You’re doing creative work and you’re interested in actually making a buck or two off of it. It could be that you’re looking to make enough to actually afford a cup of coffee at that little cafe you’re at all the time. Or maybe you’re really ambitious and you’re aiming to make enough to buy a new house. Whatever your goal, the result is going to be zero unless you get your work in front of some eyeballs. This is true whether you’re selling your own original works or just showing off a portfolio so you’ll get hired for commissions. You need to go where the people are.
People are on social media.
In fact, for a lot of folks these days, there’s no longer a differentiation between social media and the internet. For them, social media is the internet. We’ll not be lamenting the sadness of that statement today. This is a pragmatic guide to getting your work in front of people who love it. Fixing how they use the internet is something for another blog post.
This post is the first in a series where I’m going to try and walk you, the curmudgeonly creative, through getting yourself set up on social media so folks will see your work and—hopefully, eventually—give you money for that work. Future posts will be more nuts-and-bolts about specific things to do on each platform, but this one is about getting your mind right before you even start. You may abhor the thought of socializing, digitally or otherwise. Interacting with other people may make you uncomfortable and make your hands sweat. You might despise what these social media platforms stand for. It’s even possible that you’re an outright misanthrope and the very existence of other human beings on this planet raises your ire to an unparalleled degree.
Get over it… or get used to borrowing money for that cup of coffee.
If the first rule of marketing is to go where the people are, then the second rule is this: You are not your audience. The people who like your work are not necessarily like you at all. They certainly don’t think like you. If they did, then they would already be where you are. In fact, they would be the ones who created your work and they’d be the ones reading this post on how to get more people to see it.
Consider the fact that there’s an audience out there who would really love your work. They just haven’t seen it yet. If you can accept that as a truth (and it is true, I’m positive of it), then you must also accept that this audience—these people—aren’t like you. They like social media. They listen to pop music. They’re perfectly content drinking coffee from a gas station convenience store.
And all of that is OK. You don’t have to like those things. You and your audience don’t have to like the same things. However, although they would love your work, they’re not looking for you. You’re going to have to be the one to make the effort of going where they are and letting them know that your work exists.
It’s not going to be comfortable or necessarily easy. I’ve been in the exact same place you are. Had the same hang-ups and concerns. I got dragged, kicking and screaming, into social media pretty early on. A much more socially adept friend of mine set up a MySpace account (yes, way back then) for my small business at the time and foisted the login credentials upon me. After a lot of bellyaching, I ultimately had to admit that she was right (not to her face, obviously). Social media platforms are important. They’re where the eyeballs are. Although it’s still important to have your own website (you do have one, right?), that’s no longer enough. Being active on social media is worthwhile and necessary to build your brand… and you absolutely have a brand. Since the day of that underhanded move by my friend (thanks, Angela!), I’ve made it a point to make myself familiar with popular social media platforms. I’d like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at understanding them. I daresay I might even occasionally enjoy myself when I’m on them. With any luck, I can impart some of that to you.
Still with me? Good! Let’s get started with a few base concepts.
Social media is not for friendships
There are two reasons you want to be on social media. You want to get in front of the eyes and ears of your audience. Secondarily, you might want to connect with a community of your peers. That’s it. Contrary to the terminology used on some social media platforms, it’s not a place to make friends. Social media is for friendships the same way high school is… which is to say, it isn’t.
Sure, you’ll make friends. That happens. People do that quite naturally, whatever the setting. But you don’t go to social media with the goal of making friends. I’m not saying to disparage social media or diminish the value of relationships that start and continue online. Some of my longest friendships are ones that started and continue to be fostered on the web. But you do want to temper your expectations. Most of your interactions with other people will be superficial (just like in meatspace) and you’ve got to keep your primary goal in mind: selling yourself and your work.
Of course, no one wants to interact with someone whose only goal is to sell them something. So I’m not saying to be a spammy shill. You need to be a genuine person who is worth other people’s time. But you want to control your messaging. For instance, I personally try to avoid getting involved in political or religious debates and I don’t post very many photos of my family. However, I will absolutely post passionate diatribes about other things that I’m passionate about, like open source software, animation, and doughnuts. Those things become a part of my personal brand.
And, yes, you’re developing a brand for yourself. If you don’t, someone else will. So may as well be the one in the driver’s seat. You need to decide what parts of your personality that you want people to associate with you. That’s your image, your brand. The things you post are part of the message that delivers that image to your audience.
And here I want to make one point clear: do not lie about who you are. I say this as a person who has posted over 2000 lies online (none of them are about who I am). You are not fabricating a person and passing that person off as yourself. That’s not cool and people can sniff that garbage out miles away. You are presenting a version of your true self that will resonate with your audience. You’re still you. You’re just dressed for the occasion. You’re not wearing a tuxedo to a house show for your favorite metal band.
Of course there are exceptions. Maybe your brand is being that ironic nonconformist. Then in that case, slap that tux on and hop into the pit. What I’m saying here is a guide and recommendations, not doctrine. Just use your judgment and think before you post or reply. Every time.
A note on communities
I mentioned in the previous section that the other reason to be on social media is to join a community of your creative peers (and, of course, interact with them). A large chunk of creative work is done in isolation. Even if you’re doing animation—arguably the most collaborative visual art form—you spend giant swaths of time starring at your board or your computer all by yourself. And if you happen to be geographically located in a place where there aren’t a lot of people who do what you do, it’s very easy to imagine that you’re alone in the world.
The good news is that you’re not alone. The internet (and social media) has afforded creative people with a fantastic means of getting in touch with others who do similar work. You definitely want to get in touch with these people in your field. Trade notes. Learn new tricks and techniques. Talk shop and complain about the same problems that only people in your field understand. You definitely want to take advantage of social media to do these things.
You need to decide whether that’s your primary goal for being on a social media platform or if that’s secondary. It can vary from one platform to another. As an example, maker and craft communities are really active on Instagram, but folks who buy that kind of thing tend to hang out on Pinterest. In the writer community, there’s a common mistake of only following and friending other writers… and then trying to use that platform to sell your work.
Just like you are not your audience, your creative peers are also not your audience. So don’t try to sell to them. In the best case, you’ll get ignored. In the worst, you risk annoying your peers to the point that they won’t be there when you actually do need help. Bottom line: know why you’re on a particular social media platform and keep that goal in mind. If you’re there to connect with your creative community, then the bulk of your follows should be other people who do what you do.
However, if your primary goal is to promote your work and sell it, then that’s not who you want to follow and interact with. Instead, find the people who do work like you and follow their followers… especially the ones who post a lot. Join fan groups dedicated to your medium and your genre within your medium. This is the way to start building a community of your own, around the work that you do. You’ll hear marketers refer to this a “building your tribe.” I’m not overly fond of the term, but the sentiment is still valid. To build a community of fans around your work, you need to be in those places where that audience is already milling about.
Social media is not a broadcast media
And here we come to another core concept. It’s changed a little bit, depending on the social media platform, but for the most part it still holds true. People are on social media to—big surprise—socialize. That’s what you’re going to have to do.
To be clear (and referring to the previous section), there’s a difference between socializing and making friends. You’re purpose is not to make friends. But it is to socialize. You share things and engage in discussions that fit your brand. You do not constantly talk about your work and try to sell it to folks. That behavior is annoying to people and it’s a quick path to getting blocked, ignored, or flagged for spam.
The key here is interaction. Too many people treat social media as if it were a broadcast medium, like television or radio. It’s not. Those media involve a small number of folks with the purpose of telling you what they think… and since it’s not interactive, the implication is that those are the things you should think. The internet—and by extension social media—is driven by interaction. It’s the difference between what marketers will call impressions (broadcast) and engagement (interaction). And as a creative person, you know the value of making the most effective use of the medium you’re working in. If you’re trying to make a song, then trying to do it in paint isn’t going to be as easy as using a musical instrument.
So how about a few bullet points? We like bullet points…
- Don’t only post about your work or the stuff you’re trying to sell. Yes, a percentage of your posts should be on that, but a small percentage. Less than 50%.
- Don’t do “drive-by” posting or “link bombs.” If you post something, say something about it. Don’t just drop a link without context. The idea here is that you want to encourage people to talk about what you’ve posted… to you as well as each other. That means you’ve got to monitor things a bit. If someone replies to your post, you need to respond to that. Interaction, remember?
- Do comment on other people’s posts. You’re not in a lecture hall, and even if you were, you’re not up front, behind a podium. Decentralized discussion is the name of the game. You are not there to megaphone out to the crowd. So if someone else posts something that relates to your brand, respond to them.
- Don’t chase the numbers for your friend/follower count. Unless you have an unusually small number of followers, like less than 10, no one really cares how many followers you have. While there is a such thing a “social proof” (no one wants to follow someone with zero followers), the important thing is that you’re posting things that are interesting and valuable. The internet has allowed the proliferation of niche communities. So the quality of your social media following is way more important than the quantity.
Advertising on social media has changed this a little bit. A lot of old-school television and radio marketers are trying to apply their skills on social media. They’re not ineffective… but they’re also not as effective as they could be and it’s resulted in a lot of loud “broadcast noise”. People have gotten used to tuning a lot of that out. That’s why people who choose a more interactive approach tend to get far better results.
So no shouting into the wind. Sit down with someone and have a talk about interesting things over coffee.
Advertising (i.e. “Paid Traffic”) is almost a requirement… almost
While the bulk of social media traffic is generated by normal people sharing their lives, the routing and delivery of that traffic is typically controlled by software. A block of code decides which post gets priority in an individual person’s feed. And, of course, people (like you) can pay to have their posts prioritized on those feeds. In a lot of cases, the only way that you’re going to be seen on a social media platform is by paying for that exposure.
There’s good news though. If you’re just starting out, advertising probably won’t help you at all, so you don’t have to worry about it just yet. There’s no sense in advertising if you’ve got nothing to share yet… and no one to share it with. Remember, social media isn’t broadcast. You need to build up at least a small organic following of people who like your work and are willing to share it with others. This is that “social proof” thing. The least effective marketing is the marketing that no one talks about. But when people see that others are liking, sharing, and discussing something, human nature takes over. They want “in”.
But eventually, you will have to pay for some advertising if you want to grow that audience and get your work in front of more of the kind of people who would like it. Expect to spend money. Expect to feel like you’re wasting money while you’re figuring things out. There is no “one size fits all” plan for marketing your work. Everyone’s work is different, so it stands to reason that the methods to market that work would vary just as much.
This means you’ll need to do “split testing” to figure out what kind of ads work best for your audience. You’ll need to know what ROI is (it’s short for “return on investment”), so you know whether the money you spend on ads is worth it. You’ll probably want to actually take a course on social media advertising just to get yourself up to speed on the process. This section alone could be its own series of blog posts (or a book… many have been written).
Broadcast advertising worked in the past because there were only a limited number of outlets. An advertiser would blast their message out there and since there were only three channels (on television), everyone would see it. They would count on a small percentage of those people being in their target audience, but since the overall audience size was so large, even a 1% hit rate would produce justifiable results. Sounds a lot like modern spam, doesn’t it? This isn’t a coincidence.
Fortunately, modern marketing is a lot more efficient. There are way more than just three channels now, so the general audience size is way smaller. But, we also live in the age of the proliferation of niche communities. Audiences are already self-selecting, building their own little silos of interaction. This is the infamous “echo chamber” effect that you hear about when it comes to social media platforms. The software behind these platforms have gotten really good at showing people only the things that they’re interested in… and hiding everything else. Whether this is an overall good or bad for society is a discussion for another time. As someone interested in finding the people who like your work, this self-selecting behavior is a beneficial thing for you. Your audience has gathered itself. Those people are waiting for you to tell them about your work. And you don’t have to waste your time showing it to a large general audience where 99% of people don’t care about your stuff at all.
The biggest thing, though: Have a goal. You need to know what the desired result of your ads should be. Do you just want more followers on a specific social media platform? Do you want people to actually buy that thing you just made? Would you like people to visit your website and hire you for commission work? Whatever it is, have a goal and know what it is. That way you can definitively say whether or not your advertising effort (and expense) has been worth it.
The second biggest thing: Be ethical. Social media advertising tools can (and will) provide you with a terrifying assortment of information about people. The analytics and metrics tools that these platforms have are extremely sophisticated. You will have information on people and their habits and even though it’s kind of “baked in” with the sharing models of each social media platform, those people may not be aware of how much private information is out there on them… and how unscrupulous advertisers can take advantage of that information. Don’t be that kind of marketer. It’s not cool.
Know where your ethical boundaries are… and never compromise on them. Make honesty and integrity an integral part of your brand… and mean it. Not only will you be able to sleep at night, but people like dealing with folks they can trust. Never do anything that would risk that trust.
All social media is not the same
Depending on your audience, it’s more important to be on some platforms than on others. Visual artists are likely to have more success on Instagram. Writers may have more traction on Facebook and Twitter. You get the idea.
And as I mentioned before, some platforms are better for connecting with your peers while others are more nicely suited for finding fans of your work. Do a bit of homework. Figure out where your audience and your peers hang out. Act accordingly. But don’t join all the social media platforms and try figuring them all out at the same time. That’s a recipe for disappointment and frustration. Pick one to start with. The specific platform that you pick will depend on what your goals are. If you’re primarily interested in trying to build your audience quickly, you’ll want to target the social media platform with the largest surface area to that audience (it will probably be Facebook). However, if you’re more interested in just getting comfortable with how social media works, maybe starting with a smaller, more cozy platform (like Mastodon) is better for you.
Whichever strategy you choose, you’ll eventually find yourself on more than one social media site. When you do, make sure you use what you’ve learned about each platform. Every social media site is a little bit different. Audiences on each have different expectations and tolerances. As an example, take hashtags. Instagram people are totally used to seeing walls of hashtags tacked on every post. Anywhere from ten to twenty tags are an absolutely common occurrence. Twitter users may tolerate one or two before you’re accused of hashtag abuse. You’ll hardly see any hashtags at all on Facebook.
The point here is that you need to tailor your posting style to fit each platform. It’s unwise to use the exact same posting style—or even the exact same content—on every social media site. Twitter users are generally comfortable seeing the same thing reposted a couple times throughout the day. That mess won’t fly on other sites.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t cross-post. Often, you’ll definitely want to share the same thing to your audiences in each place. But every post should not be cross-posted. Furthermore, even when you do share the same content in each place, you’ll want to deliver it natively (that is, upload images and write posts directly through each platform’s interface. Don’t just link to your Instagram post from Twitter. And use a language and style that fits for each one.
Creative work is, at its core, a form of communicating. You are a communicator. Use your talents and skills in communication to use each social media network in its most effective way. Don’t try to make music with paint.
More to come
If you’ve made it this far, you might’ve noticed that I have a lot to say on this topic. Stick around. I think this is going to become a series of blog posts. In the next post, we’ll get a bit more nuts-and-bolts about things. I’ll cover getting started Facebook, along with a few tips and tricks for finding and connecting with your audience there. In the meantime, hit me up in the comments for this post (or, you know, whichever social media site you saw me share this on). I’d love to discuss this at length with you.
See you around!