The webcomics blog about webcomics

In The Final Analysis

So now we’ve heard from IndieKarma how they’re intending to do things. With a couple of days time to reflect, some things stand out as significant achievement, and some things will need to be addressed. On the positive side:

  • They aren’t locking off content or specifying a delivery model.
  • They’re targetting the right demographic: webcomics readers are loyal to their favorites and, to quote Tycho’s manifesto, “will take care of you”.
  • They’re making the “tip jar” approach painless; the user doesn’t have to set out with philantropy on their mind more than once (the act of signing up).
  • They aren’t providing anything other than a funds-transfer mechanism. IndieKarma are not promising to deliver an audience or specific level of funding to the creator, so they aren’t overpromising.
  • They’re serious about this and are putting money into it: the budget may be undisclosed, but the first 5000 people that sign up will get a free dollar credited to their account.

Challenges to be addressed include:

  • Giving is assumed to be the default action. Let’s take Patterson at his word that which sites get your penny will be configurable in the coming weeks. Let’s further posit that IndieKarma takes off and year from now, there are thousands of sites using IndieKarma (and more signing up every week).

    That’s going to require a lot of attention from the user to separate out who gets money from who doesn’t. Since the service is supposed to be about ease of use, this is a problem.

  • Scale-up may provide significant challenges; if a rush of hits from the Kottke link caught IndieKarma unawares, they should pray that Penny Arcade never mentions them.
  • The chicken/egg situation must still be overcome; as of this writing, there are 227 sites and 540 users signed up. A medium-sized webcomic (one with a large enough loyal audience to drive sign-ups, but small enough not to swamp the service) or two is going to have to champion this system.

    But given the audience size needed to reach critical mass, this will (ironically enough) likely not be one of the traditional proponents of micropayments.

  • The dock: does it hit the fine line between obvious enough to drive awareness vs. obtrusive enough that it annoys readers? Given the customizability that IndieKarma are giving creators, it’s largely out of their hands, but it will have an impact on driving signups vs. driving them away.
  • Another one that isn’t on IndieKarma, but it’s still a challenge: it remains to be seen if the amounts given make it worthwhile for the creators. Will the people who already buy t-shirts continue to do so, and those who don’t choose to kick in a coin or two? That’s a net gain for the creator. Will the t-shirt buyers figure that pocket change is an equally-valid way to support their favorite strip? That could be a crippling loss for a creator.

From my perspective, here’s what IndieKarma will absolutely have to address before they see any significant take-up on the part of users (websites will come once users do):

  1. Get the user-customization tools in play, and these will have to be widely publicized. I suspect that much of the reluctance to use this model of giving (as was noted in several forms in our comment threads) will go away if users understand that they can control who gets money, who doesn’t, how much they get, and how often.
  2. Patterson doesn’t think that users will worry about a stray penny accidentally given here or there, and maybe that’s so. But users don’t want to feel that they’re getting “churned” (remember, IndieKarma makes its money when you give your pennies away).

    Rather than making the user stay on top of things, the giving model may need to default to disabled (you must specifically choose which sites to support), or IndieKarma may need to send email to users to inform them, You just visited these sites for the first time since they signed up with IndieKarma; confirm that you do in fact want to give them money.

  3. IndieKarma, despite their name, should not rely on the good intentions of users to keep giving once the intial interest (and first funding rush) dies off. To support sustainability, there will have to be some form of active communications from IndieKarma to users telling them, Your balances are getting low, and you need to refill if you want to keep giving.
  4. As one commenter pointed out, there will have to be a thorough security test performed; there may only be five bucks in my account, but it’s my five bucks, and I want to know that an unscrupulous website isn’t going to drain me all in one go.
  5. Many of the most loyal readers of webcomics do not have easy access to PayPal or credit cards, since they are underage and/or students. Unfortunately, there aren’t really other financial mechanisms for easy funding, but it’s something that may have to be addressed someday.

Only time will tell if IndieKarma are able to go the distance and fulfill the long-awaited promise of easy micropayments. Certainly, they have some advantages over previous attempts at mass-audience micropayments; most notably, IndieKarma can be a lightweight application. It doesn’t have to have complex tracking systems to verify that user X can read Y number of pages over Z days for a particular price. You show up at a site you like they get a very small amount of money without having to do anything except match up account numbers and time since last donation.

Assuming IndieKarma are successful, they are most likely to provide a measurable source of income to sites with sizeable traffic now. Curiously, this may lead sites that have conspicuously against micropayments (which are the high-audience sites) to be in a position to best benefit from IndieKarma, where sites that have traditionally championed micropayments (critically-acclaimed, but usually with small audiences) may not benefit measurably at all. There is every possibility that Cat Garza makes enough off IndieKarma to buy a pizza in the same time that Pete Abrams gets enough to lease a Lexus; the irony of this situation is left as an exercise for the reader. It’s precisely for situations like this that words like crisitunity were coined.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and neither do Patterson and his team. They’ll have to be figured out with input from the users and the participating sites, and maybe it all works and maybe it doesn’t. More than the ease of use argument, the possibility of painlessly helping creators with whom they feel a connection is what’s going to drive users to the service … maybe. It’s going to be an interesting experiment, and we at Fleen will be keeping an eye on it.

Thanks for this series — nicely done.

In addition to your five excellent summary points, my own addendum is that the pop-up dock has to come as disabled by default before I could consider trying it. It’s just far too disruptive to the 99.5% of people that won’t sign up.

The t-shirt thing may be a non-issue. The webcomics that do well wit t-shirts usually do well because their readers actually want to wear their t-shirts, not just because they want to contribute cash. Take Jeph Jacques, for instance. He sells t-shirts people like to wear. Contrast this with the many artists who do t-shirts that are based on in-jokes from their comic: these people are dependent on the charity factor in shirt-buying, because most people don’t really want to wear a shirt they’ll have to explain to people.

As for the dock, the whole point is to get people to toss in a penny regularly, but if they’re not reminded (without setting it up to do so automatically, which absolutely shouldn’t be the default), they won’t do it any more often than they would click a tip jar. It’d just be a tip jar in smaller denominations. Big whoop; may as well go the straight PayPal route in that case.

If you’re not comfortable with the idea of reminding your readers to donate, it seems that IndieKarma is rather fundamentally not for you.

[…] Uncategorized This page wrote about what might (or might not) be the ultimate triumph of no-hassle micropayments; we promised at that time to keep an eye on the service, and so we’re briefly revisiting IndieKarma today. […]

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