It's a new year, and Archie Comics has come out of the gate with both barrels blazing.
The company is coming off a 2015 that helped them re-forge their identity both in their main line -- thanks to a rebooted Archie from superstar writer Mark Waid and a fan-favorite Jughead series from Sex Criminals's Chip Zdarsky and Squirrel Girl artist Erica Henderson. They've also launched a new app, and reshaped their superhero line to be more gritty and noir, creating a distinct wall between those books and the general public perception of Archie Comics.
To kick the year off right, ComicBook.com spoke with Ron Perazza, SVP Digital for Archie, about what's coming down the pipeline.
What were the biggest things you wanted to accomplish with the new app?
Archie has always had an aggressive digital program. It’s a very “yes” oriented culture where experimentation is encouraged – which is great! In that sort of environment it’s important to occasionally take a look back and ask yourself what worked, what did users like, and where can we take that next? So with the new App had one really big goal; make it easy for people to find and read comics. Of course, that’s easier said that done!
With the new App we wanted to consolidate our efforts while expanding our offerings. So now users can download everything from classic 75-year old comics right up to the issues that are on sale today. The new App also brings together all of the Archie titles, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mega Man, Archie’s horror line, the original Red Circle comics, and the Dark Circle books as well. It’s all neatly organized into one App now.
In addition to the content itself we also wanted to offer users a variety of ways to access that content. We combined traditional single purchase features with Archie Unlimited, our all-you-can-read monthly subscription service. That way people can pick whichever option best fits their style and budget.
Our partners at Madefire have been fantastic and we’re working with them on how we can be more user focused so that we grow in ways that benefit the reader first.
Obviously you're doing a lot of big giveaways with the new app -- how did you guys choose what you were going to use? Was it about representing the broad scope of your current offerings or more about taking the most popular stuff historically?
We have been doing a lot of promotions! We gave all of our users thirty free comics when we launched the new app. I think it’s important to recognize that any time you make a big technical change, like launching a new App, you're asking users to make changes as well – to their reading habits, or buying habits, or whatever. We wanted to acknowledge that as best we could. We also try to rotate our weekly promotions to have something for every user.
For example, at the beginning of the year we launched an “Archie Essentials” promotion that offered users a mix of two dozen or so titles from across all of our imprints that were either landmark issues they might want in their collection or entry points for new series they might want to start. We’ll usually overlap those larger promotions with smaller, more targeted offerings for a particular imprint or in support of a particular book. We try to curate the home page of the App in a way that guides the reader to what we think they like but also lets them immediately drill down by imprint, new releases, best sellers, or get right to their collection.
Tell us a little bit about the new Pep Comics material. Archie's recent digital initiatives have been pretty cool, but digital-exclusive is always a bit of a big step, right?
I think digital original content is a big step but also an inevitable step. In some ways it can even be a natural progression. Our approach with PEP is to collect stories from across the whole spectrum of Archie’s history into highly specific themes. The themes vary widely; for example, all stories that have sharks, or all of the stories where Archie and the gang are cave people and so on.
Going digital allows us collect comics that have really niche appeal without the risk that might be associated with that strategy in print. I mean, everyone wants a collection of prehistoric Archie stories, that’s a given, but the complete Young Dr. Masters? Or Wilber: America’s Son of Fun? That’s a specific audience! With PEP we can really explore the history of Archie and package it in a way that highlights how fun and (sometimes) crazy these comics are!
How closely did you work with the creative side to make sure the new app works well with the new feature offerings?
It’s funny – Archie is the home of huge cultural icons and highly recognizable brands and yet in a lot of ways it’s still a very small, family owned business. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. On the digital side, we have a lot of autonomy to plan and execute what we think is best for the digital reader, whether that’s a themed sale, promotional issues tied into whats happening in print, or with an editorial plan for original digital content. However, that said, the small teams make it really simple to coordinate with other groups. I can just pop over the Alex and (the other) Ron and we can hatch an marketing plan for digital content pretty quickly. It’s really great to not be bogged down by a lot of corporate processes and make decisions quickly.
That’s more or less how we hatched the 100 Free Comics, 100 Unlockable Comics plan. We were just like, “Do we want to do this? Yeah, let’s do it!” and we did!
Obviously Archie's image has changes significantly in the last few years; it feels like the notion of a staid, stodgy publisher has been eroding ever since the introduction of Kevin Keller, and it's more or less gone now. Does that make your job easier, or is it harder to properly "brand' something like this new app when the company's identity is shifting?
You have to give credit to our CEO Jon Goldwater for that. He came into the company a few years back with a vision to bring Archie into the present both as a character and as a company. It started with the introduction of characters like Kevin bringing diversity into Riverdale itself but it continued with books like AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE carrying that same diversity into the way we think about comics and the types of comics we publish. Archie is not afraid to experiment.
If Archie were one flavor then it’d be a very specific and in a lot of ways very limited program. As it stands now with the horror line, the classic line, the New Riverdale stuff, Dark Circle, Sonic, and the rest we have a great deal of flexibility to bring in all sorts of different readers, cross-promote programs, or craft specific offerings that might appeal to one niche group without alienating another. If we were just one thing it might be easier from a pure branding point of view – one logo, one message, one audience, etc – but I really doubt if it would be better.
Some of the print material is heading to digital for the first time with the new app, right? What was the idea of holding off on, say, the horror titles before?
I don’t think we held off on anything per say but there was definitely a different approach before the new App. Previously Archie had dedicated Apps for different imprints, so there was an Archie App, A Sonic App, an Afterlife App, etc. Archie also experimented with things like Apple Newsstand and some web-based offerings as well. It was a really diverse program.
With that approach you have to be careful because an effort to create a specific, branded, unique home for each and every thing can ultimately divide the audience. Things get lost. I go here for AFTERLIFE but I go to this other site for traditional Archie, etc. There’s different destinations, schedules, types of readers, and so on. With the new App we’ve unified the program and made it really easy for fans of, say, AFTERLIFE or SABRINA to read NEW RIVERDALE or SONIC.
It’s still branded so there’s no confusion about what you’re reading but it’s also packaged together. There’s one message, one destination. There’s also only one set of navigation and user tools for readers to learn and only one thing they need to worry about updating. So it’s a more streamlined, more effective program and, hopefully, a better user experience overall.
What went into the decision to include an all you can read option?
I love subscription programs! I really do. When you think of how people read and view digital content there’s an increasing preference for subscriptions; Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, etc. You can binge an entire series and then leave it behind or throw a music channel in the background and just let it play. New songs, new shows…the barrier for entry for sampling is effectively removed. There’s no downside! If you don’t like something you just switch to a different one. There’s also a lot of data to that shows that if people get access to something and like it they’ll continue to support it across other channels. Which is great for publishers and intellectual property owners.
From a purely nuts and bolts standpoint, when we launched the new App we looked around at what other people were offering and the way they were presenting those programs. Some were app based, some web based, some both.
We also looked at what technical restrictions existed whether it be from the app side or distribution side or whatever the case may be. We wanted to make sure that our readers had the option to buy books individually, like pretty much every other traditional digital comics app, but also to join Archie Unlimited. And more importantly we didn’t want it to be a technical choice – this app or that app? We wanted it to be the reader’s choice – how do they want to read and collect comics? So again, like a lot of the decisions we made about the new program, we really wanted to give us much thought as possible to the user experience. When we factored it all together it really was kind of a no brainer!