Clicking through the world of webcomics any time since 2006 there has been one small bit of text, so omnipresent that you might not even have noticed it, that has been with you as surely as the pixels on the screen translating colour and shape into humour and drama:
These nine words (plus a price tag) have been the staple of every self-respecting cartoonist or comic artist who’ve placed their work on the web (and even some of the not-so-self-respecting ones). However, an announcement by Project Wonderful creator Ryan North on June 11 2018 that the service was shutting down for good has brought this experiment in independent advertising and democratisation of ad revenue to a close.
So if you only know of the service as someone seeing the ads, what even was Project Wonderful – and what made it so different to the other advertising options out there? Today, we’re looking back on the service, what it promised, and what it means for webcomic creators to see the service go extinct.
Project Wonderful was, at it’s core, an advertising service. Website owners could sign up, be supplied with a piece of code to embed on their site somewhere and voilá! Instant advertising space! The difference between Project Wonderful’s widget and competing services, like Google, was that it didn’t matter what your website’s traffic was like – whether you got one visitor a day or 1000, Project Wonderful was available to your website. Perhaps due to this low bar of entry (unlike Google Adsense, which would disconnect your access to its service if you failed to reach a minimum level of engagement with its ads), or perhaps due to it’s development by webcomics pioneer Ryan North (artist/writer of Dinosaur Comics), the service became a hot favourite for webcomic creators. If you were just starting out, and wanted a way to make a little money off your site while a couple dozen people came by every week, then Project Wonderful was there for you. If you were a Jeph Jacques of the world, then project wonderful was also there for you, letting you leverage your popularity for a higher rate of revenue – and that popularity meant that your revenue could, indeed, be something wonderful.
Project Wonderful worked a little differently to other advertising services in the way it’s pricing structure worked – unlike Google or Facebook, who charge advertisers set rates in return for guaranteed numbers of click-throughs or page views, advertisers with Project Wonderful would bid in auction for their time on a particular ad box.
If a website had three spaces available, then potential advertisers could vie for placement in the premier, middle and lower positions respectively, outbidding one another for the most sought-after spots. Whilst this meant that the largest, most visible advertising spots on a website could be hotly contested, it also meant that the only barrier to paying for advertising was what others were also willing to pay. If nobody else was bidding on a particular ad box, then advertising in that space was – free! This pricing approach meant that many startup webcomics artists (or other advertisers) had a highly scaleable marketing approach available to them – if you were drawing only a dozen or so visitors a day, then your Project Wonderful was unlikely to be expensive to advertise on, and in turn other artists who were hoping to get their nascent webcomic off the ground might elect to advertise on your site for next to nothing, in return for a few dozen click-throughs. As your readership – and therefore your own revenue – increased, you could afford to advertise on higher-grossing webcomics, in turn funnelling more eyeballs to your own comic… and, you get the idea.
This widely-accepted approach to the service resulted in the part of it you might be most familiar with – discoverability. Project Wonderful not only enabled, but encouraged its users to explore and discover new webcomics; leading many readers to a familiar, wikipedia-style rabbit hole of clicking through various strata of webcomic levels, from the newest, niche or under-appreciated levels all the way up to the powerhouses of the art form.
So, what happened to Project Wonderful? Why would such a valuable source for webcomic discoverability and early creator profit be falling by the wayside?
Well, as noted in the announcement of closure – the internet has changed. Discovering new webcomics through advertising only works if readers aren’t actively restricting those ads through adblockers, or finding their new comics through services like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter – services which do everything they can to allow you to follow updates from that new comic/creator you’ve discovered without ever having to visit their own website once. Even services like Line Webtoon and Comic Chameleon promote discoverability between webcomics without ever requiring (or prompting) the reader to consume new comics through the artist’s own website – you can like, share and subscribe right from the app, how convenient! (oh, and we’ll take that cut of advertising revenue ourselves, thanks!)
Sadly, the departure of Project Wonderful places another nail in the coffin of a long-dead business model: if you’re still relying on advertising to promote your newly-minted webcomic, then you need to find a better way. If you’re looking to find new webcomics, then chances are you’ve already discovered the near unlimited potential of sites like Line Webtoon or the ever-ubiquitous Facebook newsfeed for discovering new content (don’t even get me started on Facebook aggregator pages collecting favour from hundred’s of unrecognised artist’s work… or rather, do get me started on this in a future blog post)
Did you use Project Wonderful, either as a publisher or for discovering new webcomics? We’d love to hear about your experience, or your feeling now the service is going away – leave a note in the comments below or on Facebook/Twitter and until next time, remember: sometimes it’s okay to eat the clickbait 😉