You did it! You fought procrastination, self-sabotage and sleepiness to bring something new and creative into the world. This in itself is wonderful, but if you want others to see what you’ve made, you’re not done yet. Now you have to tell people about it.
If you’re a bit queasy about self-promotion, you’re not alone. Luckily, you don’t need to surrender your ethics and aesthetics to do the job. For over 10 years, I’ve worked in arts and culture marketing for non-profit institutions, museums, publishers, and as an artist myself. A professional background in marketing hasn’t made it any easier to promote my own creative work, though—it’s a deeply vulnerable thing to make something, let alone to ask people to notice it, evaluate it, or pay for it. But marketing creative institutions has taught me how to create promotional plans using today’s abundance of digital tools, while still preserving the mental and emotional energy that should rightfully be spent making new work.
In this guide we’ll discuss how to make the most of the freedom you have as your own marketing team, where to place your focus, and how to make sure your voice as an artist shines through.
Know your goals
Promoting yourself and your work can (and should) be creative, but one way it differs from your other artistic pursuits is that it always needs a goal. What is yours? Do you want to keep your network of friends and family informed about what you’re doing, or do you want to build a global audience? Do you want people to attend your shows, download your songs, or buy your ceramics? Do you want to make enough money to pay your rent or retire early? Getting clear on what you want to achieve will help everything else take form, and will help you know when you’re done.
One handy tool from the business world that might help you in forming your goals is the SMART system. Based on this acronym, goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timebound. Pushing for specificity here will keep your marketing time-minimal, and will help keep the impact high. So: instead of a goal like “raise my profile in the local music scene,” a SMART goal would be, “Sell out my show at the club next month.”
Know your audience
The more precisely you define your goal, the more likely you are to reach it. Similarly, the more clearly you can define your audience, the more likely you are to reach them. To get to know your audience, it can help to paint a mental picture of your ideal fan/follower/supporter (or, better yet, describe the fans/followers/supporters you already have).
Two entry points for exploring your audience are demographics and psychographics. Demographics are facts such as a person’s location, age, family structure, income, and education. Psychographics address an audience’s attitudes, aspirations, and behaviors. To explore your audience’s psychographics, you can ask yourself these questions: What motivates them? What are their dreams? What are their values? Why might they connect with your work over others in your field? You also might want to make a list of other things your audience might like, such as what they do for fun, where they get their news and entertainment, and what other artists they might support.
At this point, you’ll probably have a picture in your head of who this person might be. Give this imaginary friend a name—they will come in handy down the road.
Most of us see thousands of promotional messages a day, but they’re like air—so ubiquitous we might not even notice them. This guide is your invitation to start noticing (and analyzing!) the promotional techniques that you actually enjoy seeing, or that resonate with you. Here are a few questions to get you started:
• Where did you encounter the message?
• What does it look like?
• What does it sound like?
• How does it make you feel?
• And most importantly—how was all of this achieved?
In order to promote your work effectively, it’s important to understand how a word, image, or idea might affect someone’s emotions and stimulate their senses. Luckily, as a creative person, this is where your talents will shine. As you learn from those who are doing things well, it’s equally important to learn what promotional techniques bother you. And, even if you see a peer succeeding with strategies that rub you the wrong way (and you will), resist the fear that you need to replicate them. That won’t serve that ideal audience member we just conjured together, and it won’t serve you.
On the fear of being annoying
Ah, the fear of being annoying or of coming off the wrong way when you promote your work. This is such a common fear that it deserves a moment of reflection before we forge ahead. The fear of being overbearing by promoting yourself is a cousin to other kinds of creative anxiety, such as the fear of not being heard or seen, as well as the fear of being heard or seen and facing the uncertain results of that exposure. Self-promotion is a chance to examine and interrogate both of these types of fears.
Simply put: If people want to hear from you, they won’t be annoyed when you’re promoting your latest creative undertaking. Instead, you will be doing them a service by keeping them informed about what’s going on with you and your work. And, if they decide they don’t want to hear from you anymore, that shouldn’t reflect poorly on you or the value your work offers.
Self-promotion requires you to confront the fact that your work probably won’t appeal to everyone, but it doesn’t have to. Once you realize this, you’ll find a feeling of confidence, creative freedom, and satisfaction in knowing that the people who are engaging with your work are doing it because they want to, and not just because they haven’t unsubscribed yet.
That said, there are some industry standards for how to pace your messaging so as not to overdo it. A good place to start is by posting to Instagram or other social networks about 1-2 times a day, posting Instagram Stories and tweets whenever the mood strikes, and emailing no less than once a month (ideally once a week). But, the response of your audience is the best measure of how much is too much. If people tune out from your posts and emails after a particularly busy period, odds are you might be overdoing it, and you could ease up for a bit.
Tactics are the specific methods and channels you’ll use to fulfill your promotional strategy. As you define your tactics, you’ll need to pick your prioritized platforms—you don’t have time to do everything, after all. By focusing your efforts on the channels where your work will be the most effective, you’ll be able to achieve your goals with the least amount of friction.
Read on for an overview of the various channels you should consider devoting time to, and take notes about which seem like they’ll be the best fit for you and your work.
Your website is one of the few places online where you have control over what the content is, what it looks like, and to a certain extent, how people find it. Websites can range from a simple, static landing page that simply drives people to other places where your work exists on the web, to a digital ecosystem of your complete works, updates, photos, videos, and anything else you can think of. Editor’s note: for more on what a website can be, read a related essay by Laurel Schwulst.
As with everything, refer back to your goals, then ask yourself: What type of website will be most helpful in reaching my goals, without draining too much of my energy? Websites are potentially the most labor intensive of all the tools we’re going to discuss in this guide, so beware of burning time here.
First of all, consider the most basic component of a website: the url. A “meaningful” url is one of the most important contributors to people finding you easily when they search for you online. If you’re making an artist website, “meaningful” probably means having your own name in the url (for example: yourname.com).
Other basic components to consider including on your website are an email capture form (more on email later), links to your social media accounts, at least one strong image that captures who you are and what you do, and links to anything others have written about you to build credibility (think: that great press write-up your last show got, or that interview you did a few months back). Your website should also include an “About” section where you can share a little information about yourself and your work, and contact information so people can get in touch.
You can easily design, build, and host your website with a platform like Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, Wordpress, Semplice (run on Wordpress), or Cargo Collective, each of which has different editing tools and templates. Several of these have a free option, but that might mean you’ll have their logo displayed on your site, which you’ll probably want to get rid of—even if it costs you a few dollars a month.
You may be seduced by the sleek website templates these tools make available, but if you’re going to go the templated route, make sure you choose one that matches the kind of content you’ll be uploading. For example, there’s a web design trend of homepages that feature big, beautiful photography, which may seem very appealing. However, if this isn’t the kind of work you do, it’s not going to show you at your finest. At its core, your website should be a reflection of you and your work—and it shouldn’t make you cringe when you need to update it. Keep it simple and strategic.
Selling your work online
If you’re planning to sell your work directly from your website, this will require some specific functionality. Look for a platform that has ecommerce integrations, as this means they’ll be able to take care of things like credit card authorization and transactional emails (those notifications you get that your order has been placed and shipped).
If you’ll also be selling your work IRL, you’ll want a tool to help you keep an eye on your available inventory. Some tools like Shopify have card readers and mobile payment options for use anywhere you sell (fairs, merch tables, etc.) and they integrate with your product list to make sure you only offer things that are in stock. Other ecommerce options like Etsy and Tictail can help promote your work by connecting you to a marketplace of other sellers and buyers, and although this might limit your design options, it could be a more strategic way to put your work out there. Again, think about your overall goals, and plan accordingly.
Social media is great for building awareness, deepening relationships over time, making the most of visual content, and revealing your personality. It’s also good for wasting a lot of time, and spending a lot of precious emotional capital. This is a tool that is specifically designed to grab your attention and not let go, and it can trigger bad habits such as jealousy and the generalized anxiety that everyone is doing great except for you.
All that aside, social media is a great way to be in direct contact with people who are interested in your work, and it can be positive and nourishing. Again, check in with those goals. You don’t have to be on every single platform. Instead, decide which are the most appropriate for your art, your audience, and your peace of mind. Let’s go over the pros and cons of each platform.
If you had to pick just one channel to focus on as a creative person, this could be the one. It hosts a robust creative community, and being visually driven, the media you create for this channel is likely to work in many other places as well. Between the feed, Instagram Stories, and Instagram Live, there are opportunities to showcase formal or informal content, finished pieces and process insights, and static or performative creative practices.
It’s still somewhat challenging to include links on Instagram, so it’s less useful for direct-response marketing (thus the whole “link in bio” phenomenon). Instagram also has thoughtful tools that empower you to screen the feedback you get, including turning off comments and filtering out anything with bullying phrases. And, in my experience, I’ve found that the Instagram community is generally a very positive one (though individual results may vary).
Facebook also supports many media types, but the real opportunity of this platform is in its affordable and precisely targeted paid promotion. If you’re interested in experimenting with paid posts, this is the place to do it, even for as little as $10 to start. Facebook’s business manager tool will also give you the opportunity to promote your Facebook posts straight to Instagram, but you are very likely to get cheaper results through Facebook. In general, Facebook is also effective for spreading awareness about events.
This fast-moving channel is subject to the ebb and flow of current events, with the conversation changing from hour to hour, and prioritizing the attention-grabbing, the dire, the humorous, and the emotionally high-contrast. Twitter supports video and imagery, but it’s still more of a verbal playground—and one where you are most likely to connect with influential people and earn that coveted endorsement, the retweet.
There’s a long list of other possible platforms which have very specific strengths. LinkedIn is a good platform for any B2B (business to business) marketing, and Medium is good for thought leadership if you have a strong point of view that you’d like to express in essay form. Pinterest is a discovery platform which your audience might even populate with your work for you, and which offers some promoted tools that could be worth experimenting with, especially if you’re looking to sell your work online. YouTube is a powerful and heavily populated place for performative or video-based content.
All these other platforms are worth exploring in relation to your goals, but they’re definitely not for everyone. Find out where your audience is, and prioritize your strategy on that platform.
Email is the most direct way to capture your audience and make sure your message is getting through. It gives your subscribers a feeling of being in regular contact with you, and makes it easy for them to click through to buy an artwork, read that great review you got, or listen to your latest album.
Tools for sending emails
There are plenty of free email service providers (ESPs) out there, and they offer varying possibilities, limitations, and ease of use. Ask yourself: How many people do I want to email, and how frequently? What type of content will I want to include, and what sort of template would best showcase my work?
Once you’ve thought about the type of emails you think you’ll want to send, spend some time learning about the various ESPs. As a general lay of the land, Gmail allows you to email a maximum of 500 people per day, and doesn’t offer any built-in analytics. Mailchimp and Benchmark both offer a free account type that lets you maintain a list of up to 2,000 people, and they make it pretty easy to use templates and custom layouts. TinyLetter is a completely free service that works well for bare-bones dispatches to your network. Out of all the options, whatever feels the simplest and most intuitive is likely what you’ll have the most success using.
Developing an email strategy
In terms of frequency, you’ll want to keep in touch enough that you aren’t forgotten, but not send so many emails that they start to seem spammy. Sending a promotional email once a month is a good goal for when you’re just getting started, and as you get more experienced (and especially if you have an excess of new and interesting information to share), sending emails a few times a week is not unheard of.
As you start to build a newsletter list, notice how people engage with the content in your emails (what links do they click on? What subject lines help encourage more people to open your emails? How much content is too much?). As with all promotional strategies, your audience’s response will be your best tool for learning and adjusting. Start sending emails that are fun for you to write and feel genuine to you and your work, and then experiment with new content and cadence tweaks as you go.
Be sure to place an email capture form on your website, and even in your social media bios. Growing your subscriber list will be a slow and steady process, and the easier it is for the people who love your work to see that you have a newsletter, the faster you’ll be able to cultivate an engaged audience here.
Everything we’ve covered so far have been ways you can talk about yourself and your work. Wouldn’t it be nice if others took on that task some of the time? The good news is that occasionally, they do. Earned media—or when people give you exposure because you’re doing something newsworthy—helps introduce you to new audiences and build your credibility. Let’s look at some of the ways you can earn yourself some media.
Pitching to the press
How does someone get an article written about their work, or a feature on that media company’s Instagram Story? Turns out it doesn’t just happen, it takes building relationships with media makers, understanding what they need, and getting the timing right for both you and them.
So, how do you craft a pitch? Start by getting to know the media landscape in your field. Who is writing about your peers? Who would you want to write about you? What is their beat, i.e. the topic they’re writing about, and the style in which they do so? Once you’re familiar with the players and the field, you can pitch your projects directly to them.
As you start pitching your work to writers, come from a position of service. You want to help them do their job easier and better. Think about what would get you interested in your work if you were seeing it for the first time, and go from there. Get to the point quickly, and surface what you think will make your work relevant to their subjects of focus. Also, be sure to include strong images in your pitch.
Keep in mind, pitching to the press is a skill you’ll build over time. It’s very likely that you could send out many, many pitches before a writer bites. Keep working to build personal relationships with people who may be able to introduce you to the press, as a direct introduction will always work far better than a cold email.
Working with influencers
Working with influencers—i.e. people with large, highly engaged online audiences—can be a quick way to expose new people to your work. Look for influencers whose opinions are valued in your discipline, and send them invitations or complimentary (and ideally customized) creations.
When you’re hoping to get an influencer to promote your work to their audience, be direct: if you give someone something because you hope they’ll talk about it, be sure to ask for that specifically and tactfully. People with larger followings are more likely to expect monetary compensation for their efforts, so you may want to focus on those with smaller audiences that are exceptionally well-matched to your work or have already shown some appreciation for it. And, if you yourself have a sizable online audience, you can always offer to help each other out by cross-promoting each other’s work. Social media is made for being social, after all.
Digital marketing is a deeply iterative process. You make your best guess about what will be effective, then you put something out into the world and see what actually happens, then you adjust and try again. As you experiment with new strategies, know that responding to the feedback you receive from your audience can be a sign that you respect them, and that your relationship is a two-way street.
Here are a few variables you can experiment with as you home in on the best promotional strategy for you and your work:
• Timing: do your posts do better if they’re posted at 11pm versus 11am? What about Wednesday morning versus Friday afternoon?
• Type of media: do still images, GIFs, or videos seem to inspire more conversation?
• Voice and tone: does your audience prefer you to get right to the point, or are they charmed by a little cheekiness?
• Visuals: is there a style of photography or a color palette that seems to inspire your audience’s curiosity?
• Headlines and subject lines: what kinds of phrases are more likely to make people open that email or take the next step?
Every time you try something new, it’s a good idea to keep a note of what you did and how it worked out. Looking back at past posts or emails to see how they performed is an important way to learn. And, writing things down will help you remember and improve. Even if you spend just a few minutes a week measuring the results of your promotional efforts, the insights you glean will build over time, and soon enough you’ll be a seasoned expert.
With so many tactics, you’re going to need some structure to stay focused and calm. Here are a few things to consider:
Use a content calendar
A content calendar will help you set a cadence for how often you activate each of your promotional channels, and will help you think through the message for each type of post before you sit down to send it out. Planning ahead allows you to be more strategic, and to make the best use of your time. Plus, deadlines are a great way to hold yourself accountable.
Keep in mind, the “what” of marketing is important, but so is the “when.” Make sure you’re aware of holidays and seasons that could affect your audience, and give them enough time to plan for whatever you’re proposing they do.
There are, as always, lots of tools that can help you get organized. The key is to find one that feels like it works the way your brain does. Spreadsheets are a good option if they don’t send a chill down your spine. Fancier task managers like Asana, Trello, and Airtable offer different kinds of visual layouts and allow you to add dates, subtasks tasks, attachments, and even email reminders. I recommend finding a way to integrate your calendar with whatever you already use and are likely to open up in the morning anyway. The right way to do it is just to do it.
Timeboxing your efforts
Boundaries are important, in relationships and definitely in marketing. Timeboxing—that is, defining how long you intend to spend on your promotional efforts—will help you protect your art practice by protecting the time and energy you have to dedicate to it. Once you have a promotional strategy in place you should get a sense of how much time it takes you to do each component: the content creation, the distribution, the responding, etc.
Once you know how long everything takes, you can decide how much time feels reasonable to dedicate to each task. More time doesn’t necessarily mean better results. Ask yourself: What might 20 minutes a day of high-impact promotion look like? Give yourself some structure by setting limits on how much time you can spend doing each task, and see how you can push yourself to become more efficient over time.
Controlling the trolls
The great promise of today’s internet is a the shift from a big media megaphone to a two-way conversation. But some folks out there are terrible conversationalists. If you’re going to be swimming in these muddy waters for any extended period of time, make sure you know when to come back to shore. You are under no obligation to respond to anyone who is being disrespectful. Remember: Your page, your community, your rules.
Also, reading online comments about your work can be helpful, or the least helpful thing in the world. Sensitivity is a superpower, so don’t be afraid to engage a loved one to help soften the blow if you simply must read a bad review or a particularly negative comment. Again, refer to whether or not criticism is helping you move in the direction of your goals. You don’t have to be open to all feedback all the time.
One last note about addictive technology
When working on digital marketing, you could be happily crafting the perfect Instagram caption and then notice that your ex just moved to Hawaii, your middle school best friend had another baby, and your arch rival just got your dream job. Bringing awareness to when this happens is the first and most important step, and whenever you can use tools designed for professional social media users (for example, Hootsuite), do so, as they get you out of the feed and into the task at hand.
In my professional opinion, self-promotion can be weird. But it also presents an interesting philosophical opportunity: How can you think about your art as a service to others instead of something you just do for yourself? The best marketing plan is the one that moves you towards your goals, doesn’t make you crazy, and that you don’t mind (or even enjoy!) managing day after day.
Marketing and publicity goes awry when it’s executed without humanity or concern about its overall impact. As an artist, you already think about the perceptions, desires, and inner life of others, so you’re ahead of the game. As you narrow in on a promotional strategy that works for you, double down on your sensitivity, but don’t give into insecurity. Make your moves to meet your goals, and then get back to making.
Kathryn Jaller develops content, campaigns, and experiences for inspiring brands and organizations. Most recently she was Associate Marketing Director, Online Strategy at Chronicle Books, and prior to that she was New Media Manager at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. She has spoken at events like South by Southwest about the opportunities and existential intrigue of digital media. She’s also an avid maker, currently exploring the intersection of identity, anxiety, and fashion with her Necklace Aura Reading project. Learn more about her professional and creative work.