that these physical sales numbers far exceeded our expectations of the field. And you had the fact that digital is not growing as a percentage of total sale, then you can make the claim that we've made that digital is additive, and, for Publishers Weekly's purposes, that is a distinction versus many other print categories.
PWCW: Are there any books that are more digital hits than print?
ROOD: Detective has popped a bit, but not in a statistically significant way. It's amazing how quickly the books set their percentage share. Not only did we have high performance out of franchise characters, and franchise titles like Detective and Action, they were also a higher percentage of digital and total sale than the rest of the line in general. Which probably suggests, if I might speculate here, that those are the titles that the uninitiated have heard of. If they come to the digital and the store for the first time they'll be led to the big dogs.
PWCW: What about a book you mentioned early, I, Vampire which has been well received but is outside the genre we usually associate with the DCU [it has elements of paranormal romance]. Is that a book that seems to have any digital following? Did any books that would be considered more adventurous titles have a following?
ROOD: Their digital share of total is not noteworthy, but their total sales are noteworthy versus our expectations. So both the physical and digital sampling of the Dark and the Edge lines and those areas that maybe DC is not historically known for, have been very positive.
PWCW: That is a very important point, because as I’m sure you know there are online commentators—and I'm sure I'm guilty of it myself [Rood laughs]—who speculate about how this or that does. And that's why I wanted to find out more about the survey. Everybody guesses and theorizes and sometimes it's important to say, well, this is what the numbers show. But as you point out this is a very specific survey. Are there any marketing moves or plans you would have going forward? The number of women was very low and the number of younger readers was very low. Is there any concern about that? Or initiatives going forward?
ROOD: I don't think there is surprise associated with it. We have an ongoing imperative to reach as many people as we can. So I'm proud of our track record in female characters, female storytelling and female creators. We're going to keep at it to make sure that all are welcome, at our site, in our partner stores etc. I think we want to do this [survey] ongoing for this very reason, so we don't get skewed by the wild success of September and skewed by the limitations of this first survey. We've made a bond with retailers to do this again and to remain transparent. We joke that our marketing co-op plan is the best in the business, and oh by the way it's the only one. Now we can joke that our publicly shared research is the best in recent years, because in part it's the only publicly shared research by a publisher in recent years.
We're pretty committed to making the investment to be smarter about where there's opportunity in our line, and smarter about where's there's opportunity in our store experience. The ability to launch and sustain a wide line with limited replacement is the greatest testament to the efforts of our staff and our retailers.
PWCW: Any idea when you might be doing another survey?
ROOD: It's going to be in 2012 for sure. We had two executives from Nielsen at ComicsPRO to have earnest discussions beyond our presentation and to get a sense of what our retailers are looking for. It will be multi-faceted like we've done here, both a consumer survey and a retailer survey, and both in-store and through some kind of higher compliance so there can be national participation. But yeah we're coming back to market in this year for certain and with the intent to do it routinely over a set period of time, because that's where the real value comics, where directionally it's changing. And the only way to do that is to have a similar survey two or more times to get data points and to show trends.[DC Entertainment president]
Diane Nelson was really the one who said, bully for you undertaking the New 52, but let's from the get go have some sense of measurement to confirm what we all speculate on. And she's taken that research imperative across our company. We have a business that is in publishing but also in media and merchandising. And when we work across the three brands of DC Comics Vertigo and Mad, as you can imagine there's much to be reached to be more strategic some of these things we launch.