Monetizing Your Free to Read Webcomic in a Gift Economy

This is an interesting topic, and one well worth exploring in depth.  Unfortunately, given the nature of blogs and blogging, it's a bit too long for me to share it here.  For the full essay, please click here

What is a Gift Economy?

A gift economy, gift culture, or gift exchange is a mode of exchange where valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards.[1] This contrasts with a barter economy or a market economy, where goods and services are primarily exchanged for value received. Social norms and custom govern gift exchange. Gifts are not given in an explicit exchange of goods or services for money or some other commodity.[2]
According to anthropologists Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, it is the unsettled relationship between market and non-market exchange that attracts the most attention. Gift economies are said, by some,[7] to build communities, and that the market serves as an acid on those relationships.[8]

In peer and user-generated production, community recognition supersedes economic incentives. User-based creativity thrives on the idea of “playful enjoyment,” rather than economic incentives. .

Usually, gift economies function in real world settings- a physical exchange from one person or group to another.  Favors accrued over time create debt and the return of favors or gifts, and it's this exchange that keeps the gift economy functioning.  

The gift economy model also applies to pretty much anything online that has been created for enjoyment- fanfiction, webcomics, Let's Plays and playthroughs, blogs, and podcasts.    Unfortunately in such an economy, the introduction of market practices, such as requesting money or financial support in return for consumption often meets resistance if not outright upset, and it can be difficult to make ends meet without income to help support the project.

It's like how everyone uses Wikipedia, but nobody wants to donate to their yearly operating costs.

Generally, the payment in a gift economy is through building up social currency.

Pitfalls and Challenges Of Monetizing In This Economy:

From Roman amicitia to the medieval and Renaissance belief that “scientia donum dei est, unde vendi non potest,” creativity has been repeatedly construed as a gift.
Giancarlo F. Frosio, Users’ Patronage: the Return of the Gift in the “Crowd Society”, MICH. ST. L. REV. (forthcoming, April 2016) (PDF Download Available).

Monetizing Your Free to Consume Projects

Monetizing Tutorials, Reviews, and Knowledge in Written or Video Format
If you make what you do look too easy, you'll have a harder time monetizing your content.  

There is an assumption that for something to be worth paying for, it has to be so good that people idolize the skill of the creator.  Therefore, there is significant challenge in finding ways to monetize content aimed at leveling the playing field- teaching others how to to draw, paint, or play as well as you can.  This is because you're bringing what you do down to the level of the average reader, decreasing scarcity and making the information (and resulting work) less valuable-i.e. 'anyone can do it'

Unique Issues for Monetizing Tutorials and Reviews:

  • Site isn't optimized for mobile
  • Readers Use Adblockers
  • Readers are reluctant to share your information with their friends
  • Readers never comment/no input or engagement
  • Cost of keeping up with demand- buying materials
  • Building a large enough audience
  • Building an engaged audience
  • Finding ways to engage the audience/invite audience participation 
  • Creating a valuable product while still making it easy to understand
  • Building reader trust
  • Endorsement from respectable sources
  • Social media shuffling and hiding posts from people who actively want to see our content
  • Difficult to convince a financially broke audience that they can afford to part with a monthly donation in order to help keep your resource afloat

Ways to Combat this:
  • Carefully woo and reward individuals who believe in the value of what you have to offer
  • Find an outside sponsor who benefits from say, selling paper or paints based on the reviewer's recommendations who can sponsor posts and tutorials
  • Find an outside sponsor willing to send products for review, cutting product costs
Unfortunately, there's a catch 22, you need to be popular and somewhat respected to attract sponsors.  You need to be able to demonstrate that your good word can move goods.

Your Options:
So you need to be so good that everyone respects you, or become everyone's friend so that they trust your recommendation.    How do you do this in a system that is constantly in flux?

Monetizing Webcomics

Unique Issues for Monetizing Webcomics:

  • Site isn't optimized for mobile- difficult to keep up 
  • Readers use adblockers
  • Readers read comic on scanlation sites
  • Readers never comment/no input or engagement
  • Difficulty building readerbase
  • Readers start the comic, then drop it- can't keep track of all the comics they read
  • Readers do not buy print copies or back Kickstarter
  • Finding time to make the additional content necessary to make a Patreon worthwhile

Options for Monetizing Your Webcomic

Sometimes it seems like the only options webcomic artists have for monetization are:

  • Trot out a sob story and shake the tin cup (My cat is sick/I need to see the dr for this weird lump ect)
  • Be impossibly good/popular and make money from Tapastic tips and ad revenue
  • Put the best stuff behind a paywall
  • Get picked up by a publisher
  • Outside sponsor or patron
  • Paying job in an outside industry

The burden seems to be on the creator to make MORE content that can be shared with financial supporters, as hiding once free content behind a paywall is generally unacceptable.

Popular options for monetization include:

  • Putting Concept art up for Patrons
  • Releasing monthly sketchbooks for Patrons
  • Sharing Process with Patrons
  • Patron-exclusive streams
  • Upping your output to additional days during the week
  • Early access to chapters
  • Commission tiers
  • Raffles
  • Con merch tiers

While you may be serious about comics, and webcomics specifically, it may be best to view it as a hobby while you build up your reputation or try to attract your next paying client.

Monetizing Community Resources that Rely on Community Participation
Possibly the most difficult of all, because without their unpaid contributions and engagement, the product would not exist or have value at all.
Examples would be Twitter comics community chats like Comic Artists Unite (#comicartistsunite) and Webcomic Chat (#webcomicchat).

Unique Challenges for Monetizing Web Communities

  • Much of the value is based on the contributing participants- not necessarily on a core group of admin or creators
  • May be difficult to prove 'work' has been invested in such a community- would need concrete examples
  • Community is also very interested in how their collective money is spent on improving the community
  • Need to prove how this community benefits the whole, and how monetizing this community benefits the participants

In all of these instances, we have the burden of:
Placing Value on the Intangible

  • Experiences
  • Knowledge
  • Community standing
  • Network
How do you cash in on that social currency?
When you launch something- like a book, a kickstarter, a NEW project, you can probably cash in on that social currency by asking for promotion and signal boosting. It has to be a new project though- people don’t seem keen on promoting the same ol same ol project you’ve been working on for years.

Show Your Humanity
Online interactions make it easy for us to lose our humanity- both as content creators and as an audience

  • Respond to Comments
  • Host polls
  • Ask reader/watcher engagement questions and follow up
  • Share tidbits about your life
  • Talk to people about their experiences and preferences
  • Use informal language
  • Make jokes- especially community relevant jokes
  • Relax and utilize emoji
  • Share photos from your life- from walks, your pets, your workspace
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes
  • Apologize when you hurt others or make mistakes

Basically, create an authentic experience.

So what are your experiences dealing with the gift economy? Have you found a solution to monetizing your free to consume work? Send me an email and tell me about it!

Establish Connections and Trust and Find Ways To Reward Those Who Support Your Work

Outside Resources and Recommended Reading:


Popular Posts