Let's explore the types of growth a webcomic may experience. At the end, I'll tell you what works for Pug and me.
I definitely consider this a "thinking aloud" piece and encourage participation and other points of view. We simply haven't had our comics on line long enough to experience this topic in all its angles. (Scratchin Post is over a year old, and Lil Nyet celebrates its first anniversary this week with just under 250 episodes.) Guillotine and Piledriver is nearly new by comparison.
One way we might classify growth is organic vs. explosive.
Organic is slower. It's a matter of adding one reader, than another, than another. Often, it is the slow discovery of quality and gradual word-of-mouth spread that causes the rate of organic growth to increase as the comic develops.
Explosive growth may be very rapid, or something less than explosive, but it is faster than organic growth. It seems to be phenomenon driven and sustained by quality and/or special appeal to a demographic, such as a generation, or gamers, or any big subgroup. The phenomenon may be internal to the comic, like the unknown qualities that made the Finnish Gone With the Blastwave an international hit, despite the author's indifference. They may also be varied and external, using traditional promotion strategies.
Another way to classify growth (including negative growth) is qualitative vs. quantitative .
Quantitative is about the number of readers. We historically measure webcomics by this yardstick, even though it can be very misleading.
Qualitative is about the quality of the average reader of a comic, to the comic. Though we might choose to measure readers by qualities such as financial value (did they buy something?), for this discussion of circulation we'll view them as loyal readers who tend to bookmark the comic, return often and possibly mention the comic to friends. They tend to know the story, bond with characters, or, in the case of single panel humor cartoons especially, make them part of their daily ritual.
Some titles are offered to readers via a feed subscription that includes the actual newest episode. To each his own, but this seems like a counter-productive practice to me. Some assertions I hear a lot but that may need to be tested: Feed audiences don't buy, don't participate, don't respond to advertising, and don't click on PPC ads. They are also difficult to count, suggesting they add little to either quantity or quality-based measurement. If feed audience measurement improves, we can take the results and debate where to place them.*
A standard of analytics is to prominently feature new vs. returning visitors.** This is actually a fairly rough measure, to my way of thinking, and I think it's reckless to rely on it for serious comprehension of your audience. One reason is, what is the ideal proportion of each? No one can say. It's not until we dig deeper into analytics data that we are able to say more, by looking at traffic sources and the behavior of visitors coming from them.
Google has a horse race aspect that can cause wrong conclusions. As you drill into deeper layers of data, traffic sources which appear productive (unless you're great at mental math) shift positions, and often the most productive sources are not revealed until the final steps. See my post on qualitative webcomic traffic for more. I have confidence that most people do not drill down into their analytics very far, or very frequently, which is their choice, but it shows how skillful use of a tool everyone uses can give you an advantage.
The article linked above is about one way of revealing visitor quality. Because a lot of what gets written about analytics is targeted toward ecommerce sites, not content sites, it doesn't always apply to webcomics and can cause confusion. Until someone writes the book on content site analytics, we'll have to piece together our own. (Go ahead, look on Amazon. I have many of those books, and I assure you, their treatment of the topic is thin at best. But if you find one, please let me know.)
I think we should squeeze in a brief mention of measuring visitors by value. I'm not talking about their value as human beings, of course, but their contribution to the viability of the business, assuming your site has a store. My experience with online selling is thin, so I have relied on conversations with multiple successful webcomics merchants to sort fact from fiction. I look forward to opening our online store, so I can report how I am minting money or tanking. I view it almost like opening a laboratory : ^)
The main difference between a visitor making a purchase and one who doesn't is the flood of data that comes with the buy. If you want to annoy your customers until they never come back, you can use this data very effectively, via spam and other delights. If you want to track buying patterns by person or geography while protecting client privacy, that's no issue. A middle ground exists, and the perfect example is the opt-in newsletter that is sent fairly infrequently and which contains information of value.
An entire industry revolves around assembling fragments of consumer data from various web locations and turning them into files. This is beyond the means of webcomics, as is purchasing demographic data. About the best you can do is match ZIP code demographics with purchasers, to see if your buyers come from a certain slice of society, but it takes a large operation to have sufficient data for this.
Selling will include interactions with customers asking questions or expressing a complaint. A perceptive site owner will gain impressions from these dialogues that might be more informative than one would expect.
After this discussion, you might wonder where I stand. I'm not a nostalgist like R Crumb, complete with pork pie hat and suspenders, but I did grow up in the country surrounded by skeptics of anything resembling "an easy way" or a gimmick. I've written before about my belief that any decent comic has a definite audience consisting of real, not theoretical people, and that promotion involves finding each other rather than twisting arms. By definition, this audience is going to tilt heavily toward the qualitative, organic and returning, with some degree of value.
Which brings us to My Audience vs. An Audience.
An audience can be bought. A clever ad, backed by an ample budget, can send you lots of visitors, as can all flavors of hype and public tail feather displays. But if your efforts produce a low quality audience, you must maintain the fanfare or see it evaporate. You are working for people who don't particularly care, so you can't expect revenue. It might pump your ego to see people visiting, but not when you look harder and see they are not reading the comic.
There are ways to gain insights into your audience, such as opening a forum. However, this limits you to learning about readers who use the forum, which is often a limited part of the total. (Some comics seem tightly bound to their forums. Readership and forum use are closely related, but one wonders if the non-forum-using readers have wandered off.)
Reader mail is interesting, and seems to vary a lot depending on the comic and people behind it. We have yet to receive a reader letter that wasn't cordial, interesting and a pleasure to answer, though we have no fear of critical mail and would welcome it as well.
What I have learned from our mail is the diversity of the group that I define as "our audience." They may share good manners, but other than that, they seem like people one might meet just about anywhere. People who write is a small sample, and reveals frustratingly little about who keeps reading our comics, but it suggests that demographic hairsplitting is not going to help.
One thing I do is ask some of them for an opinion. I may be wondering whether certain aspects of the work or site are valued, and I'll bounce it off them. The primary help may be to make me feel a bit appreciated, honestly, because although their opinions are often very helpful, they are one of many. A professional pollster would laugh.
If, over the next few months, our audience doubled and doubled again, I am not sure I would know what to do. Intellectually, I know the answer is, get the store finished and stock it with some great stuff. Maybe I'd re-read the strip to see if anything had changed. Other than that, we'd keep making the comics.
Which, in the end, is what it's all about for us. We enjoy making comics, and would probably keep making them even if someone offered to pay us not to. We don't mind commerce and rather enjoy it, and view making excellent shirts as another kind of creative challenge. "Our audience" is the people who view one of our titles as "My Webcomic," and our shared affection for it is our bond. Growth, to us, simply provides reassurance that we are not wasting our time posting our work on the web, and offers the possibility of income and interesting exchanges.
We think our available audience is larger than our actual audience, so we run some ads. We are not explosive growth people for the simple reason that explosive growth is usually not the kind of growth that produces "our audience," and would therefore be of low value. We are aware that certain beacons can attract the right big audience to a comic, but all we have to offer are the things we're doing and the things we have planned. Our beacon is a handshake, offered one reader at a time. Others will differ.
* I would love to see the results of personality profiles administered to feed users and people who visit comic sites without use of feeds, including update alerts. My guess is that feed users would score higher for orderliness and efficiency and lower for agreeableness (interest in the welfare of others, but not necessarily to the extent of making them unappealing people). If such data ever emerges, as it has for many types of internet use, if may reveal strategies for overcoming the perceived downside of feed distribution.
**Though the reasoning behind it makes sense, there's a quirk of Google Analytics that it pays to know about. Suppose you place an ad on Polk Out! for one day, and the next day in your analytics you see that you got 20 visitors from the ad. You are pleased, but for whatever reason, you do not renew the ad. On the next day's analytics, you see that you got ten more visitors from Polk Out! The next day, six.
You go visit Polk Out! to see if you have been mentioned, or given a free link, but there is nothing.
The reason is that anyone coming to you for a repeat visit who started as a Polk Out! referral will still be listed in your analytics as a Polk Out! referral. GA is working off the cookie that GA planted in their browser the first time they visited.
If any of them erase their cookies but keep visiting, GA will move them to the "Direct Traffic" category.
When an ad stops, you have a window to see how much quality traffic its generating. For big ads, it's worth paying attention.