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The Future of Exhibition Is Here: The Comic Book Convention

By Nick Borelli
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The modern comic book convention is high-tech, engaging, diverse, and a huge industry with powerful sponsors. What are they doing right that you can infuse in your event?

Nothing has impacted the state of speaker presentation conferences like the TED Talks brand. Soon after they hit the scene with their stripped down stage design, clean branding, minimalistic slides the look of presentations from that point on have all taken their cues from this effective template. All that is secondary to what really is their brand – personal messages coupled with a big idea. TED Talks are the pinnacle of conference education in the twenty first century. So why don’t we recognize that modern comic book conventions are just as innovative for exhibitions?

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Comic Book Legend Neal Adams with Excited Fan at Cleveland Comic Con

If you’ve never been to a comic book convention you no doubt have some assumptions of what you would expect of them. You might assume they are a loose gathering of social misfits who are buying or trading missing issues of comic book collections or waiting in line to get an autograph from an obscure guest star from an episode of Star Trek. What you might not think is that they are some of the largest public exhibitions that utilize the latest in event technology, secure huge sponsorship deals with Fortune 500 companies, and are breaking the mold on attendee expectations from exhibitions.

To give you an example of the growth being experienced in this arena, ReedPOP’s (a division of Reed Exhibitions - the world’s largest event organizer) has grown the New York Comic-Con (NYCC) from an attendance of 33,000 to 190,000 in the past 10 years.

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Hallways outside the exhibition space at NYCC’s Jacob Javits Convention Center

Comic book conventions have been around since the 1960’s but their success in the past 15 years has come through taking advantage of Hollywood’s impact on the demand for superhero and science fiction properties and organically growing an experience that satisfies their further interest. A four-day pass at San Diego Comic Con (the most iconic comic convention brand) costs $220 they sell out of their 130,000 tickets in one hour each year. In addition to that, the average attendee spends $600 a day while at the convention. There are hundreds of conventions taking place each year in each and every major city and this world-wide phenomenon is often being relegated as a second-class event by traditional conference producers without realizing that there are major lessons to be learned from the way they do business.

The Future of Exhibition Is Here: The Comic Book Convention

Cosplay

Blurring the lines between attendees, exhibitors, and presenters.

The Comic-Con Way

One of the most colorful new additions to the comic book convention scene in the past decade has been the rise of cosplay culture. Cosplay is the act of dressing up as a popular (or original) character. Cosplay at fan conferences such as comic book conventions has increased exponentially with many attendees stating that seeing these elaborate costumed attendees is their number one reason for attending. Cosplayers take it seriously. They use their social media accounts to build anticipation for their attendance and do a lot of networking with future attendees and fans prior to the first day of the convention.

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Wizard World Cleveland Attendees Cosplaying & Taking Pictures Together

What We Can Learn

The best events are ones where the differences in prominence between presenters, exhibitors, and attendees are minimal. People have been coming to conventions in costumes for decades but it never became a pillar of the Cons offerings until the promoters fully embraced these influencers by legitimizing them. They created elaborate awards events which raised the level of participation. Comic-con marketers also heavily rely on the efforts of these influencers to use their increasing rabid followings to raise awareness in order to sell tickets.

Who are your events biggest influencers?

Do you treat them like stakeholders and reward them?

Identify attendees of your events who sign up on the first day of registration, have been attending the most consecutive years, has the largest social media following or is a known influencer of a hard to reach attendee segment. Once you’ve identified these attendees, formalize their position with your organization and make them part of your team in some capacity.

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Niche Presenters

Measure presentation success by quality over quantity.

The Comic-Con Way

The panels at Hall-H at San Diego Comic-Con get more press than any event that takes place at the Cons and only around 6,000 of 130,000 attendees can get a seat at any given time. This is where Hollywood sponsors make their largest announcements of the year and feature A-List actors on stage, often for the first time together in public. Attendees wait almost the entire day for the chance to sit in on one of these panels and every major news outlet reports on what is said there live. Now that’s serious demand!

In other rooms of the convention, however, there are panels with handfuls of attendees with presenters with far less mass appeal talking about issues that are specific to smaller segments. These smaller panels also rank really high on post event surveys and are often where incredibly strong bonds are formed. These presentations live on within these communities and become rallying points to discussions that continue online and in subsequent years of events.

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Rooms like this one at Wizard World Cleveland feature rotating panels of presenters for days.

What We Can Learn

There are always going to be very popular presentations that get first time attendees in the door. You book the celebrity keynote presenter because it’s a great marketing tactic and they have a built-in fanbase you can co-opt. What comic-cons also respect is that even if a presenter isn’t going to be a huge draw, if the content is important and ground breaking those in attendance have a greater likelihood of getting all of their return from just that presentation. Asking questions in your app or your presentation surveys like “Was this presentation the most impactful of the conference” or “Are you more likely to attend next year because of this presentation?” will give you a very important metrics to consider.

Diversity

Inclusiveness Is Good for Business

The Comic-Con Way

Conventions became big when they recognized they were alienating huge portions of their audience by not catering to them. For far too long, the comic book, science fiction, and video game industries considered their only audience to be white males. In the past ten years a movement has taken place because of the grass roots efforts of disenfranchised fans who have used the Internet to make their very real presence known. The marketplace now does not accept uninclusive behavior and demands representation. If a panel of experts presents on an important topic at a convention featuring only white males, minutes later on social media pressure will be put on organizers through bad press from trade publications. The variety of perspectives at these panels has increased the reach of their message because they have become touch points for bigger ideas that extend beyond the conference which translates into increased legitimacy of the conference brand.

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NYCC had 38 different panels on topics related to diversity in 2016.

What We Can Learn

Diversity of presenters can not be an afterthought or something that happens by accident when you put together a program for your conference. It’s embarrassing how often the same faces are seen within certain industries when those of different backgrounds are not given the chance because they haven’t had the same opportunities to rise in prominence. If you want a diverse and larger audience, you have to make sure that people who represent their voices take center stage.

It’s not just race and gender that goes into diverse selections. Age and location can often give perspectives on issues that would never have been covered by a group of people who have come up through the ranks together under the same circumstances. By making diversity one of your known core principles, you will give held accountable to providing an experience with the highest chance of connecting with the most variety of attendees.

Exclusives

No Better Call to Action Than “Only Available Today”

The Comic-Con Way

Exhibitors come in all shapes and sizes at comic book conventions. Hollywood studios, comic book publishers, soft drinks, merchandise, to original art are all being sold directly to consumers. In a world where everything can be bought online on your phone and in your hands in two days, how is it that these exhibition tables sellout instantaneously from overwhelming demand? The answer is that exhibitors really take advantage of the live experience and understand their niche consumers. They use their own marketing channels to publicize items for sale that are only available to those who see them at their booth and it drives traffic. The competition for dollars at a comic book convention is a fierce dog-eat-dog direct to consumer marketplace and is a template for what can work in both B2B and B2C.

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Attendees line-up for the chance to be given exclusive items from Marvel Entertainment

What We Can Learn

While it’s standard fare to give away logo swag at booths to entice attendees, the experience of the show is rarely ever leveraged when choosing merchandise or giveaways. There is a reason why every city has a tacky gift shop, people want to celebrate experiences with objects. Once you take into account where you are and what your audience craves, make sure they have to come to you while you are exhibiting or they will miss out.

The idea of exclusivity and one-time-only is a way to break through in a world embracing experience culture over consumerism. Be inspired by Kickstarter projects that reward consumers with exclusive variations of their products as a thank you for being there at the beginning. Something as simple as a color variation that is only available at a specific show might be enough to entice someone to make it a priority to see your booth.

Turning the exclusivity of your offering into an event attendees look forward to means campaigning in your marketing to raise awareness. Make sure you understand why people are motivated by FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and play into it. Attendees are VIPs and deserve something beyond what is typically available in the marketplace any other day.

R&D

For Sponsors – It’s About More Than Impressions

The Comic-Con Way

When Disney, Time Warner, or AT&T (for example) sponsor some of the major comic book conventions, they aren’t just looking for how often their logo can be seen by attendees, they want what’s inside their heads. Through surveys, booth activations powered by gamification, and access to this niche audience, major brand invest in these conventions for research and development (R&D). These attendees are the most active and engaged segment of their communities and what they like and don’t like is a window into upcoming trends. When movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars are made, they screen them at San Diego Comic-Con first in order to gauge reaction. Depending on what these test audiences made up of experts say, they will edit the final film differently. These are the alphas and thought leaders in their communities and smart sponsors pay to be in front of them.

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Another of Hyundai’s custom cars for their partnership with The Walking Dead at Conventions

What We Can Learn

When Hyundai wanted to activate the younger demographic of comic book conventions, it partnered up with comic book creator Robert Kirkman to synergize with the upcoming release of the 100th issue of his comic, The Walking Dead. They created the car (just for the convention) called the Hyundai Zombie Survival Machine which featured art from the issue. Four days of huge lines of attendees who wanted a picture next to (and more importantly inside) the car gave Hyundai time to ask questions. They asked about features they want to see in future releases which have since driven how they market to that audience in their advertising and have also influenced product development.

Always keep in mind that for every attendee at an exhibition, there are hundreds like them who didn’t make it. Those in attendance are the taste makers of their circles and not engaging with them and picking their brains is a missed opportunity.

Event Tech Super Heroes

Cons Have Embraced Event Technology & Social Media

The Comic-Con Way

New York Comic-Con has been using RFID tags in their badges since 2013. They help reduce the chance for scalped badges, help track traffic patterns in real-time, and give stakeholders data based on the profiles of who they had the opportunity to engage with. The cons producers also know that every square foot of the convention space is a photo opportunity for guests to brag about their experiences to their friends who are potential attendees in the future. There are step and repeat banners everywhere, digital photo booths, amazing props and all kinds of unique fixtures that ensure that their attendees will be their largest source of viral marketing online.

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An RFID Badge from NYCC

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Even the bathroom signs are branding opportunities!

What We Can Learn

RFID badges with different levels of access for VIPs has been something NYCC has used for the past three years as part of their elevated VIP experience. Their VIP attendee rooms feature live streaming of each of the panels in order to avoid the lengthy lines. With 190,000 attendees and dozens of levels of badges it's important to be able to separate who can go where as well as data analysis while keeping the process very fast and simple for attendees. Once you get inside, experiential design, marketing, and sponsorship work hand in hand in order to create the types of experiences that will likely be broadcast on social media while always trying to reward stakeholders through inclusion. Using the latest social sharing strategies means that the majority of the marketing heavy lifting and sponsor impression gains come from the expanded reach of attendees.

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Examples of opportunities that were highly shared on social media from NYCC

ConTV & Comic Con Box

Extending the Live Experience

The Comic-Con Way

Wizard World accounts for 20 of the larger comic book conventions in the US. This organization understands that the excitement of an experience can be extended in a variety of new ways in order to keep on the top of the minds of their attendees’ year round. One new product, “Comic Con Box” gives subscribers of this service a monthly box filled with items akin to the types they would find at a convention from their biggest sponsors. Treating their event like an IP and not just an event, strengthens the bonds between this type of engagement and their brand.

With “ConTV”, Wizard World created a streaming video service that speaks directly to the niche audience of their attendees by packaging the wealth of video content from their presenters as well as fan-curated convention experiences. By recognizing the value of the information presented at their cons, they have created a new revenue stream and sponsor opportunities while reaching new potential attendees.

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Examples of ways Wizard World has grown their experiential brand

What We Can Learn

Many exhibitions suffer from a lull in energy when promoting an annual event in the months furthest from the start of registration. In that time, they can lose momentum and competitors have an opportunity to disrupt the plans of would-be attendees. It’s important to keep the momentum going with some type of experience, be it webinar, special print mail piece, or social media campaign that keeps them invested in your brand.

Along those lines, exhibitions with presenters who are fearful of live streaming are doing their sponsors a disservice and are limiting their potential reach. Determining what the right fit is for how you use this video collateral takes strategy and is not a one size fits all. Be it free live streaming with sponsorship, a pay wall, or subscription model, your audience and goals will dictate which is right for you but streaming niche content needs to be a priority.

Awards with Passion

Throw Away Formalities and Use The Pulpit for Change

The Comic-Con Way

San Diego Comic-Con is the official home of many of the comic book industry’s most prestigious awards. Different shorter awards programs that speak to different aspects of the industry mean more value to the winners and are much easier on the attendees who don’t have to sit through 50 award presentations. Awards for industry icons, those pushing into new creative frontiers, fan awards, and retailers are hosted at different times for different audiences. The ceremonies start off with a keynote speech often by industry firebrands who aim to inspire the most powerful in the room to reach new heights. With less winners and a more specific room, winners are encouraged to use their acceptance time to speak about what they are passionate about and not just a stream of thanks to contributors.

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Eisner Awards Reception / Ceremony

What We Can Learn

Award events can be tedious. They are fun for those who win and often a chore for those in the room present for support. Trying to give everyone tangentially related to an industry recognition diminishes everyone’s excitement in the aspect they are passionate about. By breaking up awards into a series of award events during an exhibition, comfort levels go up, participation increases, and communities become stronger through worthwhile recognition. Keynotes of substance that frame an evening and the contributions of the winner with the time they are living in also gives attendees more value in being present. Simply going through the motions of an awards event does little to grow the value of winning or being there to see it live.

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Above all else, avoid the clichés, know your audience, and have fun!

In Conclusion

Not much has changed in the experiences created at exhibitions in the past 100 years. While new technologies have been added to make the processes simpler and the byproducts of data has given producers a clearer picture, the attendee experience has not grown at the same pace.

Too often exhibitions have the energy of two groups who don’t want to be there: the exhibitor teams and the attendees who have to attend. There is a lot of inspiration to be found in the world of the comic book conventions because energy and passion is being exuded in all directions.

about the author

Nick Borelli
Nick Borelli is the President and Strategist for Borelli Strategies which focuses on consulting, coaching, and management of digital marketing for events and event companies. He is also an international speaker and the International Marcom Chair for the International Live Events Association.  
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