Numerous articles have been written on this topic, some of which are quite good. However, most of them fail to adequately live up to my experiences. Let’s be honest here: The internet is a soul-sucking netherworld of ennui. When you offer up your art on a silver platter to faceless strangers, you can’t but help feeling that the resounding silence that is the usual reply reflects, somehow, on you personally.
The problem is that you’re promotions compete directly with hundreds of others cartoonists that are in the exact same boat. Together, the collective yammering forms a white noise that’s easy for readers to ignore. Standing out against this backdrop is very difficult and is, itself, a balancing act. The flip side is that you don’t want to stand out too much. Ads that do generally annoy the hell out of potential readers. Remember yanking your headphones off as banner ads that blast your ears with an add for Viagra? Or those seizure-inducing flash ads of the early 2000’s? Yeah. Don’t be like them.
The trick to good advertising is two-fold. First, advertise off the beaten path. Do not tread the same weary road as everyone else. Certainly you should use web resources available for webcomic promotion, but you should also reach beyond the sphere of webcomics to reach audiences in other niches that might fall within your target audience. For example, if you run a gaming comic you shouldn’t just advertise on webcomic collectives- try advertising on gaming sites and stores. You’ll be reaching your audience without going head to head with other webcomics. Plus, the people who usually visit collectives are already interested in comics or make them themselves, whereas other websites offer fresh blood.
Second, know how to read your web analytics. I cannot emphasize this enough. Promoting your comic without monitoring the results is much akin to a monkey flinging poo- sometimes it sticks, but often not. Web analytics will tell you what works for you and what does not. This will likely be a little different for each comic, as it is largely dependant on the temperament of your audience. But you need to look at more than what sites refer you and how many people they refer. You need to also look at things such as the bounce rate that Google Analytics offers. The bounce rate gives you a rough estimation of how many of those new visitors are sticking around. Also have a look at the ad placement on referring sites. If your add is a tiny 100 px banner in a dusty corner and is still pulling in a lot of visitors, than you have nailed your target market. If you take out a ledger sized banner and you only get one or two visits, chances are you’re missing.
I suggest trying out a micro-bid system before you invest in any significant advertising. Sites such as Project Wonderful are excellent for this. They allow you to experiment with advertising on different sites for a couple of cents at a time. If you advertise on a broad range of sites you will get a better idea of just who your target audience is and what kind of sites you should advertise on in the future.
Also join forums related to your comic. But whatever you do, do not simply join to pimp your comic. This is an extreme netiquette faux pas and will incur the wrath of the admin mallet. You need to become an active member of the community and participate in discussions. Do not post asking for reviews of your comic, and do not try to turn the discussion topic to that of your comic at every juncture. A simple link to your comic in your signature is advertising enough. And don’t bother posting in ‘self promotion’ forums. The only people who read those are the ones who go there to promote their stuff…like you.
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are surprisingly limited as marketing tools. Sure, they’re great if you can get something to go viral, but the chances of that are very slim. They are mostly useful for keeping already fans in touch with your work. Therefore, you already need to have some degree of popularity for them to be of any use. However, sites such as StumbleUpon can give you a small, steady stream of visitors.
Fanart art and guest comics are a great way to promote your work, since the host comic usually links back to your site. But take care- be sure to make something heartfelt, with quality in mind. If you do some slap-dash sketch, no one will be inclined to look at your comic. In short, it should not just be a cheap marketing ploy.
I do not claim to be some paragon of the webcomic world. My word is not law and my comic is no Penny Arcade. But these are things that have worked for me and might work for you. The long and short of it is that any promotion done without consideration for the viewer will fail, flat out. Concentrate on a few quality promotion campaigns at a time.