For two years, I hardly promoted my webcomics at all. I had stopped sending out press releases, gradually taken down all of the link exchanges, button things, topsite lists and all those other page-fillers that individually all seem like a good idea but collectively clutter up the websites they're on. I also didn't advertise. I adopted an attitude of "wait and see what happens if I just draw the comic, updated and let the site speak for itself."
Of course, there was still the internal promotion at Modern Tales, plus my routine activities at comics forums everywhere, but I didn't make any special effort to promote. My reason for that was simple enough: I had no faith in the effectiveness of the promotional mechanisms I abandoned.
Just a few months ago, I decided to dip my toes in again. I wanted to help out Clan of the Cats, a moderately popular but struggling webcomic, in a way that also benefited me, because if that was the case I could afford to spend more money and effort on it. So for the first time since 2001, I paid for an advertising campaign, using art that I paid Clan of the Cats artist Jamie Robertson to color and work into two common internet advertising formats. That ad ran on the Clan of the Cats site for three weeks, during which the number of people visiting the Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan front page rose by about a hundred a day, or 50% (of the old total).
I haven't done the final reckoning for the campaign, (and I won't do so until I see how the campaign's ending affects my numbers, and in any case I won't publish the results here), but my hunch is that the ad turned out on the expensive side for the gains made, and that I will need cheaper promotions in the future. Now, back when I abandoned my promotional efforts, the choices one had were between paid advertising, considered ineffective at the even higher rates used then, and unpaid advertising, considered, well, crap. The unpaid advertising consisted of things like webrings (which broke a lot), banner exchanges (which kept everyone fishing in the same small pool) and topsite lists (which typically served the list owner more than any of the participants), all of which cluttered up a website something rotten. I like a nice clean website so out they went.
Since then, I think things have improved somewhat.
The high end of paid advertising has become more effective at a lower price. Keenspot's larger banner ads, introduced late in 2002, are more attractive than regular banner ads and can contain more information about what you're advertising — without being as annoying as other new ad formats. Other comics sites have caught on to the idea that ads for other comics are usually immune to banner blindness that affects ads for unrelated products, so sites like RPG world now offer some ad space of their own to cartoonists. I've also heard good things about advertising on Ghastly's Ghastly Comic and am considering that.
But those still suffer somewhat from the 'fishing in a small pool' effect: you're advertising among people who are already likely to be readers. And that's why I'm very happy with advertising on The Webcomic List which should be seen as the next step up in terms of who you're advertising to: you're still targeting webcomics readers, but you're targeting readers of all webcomics. The Webcomic list is a site that keeps track of when webcomics update. Anyone can add to their database of webcomics, write a synopsis or suggest a representative image to be used. That alone is enough to add a couple of dozen visitors on an update day, at no cost. But the cheap advertising formats are also very effective: I've bought their cheapest ad format and that added another couple of dozen visitors on both update days and off-days. And if those visitors like it, they will never miss an update again, because they can add ROCR to their own private list of favorite comics that the site monitors for them.
I don't know if advertising on thewebcomicslist.com will remain effective once the number of advertisers grows. They have a limited number of spots, and what they sell is a number of weeks in a rotating slot. This is great if the number of advertisers is close to the number of available slots, but not so great if there are many advertisers in the rotation. So maybe it's unwise of me to tip other webcartoonists off about this site too much. For now, though, I'm very satisfied with them and will seek out similar sites to advertise on.