How Comics Taught Me Email

The superhero movies this summer have me reminiscing on my life in comic books. See, prior to email I spent a number of years in the US comics industry, in various creative and production roles. The energy and variety was incredible, and I had the opportunity to be part of projects ranging from adaptations of […]

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The superhero movies this summer have me reminiscing on my life in comic books. See, prior to email I spent a number of years in the US comics industry, in various creative and production roles.

The energy and variety was incredible, and I had the opportunity to be part of projects ranging from adaptations of blockbuster movies to an IT-themed daily webcomic for the world’s largest software company (there’s much more to comics than superheroes!).

Looking back, I recognize remarkable similarities between the media of comics and email. Both industries are notably similar in the energy and pace of operations, the tight feedback loops, and even the professional communities. The work itself varies wildly, of course, but creative execution is defined by one simple point in both media: publishing schedules.

Comics and email work on a periodical, even serial, schedule. Character arcs and delivering the adventure of the month taught me more about email programs and delivering the promo of the week than I could have guessed.

So, from the funny books to the inbox, here are four lessons I learned from comics on successfully delivering a periodical.

Live By The Deadline (And Respect The Team)

Comics and email are daily proof that life in periodicals inherently revolves around deadlines. Both media typically use waterfall workflows, which only enhances the need for a timeline-trumps-all approach.

Strong planning and close-knit teams help avoid last second crunches, and then help overcome crunches when they do occur. In comics, as in email, ongoing success comes from creative timeliness before creative genius.

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That said, as deadlines come and go, we do need to pull our heads out of the sand and look at the way we communicate.

By engaging with a periodical, audiences give their time and attention with regular frequency on the premise that we’ll deliver an experience to delight, intrigue, and keep them coming back. Those drop dead dates typically maintain a reputation only for their severity, but they also drive iteration, which is a foundation of the creative process.

Specialization Requires Collaboration

I love that email, like comics, is a visual medium where hooks, detail and lightning pace define the experience for both creator and audience.

Stories are told in comics via a series of individual drawings, or panels, with dialogue written over top. These elements must work both individually and cohesively to form a successful final product. Email, similarly, has a host of common elements in design, code and data which must function independently and collaboratively.

In our deadline-driven creative and production processes, the need for efficiency becomes crucial. As formalized process increases, specialization becomes a natural way to breed efficient execution.

It’s important to remember, though, even a waterfall requires collaboration unless it’s hyper-regulated. The collective output of the group is drastically improved when they recognize the context and needs of the steps before and after. That fact is vital for a great comic artist considering the final lettered page when composing layouts, just as it is for an email designer considering the code and rendering of the final functional email.

Recognizing that collaboration creates makes multi-discipline processes successful, specialization still drives excellence at each step. There’s a rule of thumb in comics that says your visual storytelling is effective if the reader can understand the basic plot without words. There’s even a similar rule in film, suggesting a viewer should understand the basics without audio. Sound like anything you’ve heard in email?

No matter the medium, there’s a great lesson here: the final creative output may be impressive, but to achieve a truly successful whole you must ensure each element fundamentally communicates value and action.

Content Story is King

We don’t traditionally think of email as “serial,” but adopting this perspective can teach us a great deal. In ongoing media like an email program or superhero comic, the flash-bang tactics of cliffhangers and other attention-stealing gimmicks quickly lose their luster. We have to think about content differently.

Content is still king — it’s why we signed up and come back every issue — but in a serial it’s more complicated than just content. As frequency and/or duration increases, the impact of content decreases, no matter how important it is.

Subscribing to an indefinite program means you understand the potential recurring value. Over time, though, the initially clear value turns into a wall of content, and the story around content becomes king. Why is the content special? How is it crafted? Who’s crafting it? Why this content?

While it’s not necessarily curation, in a periodical it’s imperative to recognize that a structured emotional journey with ups and downs will beat never-ending narrative or promotional one-upmanship. Just as narratives rise and fall, so too should promotional calendars.

Audiences Have An Emotional Response To A Publishing Schedule (Even If You Don’t)

Repetition creates a weakness famously common in both media: fatigue. The aforementioned cliffhangers are cliché due to a lack of self-awareness in serial publications – a gimmick may hook an audience short term but the long term effect of overuse is just the opposite.

To be fair, though, repetition is part of why we signed up: we know the ride will be a good time. Fatigue happens when the original benefit becomes so tired we no longer accept the base premise that value will be found along the way.

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How to combat it? Recognize that publishing schedules have an emotional rhythm. In a low-frequency schedule, simply the time between publications can establish a healthy rhythm. Higher frequencies require more energy but also more self-awareness – steady is boring and even high energy normalizes if it never changes.

In 2013, Superman will see his 75th birthday. He’s seen at least monthly publication that entire time, sometimes with wild success and sometimes simply surviving month to month. Sure, comics are notorious for recycling tired ideas and exploiting past success, but they’re also known for wild imagination. Like no other medium, comics embrace the idea that high volume and ever-looming deadlines aren’t a restriction but an iterative playground.

Email has a lot to learn there. The times we see email visual creative and content strategy break the mold are wonderful but far too infrequent. Those are the times our medium rises above simply executing on a promotional calendar, and they’re essential to our growth. As you think about the story or emotional tone of a calendar, remember that variation in energy and moments of punctuation create the interactions we remember, the ones that define a relationship.

To Be Continued…

Comic books are probably the last topic you thought you’d be connecting to email today, but the similarities don’t end with the above. The youth and pace of our industry yield countless adventures, and everyone in email has an interesting background.

Have your own back story or learned a noteworthy lesson from another medium? Drop a note in the comments. I’d love to hear it.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Chris Studabaker
Chris Studabaker is Global Practice Manager, Design Solutions at ExactTarget. He heads email design execution and standards at ExactTarget and works with leading brands across a range of industries, from Expedia to Bank of America. Find him on Twitter @cstudabaker and ask what board games he's playing lately.

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