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DC’s Own VP of Sales Talks the DC Comics Nielsen Survey and Why It Was Not “Representative”

DC Comics’ Executive Vice President of Sales, Marketing, and Business Development John Rood has given a very interesting interview to Publishers Weekly, regarding the results from the company’s very first Nielsen survey of their readership late last year. In it, he admits, or perhaps clarifies, that the survey is not representative of DC’s entire audience, and has some very interesting news about female readership as portrayed by the survey results.

When the survey’s results were announced last week, showing a dismal lack of brand-new readers, female readers, and young readers to the New 52, there was a lot more that we wanted to know, here at The Mary Sue. Things like the gender demographics from book to book or the gender demographics on digital might have been really interesting to draw conclusions from. The results released last week seemed like just the tip of the iceberg, and Rood reveals a bit more of it in the interview.

If you’re unfamiliar with the survey you could read our post, or I’ll try and sum it up. DC administered its survey in three ways: by physical polling at selected comic book stores on Wednesdays in September, the first month that the New 52 was available; by issuing a survey available only to select purchasers of its digital comics; and by putting an open survey online that eschewed readers who had not purchased actual New 52 issues (with the insertion of a trick question and by asking openly). The results were released last week and revealed that the first issues of the New 52, according to those polled, had been purchased by a group that was only 5% new readers, and mostly men between the ages of 13 and 34. We saw this as pretty disappointing, for a publishing initiative that DC was pushing vocally and repeatedly as a great opportunity to bring in “new fans, people who never even bought a comic before,” and “newer, younger readers,” and to add, overall, to the diversity of their audience.

Here’s what John Rood said about the accuracy of the study:

What we want to do over time with the help of Nielsen and retailers is find a study that is more representative overall. It will have to be an ongoing study that isn’t just on Wednesdays, isn’t just in September and isn’t just around new #1 big and some passionate press activity. We’re very pleased with the study but we can’t suggest the results are representative until we do a consistent study with multiple data points and have a tracker over time.

But the other interesting statistic to our minds is this: in the online surveys, open to anyone who was familiar with and purchasing the New 52, women made up 23% of the survey population rather than the 7% polled in comic stores and through a survey only available to DC’s new digital-only customers.

The in-store and the online exclusively —group 1 and group 3—those were both 93-7 in male/female skew. The middle survey, online only which was open to any self-identified shopper, was 77-23 male/female. So was there a glut of activity specific to wanting to register certain feedback? I can’t say whether females found their voice in that survey or whether they had specific female related issues to report on, but this is something that stood out.

Also? The sample size on those two surveys that cited the female population of comic readers as a mere 7%? It was an order of magnitude smaller than the open online survey (that still corrected for knowledge and purchase of the New 52).

For what it’s worth, in-store we had 167 completed, the online survey was over 5000 completed surveys and then from our online list that we solicited via third party email, the people on our digital purchase list, we had over 600 completed surveys.

Sample size aside (and that’s a pretty big aside), there might still be some things DC could learn from that more than 300% difference in the percentage of women readers between the differently administrated survey. In Rood’s case, he says the difference might have been because women (or “females,” as he says) had specific concerns they wanted to address, and hence had a greater impetus to complete the survey that was made available to them. Ultimately, he admits, he has no way of knowing. Seems to me, that if you had the data you could find the respondents that voiced concerns about, say, gender representation either in characters or in creators, and then look at the gender demographics of those respondents. While I’m not going to discount the possibility that wanting to voice your opinion when the comics industry openly asks for it motivated more than three times as many women as men (if the surveys with much smaller sample sizes are taken to have gotten the gender ratio right), it seems unlikely to me that it would have had a 300%+ effect on those ratios. Maybe women are more active in online fan communities, and therefore more likely to have been alerted to the online survey? Maybe their female fans, while smaller in number, are more dedicated to what they like about the brand? However, like Rood says, I can’t actually draw any concrete conclusions from the current data.

Interviewer Heidi MacDonald questioned Rood directly about some of the results of the survey in her penultimate question:

The number of women was very low and the number of younger readers was very low. Is there any concern about that? Or initiatives going forward?

ROOD: I don’t think there is surprise associated with it. We have an ongoing imperative to reach as many people as we can. So I’m proud of our track record in female characters, female storytelling and female creators. We’re going to keep at it to make sure that all are welcome, at our site, in our partner stores etc. I think we want to do this [survey] ongoing for this very reason, so we don’t get skewed by the wild success of September and skewed by the limitations of this first survey.

I know as VP of sales, Rood is pretty much required by his physical constitution to voice every confidence in his company, but lets just point out that he, when asked specifically about the New 52, said he was proud of a track record that, while it includes a number of really great titles about female superheroes, reduced the number of employed female creators by around 90% and also saw a decrease in the number of major female characters in the publisher’s line up.

Rood confirmed that there will be another survey done sometime during this year, in keeping with the company’s new, President-Diane-Nelson-mandated, focus on demographic research, which makes it the most comprehensive campaign to scientifically demographically map the comics reading community. Which is still somewhat admirable, even if it’s the first. All in all, I think DC’s commitment to get hard data on comics readers is long overdue, and I hope that not matter what the hard numbers turn out to be, it shows the industry a better way to do business in any and all respects.

You can read the whole interview here.

(via DC Women Kicking Ass.)

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  • Anonymous

    “ women (or “females,” as he says) ”
    Barf. People need to stop calling women “females.”

  • Anonymous

     Thank you! I’m glad I’m not the only one who hates that.

  • Jinxy Blastwave

    “…avid fans are more apt to participate in a survey in the first place
    than a new fan, whether that survey is through the in-store recruiting,
    or the website that was solicited to the in-store and digital shoppers,
    and the digital buyer list we targeted specifically.”  That’s a good point.  If you were a new reader, you probably wouldn’t even see the survey website, and you certainly wouldn’t feel much desire to fill it out if you did.  So I think maybe we need to discount the 5% new readers part, as that might be flawed by the survey methodology. 

    What isn’t flawed, however, is that at most, only 23% of respondents were women, which is to say, within the readership, only 23% are women and hardcore fans of the product.  The survey just goes a long way to give us some data about things that Mary Sue and DC Women Kicking Ass have been talking about for a long time, namely that women are mistreated within the product.  They can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results, because that 23 could get even smaller.

  • Jennifer Cardigan

    Maybe because women don’t like going into physical comic book stores?! That would definitely account for Group 1.

    Just speaking from my experience, I spent about $200 a month at comic book stores in college, but the actual experience of going to my local comic book store filled me with a stomach-churning dread. I loved the owner, and he always recommended great books for me, but the stereotypical Kevin Smith-esque guy who regularly staffed the counter awkwardly flirted with me and made me feel uncomfortable while I was browsing in the store. Being young and awkward myself, I didn’t know how to handle this and stopped going to the store.

    I currently avoid my local comic book store because the last few times I was in, there was always a group of guys arguing some plotline or other and cursing like sailors the whole time I was in there. They never spoke to me, so I never felt personally uncomfortable, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

    To be fair – I’ve had wonderful experiences in comic book shops, too. However, can’t they think that there might be a reason why girls don’t like going into comic book stores? Especially now that comics are available online.

    I took the survey because I received an email invitation to take it. They asked ME, yet from how I read it, they’re trying to write off my responses. I’d love if someone actually took the time to understand this huge (potential) percentage of their marketplace. You’d think from going to all these conventions that they’d recognize the growing number of female fans they have.

  • ZenPoseur

    The sample size doesn’t bother me (above 30 or so, the marginal value of additional sampling diminishes very quickly, so an order of magnitude isn’t as meaningful as it appears at first glance.)

    The collection methodology, however, bothers me a lot.  Good sample statistics depend on a random sample, which they absolutely didn’t get with their in-store surveys.  At best, they’ve described the set of customers on that particular day.  I don’t have enough data to similarly condemn the other two surveys, but they don’t sound great either.

    It also bothers me that Nielson signed off on such a survey.  It makes me wonder if their customer reps have stopped talking to their statisticians.

  • Adam Whitley

    Ok I’ll be the guy who asks. Why does that bother you or since seven people liked that comment why does that bother anyone? I ask because being referred to as male never bothered me and seems scientifically accurate so I’m puzzled.

  • Michelle

    Referring to people as ‘females’ or ‘males’ is dehumanizing and a bit demeaning. Those are adjectives, not nouns. We (humans) call other animals ‘females’ and ‘males’ because we do not perceive them as ‘people’ with all the attendant respect. When referring to people it’s ‘women’ or ‘men’.

    I’m female. I’m a female human. I am not ‘a female’ – I’m a woman.

  • Carmen Sandiego

    It sounds more like the way nature shows describe animal activity; detached, and it seems to be used far more than men are referred to as ‘males’.  That’s just my take on it, I can’t speak for others.

  • Anonymous

    It’s an “othering” effect. As others have pointed out, it’s a term we use for animals because we don’t identify with them as “people.” Sci-fi aliens call us “humans” or “humanoids” or “earthlings”, yet it’s odd to address each other as that, isn’t it? It’s the same with women vs females. It turns women into an alien “other,” because a word already exists in our language and “men” is used a lot when talking about men, yet “females” is way more prevelant when talking about women, and so is “girls”. Women would like to be recognized as women. You’d be bothered if you were called constantly called a boy instead of a man, wouldn’t you? It’s a similar feeling.

  • Corina Lynn Becker

    Problems with methodology, terminology and comic book store environments aside, I’m not entirely too surprised.   Something about the industry kinda puts me off, even though I love comic books.  Maybe it’s the lack of women characters that I can actually relate to, and the lack of diversity in characters.  I’d love to see more characters that aren’t just minority tokens.  That and the fairly consistent objectification of women characters.  There’s quite a few posts on my Tumblr dash about the pretty impossible fighting poses and anatomy that women characters are drawn in. 

    Case in point, I’ve been playing DC Universe Online (my first MMO, by the way, and I struck by the differences between men and woman characters.  With male characters, there is more diversity in shapes, while with female characters, the only real difference I can see is height and boob size.   There’s also a lot more options for hair style for men. 

    Another problem is skin colours.  Yes, there are options to change the colour base, which is neat, but the “skins” have Caucasian facial features.  Even if I change my skin to brown, my facial features are still white. 

    If this is in any way representative of how women are treated in the comics industry, I don’t wonder why I only visit my comic shop once a month to pick up the one or two issues I’ve put on reserve.  Even though my local comic shop is very good and comfortable, no pin-ups and I’ve yet to be leered at, flitted with, or generally felt unwelcome, I don’t stay long.  I might do a sweep of the manga, games, t-shirts and Doctor Who toys, but I don’t browse the comics.  Because I generally get the feeling that there’s not much there for me.  I’m a disabled woman, I want minority equality and realistic body sizes; who in comics could I possibly relate to?

  • Sarah Nuckolls

    I’m gunna agree with the unpleasant experience for women in the average comic book store might be a factor here. I’ve gone to some stores that were awesome but mostly I’ve been ignored or treated poorly in most comic book stores… although honestly it seems to me the customer service is appalling in general in a great many of these stores which begs the question why do men shop there either? 

  • Rori

    I am really not surprised at any of this, especially not that they want better numbers. I think the important thing to keep in mind, and I want to yell it from the rooftops: DC DOES NOT EQUAL COMICS! I have been unimpressed with their overall product (and Marvel’s as well) for years now (with a couple of exceptions). I thought about taking the survey just to register my general dismay, but then I said, hey, I don’t buy these titles and I haven’t even really cared about them in years, so I didn’t (despite a LOT of encouragement to fill it out from the online community).

    I bet if Maxim did a survey like this they’d get similar responses, because even though some women read Maxim (and that’s okay, I guess) who it is geared for is men with a certain sort of sexual ideal of women. That women don’t read Maxim in big numbers is never used as proof women don’t like magazines. However, think about what would happen if the general public had to buy their Newsweek and Vogue and Wired in an environment that catered to and was decorated for Maxim readers. That would be considered really bad business practice, yet, many comic shops still cling to a very cliquish culture, many wondering why they can’t attract new readers.

    What I would really like to see is some surveying of webcomic readers. I know from talking with other webcomic creators anecdotally that female readership is often close to parity with male readership or in majority. What that says to me is when you have “barrier-less” access to the comic medium and where genre and tone aren’t tightly controlled (i.e., diversity) you see numbers that more align to population. I would LOVE to see some hard, cold numbers on this and finally put to bed that there’s is anything but the big two’s content that is turning women (and men, btw) away from their comics.

  • Rori

    Plenty don’t. Those shops with that culture cater to a very specific clientele. I know more than a few male comic readers who prefer shopping at the “girl-friendly” stores because they are cleaner, well-lit and friendly.
    Even so, comics readers, of all kinds, are a minority :(

  • Rori

    Plenty don’t. Those shops with that culture cater to a very specific
    clientele. I know more than a few male comic readers who prefer shopping
    at the “girl-friendly” stores because they are cleaner, well-lit and
    Even so, comics readers, of all kinds, are a minority :( 

  • Travis Fischer

    I’m not personally offended when I hear men referred to as a group of “males”.

    Thank you for telling me why I don’t get offended because, as a male, I clearly don’t know any better. That’s not dehumanizing at all.

  • Gerald Q. Owlington

    I’m a guy and I have always found it strange that people call women females and men males.  Thank you (all) for validating that.  Turns out I’m not weird.  At least as far as that goes.  :D

  • John Louis Swaine

    I’m firmly in the “stop being so idiotically sexist” camp when it comes to comics but surely “females” is a better choice here if he’s speaking in respect of both Women and Girls. Same as Men and Boys. 

  • Adam Whitley

    Perhaps it’s just my own personal experiences that has caused me to be confused by this because I haven’t seen the term females be used more than males, not saying im disagreeing with anyone or even about the othering effect it just, well it’s not what I encounterned or maybe just never paid attention to how much which term was used over the other and I’ve never encountered anyone who was offended by either term until this very moment.

  • Anonymous

    You may think that, but are you a woman or a girl? If not, you don’t really have a vote in the matter. If women don’t want to be called “females” then that’s not what they should be called.

  • Anonymous

    I definitely have, all the time, in a large variety of mediums. It’s a lot easier for me and other women to see and recognize because it directly affects us. It’s easier to not see things that don’t affect you, so there should be trust on this side of the court that we’re not just making crap up here.

  • Anonymous
  • Hexiva Javed

    A bit of Devil’s Advocate here, but I feel like “females” is more inclusive. I’m sixteen. I’m _not_ a woman by most definitions; I’m a girl. “Women” doesn’t necessarily include me. 

  • Anonymous

    I understand there’s a logic to it, but you have to account for stigma, which can’t be reduced logically or explained well. As you get older, you will see trends in your life. Things that didn’t bother you the first time may bother you the hundreth time. I don’t expect those who haven’t been exposed to the trend enough to see why it’s a big deal yet, but in the end, it’s a matter of respect. If someone doesn’t want you to say a certain word, no matter what it is, it shows how much respect you have for them if you grant their request or not. (and it’s not to say “females” is never an applicable word, ever, the stigma comes when “men” is used alongside “females” or when there’s no reason to say otherwise, because, again, none of us really go around saying “males this, males that”)