In conjunction with the launch of ReedPop’s new online marketplace The Haul (see "ReedPop Launches Online Marketplace”), we talked to Mike Armstrong, ReedPop Vice President of New Initiatives, about the fan convention giant’s response to Covid, including the reduction of live events and growth of online initiatives, including The Haul.

ICv2: You’ve come from the live event side of the business and have changed roles. What Reed activities do you have responsibility for now?

Mike Armstrong:  These days, I oversee what we call new initiatives. My goals are,‘How do we bridge our physical live events business with our digital business? How do we launch the initiatives and products that are going to help make our business less reliant on just live events, and trying to build things that are additive to the fan experience when we do get back to live shows?’

You said you want to be less reliant on live events. Is that because of the pandemic situation now, or are you just looking ahead and thinking, "Hey, this might happen again"?

No, it's not necessarily thinking that it's going to happen again, but it's the kind of thing that we've been talking about for a really long time and didn't have the impetus, or it was always on the corner of our desks.

Our goal as a brand has always been,‘How do we make fandom more accessible to people?’ That that doesn't necessarily just have to happen as a physical event. We have brands that people want to engage with; we've got digital properties that people want to engage with.

‘How do we use some of our muscles from live events and turn it into a more digital component?’ I don't think we see long‑term weakness in live events. When we get back to doing shows, I think we're going to get a lot of momentum.

I think we can get back to the size that we were pretty quickly, but there are other things that we've always needed to do, like the Haul, like memberships, that we were now able to do, because we weren't so focused on running events.

Maybe you could start out generally talking about how ReedPop fared over the last year and a half. What have you been up to, and how are you coming out of the shutdown of all your live events?

We're really anxious to get back to live events, obviously. We had Florida Supercon in September, our first show back. Obviously, we've struggled. We've said goodbye to some teammates.We've said goodbye to some shows. There are shows that we've just completely divested, or decided won't run again in the near future. We've retrenched a little bit, which was frustrating, because coming off of C2E2 in 2020, we had such good momentum.

We felt so good about that show. We felt so good about the Emerald City that we were about to have in Seattle three weeks later. That ultimately got canceled, and then postponed, and then canceled again. It was really a disappointing year, obviously.

During that time, though, it allowed us to pick up some projects that had been sitting around for a while that weren't getting any attention, because we were so focused on running events. It was an opportunity for us to look at things like the marketplace, look at things like memberships that were always a twinkle in our eyes, and an idea that maybe one day we'd get to, but never really had the chance.

Now that we've been spending 14 months planning, talking to fans, and talking to exhibitors and customers, that now that they're on the horizon of launching, having those things alongside a really robust live event make us pretty optimistic for the future.

We've always envisioned ourselves as more than just a convention organizer. That's why we went out and partnered with Gamer Network and that group of websites over three years ago. We wanted to be more than just people who set up a convention.

Let's move on to Metaverse, which was a new initiative that started this year.  It appeared to grow out of what you did with New York Comic‑Con last year (see “NYCC Canceled”). Is that a fair characterization?

That's fair. Metaverse is an all‑encompassing brand. Obviously, people know us from New York ComicCon, Emerald City, C2E2, or Florida Supercon, but we wanted to create a brand that was an umbrella of all those things, because we find that people are more willing to engage in content if it was something that wasn't so regional.

Metaverse started as us trying to see what worked and running some "digital events" and seeing how people liked them. I think our biggest one clearly was the one that was around the New York ComicCon dates last October.

We got great content and great partners, and our numbers were fantastic. We were really excited about what was happening. Then we started to think about the dynamic between fans and that content, and that's where the Metaverse membership program came from.

We're looking into '21 and we're looking into '22, and we know that we're going to be running some digital events again. We wanted to make sure that we provided an outlet for people to engage with this content when they weren't able to or weren't willing to travel to a live event.

New York Comic‑Con may have capacity restrictions. There are some people who are long‑time New York Comic‑Con attendees who just may not feel comfortable being in a crowd again. So how do I get them content that's coming from those events?How do I get the exclusives that are coming out from our exhibiting partners and give that to somebody simply in a virtual way? That's really what we're trying to do with Metaverse right now.

You mentioned shows that you weren't doing anymore. Were you talking about Book Expo?

Book Expo, the comic events that we were running in Australia aren't running again. There are pauses on things like Keystone, which was in Philadelphia. Things that just didn't make sense to do when we were a smaller team, and when we needed to make sure that we were giving some of our larger brands more attention.

Circling back to Metaverse, the biggest feature related to the live event shows is obviously early access to tickets, and the rest of the components of the membership seem to be primarily related to digital content?

Yeah. Obviously, there are a segment of people who are really passionate about New York Comic‑Con and want to make sure that they're going to get their tickets, especially in a year where we've got limited capacity.

We saw a lot of people who were buying the membership for that. We also saw a lot of people who have never attended New York Comic‑Con who live in a part of the country where it's not reasonable for them to get to one of our live events, but they value the content that comes out of that.

I was really encouraged with that first rush. We saw an incredible rush in the first 15 minutes of those memberships launching, and people wanting it primarily because they wanted the first access to tickets. Over time, since the initial rush has died down, seeing the people who are coming from international or coming from parts of the country where we don't have an event has been really, really encouraging.

Let’s talk about the next initiative, The Haul. Could you describe it for our readers?

Essentially, The Haul is a marketplace for convention retailers, exhibitors, artists who haven't had the revenue stream of live events for the last 16 months, which is a pretty significant part of their income. They haven't had that, so we've been looking to build ways to get our fans access to all of that stuff in one place.

It was really frustrating during our first few digital events, where we'd be promoting artists, and we'd be promoting brands, and then we would be sending them all to different websites. We'd be sending them to a big cartel page, or it was someone else's separate Shopify page.

It made it really hard to replicate the convention experience that we love, which is where you're walking down the aisle, looking for one thing, and you're distracted by something else that you didn't know existed. It's the best part of a convention for me.

That's a really hard thing to replicate online, so that's our goal with the Haul. It's a place where artists, retailers, big companies can list products that our fans can go to one place, make one transaction, and get all of the stuff that they want.

We have a number of different relationships with licensees and exhibitors where this will be a place that we can source variants and exclusive comics from. You can find toys that people have available for sale at one of our physical events. You'll also be able to find them on the Haul at the same time.

It's a way for us to not only help sustain retailers, exhibitors, artists, but also give our fans an opportunity to find new stuff, to strengthen existing fandoms, and find new fandoms.

Is this a platform for third‑party sellers, or is it a ReedPop ecomm site?

It's both. You'll have New York Comic‑Con merchandise. You'll have Star Wars Celebration merchandise. You'll have everything that you've been able to get from us online before, but it's also a third‑party marketplace.

If you are a known retailer to us, if you've done one of our shows, if you've done artists alley at one of our events, you would have access to list your products in The Haul, and then fulfill how you normally fulfill. For some, it can be their sole ecommerce platform.

There is a bit of individuality and customization that can go along with it. It also allow you to essentially import inventory from an existing ecommerce site and then sell through a different channel.

Is this a proprietary platform?

It's proprietary. We've been working with a partner based out of Ohio called Spaceshop Commerce. It's been fantastic. They've done everything and more that we've asked of them. I think they understand the convention experience. They understand the fan experience, and they understand how ecommerce works.

They know the buttons to push, and they've built a beautiful platform that I know exhibitors are going to enjoy, the ease of it. Then the fans hopefully enjoy it because of the ability to find stuff that they couldn't find anywhere else.

There's obviously some tech giants that have platforms for third‑party sellers. How is the Haul going to be different from those?

We're really focused on our niche, and our niche is pop culture conventions, comics, toys, things like that. Our fans are looking for a place where they can go and see the things that they were going to see at conventions.

If you were going to compare this to an Etsy, an eBay, or an Amazon, we're not trying to be any of those things. We're trying to be us. The fact that you need be an exhibitor at one of our events to participate initially, I think, lends a bit of trust to it.

People know how much we vet the exhibitors that partake in our live events, and we're going to have the same amount of scrutiny on what people are selling and which people are selling on the Haul. It's not like somebody can pop on here and sell a Funko Pop at 500 percent of list price.

This is for people who are selling their own stuff, and for retailers who are reselling at reasonable rates. I think that, again, we're not trying to be them. We're trying to service our fans in the best way that we know how.

Plus, with the size of our database from ticketholders and people who have attended our events over the last 12, 15 years, there's a pretty significant amount of marketing that's going in behind this. Anytime we're talking about New York ComicCon or C2E2, or we're pushing anything, you're going to see the Haul.

That's going to be a boon for a lot of these retailers and exhibitors who may not be the top dog on some of those other platforms.

Do retailers, publishers, or anybody else that might want to participate, pay a fee for being there, a revshare, or both?

For right now, for early adopters, it's just a revshare. We're working on a straight commission rate, but there's no sign‑up fees, no monthly maintenance fees, none of that.

Are you envisioning this as a platform where the sellers would operate year‑round, or just in association with particular shows?

Ideally, it'd be year‑round. Obviously, there's going to be peaks and valleys that align with our shows when people are paying the most attention to us, but our goal is for this to be a year‑round platform, where if you're looking for a Mother's Day gift for your mom, and she's a big Doctor Who fan, we would encourage you to check out the Haul.

Also, this is not something that we're just promoting around events. This is something that is going to be somebody's full‑time job for the entire year on our side, making sure that we're calling out relevant individual sellers who we want to make sure that they're getting all the promotions they deserve. Ideally, this is a full‑year thing.

It sounded like you're going to moderate the offerings with respect to price.

We're not going to step in with a third party and say that, "You need to drop on the price on this." I think my point was more we're not going to cater to the blatant scalping or reselling market, somebody who goes and buys four FunkoPop!s from a convention and then puts them up on the site for 500 percent over the list price.

We will have retailers who are selling things at more than list price, because that's just what the market will bear. We're not allowing individuals to sign up for the platform. It's only retailers and artists who have participated in our events.

On the consumer side, do you have to be a Metaverse member to shop there?

Nope. If you are a Metaverse member, though, you'll get access to items that others might not, or you'll get early access to some of the more highly sought‑after exclusives.

You said that one of the best experiences of a show is you're walking along, and there's this thing that you knew you wanted, but on the way there, you see this other thing that you didn't know existed.I know online retailers have all kinds of recommendation algorithms, but that's a little different from showing maybe somebody unexpected. How do you expect to replicate that part of the convention experience in the Haul?

What we want to be able to do with all of the digital content that we're doing, everything we're doing with shows, and with the Haul is make sure that people understand the wide range of things that are out there.

I think about the reason why anime companies come to New York Comic Con. Obviously, anime publishers and the Crunchyrolls and Funimations of the world, they do anime conventions, because that's their bread and butter. They're also trying to identify new fans at events like ComicCon. Somebody who is willing to read a graphic novel or a comic book is probably more likely to convert into somebody who will read manga or watch anime than somebody else.

That's the kind of thing that we want to be able to recreate here, is to have some different types of fandom, different types of content that may not be necessarily appreciated and have them become accessible to fans. It's less focused on the algorithm and more focused on the human ability to pick and choose where we think there are things that may be going unnoticed that can be highlighted in a way that I don't think an algorithm or a big company with a big database of products could do.