Case studies: the Marvel of comics

When you have seventy-five years of history and over 5,000 characters in your archives, including Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America, you have a lot of potential to experiment with a Curve strategy.

Marvel is in such a lucky position. In 2009 Disney acquired the comic book publisher for $4 billion. At the time, it was the eighth largest magazine publisher in the US, and 4.1 million people read its content every month. That said, even by the time of the acquisition Marvel was far from just a comic book business. Although it made $125 million from publishing in 2008, that represented less than a fifth of its revenue: the bulk was made up from licensing ($293 million, 43 per cent) and film production ($255 million, 38 per cent). It’s a brand and movie business, and since 2000 there has been a Marvel-licensed blockbuster in cinemas every single year.

But comics matter. They are where new characters are born. They are where storylines are tested. They are a cheap way of experimenting and taking risks that would be inconceivable in a $200-million movie. They also have legions of fans.

Marvel now operates Marvel Unlimited, an app for iOS and Android that allows users to explore the vast back catalogue of the entire Marvel Universe for an annual subscription of $70. (Yes, I know I said I wasn’t a fan of subscriptions. There are some mitigating circumstances here.)

The app allows users free access to a selected range of comic books every month. A true fan would find this irritating after a while if they wanted to follow a particular storyline from issue to issue, but it is an interesting approach that allows readers to dip into characters, eras or storylines they haven’t otherwise found time for. Users can store twelve issues for offline reading, and are encouraged to spend $70 a year on the full, unlimited service. Given that the alternative is often seeking out back issues of certain comics in second-hand comic stores – a retail experience which generates no revenue for Marvel or income for creators – this is a way to make the back catalogue sing.

One of my primary reservations concerning subscriptions is the way they cap the upside for a business by limiting how much the superfan can pay. But Marvel is already marvellous at that strategy, generating nearly half of its revenue in 2008 (its last year as a stand-alone company) from licensing. By connecting the subscriptions to the app, Marvel is mining a deep data seam of its users, what they love, what they value and what, in the future, they might pay for.

My guess is that Marvel’s first use of the data will be to start trawling for characters that are beloved enough by Marvel Universe readers to be worth considering for the silver screen. I hope they think more broadly than that, however, and start to consider how their entire business can adapt now that they have a direct relationship with their readers.

Since The Curve was published in late 2013, many more examples of Curve businesses have come to my attention. I hope that this trend will continue. I shall carry on publishing case studies of new industries and new situations in which Curve ideas are implemented or demonstrated on the website. I hope they will help you think about how to apply the ideas of the Curve, especially to industries outside the obvious field of digital media.

Nicholas Lovell