This month’s INC. magazine featured Stan as the latest entry in their “How I Did It” series. It’s a fun article but I don’t think it really captures the genius that marked Stan’s approach to making comics. He was practicing social media while guys like Brogan and Shankman were still in diapers.
So what did Stan teach me?
SOCIAL MEDIA LESSON 1 – LISTEN FIRST
In the INC. article Stan recounts the famous (in nerd circles, at least) story of how the publisher of Marvel was playing golf with his competitor at DC Comics (publisher of SUPERMAN and then the #1 comic book company by far). The DC man told him about the success of their JUSTICE LEAGUE title and Marvel’s Publisher, Martin Goodman, asked Stan to come up with a similar superhero group. That’s how the FANTASTIC FOUR was born.
SOCIAL MEDIA LESSON #2 – BE REAL
DC’s heroes were crewcut, whitebread, All-American heroes who never fought with each other, did anything wrong, or ever failed. By contrast Lee’s FANTASTIC FOUR team got their powers by stealing a rocket, bickered incessantly, and were plagued by their failure to cure one of their members and turn him back in to a human being. Which title do you think resonated more with the readers?
SOCIAL MEDIA LESSON #3 – ENGAGE YOUR AUDIENCE THROUGH DIALOGUE
Lee wasn’t the first to run letters pages in his comics. But instead of hiding behind the generic “Editor” pseudonym, he signed his own name to his responses. Better yet, he wrote in a casual, informal style that made his readers feel like they were engaging in conversation with Lee. He also published letter writers’ full addresses so they could correspond with each other. As a result, the Marvel letters pages became a prototype for today’s social networks. One couple even met and became engaged through the Marvel letters pages and numerous letter writers would go on to become comic book professionals
SOCIAL MEDIA LESSON #4 – INVOLVE YOUR AUDIENCE AND USE THEIR FEEDBACK TO IMPROVE YOUR PRODUCT
One of Stan’s most brilliant inventions was the “No Prize”. After fans pointed out story errors in some of the Marvel titles, Stan created a fictional prize that was awarded to readers who identified errors and came up with explanations about how these errors could actually be made to fit in to the continuity of the titles. The “No Prize” was awarded at Stan’s discretion but numerous readers knocked themselves out trying to get one.
SOCIAL MEDIA LESSON #5 – BUILD A COMMUNITY
Apart from engaging his readers through the letters pages, Stan created the Bullpen Bulletins page (a kind of monthly company newsletter), and Stan’s Soapbox (a precursor to today’s blogs it was an open column that allowed Lee to wax philosophical on all sorts of topics, further engaging the reader).
In the Bullpen page, Lee came up with yet another innovation, assigning ranks to his readers. These (somewhat cheesy) awards were characterized by alliterative acronyms like “Fearless Front Facer” or “Titanic True Believer”. Readers moved up various levels, some self-qualified and some awarded by Lee. They even took to signing off their letters with these ranks, proudly displaying them the way Linked In power users or people with large Twitter followers do so today.
Thinking about Stan and the lessons he taught me bring home a simple truth. That the principles behind Social Media have been around for decades (and we should focus on those principles and not the latest flashy tools that help us put them in to practice).
Stan didn’t really invent these practices but he was a master at executing them and forty years later that’s paid off in big time (Disney is buying Marvel for about $4 billion).
Knowing Stan, he would be the first to tell you that his readers & fans were as responsible for this success as the content he provided. One more important thing to learn from one of the master storytellers (and master social media practicers) of our time.