Case Study: Comics in Community Communication

AFOLs.png In 2003, I was working on the community team at The LEGO Company, the maker of those fantastic and wonderfully ubiquitous plastic interlocking bricks. During this period I had a unique challenge of trying to convince my colleagues, smart folks who were solely focused on kid oriented programs and projects that there was value in working with the Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOL).

I had a hard time getting on their calendars, much less convincing them that they needed to stop working on the 95% audience and turn at least some of their attention to the 5%.

The Idea
One day over lunch, I noticed four colleagues reading the comic strip in the back of the instruction book included with one of the LEGO sets we were producing that year. Overhearing their conversation about whether the explorer was going to get out the clutches of the tiger in time made me start thinking about the power of visual story telling. Here were four grown adults having an in-depth debate about content meant for kids 7-12 years old!

Using this inspiration to guide me, I worked with one Greg Hyland, an artist and AFOL to create a series of comic strips that told the story, for those uninitiated in the hobby, of it was like to be an adult fan of a”child’s toy”. Together we developed a series of hilarious, relevant four-panel strips that were then printed, color copied and stapled.

(As a sidenote, Greg worked in exchange for a huge box of new LEGO sets that I sent him. He delivered dozens custom designed illustrations for a box of LEGO sets that cost my budget center about $300)

The Internal Roadshow
After assembling the comics into physical form, I put together a presentation, a short video (created by fan clubs, of course), and some other materials that I used for a multi-city, multi-office internal roadshow to “formally introduce colleagues to the AFOLs”.
When I walked into each stop on the roadshow, I threw down a handful of the comics on the conference table and started talking through my presentation. I’d start off the meeting pretty casually, because inevitably the attendees would get so wrapped up in reading and discussing the comic, they’d largely ignore my presentation until they had a question about one of the scenarios highlighted in the comic.

Fairly quickly, I modified the presentation to focus primarily on talking through the sixty scenarios we’d outlined in the comic. Within a few weeks after this roadshow, there was a clear shift in the way colleagues were talking and thinking about the adult fans. To this day, I still hear from former colleagues who reference those scenarios in conversation!


Why comics work
Comic pioneer, Will Eisner, uses the term “Sequential Art” to describe comics. In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud tried to expand this definition but ended up right back at these simple, albeit sterile two words. While this may be a good definition, it misses the point of why comics do such a great job explaining complex concepts. Here are five reasons that might explain that phenomenon:

Approachable – If you had the choice between reading a 60 page TPS report or reading a 60 page comic, which would you be more inclined to do? Exactly. Comics speak to us on an emotional level; they use storytelling rather than fact sharing as a foundation. And who doesn’t want to hear a good story? Evangeline Haughney from Adobe Systems asked that same question and turned to comics to help share research findings in a compelling way with her colleagues.

Universal – Due to their visual format, comics have an ability to transcend language . After all, seeing a businessman trapped under a huge pile of paperwork is clear regardless of the language used. You could probably take out the words from the comic adaptation of Moby Dick and still pick up much of the meaning.

Expression – Comics combine imagery and content to deliver impressive clarity for their message. Look at the two versions of the 9/11 Commission’s findings: One was delivered in traditional text form while the other was delivered as a graphic novel. I’m not sure how the numbers play out, but it’s a safe bet that those who read the comic adaptation had a vastly more emotional experience seeing a dry report brought to life.

Imagination – Through abstraction people engage with the content much more deeply because they can more easily put themselves into the scenarios depicted. The Adventures of Johnny Bunko is a book about magic chopsticks and a pixie spouting career advice, yet as you read the pages, you find yourself wondering where magic chopsticks can be found!

Desire – Because of the reasons outlined above, content delivered in comic form is simply more enjoyable to consume. Comics can turn a dull product manual, for instance, into an entertainment experience. The Nintendo Wii game “No More Heroes” actually delivers their gameplay instructions in the form of a comic, which makes learning the button combinations part of the experience, rather than something to get through before the game actually begins.

Using comics for community workCommunity professionals have a range of activities they’re responsible for but one of the most foundational is the task of communication. Whether bringing information from the company to the community, connecting colleagues to community members, or delivering community feedback into the company, communication is a keystone of any community professional’s daily to-do list.
That said, what better way for a community professional to increase their success than to improve their communication? And what better way to improve their communication than to utilize comics, which pack more punch than plain text alone? Outlined below are four scenarios where using comics may help to improve community interaction. What else can you think of?

Social Outreach
Whether you’re pitching bloggers or introducing yourself to an existing community, comics can be a fantastic and fun way to introduce yourself and your company. The brilliant folks at Capulet Communications did exactly that when they used comics as part of a blogger outreach program for Brothers Printers. They grabbed photos from the Flickr streams of various bloggers and worked them into a comic strip that they then emailed to each blogger.
Tell me you wouldn’t respond, and respond positively, to someone sending you something like this!

Introducing the Team
While we’re thinking about introductions, why not put together a short comic that introduces you and your colleagues to a larger community?

When you, as a company/brand employee begin to engage with communities, it’s important to let a bit of yourself come through, to share some of your personality. This helps build a certain “reality” around you that helps community members believe that you’re honestly interested in engaging and helping them, not just performing marketing activities on the sly. Build a comic strip (or strips) that use humor to share a bit about you, and also about your team members. While you can’t necessarily say “I’m a nice guy who loves to play paintball with friends” to any positive effect, you can show through a comic story a funny paintball incident that others can identify with. Comics make you more approachable because they are more approachable.


Explain Complex ConceptsUsed effectively, comics can distill large amounts of knowledge into a small footprint. Imagine, for instance, the amount of text that would be needed to explain how to create a mini-hovercraft rather than the few comic panels shown below.


Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks of working with community is taking the business realities that you face and distilling them into explanations that both make sense to community members and that also generate support for those realities. Rather than simply typing up a long blog or forum post, how about turning that discussion into comic form? It will probably make your point more effectively and it will definitely be a much more enjoyable exchange.
Help create offline Word of MouthThe AFOLs comic generated an amazing reaction among internal colleagues and clearly helped increase their understanding of the adult LEGO enthusiasts. The AFOLs were constantly asking the community team for help and tools for explaining to the outside world that they weren’t “weirdos” simply because they had a unique hobby. What better way, we thought, than printing and distributing a comic that fans could hand out to friends, family, co-workers, and attendees at their events?
With some minor alterations of the comic, we made it print ready and distributed 10,000 copies to various fan groups and clubs around the United States. They handed these out to other adults who voiced interest in learning more about joining the ranks of adult LEGO fandom as a way to encourage them to join the community.
We also released a PDF version that was quickly translated into multiple languages by the fan community themselves.

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Of course, one factor to consider when printing copies is the number you print and the way you distribute them. Fans love collectibles, after all, and they want to keep a copy of the “artifact” for themselves. One lesson learned is that we should have sent around a small number of copies to fans first, given them a chance to let the excitement of receiving the artifact wear off, then distribute the bulk of the comics to be used for giveaways. As it was, the AFOLs often had a hard time tearing themselves away from their copy to give it out as intended!
Comic Creation ResourcesIf you’re interested in getting started making your own community communication comics, here are a few places you might want to start.
Author Scott McCloud has produced three amazing books about comic creation, all of them told solely through comic form. Start with Understanding Comics and work your way to the other two. Scott also has his own Web site at:
When you’re ready to start building your own, these are two tools that you can use. Both are cheap and easy to use.

  • Comic Book Creator (PC)
  • Comic Life (Mac) (If you have Mac OS 10.4+, you have Comic Life already installed. You can also pull it off your 10.4 installer disc)


(This content was originally posted at the Online Community Research Network and reposted here with permission)


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