By Luciana Lopez
NEW YORK (Reuters) - This year's New York Comic Con might not look that different from years past: costumed fans, panels of pop culture luminaries and a sprawling floor of vendors and artists.
But for the companies that attend this pop culture convention and others like it nationwide, there have been significant changes over the years.
The proliferation of such events, the explosion of social media and the overwhelming size of the gatherings are forcing companies to change their own approaches to meeting, engaging and hooking new and old fans.
From niche meetings for fans, comic cons have become sprawling affairs. New York Comic Con at the Javits Center expects to attract more than 120,000 fans to the four-day event that ends on Sunday, a steep rise from the first edition of the con, in 2006, which drew 33,000 people.
The event occupies a space equivalent to more than three football fields and includes a massive exhibitors floor. Last year's event featured everything from standards such as T-shirts and graphic novels to vampire teeth, corsets and even bed sheets.
"There's so much when you walk on that floor it's information overload," said Christopher "mink" Morrison, founder of Twistory Entertainment Studios, which produces film, magazines, graphic novels and videogames.
Faced with the need to cut through the increased noise at the events, Twistory set up two giant iPads rising 10 feet on which their artists can draw fans can play the company's new game, "Belle's War."
The so-called Padzillas engage the fans and pose questions, giving Twistory the chance to draw fans further in.
"I don't think in today's day and age you leave anything off the table if you are an entertainer," Morrison said.
IMPACT OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Cons have grown in several ways. There are simply more of them now. In addition to the massive San Diego show, usually in July, and the New York show, there are cons for everything from horror to anime, everywhere from St. Louis to Salt Lake City.
It means companies have to choose carefully which to attend. Even a great con might not make the cut, said Jim Babcock, senior director of marketing at Adult Swim, a late-night programming block airing on Cartoon Network.
New York Comic Con is "a great place to meet with the hard-corest of our fans," Babcock said, noting that Adult Swim has also been going to San Diego Comic Con for at least 15 years.
A convention too near San Diego or New York in timing might not be viable because the company would not have time to put together another presentation so quickly, he said.
Timing also matters in other ways. If Adult Swim does not have anything new slated for the next quarter or so, the con probably will not be a fit, Babcock said.
One of the biggest changes, though, has been the rise of social media. Disclosures that were once exclusive to comic con fans now get spread around the world on Twitter in seconds. Videos of panels can pop up on YouTube before sessions are over.
But there are advantages, too. For Voltron, the robot cartoon classic of the mid-80s, social media have provided a new avenue to reach fans.
Jeremy Corray, Voltron's creative director, said crafting a personal experience for fans is essential.
One group of fans have role-played Voltron's main characters on Twitter - sort of like fan fiction, 140 characters at a time.
To reward those ardent fans, said Corray, "I am going to give them an as-yet-unproduced Voltron Force season 2 script and have members do a live reading at the panel followed by a live Tweet session where they act out the script."
Still, for all the change, some things remain constant. There is at least one classic strategy that Voltron - and plenty of other companies - will be trotting out, Corray notes.
"Two words: free prizes."
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Mohammad Zargham)