#15: Content strategy for artists

Sorry I’m late today, had to drive halfway across Florida to pick a kid up. You know – usual parent stuff 😛

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The end of procrastination is not about trying to do everything. It’s about not doing all the things. It’s deciding between what to do and what not to. It’s taking control over when you do what you decide to do.

Jessica Abel

I’ve been sitting on this quote for awhile. The overwhelm of thinking there are a million things that I have to do tends to result in a paralysis-like procrastination. But consciously deciding that I don’t need to do that is freeing.

Part of pandemic life is having too much time to think about things over and over again, and one of my conscious decisions was to stop trying to grow my web development & marketing business. I’m pretty busy with it as it is but had fallen into the trap of trying to constantly add new and better services, create a new revenue generating business, blah blah blah, while I made all my income from the bread & butter stuff. Once decided to focus on bread & butter only, it freed up the headspace for creativity.

Content strategy for artists
Chess – a game of strategery

This ties into what I’m going to discuss today: content strategy for creatives (you could also refer to it as content marketing for creatives, but ‘strategy’ sounds slightly less sales-like than ‘marketing,’ like we’re trying to figure out how to beat the Nazis).

I’ve been reading about and trying different methods (erm strategies) of content marketing for years. In the past 3 years or so I try to apply them to life as a creative. Some of these ideas have made it here as blog posts.

Today I’m doing something a little different.

This week I came across this post: Content strategy for creators: How to grow your audience from 0.

It’s from the blog of the Ghost content management system that lets people run a mailing list and Patreon of their own (and yes, I’m vetting it for possible comics use). It’s a great article for creators but it really focuses on writers and Youtubers. These articles are almost never written from the perspective of an artist or comicker.

Today I’m going to go through this article and explain the concepts so that they are specific to artists and comic creators.

Note: all unattributed quotes below are from the Ghost blog article, the link to which is 2 paragraphs up.

One assumption we need to get out of the way

All artists need to work on selling themselves and their efforts.

There’s no way to avoid this unless you are established and your work sells itself, or if art is just something you do for shits & giggles (in which case, this article is not for you). I get that many artists don’t want to sell themselves because it feels icky and gross. But the reason it feels icky and gross is because icky and gross tactics are what you’ve noticed and associate most with marketing. Basically, you associate marketing with marketing bros who are just douchey sales people.

Look at it this way instead: marketing is about making connections with people, in a respectful, non-douchey way.

I like cats.

Think of all those artists and creators you follow. Do you follow, and possibly support them, because they used their mystic marketing bro tactics to make you want something you didn’t need? Of course not – you follow them because their art moved you in one way or another. That’s the kind of relationship you want with your fans, no?

That’s what we’re shooting for when we engage in ‘marketing’ or ‘content strategy.’ Basically, we’re using modern means to find our people. But it takes effort and intention – it’s not that often that it happens easily because you’re in the right place at the right time.

The two problems artists face online

The most common problem new creators face are:
– How do I get people to notice what I’m creating?
– How do I get people to pay for those creations?

These two questions should be on the mind of every artist who wants to quit their day job and make a living off their art. Getting people to find and notice you is the first part. Eventually, we hope that some of the people that find us want to buy something we’ve made.

If you just post stuff online and hope that people find you, that’s just throwing shit at a wall and hoping that something sticks.

We have to be more intentional about it.

And we have to be smart about it.

(and the crux is that we honestly want to be found and to make money from what we are creating.)

This is what content strategy for artists is all about: it’s being intentional about what we’re doing, and being smart about it (like using hashtags, for example).

One thing I don’t advocate

This totally creeped me out.

Being intentional and smart does NOT mean sucking up to an algorithm.

Forget about posting every day, multiple times a day, etc., just to placate an algorithm. Like Arthur Ashe said: Do what you can. Start where you are. Use what you have.

Make a choice about what you can reasonably do without it being onerous, follow through, and then detach yourself from the results (ie don’t worry about likes, stats or anything of that nature).

The key to growth is called a funnel

Funnels have been use for marketing since 1898, when some dude (I’m not name-dropping someone I’ve never heard of) “mapped a theoretical customer journey from the moment a brand or product attracted consumer attention to the point of action or purchase.” (source: Wikipedia, link below)

Dude called it a purchase funnel but you may have heard it referred to as a ‘customer funnel’, ‘marketing funnel’, ‘sales funnel’, or ‘conversion funnel’. You may have also heard of the acronym AIDA: Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action.

They are all essentially the same thing.

The Ghost peeps are calling it The Creator Funnel, and it looks like this:

creator funnel marketing funnel

Creator funnels have stages

When you look at the funnel, think of it in terms of number of people. The first stage has the most people, and some of those people move on to the second stage. Then some of those people move on to the 3rd stage – and some of those people move on to the final, fourth stage where they take on their final form.

(Actually, scratch that last bit, I’m pretty sure that they’ll still be human.)

Let’s look at this like we were a restaurant in a food court:

  1. Discovery: Mallrats come to the food court and notice your restaurant.
  2. Trust: You offer a sample to taste. Most people ignore the sample, but someone people take it. Most of the peeps trying the sample move on.
  3. Access: But some people like the sample enough to stop and look at (ie access) your menu (access because you can’t read it anywhere else in the food court). Most of these readers peruse the menu and move on.
  4. Purchase: But a few people read the menu, like what they see, and order food. They make a purchase and end up going through all 4 stages of the funnel.

That’s basically what an artist is trying to do online (without shoving food in people’s faces). Let’s go through each stage and how it applies to artists.

Stage 1: Discovery

The first stage is all about getting people to know you exist. Ideally, the content you make during this phase will free and short.

Do younguns still think space travel is cool?

This is straightforward: post on networks on which you’re active (Twitter, Reddit, etc.) or appropriate for your art. If you’re going to pick just one, Instagram is it for now since it’s 100% visual. Share them with people you know: in-person, email, or Facebook (on your personal account only, Facebook pages are worthless).

The stuff’s gotta be free because someone who has no clue who you are is going to pay to see your stuff.

The other thing is that it has to be short – or I’d amend that to appropriate for the platform. This is great because ‘short’ means less time-consuming, so it should be easier to squeeze into a busy life.

Coincidentally, I have the perfect example for something I posted that is inappropriate for a platform. Last week I posted a 5 page comic from my graphic memoir; I posted it to my insta earlier this week. It’s designed to be printed and is not easy to read on IG; engagement has been much lower than my comics that are carousels of individual panels.

Appropriate for the platform would be:

  • Comics broken down into individual panels and posted on IG or Twitter
  • Images and vids for IG Stories or Twitter Fleets (stuff that does not need to be there permanently, this is good for sharing day to day or personal stuff on your art account)
  • Short fun vids for IG Reels (or TikTok, if you don’t mind providing personal and psychographic data to the Chinese Communist Party)

You get the idea. If you study a platform, you’ll get an idea of what works. If what works is in your wheelhouse, or something you want to try – go for it!

Short also means not very intensive to create, so you can try different things and see what works for you.

BTW: this is going to be my last long newsletter – I’m taking the advice of short and free. Any long posts I write will be members’ only moving forward.

Sometimes fast food hash browns just hit the spot.

A note on hashtags

If you’re going to use social media to get found, you need to use hashtags. Research what hashtags work on the platform you’re using. Or you can try copying hashtags from successful artists and see how they do (be sure to remove any hashtags that aren’t relevant to you – especially ones specific to an artist, like their name).

A general rule of thumb for hashtags: the more popular/common they are, the less effective they will be. Hashtags used by millions and millions are pointless. Shoot for 100k or less.

Stage 2: Trust

This phase aims to build trust with your audience by inviting them to engage at a deeper level with your work.

This stage is mentioning to fans that if they liked your art, there’s have the opportunity to engage more deeply. How this looks will be different for each creator – From my perspective as a comic creator, it might look like this: Hey – if you like my short 4 panel comics, you might also enjoy this longer multipage comic of mine.

An artist who gets a lot of ZOMG HOW DO YOU DO THAT comments might say: Hey, if you want to learn how I drew this piece, I have a tutorial available.

Now at this point, asking for money is an iffy proposition; we’re still in the early stages building a relationship. Can you imagine meeting someone new and then the next day they ask you if they can borrow $10? That would be kind of weird coming from someone you don’t know well and don’t even know if you’ll ever see again. That’s what asking for money at this stage feels like.

What I would do at this stage is to direct them to your website to access this deeper content. Not another social network – your own website (I have reasons for this, all related to my loathing for digital sharecropping).

Stage 3: Access

This is your opportunity to deepen the relationship with your true fans, the segment of your audience most invested in your work. Access invites people to engage with either more of what you create or a different aspect of what you create.

orange and green label airplane ticket
TIL there are no stock photos for ‘backstage pass’

This stage is where the non-skeevy creator’s funnel diverges from the traditional marketing funnel, whose third stage is Desire, where you start enticing people to want to buy or aspire to something that not so coincidentally requires a purchase. Or in less savory terms, this is where you start fucking with people’s heads.

This stage is worse in the marketing bro realm, where the idea is to make small sales to butter people up for The Big Offer. Any distaste you have for funnels is due to how marketing bros handle it. What they’re doing makes sense – the people most likely to buy from you are the ones who’ve bought from your before. But we’re not about selling stuff just for the sake of selling stuff: we’re trying to build relationships and not be skeevy marketing bros.

So Access is about providing access – for free – to some exclusive content. This could be a newsletter (meta!), a private group/community, or accessing some content in exchange for an email address.

This is the perfect stage to ask someone to sign up for a newsletter in order to access this deeper work of yours. This is a simple, non-skeevy thing: you’re asking for permission to email them every so often and in exchange, they get access to your cool, deeper work. No money is asked for or exchanged. As long as you’re clear about what your newsletter entails (once a week, 2-3 times a month) and what they’ll receive in return, it’s about as non-skeevy as it can get.

You mention you have something that they might be interested in, and they decide if they really want it or not – that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

Getting the email address at this stage is important. Email marketing is the one tried and true method of marketing online. Unlike social networks, email readers are an audience who can give you their full attention, instead of being trained to look at the next notification. Growing an email list means you know more and more people who might be interested in buying something from you. The more people on the list, the better chances of selling things.

Just make sure that your newsletters are of genuine interest to your fans. And that they’re not skeevy things where you ask people to buy crap all the time (I trust you won’t do this, otherwise you’d get your info from a marketing bro).

The fact is that if someone signs up for your email list, they like what you offered and would like to know more. As long as you fulfill their expectations, it’s all good (however, this means it’s important to set the proper expectations).

And a general rule of thumb: 3 out of every 4 emails should be purely informational/educational/aspirational with no overt sales overtures. Can you imagine walking into a clothing store and someone asking you every 5 minutes if you want to buy something?

Stage 4: Purchase

marketing bro
Live shot of a marketing bro after they suckered someone into buying an email course for $500.

The point of stage four is to provide your most invested audience members with something they can’t find anywhere else. This is the point where you ask your most dedicated subscribers to support your work financially, in return for additional benefits.

This is the stage where you offer more and deeper content, and the people who decide to go for it are your biggest fans.

This could mean supporting you on a crowdfunding platform, or joining your exclusive fan club on your website. If you make tutorials, this could offering a set of tutorials or a course on drawing like you.

Because the exclusivity increases, the costs increase too. That’s fine because your goal is to provide more value to make it worthwhile. Again, this is going to look different for different creators.

Personally, I favor the crowdfunding route of monthly patronage in return for access to more exclusive content, activities, community, and access. Regular monthly income is the only reliable way to ditch the day job (if that’s what you want to do). Selling stuff individual sale items means you have to make a sale over and over again – and that’s not reliable. You might sell 50 comics one month, and 10 the next month; with patronage, it’s unlikely your income will be cut in half (unless you become a pariah for some reason). In this case, slow and steady wins the race.

And the cool thing about patronage is that it doesn’t preclude you from selling merch. In fact, you could either offer members a discount on merch, or make exclusive members’ only merch – or both.

Marketing bros don’t get old, they just get douchier.

A quick word about merch

I believe in selling merch. It’s just not something you can really do without a following or an solid email list. I wouldn’t worry about it, unless you happen to post some art or a comic that blows up, which suggests that people might be willing to buy a shirt or poster with it.

The good thing is that selling merch is easy these days thanks to print on demand. The profit margins are lower but it’s practically a set-it-and-forget-it type of system. No packaging, no running to the post office (both of those activities only make sense when batched). Someone buys your merch, and someone else handles the shipping & fulfillment.

Easy peasy.

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That’s all folks!

What do you think about this content strategy for creators? Make sense? Seem doable? Not skeevy?

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