How to Find an Audience for Your Creative Work

This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.

Break Through Your Creative Blocks!I’d be very suspicious of any artist or creative who claimed they didn’t want an audience.

Yes, we may start with the inner creative impulse, but we also want to connect, to share, to hear an echo coming back from the world. To reach an audience and know our work made a difference to them.

This is the challenge described by Gabriel Novo in response to my invitation to tell me about your creative blocks:

One creative block that I’ve struggled with (and I think all beginning artists do) is working in a vacuum. Pouring yourself into your art, whatever it may be, is satisfying, but there comes a point where you release it into the world to share with others.

Feedback from friends and family can’t sustain you forever and eventually you want your work to reach a larger audience. Getting to that larger audience takes time while you still need to maintain a steady level of output. When stuck between those levels you often feel like you’re working in a vacuum, shouting your latest creations into an empty room and only hearing your voice echo.

Also at that time your support network might be nonexistent. No one else on your level or pursuing your art with the same passion. There are plenty of those who say they are trying to live the dream, but finding others with true motivating passion is often times difficult. As wonderful as “tribes” can be they are not always easy to find.

So you flail and struggle through an emptiness that is never guaranteed to be filled with like-minded individuals. Personally, I believe this transitional phase is the one that kills most artists trying to make it in the real world.

Now I should point out that Gabriel first sent me this last year, and he’s made some good progress since. But after talking it over we thought it worth addressing the subject in this series, both for his benefit and for all the people out there who are starting out and feeling daunted by the challenge of attracting an audience for their creative work.


In the old days, the feedback loop for most creatives was long – and slow. If you were a writer, you would plod away for months or years before submitting your manuscript to an agent or editor. You would then wait several months before the standard rejection slip came through your letterbox, prompting you to make a voodoo doll cross them off your list and send the manuscript out again.

Statistically, you got far more rejections than acceptances. But if you persisted and succeeded, you would have yet another wait store for you, while the book was edited, printed and prepared for publication day. Even then, the chances of your book sinking like a stone, without troubling the review pages let alone the bestseller lists, were pretty high.

It was a similar story for artists, illustrators, composers, and producers of any kind of recorded, printed or published media. Between the first moment of inspiration, the hours of perspiration and the applause (or otherwise) of an audience, you were in for long wait.

The glaring exceptions, of course, were the actors, musicians, singers, mime artists and other creative performers who got up there on stage to face the audience and look them in the eye. The excitement and the terror of a live performance comes from that visceral connection between the person(s) on stage and those who have come to watch.

Then along came the internet and changed everything.

Writers and other ‘studio artists’ can now have a taste of the live experience, by publishing their work on the web and seeing their audience respond within minutes or even seconds, with page views, comments, Tweets, Facebook likes, and the other equivalents of oohs, ahhhs, applause and jeers in the online auditorium.

No, it’s not quite as electrifying as a real live gig, but if you’re used to plying your creative trade alone in your flat, then publishing your work and getting any kind of response the same day can feel as exciting as taking the stage at the Albert Hall or Madison Square Gardens.

If anyone shows up, that is. :-)

This potential for near instant audience response is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it can be tremendously encouraging to see people reading, liking, and appreciating your work.

But it can also be a curse, because we inevitably get too attached to the feedback, and start craving it. At some stage, every blogger develops an unhealthy obsession with web stats, and starts chasing the numbers. Why didn’t today’s post get as many comments as last week’s? How come no one has noticed on Twitter yet?

And when you’re just starting out, the numbers can feel frustratingly small. As Gabriel puts it so eloquently, it feels like you’re “working in a vacuum, shouting your latest creations into an empty room and only hearing your voice echo”.

So what can you do about it?

Get Used to It

Remember that it was ever thus. When you start out as an artist of any kind, you’re starting from scratch. Making the first mark on the canvas, pressing the first key on the typewriter, or blocking the first tentative notes is always an act of faith, a pure impulse to create with no guarantee of a return.

One of the signs of a true creator is having the courage to create in spite of the fact that you are working in a vacuum. And from what I’ve heard from my coaching clients over the years, that feeling never really goes away, no matter how many fans and awards you’ve accrued. So get used to it, and try to embrace it! It’s one of the things that keeps creative work exciting – the day disappears is the day you start to lose your edge.

Remember Why You’re Doing This

Ask yourself why you are doing this. There are easier things to spend your time on. Why this?

Look for the reason that doesn’t depend on anyone else’s validation. I’m not saying you shouldn’t pursue fame and fortune, they are great things to add to the mix. But you need to start with why this is important for you, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Once you have this reason, even if it’s just barely articulated feeling, your work becomes a refuge – the place you go where neither praise nor criticism can touch you. Hugh MacLeod calls this your personal sovereignty.

Don’t Wait for Attention – Grab It!

OK so much for following your bliss. Now let’s look at how you can get more bums on virtual seats – i.e. visitors to your website and subscribers to your mailing list.

Now technically, this part isn’t really a creative block – it’s a marketing problem. But it becomes a creative block when the feeling of working in a vacuum affects your enthusiasm for creating.

And a quick glance at the site that’s your current focus, Crafting Comics, tells me you are not in fact writing in a vacuum – people are leaving comments! Not in their hundreds, it’s true, but this is a sign that people are paying attention.

And no wonder, you have the foundations of a great site. First up, it looks fab. You’ve got they terrific illustrated header featuring comic characters – if I’m a comics geek, this tells me immediately I’m in the right place. The rest of the design looks very slick, and I love the little touch of having the featured posts appearing with square images so that they look like frames on a comic page.

Delving into the articles, I can see you have some great advice to offer to aspiring comic artists, about subjects such as networking, submitting scripts and the nitty-gritty of the writing and drawing process.

So you’re already doing a lot of the heavy lifting. However, the site could be working harder to grab my attention as a first-time visitor. Remember, scientific research has proved that you have precisely one billionth of a second to grab someone’s attention when they land on your website, before they hit the back button or their memory is erased by an incoming email.

So you really have to hit me between the eyes with what your site is about, how it will make my life better and why I should stick around.

So firstly, how about building on your great title – Crafting Comics – with a tagline that makes your offer clear? It doesn’t have to be a work of copywriting genius. It does have to make me a promise. Maybe something like this?

Practical tips on writing and selling your comics

Or

Helping you to finally write that comic – and get it out there

Secondly, your About section is pretty good, but it’s currently diluted between an About page, a Who we are page, and a What we write page. I’d condense it to one page about the site and content, and one about you and your co-writer Mike.

My friend Brian likes to say your About page is basically a sales letter for your site. Check your stats, and you’ll almost certainly see it’s one of the most popular pages on the site. So it should lay out exactly what you have to offer me, starting with the kind of problem/opportunity I am facing as an aspiring 21st-century comics creator, and finishing by inviting me to subscribe to your free content.

Thirdly, how about a few more comic illustrations? Your audience are by definition word-and-picture geeks, so give them a few more of your great drawings! Lots of bloggers can write, but not so many can draw as well – so this is a great opportunity to create a very distinctive look and feel for your site that is absolutely on-strategy for your audience.

My ex-partner-in-crime Tony Clark did a fabulous job of this back in the day, when he illustrated his Success from the Nest blog with his cartoons. (He also did some awesome animated cartoon videos for Lateral Action. I’m just sayin’ ;-) )

And fourthly, make those headlines work harder! Now that we’ve all got the attention spans of goldfish, you have to earn every click by making a compelling promise in every headline you write.

You have to imagine that your headline is one of hundreds scrolling down your (potential) readers’ screens – in their inbox or RSS reader, or on Twitter or Facebook. They are eating their breakfast, or trying to empty their inbox, or trying to pass the train journey from hell by reading something on their smartphone to distract them from the strangers’ armpit in their face. So you have to give them a reason to drop everything right now and read your post.

For a couple of examples:

Building Blocks: Collaboration is Key

Networking Essentials: Business Cards

These are nice and clear, but they don’t really get my pulse racing. And the thing is, both articles have some great advice that could benefit me as a comic-creator. But I could miss out on them if you don’t spice up your offer a little.

Maybe something like this?

A Marriage Made in Heaven? Relationship Tips for Comic-Writing Partnerships

How to Keep Your Business Card Out of the Wastebasket

Lots more headline writing tips and examples in Copyblogger’s series on writing Magnetic Headlines. If you read nothing else about copywriting, you should read this, print it out, and refer to it so often that you practically memorize it.

Make Your Website Sticky

There’s an old saying that your best source of new business is your old customers. And it’s a similar story when it comes to web visitors – before you go out looking for new sources of web traffic, make sure you’re doing everything you can to get the people who already visit to stick around – and come back.

Remember Chris Brogan’s advice about home bases and outposts: your audience attraction strategy should be centred around a content-rich website that you own, a.k.a. your homebase, which in this case is CraftingComics.com.

Outposts are other people’s websites, including blogs, forums, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks. Use these to network, share content, form relationships and ultimately find your tribe.

So when people land on your website (homebase) one of your primary goal should be to entice them to come back, by offering a subscription to your free content, in this case your blog, via RSS or email. RSS is nice for the geeks who understand it, but email is more user-friendly for most people, and from marketing viewpoint, more likely to grab their attention. (Everyone checks their inbox every day, not everyone checks their RSS reader.)

Right now, I have to hunt through your site to find an email subscription invitation – buried at the foot of the page! This should be one of the first things I see, after the great design and your latest awesome article. So put it in the sidebar, at or near the top, so I won’t miss it.

And currently, every one of your great blog posts ends with an invitation to follow you on Twitter or join your Facebook page. These are nice-to-haves, but you should really be making your blog subscription your primary offer. Otherwise you are driving people from your home base toward your outposts, which is not the main direction you want them to take.

These may seem like small details, but you put a lot of effort into crafting great blog articles, so what you really want people to do is to subscribe and keep reading them over the long-term – that will generate repeat visits and grow your audience more effectively than just Facebook likes or Twitter follows.

Put the Social in Social Media

If you want to grow your audience via the web, then remember you are dealing with social media.

We’ve all heard that content is King, which is true up to a point, but this doesn’t mean that if you just build it they will come. It’s a harsh truth that there are thousands of bloggers and creators out there producing wonderful content that no-one sees.

Content may be King, but connections are Queen. Unless you are networking and connecting with other like-minded people – a.k.a. finding that tribe! – you are missing out on a golden change to grow your audience.

There’s really no short cut to this. It takes time to build trust, that’s how human beings are wired. Unless you put in the time and show up regularly as a genuinely helpful member of the tribe, your support network won’t be all you need it to be.

So where do your tribe hang out?

Well, among the usual social networks for creative people, you might want to hang out in comics groups on DeviantArt and Behance.

A quick search for ‘comics forum’ on Google finds several thriving venues – more comics geeks than you can shake a stick at! Are you active (and helpful) on any of them? (With links in your footer to your site, of course.) I’m guessing you should be.

Are you guest posting on other blogs with relevant audiences? If not, it’s time to start! You’ve got a great foundation with your existing content, so guest posting is a great way to put Crafting Comics in the shop window.

When it comes to networking don’t start off being pushy, but don’t be afraid to ask – or better still offer – once the relationship reaches a certain point.

For example, you and I have known each other online for a while now, when you started leaving some great comments on Lateral Action. We’ve exchanged plenty of e-mails and I’ve dropped a few hints that I’d love you to write for Lateral Action. I’m sure there are plenty of Lateral Action readers who could benefit from your advice and a good few comics enthusiasts who would love Crafting Comics.

So pretty please, write me that guest post. :-)

If You Really Want a Lot of Traffic…

Over the years I’ve found publishing free ebooks hard to beat as a strategy for generating a lot of website visitors, links, awareness, word-of-mouth and good vibes.

Last time I checked, Time Management for Creative People had been downloaded over 100,000 times, and some of my others aren’t far behind. And that doesn’t include all the people who have forwarded the ebooks to their friends and contacts.

So if I were you I’d give some serious thought to releasing a free ebook that sets out your stall and explains what you have to offer subscribers of Crafting Comics.

It needs to deliver a lot of practical value, and to be presented in a format your readers can relate to. So of course it needs to be a comic. :-)

How about the story of an aspiring comic writer, and the trials and tribulations he experiences en route to creating, publishing and marketing his work?

I’m betting a lot of people would enjoy reading a story like that, and not just the comics geeks. Remember the success of Dan Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko?

Of course, it’ll be easier to get the ebook into circulation if you’ve been doing all the networking and guest posting I recommend above. But just to get the ball rolling, if you do write it (or something like it) I promise to feature it on Lateral Action. So there’s your first link. :-)

Over to You

Do you ever feel like finding an audience for your work is like climbing Mount Everest?

What has worked best for you so far?

Any tips for Gabriel?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a coach who specializes in creativity and internet marketing for creative people. For more free tips on succeeding as a 21st-century creative, sign up for free updates from Lateral Action. (See what I did there? ;-))

Table of Contents for Break Through Your Creative Blocks

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Comments

  1. Mark:

    This is a great post because of the level of specificity you go into. Thanks. I know it’s time consuming to write the way you have.

    You’ve gone beyond the usual advice like “write an ebook” and told us exactly how doing so has helped your site. And you’ve actually gotten beyond the “content is king” rhetoric and listed down specifics on how to get content found and read.

    Really good of you to outline your suggestions for Gabriel’s site, and to give your reasoning. What you’ve shared is widely applicable.

    Here’s my input for Gabriel: I personally have to be able to see a photo of the writer, whether it’s a blog or a book. It makes all the difference in whether I connect or not. Gabriel is a cartoonist, so it’s great he’s included a cartoon of himself, but to me, it doesn’t substitute for a photo. I think it would be cool to juxtapose the cartoon with a photo – on the home page, or, at the very least, on the about page.

    Well done, as always, Mark. And to Gabriel: Great work so far. Keep at it. I look forward to seeing more from you.

    Susan

    • I know it’s time consuming to write the way you have.

      You’re telling me. ;-)

      Seriously – Gabriel was good enough to share his site as an example, so it was a good opportunity to get specific. Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference.

      Great suggestion re adding a photo, I always like to put a face to the words when I land on a new site.

  2. Well written article, although, not really new information (came across most of this through other websites). But, it is bound to be similar. With that being sad, I have tried many of these techniques and never got as far as other’s have. Perhaps, my content isn’t as great, or, I’m doing something else wrong. I’ve even offered free ebooks, so, who knows… With that being said, I thought your way of explaining the topic was thoughtful and easy to understand.

    Take care,
    Anthony Souls.

    • Thanks Anthony, yes it’s ‘bound to be similar’ to others’ advice as the fundamentals are pretty well established.

      In your case, a quick glance through your blog reveals your own poetry, literary commentary, social/political commentary and a great photo of a fluffy sheep! That’s a fairly eclectic mix so you may find it hard to build a sizeable audience of folks who are interested in all of them at once.

      I faced a similar situation when I started my first blog, Wishful Thinking, where I mixed in articles about creativity with pieces about poetry, and discovered my audience tended to like one or the other but not both!

      So I moved the poetry to a separate poetry blog and kept Wishful Thinking to pure creativity, which has made it easier to find the right audience for both.

  3. Mark,

    Thank you so very much for this fantastically written article. I’ve already discussed your recommendations with my partner and we’re going to be incorporating some of those changes into our site.

    In trying to be very “social” we do seem to be promoting outposts over our homebase. We didn’t realize it till you pointed it out. I’ll make sure to shift the language and bring it back home.

    This is a killer article with solid advice. Thanks again for taking the time to check out my little slice of the web.

  4. This is a really great blog. I love the concept of outposts and a central village where all the business is done. I’ve done a little work on this in the film marketing arena and I find it fascinating.

    Attention is good but only if it translates into relational loyalty. Because the world is fickle.

    Within your website there needs to be content rich enough to make the new visitor feel like he is at home. Make a place for them to be involved, let it be there’s and not just yours.

    Geoff Talbot
    Blogging and commenting in only Seven Creative Sentences

    • Thanks Geoff. Yep outposts and homebases is a great way of orienting yourself on the web, once you get that, a lot of other things fall into place.

  5. Hi Mark,
    I just came across your site today and I’m pretty pleased to have done so. My blog is only 7 months old but I do feel frustrated that my blog’s ‘numbers’ aren’t as high as I hoped they would be. I have noticed a growth though and surges: when a prolific blogger added my blog to her blogroll and when I entered a blogging competition. I already do or have already done many of the tips in your post but I would love it if you checked out my blog and let me know what tips you have for me. Like you say, the bottom line to increasing my blog’s audience seems to be time. I hope I have the patience to keep it up. At the moment, I really enjoy blogging so hopefully, I’ll be in a position to tell new bloggers to hang in there too someday :-)

  6. What has worked best for me so far?

    In my singing career – it’s really about not waiting for the attention and GRABBING it. Being proactive and finding those connections that will create more exposure for myself and my music. Social media has helped so much with this as well – with online video and interacting with others on Facebook and Twitter. I started my own YouTube channel and release videos called ‘Auret TV Episodes’ every so often to engage my audience and keep them up to date on what I’m doing. These videos have led me to be on radio less than 2 months after releasing my debut album!