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When Your Web Content Strategy Can Benefit From Comics: 5 Factors

Venn diagram-comic
Illustration by Virpi Oinonen/

Like infographics, comics and comic-like visual content have a lot of viral potential. If you need convincing of this, just check out this presentation by the creator of the hugely successful website, The Oatmeal.

By incorporating comic-based visual imagery in your brand storytelling efforts, you tap into an engaging source of website content — and you do it in a way that’s usually quicker and more cost-effective to produce than other video content formats. 

Of course, there are some key considerations you should be aware of before you run out and contact a comics artist or an agency. This post will help you decide whether comics might be a good fit for your web content strategy, and will provide some tips to help you avoid the most common pitfalls and use the format as effectively as possible.

1. Will your message benefit from the comic treatment?

browser comic-google
Google used a comic in the launch of its Chrome browser. The comic used a lot of visual metaphors to explain technical concepts to interested non-techie audiences (excerpt) .

Comics can be used for almost any message, but they really come in to their own when used to explain abstract, complex, or “unsexy” ideas or products. Unlike photos or videos, they are not shackled by real-world considerations. Comics artists can explain anything from how a web browser works to how to use semicolons properly. And while the same effect can be achieved using animation, these are more expensive and slower to produce.

Comics may be a good fit for your web content strategy if your organization’s goals include appearing more approachable and, well, a bit more human. Sometimes really slick and expensive looking visuals can accidentally signal that you are too big to deal with the issues of the regular guy. Start-ups often use playful graphics to distinguish themselves from established, yet “stuffy” or slow moving corporate players. You can do the same with comics.

Another area where comics can excel are health-related topics — especially where the health issue in question might be a bit embarrassing, or even frightening. There’s something about hand-drawn imagery that helps to make a taboo, scary, or embarrassing topic more approachable. So if you want people to share your content about, say, incontinence, a comic strip might be the way to go.

2. Will a comic resonate with your audience?

Based on a true story. Comic by Virpi Oinonen/

While it is true that some audiences may find comics (or “narrative infographics,” as I sometimes call them) a bit immature, you would be surprised how many senior managers in conservative industries appreciate this art form!

I would encourage content marketers to be open-minded here. Don’t assume you know how your audience will react — experiment on social media and see what happens. You might be surprised at the level of engagement you get!

3. What kind of comics might work for your brand?

Comics are a great way to connect with a well-defined audience segment. Comic by

Comics are not a single genre: As with movies, they communicate through a wide range of styles — from cerebral social commentary to silly adventure stories. Humor tends to increase shareability online, but depending on the message and the audience, you might want to consider a more serious tone.

Online comics aimed at grown-up audiences tend to combine wry observations with simple graphics, and can be targeted to multiple audiences at once. For example, the xkcd comic strip above could appeal to both programmers and science buffs; The Oatmeal is another fine example of comics with a wide appeal.

Another consideration with comics is the length. For content marketing purposes, short(ish) comics that illustrate a concept without overwhelming the rest of your content will likely work best.

Such short comics generally come in two types: the classic comic strip format (2-6 panels) and the vertical, infographic format. The latter can have as many as 30 drawings and still work extremely well online, as you can see from this example from The Oatmeal. Don’t worry if the reader has to scroll: Scrolling is actually a natural storytelling device — the controlled movement reveals the story to your audience members a little bit at a time, at their own pace.

You might also want to put some thought into the file format of your comics. Generally, simple image files (png, jpeg, gif) are the safest bet for using on a web page or as a stand-alone post on social media. Another simple, yet potentially effective, platform for comics is SlideShare, where clicking to the next slide functions as a storytelling device that’s similar to scrolling. If your audience consumes a lot of PowerPoint presentations online, a comic in the SlideShare format might be just the ticket.

A few words of warning:

  • Steer clear of traditional comic book layouts — they don’t usually work well online, because of the overall formatting on your web pages.
  • Another online no-no is the PDF file format. If you want to optimize your stories for online viewing and increase shareability, don’t bury your comic in a downloadable file.
  • You may also want to think twice about producing a comic book/graphic novel as part of your content marketing efforts. They require a lot of work, and are not usually sustainable over the long-term, unless they are made a high priority in your overall content marketing strategy (the exception here is if you choose to curate existing online comics into a book).

4. What style will best represent your business?

Realistic, cartoony, simple, slick… What kind of style would best support the message you are trying to convey? Keep in mind that the more elaborate the style, the longer it usually takes to produce.

Different styles have different connotations, as well. Hand-drawn comics tend to signal that you are more approachable; while slick vector graphics communicate professionalism, but can be perceived as somewhat impersonal. And a “cartoony” style works great for making a complex topic more understandable, but in some contexts (and for some people) they can give the off-putting impression that you are “dumbing-down” your message.

5. Where can you find a comics artist whose work will fit your brand goals?

Of all the considerations, this can be the most difficult. There are generally two types of comics artists: those who write and draw, and those who only draw (meaning that you would need a writer to provide them with the copy to use).

The most commercially popular comic strips have traditionally been created by one skilled artist (e.g., The Oatmeal, Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes). These are people who are good at coming up with clever visual ideas, as well as at creating copy that works well in conjunction.

However, many agencies pair a copywriter with an illustrator and expect them to produce a good comic. They might very well be capable of this, but when working this way, you may end up with copy that doesn’t measure up to a strong visual image, or a brilliant content concept that isn’t well translated visually. A good comics artist knows what does and doesn’t work well visually, and can create a story that will play to all the strengths of the format.

A few resources to get you started:

  • There are websites that list professional comics artists, such as Pro cartoonists in the UK, and the Australian Cartoonists’ Association.
  • You can also reach out to illustration agencies — while these services don’t generally list comics artists specifically, they do list the cartoonists at their disposal.
  • Though cartoonists are usually good at coming up with visual ideas, if you find their storytelling skills to be lacking, it may be a good idea to pair them with a copywriter to get the best results for your brand.

For more ideas on working with non-traditional content marketing formats, register to attend Content Marketing World 2013