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What Digital Media Can Learn From Comic-Con

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If you were looking to buy issue #11 of Marvel Premiere featuring Dr. Strange, where would you go?

To Google, of course. Buying collectibles isn't what it used to be. For comic book fans, you would have to go to one of a handful of stores in your city (if your city was even big enough to support a comic book store), and the arduous task of trying to hunt down a rare (or even semi-rare) comic book would then unfold. The store owner would have to have it in stock, and it would have to be in the grade quality that you wanted. If not, phone calls had to made, request letters had to be sent, and there was a general lacking of a unified inventory system in place to even know how far and how wide the book would have to travel to make it into your nerdy little hands... and we haven't even begun to discuss at what cost.

Comic-Con changed all that.

As the popularity of comic books began to take off, more and more cities would host weekend events where comic book dealers could buy tradeshow space and sell their wares to those who wanted to get their X-Men freak on. These comic book conventions were never meant to be the cool thing to do on the weekend (for reference, go back and watch the 1984 movie, Revenge of the Nerds). But, something changed. Geek Culture, Nerd Culture and the push of popularity due to TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, have suddenly turned what was a joke of movie title, Revenge of the Nerds, into a reality.

Suddenly, it's cool to be geek. It's cool to read comics. It's cooler when comic book characters become runaway Hollywood movie blockbuster successes (The Avengers, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Batman, etc...). Is it any surprise that more that 30,000 people showed up at last weekend's Montreal Comic-Con to comic book bin dive?

What comic books are doing that books are struggling with.

It's hard to define "collectible." It's hard to define "fan." After walking the floor at Montreal Comic-Con for a few hours on Saturday, one thing became abundantly clear: the majority of the commercial activity that was taking place at this physical event cannot be duplicated or replicated in a digital format. You see, people weren't there to buy comics. Any serious collector knows where to find the true comic book rarities online and how to best negotiate the deal. The majority of attendees were there to be together.

It wasn't just about snagging an up-skirt photo of the all-female Avengers that were prancing around the showroom floor. It was to be a part of something more. People paid north of $150 to have their picture taken with both William Shatner and Patrick Stewart (where else will you find Captain Kirk and Captain Jean-Luc Picard at the same time?), they were paying $60 for an artist's rendition of Iron Fist on a stretched canvas and they were even paying $25 for an autograph with Kevin Sorbo (remember Hercules and Kull The Conqueror?). You can't buy these types of experiences in the online world, can you?

What all media can learn from Comic-Con.

True fans want more than content delivered fast, easy and cheap. We live in a day and age where brands are trying to become producers of content. Some have done it successfully, while the majority struggle to create something that isn't thinly veiled marketing muck. Whether it is comic books, science fiction or the horror genre, these brands understand that true commerce comes when you create something that your advocates can't get enough of.

Close to 10,000 people waited over 90 minutes on a Saturday morning, and paid for the privilege of walking on to the Comic-Con Montreal trade show floor to wait in more lines to pay more money to meet, greet and get autographs and pictures of their favorite comic book characters and creators. They did this with smiles on their faces and with pride.

It's not a zero-sum game where that industry is faced with digitization and shrinking revenues with no alternative money-generating streams. By cultivating true fans and giving them unique opportunities to connect, share and yes, even enlarge their collections through specialized and unique items, they're not only keeping alive a traditional media channel (or two), but they're inventing new and fascinating ways to extend their characters and build interest. You could argue that it's easy to do this when you have content that sparks the imagination. I would argue that if you have someone buying something from you, and it delivers (or over-delivers) on the promise, they have a keen level of interest for more. The only thing stopping them from buying more? The brand's ability to get creative and be compelling.

All people interested in media should take a field-trip to a Comic-Con in a city near you. Bring your wallets. 

Mitch Joel is president of Twist Image -- an award-winning digital marketing agency. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his highly-successful blog and podcast of the same name is a business and marketing bestseller. His next book, CTRL ALT DEL, will be published in Spring 2013.