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The Comics Are All Right: Digital Codes Aren’t the Answer. Digital Comics Are.

bonusdigitalcontent_0201The narrative for the last few months is that local comic shops are falling apart facing mass closures in 2017 in a sky is falling narrative that hasn’t been backed up much with hard numbers. 2016 looks to be a growth year (though final estimates are waiting to be released) for Diamond Comics Distributor, the primary comic distribution company, so someone is buying comics. That’s not to say a bubble didn’t pop, or stores didn’t extend themselves, but right now, the numbers haven’t really backed up the narrative that’s being pushed. I have my own theories, but that’s an article for another time.

But, publishers have taken notice and a spirited discussion happened.

BOOM! Studios’ Ross Richie pled with individuals to help #boostyourlcs by going out and buying a trade paperback to help their sales. Marvel took another route, one that left quite a few folks scratching their heads including myself.

In 2011-2012 Marvel launched a digital code program in a way to justify the increase of comic prices from $2.99 to $3.99. Along with the print copy of the comic a digital redemption code would be offered as well and the code could be redeemed through Marvel’s digital comic app as well as comiXology.

Last week, Marvel announced they would be changing up the program, in part to help boost physical retailers:

Marvel is proud to announce that, beginning February 2017, all Marvel digital redeem codes found within the pages of Marvel Universe titles will unlock two or more BONUS DIGITAL COMICS on the Marvel Comics app for iPhone®, iPad®, iPhone® and select Android devices* at no additional cost!

Starting this year with Marvel Universe titles (excluding all-ages comics), only available within your local comic shop, the Marvel digital code will be upgraded to unlock two or more additional digital Marvel comics – stretching your dollars’ worth!

“Marvel is continuing our commitment by offering our fans the best value in comics along with honoring our cornerstone of the comic book industry – the retailers,” said David Gabriel, SVP of Sales, Marvel Publishing. “Our intent in evolving our digital code program is to offer our fans more value per dollar spent.  Replacing the free digital copy, our BONUS DIGITAL COMICS will offer fans free entry points for current on sale collected editions and, in turn, invite additional and repeat traffic into our trusted retailers.”

Beginning February 1st, Marvel fans that enter the doors of their local comic retailer will now be rewarded when they purchase Marvel titles with a digital code that unlocks existing moments into the Marvel Universe they may have missed in the past.

To get people to buy physical product at their local comic shop, the publisher is doubling down on their “bonus” digital offerings. What’s the logic behind that?

The idea is that Marvel will offer a relevant comic in hopes it’ll get individuals interested in a series or wanting to go buy a trade and that individuals will do that at local comic shops.

“Marvel will always be a brand that looks to excite our fans as well as drive traffic to our tried-and-true retailers,” said Jim Nausedas, Sales Director, Marvel Publishing. “One of the free BONUS DIGITAL COMICS offered in February will be Civil War II #0 in time to promote the CIVIL WAR II collection on sale that month. Then, each week, new BONUS DIGITAL COMICS codes, available only in your local comic shop, will offer fans additional pathways into the Marvel Universe, promote Marvel’s monthly trades, and create repeat retailer customers and Marvel readers for life.”

I underlined the relevant parts in the quote above.

I have my doubts that anyone will benefit other than Marvel. I’m not going to just criticize, my plan is to offer a better idea that WILL likely benefit local comic book shops.

Here’s the flow and steps that Marvel envisions:

  1. Person purchases physical comic with a code from local comic shop,
  2. Person redeems code,
  3. Person reads the digital comic,
  4. Person is interesting and returns to the local comic shop,
  5. Local comic shop has items that are being searched for in stock,
  6. Person then purchases item.

bonusdigitalcontent_stickerWith that “workflow” I see points of failure over and over the biggest of which is that local comic shops would need to be psychic to know what Marvel plans on giving away. So, unless they’re being told ahead of time as to what to expect, the time for them to stock up and make sure they have the right items to sale is limited, and that’s even if the correct items are in stock.

But, I actually think Marvel’s change has more to do with the current use/popularity of their digital app. Here’s the data I could turn up.

Marvel Comics App


Download Ranks


Grossing Ranks



Download Ranks


Grossing Ranks


Google Play

Download Ranks


Grossing Ranks


We don’t know the redemption percent of those that had been purchased, but it’s clear something isn’t going right lately. The ranks (which are relative, so others could just be doing that much better) for Marvel’s comics app has been dropping for some time. From these reported stats, they need to do something to change direction. When they initial launched this program it seemed to help some after all.

ipad_initial iphone_initial

So we can see how this benefits Marvel and why they need it. They need more users and interest in redeeming these codes after what looks to be declining interest. But, I have doubts this will actually help local stores.

Instead here’s some ways for Marvel to actually help local stores.

Use Their Email List to Drive Individuals to Stores – Each Monday Marvel sends an email for their Marvel Unlimited releases each week, how about an email on Wednesdays announcing their new releases? But, better than that, using zip codes/IP tracking to include addresses for local shops for people to go to?

I estimated that Marvel’s email list is about 2.5 to 3 million individuals. If just a small fraction of new individuals went to their shop that’s a massive impact. If just 1% converts, that’s 30 new customers a week, $100+ if each purchases 1 comic.

The ability to provide specific data based on an individual’s location is easy with numerous services providing the tools for what would amount to pocket change for Marvel. The returns in purchases would pay for itself eventually.

Follow Up on those Redemptions – Because these are digital accounts, Marvel should have the location of their users based off of their zip codes and/or IP address. It’d be easy enough to create a robust email program that leverages this data to provide a kicker and get individuals to go to their local shop. Again, just 1% of 3 million individuals would make a hell of an impact.

Add the Comic Shop Locator to Digital Comics – Reading digital comics is an advertisement to really read more digital comics. The ease of “now” would make me expect the real behavior of these digital codes would be to see the digital reader redeem the code, then buy more digital comics while they’re there. Why wait for the shop? And if they’re online, wouldn’t a cheaper online store such as Amazon be more convenient and immediate?

How about using the digital comic itself as an advertising platform for local stores? At the end of the reading experience a page can be delivered so that a zip code can be typed in and shops looked up, or better yet the data can be auto-populated. They’re reading the digital comic, use that to give them the information needed. Better yet, do this for ALL Marvel digital comics sold and really get people out to their local shops.


We’ve seen that physical sales and digital sales can live side by side and as one increases the other does too. One doesn’t necessarily cannibalize the other. What’s unspoken is the vast amounts of data that’s been collected. How about to save comic shops we leverage that?


  • Solid article. I really liked the digital copy program- at least at first- and am bummed to hear it’s being, functionally, discontinued. My main issue was that the actual process of redeeming the codes was a pain in the butt. Had to type in all these long, complicated strings of characters, and sometimes the sticker wouldn’t peel off correctly and you couldn’t read it… a real hassle. Why not a QR code or something?

    • If I remember QR codes have really low rates as far as people using them when I looked at them a long time ago. But, part of the reason Marvel has the way they do is you have to take off the sticker to prevent theft. You could still have a QR code underneath too I guess. I’m sure the real answer is, this is what was coded already…

      • No need to switch to QR codes. Just need to add OCR scanning/conversion to the Marvel Comics app. Both Amazon and iTunes apps already have this feature for redeeming gift cards.