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The Web of Anime
By Oliver Chin
Reprinted with permission by the author
The Cyber Commons
Back in preindustrial England, shepherds brought their sheep to graze upon the community's pastures. These were "commons," now a term referring to any space open to public use. Everyone could access this shared resource, which would thrive if maintained responsibly, but suffer if used wantonly.
Today people who share similar interests still enjoy flocking together, whether it is in a club, concert or sports bar. The ultimate "commons" for the 21st century has strikingly different characteristics but retains the same appeal. It is global, ethereal, and data-based. It is the Internet. Here you can find all your heart desires...including your customers.
As luck would have it, anime and manga fans have used the World Wide Web as their personal soapbox. Though just less than five years old, their "cyber commons" is thriving. In the anime and manga territory, traffic is robust with email and images flooding server capacities. But participants balance their fervent enthusiasm with thoughtful contributions, consciously expanding the "common" body of knowledge. This is a gold mine of potential for comics retailers to improve their business: to learn, market and sell more anime and manga.
Learn from Them
Unlike readers of traditional superhero comics, fans' knowledge of their favorite anime and manga is often greater than retailers'. Readers identify with protagonists, personalize plots, and "photoshop" pictures: the products are springboards for individual expression. Unlike Superman's genesis or Spidey's latest crisis, anime and manga are immediately appropriated, hotly debated, and endlessly quizzed by fans.
As a nexus of information, the Web is already indispensable. Use it as a time saving shortcut to get up to speed on products you may know little about. It is a library, copier, fax and phone rolled into one.
To sharpen your anime and manga acumen, drill down the sites by category and gather information in the following ways:
Directories: find the places that compile anime and manga resources on the Net (www.anipike.com)
Companies: bookmark the main publishers to see their product pipeline and presentation.
Galleries: appreciate the images of characters across countless incarnations of merchandise.
Shrines: understand why a particular series generates unbridled fanaticism.
Clubs: locate the fan havens by campus and region. Is there one near you to target?
Web rings: investigate the mini-communities of sites based upon individual titles (www.webring.org)
Learn what is hot in newsgroups (Alt.manga, Japan.anime, Rec.arts.anime.misc, Rec.arts.manga) by reading postings from those seeking product information or expressing their collecting goals.
Market to Them
Online, anime and manga fans are disproportionately more vocal, active, and gregarious than other groups. Shouting through computer megaphones, they unabashedly transform private passions into public devotions. Their collective motive is clear. They want to heighten their "anime addiction" by requesting products and information faster. Period.
This is an open invitation for comics retailers to answer the call and grow their businesses. For you who are technophobic or lack email, this is a wakeup notice. If you want to sell anime and manga, you must meet buyers where they are and speak on their terms. Just like the Fortune 500 companies you read about, you must adopt new means to address your existing customers and find new ones.
To illustrate this point, I performed a little experiment to see how an Web community (reflective of the market at large) can develop overnight. I did a search for "Pokémon" in September 1998, before the TV show was broadcast in America nationwide. I found 3 web sites. A week later, after the debut, I found over 1,000. As of February 1999, now there are 42,000.
Therefore, I don't blame retailers for underestimating the phenomenon (as you now frantically race to catch up). But those in tune with the underground, or in this case the "web ground," can constantly detect new preferences and capitalize on them. Preparation is power.
So the easiest way to give consumers what they want, is to know what they want. Log in to receive their questions and gripes, and sign up for email updates from companies and clubs. Your biggest danger is simply information overload.
Sell to Them
The final piece of the equation is to fulfill customers' desires with their desired products. And I emphasize "fulfill."
Anime and Manga fans want to attract new fans and infect them with their zealotry. Take advantage of this "viral" model. By satisfying one fan, word of mouth may win you the attention and pocketbooks of their friends.
So take stock in your operation. If you do mail order, can you support a web site? If you have a web site, can you process online ordering? If you can process online orders, can you handle the volume? Creating, maintaining, and updating a site remains a sizable investment of time, staff, and dollars. This challenge has not changed. But what has is the ascendancy of e-commerce, a boon to the early adopter and a bane to the non-wired retailer. This is the direction the new economy is heading. If you're serious about protecting and expanding your customer base, you really don't have a choice.
Another great feature about the Web is that you can instantaneously check out your competition. Investigate the sites of other retailers to discover how ahead or behind the curve you are. Technologically, organizationally, and promotionally (pricing). Explore how sites pitch catalog backlists into attractive shopping experiences.
Every passing day puts a greater premium on improving customer service to retain customer loyalty. Buyers everywhere are now being conditioned to be like anime and manga fans: they want their information and the products yesterday. Direct. Fast. Efficient. Easy to say but hard to accomplish, so ask for help to network your computer and import email data into your order processing.
Overcome the limitations of geography, shelf-space, and your own expertise by utilizing new Web tools. The textbook example of the "commons" is a cautionary tale, where a fine line exists between co-existence and mutual deprivation. In the 21st century commons, the first step to maintain your viability is by getting online.