Image by Hugh MacLeod
This is a golden age of opportunity for artists and creatives. Never before have you been able to get your work in front of so many people, at such a low cost, with so few gatekeepers barring the way.
With a laptop, some free and cheap software, and a healthy dose of imagination and perspiration, you can find a global audience for your work. Find enough true fans, get permission to contact them regularly, and make it easy for them to buy your work or attend your shows, and you could find yourself earning a decent living from your creative work.
No wonder the New York Times says the world is your market.
Unless, of course, you’re making some surprisingly common mistakes that are putting up barriers between you and your would-be fans and customers.
Here’s a list of the top 10 internet marketing mistakes by artists and creatives that I see week-in, week out – and what to do about them.
I should point out that over the past five years of marketing my own creative business online, I’ve made several of these mistakes myself. It’s too painful to watch others repeating them, so I’m listing them here to help you avoid them.
If your online activities are just for a hobby, or for creative inspiration, then move along, there’s nothing to worry about here. But if you want your blog, email newsletter or social networking activities to bring you new clients and customers, you can’t afford to make the mistakes on this list.
And I’m assuming you are awesome. You do great work, that you’re proud of, and the customers you have are delighted. You’d just like a few more of them.
1. Not Doing It
I hear all kinds of reasons why creative people are passing up the opportunities available on the internet right now: they don’t know what to do, they don’t know how to do it, they don’t have the time, they’re not convinced it will work, they don’t like computers, they’re worried about people stealing their work. Take your pick.
I’m not saying you have to do this. Like the magic theatre in Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, it’s not for everyone. I’m just saying you’re missing out if you don’t.
The customers who could have found you via Google are finding other people. The bloggers who could have linked to your site are linking to other sites. The people who could have shared your stuff on Twitter are sharing other people’s stuff. The collaborators you could have met and worked with are having a blast working with other partners.
And it’s not just about the money. You’re also missing out on a lot of new friends and creative inspiration. I’ve lost count of the number of interesting people and ideas I’ve encountered since I started marketing my business online.
Solution: Do it.
Find the time, or make it. Learn the technical stuff – it’s not rocket science, if a poet like me can manage it, so can you.
And learn what works, so you’re not wasting your time and energy. A good place to start is Brian Clark’s free e-book Authority Rules: the 10 Rock Solid Elements of Online Marketing. And I’ll have plenty more to say about how these principles apply to artists and creatives, so treat yourself to a free subscription to Lateral Action.
2. Relying on Your Portfolio
Having a totally amazing portfolio (or online gallery, or showcase) is essential, but sadly it isn’t nearly enough to make you stand out online.
However good the work, the static nature of most portfolios means people have to seek them out, visit your website and click through the various categories. And most people have never heard of your site. Or maybe they have, but they’re just too busy to visit it. Or they visited it once, liked it – and forgot to go back.
Solution: build an audience by delivering fresh media content to them, regularly, for free.
Most first-time visitors to your site are not going to buy anything. So sell them a free subscription – to a blog, newsletter, podcast or video series. Send them amazing stuff, so that they don’t have to come and find it. And so that they look forward to opening your e-mails and finding your latest post in their blog reader.
Content marketing is a big trend in internet marketing right now – it basically means publishing media content that doesn’t look like advertising, but functions like advertising. You’re not selling anything directly, you are giving people a taste of your work, for free. This generates buzz, with people talking about you on Twitter, linking to your site from their blog, and forwarding your e-mails to their friends – i.e. they start doing your marketing for you, for free.
And who are the experts at creating stunning media content? That would be you. In this brave new world, artists and creatives have an unfair advantage at internet marketing.
3. Social Media Narcissism
We’ve all seen them. The blog posts, Tweets, Facebook updates and MySpace pages full of the minute, tedious details of an artist’s day, or the navel-gazing posts about their personal philosophy, and/or how much they suffer for their Art. Or name-dropping of ‘impressive’ clients. Or complaints about partners, friends, fellow artists or the world in general.
Nobody wants to read this stuff. And nobody wants to buy from people who write it.
I write a lot online, but I hardly write anything about my personal life, as I can’t imagine anyone would be remotely interested. And I do my best to keep my gripes to myself, as they wouldn’t make anyone else’s day better.
It’s not about you. So, unless you habitually fight dragons or have a gift for making the mundane hilariously funny or poignantly engaging, be careful how much you talk about yourself, your personal life and opinions. (Save that for family and friends, who love you just for who you are.)
People who stand out and succeed online, whether using a blog or another kind of platform, do so by delivering massive value to their fans and customers. They publish hilarious cartoons, music that gets under your skin, funny one-liners, Or they lift the lid on their creative process, or publish useful tutorials and videos. They inform, entertain and educate – sometimes all at once.
They don’t go online to share what they had for breakfast, or to slag off the competition, or whine about their girlfriend or the lousy customer service they received. They go online to delight and amaze people.
Even when it is about you, it’s not about you.
It’s about what you mean to your audience. If you’re doing amazing work, or pursuing a big adventure, it’s about the work and the adventure. If you’re a rock star, it’s about what they project onto you. If you’re a successful self-employed artist, it’s about the inspiration and example you provide for other artists. So it’s really about them.
Solution: give people a taste of your best work.
If you’re an artist of any kind, give away free samples. Tell us – even better, show us – how you make your work. To you it’s obvious, to the rest of us it could be fascinating. Share the resources you can’t do without. Or enthuse about your creative heroes. Or write a tutorial to teach others what you know. Or make a video of your latest show. Or make a passionate argument for changing something about your industry or art form.
In other words, when you go online, put yourself on the line – not the crotchety, bored, out-of-sorts side of you, but your best self – your most passionate, articulate, creative, inspiring self.
4. Hosting Your Blog on Blogger.com
Once upon a time, Blogger.com was an innovative platform at the cutting edge of online publishing. But that time has gone. Now, using it for a business blog makes you look like an amateur – the equivalent of using a Hotmail email address. The themes are ugly, the functionality is clunky and the commenting facilities are horrible. But none of these are the main reason you should avoid Blogger (or similar free hosted blogging services).
If you rent a property, you have to follow the landlord’s rules. If you paint the walls an unauthorized colour, have too many late-night parties, or demolish the conservatory, you’ll be served with an eviction notice. And there’s no point spending your time and money installing a new bathroom or insulating the roof, as you’ll just be adding value to someone else’s property.
But if you buy a property, you own it (assuming you pay the mortgage). You can do any legal thing you like in it. You can paint it orange and install a Jacuzzi. You can add an extension, or a new kitchen – and the value of your property will increase the more you invest in it.
Blogger is the rented property. It’s owned by Google, who can evict you if you violate their terms of service. If you improve the property – e.g. by creating a fabulous, popular blog – all the appreciation in value (incoming links, traffic, search engine rankings) of the property goes to Google (by default, your blog’s address will be yourblogname.blogspot.com, i.e. Google’s domain, not yours). The same goes for a MySpace or Facebook page, or any of your social networking profiles. If you invest all your content marketing efforts (see no.2) on someone else’s website, you risk becoming someone’s user-generated content.
Solution: Install WordPress on your own web domain.
Your own website is your property. It should be located at yourname.com or yourcompanyname.com. As long as you stay within the law, you can do whatever you like with it. If you improve the property – e.g. by creating a fabulous, popular blog – all the extra value accrues to you, the owner. So it makes sense to improve it as much as you can.
This is why most professional bloggers install WordPress on their own site. It’s free open source software, and incredibly powerful and flexible. All my sites run on WordPress, even the ones that don’t look like blogs.
There are lots of free design themes available for WordPress, but for business purposes you’re better off with a premium theme, as they usually include technical support, and I’m told by people who know that the underlying code is often better structured for search engine optimisation (SEO) purposes. Here at Lateral Action I use the Genesis framework with a bespoke design. If you’re on a budget you can use Genesis and choose from a range of ready-made custom designs.
The only drawback with WordPress is that it’s technically more of a fiddle to set it up and maintain, so you might want to enlist some help. And be prepared for a bit of a learning curve. But this is your business, remember, not a hobby. This is one case where ‘quick and easy’ can hurt your business in the long term. And like I say, I’m a poet, not a programmer, so if I can work it out, so can you.
N.b. Make sure you download WordPress from WordPress.org – not WordPress.com (which is an excellent free hosted blogging service, but it’s still a rented property).
5. Writing Useless Headlines
By ‘useless’ I mean a headline that doesn’t work hard for you, to attract visitors to read your blog posts, download your podcasts, watch your videos or listen to your music. People won’t magically know you’ve created great work – you need to signpost it with a clear and compelling headline that stops them in their tracks and makes them click to visit your site.
Imagine your headline is just one of hundreds in someone’s inbox or feed reader, or in a long list of updates on Facebook or Twitter. If you write something boring like ‘new blog post’ or enigmatic like ‘Murky Waters’, you haven’t given them any reason to click, so all your work has been wasted.
Solution: Learn to write magnetic headlines – click the link for an in-depth tutorial. And use them.
Don’t be too proud to use the headline formulas. They’ve been proven to work. And don’t be tempted to come up with something more ‘creative’, original or mysterious. You can hit people with the ‘creative, original and mysterious’ stuff once they actually land on your website. The headline’s job is to get people to do that.
If you don’t believe me, or if you think the usual copywriting formulas don’t apply to your work, then experiment with using both kinds of headline. That’s what I did, until I realised the tried-and-tested formulas did apply to my work, and did work better than the other kind.
6. Not Building a Mailing List
All the top internet marketers agree that ‘the money’s in the list’. And that many millionaires can’t be wrong.
By ‘list’, they mean a mailing list of e-mail addresses, that people have given them as an expression of interest in their products or services.
Whether or not you want to be a millionaire, if you aren’t using your website to collect e-mail addresses of potential customers, then your website is like a bucket with a hole in it. And it doesn’t matter how much water you pour in the bucket (i.e. how much traffic you get to your site) if it all drains out the bottom.
Solution: Set up a mailing list and ask people to join it.
It’s that simple, at least in its most basic form. Put a prominent signup form on your website, and ask people to give you their e-mail address if they want to know about your latest products and services. Then, next time you have a product or service to announce – you can guess what’s coming – send an e-mail and invite them to buy it.
You need to use a reputable email marketing service provider. Not only will this make it easy for you to manage hundreds or thousands of email contacts, when spam filters see that your mail is being sent by a provider with a good reputation, they’ll open the doors and let your messages through. I use Aweber and recommend it to my clients.
Here’s an example of a barebones mailing list, over at my Wishful Thinking site. All I’m doing is asking people to let me send them sales pitches – and people are signing up. And when I send them the sales pitch, some of them buy. It’s not a particularly big list, but it’s an absurdly small amount of work for me to maintain it, and it’s generating sales. It could do the same for you.
Of course, your list will grow much faster, and make more sales, if you put more effort into it. Here at Lateral Action, I’m offering a free 25 week course for artists and creatives, as an incentive to join my list. Which means that list has grown to over 4,000 subscribers after less than five months, and generates a lot more sales than the other one. But the same basic principle applies – asking people for permission to send them marketing messages. Which brings me to the next big mistake…
7. Adding People to Your Mailing List without Permission
This happens to me every week, and it still amazes me that people think it’s acceptable, let alone effective marketing. I’ll meet someone (online or offline) and a few days later start receiving their newsletter, even though I’ve never asked for it, or been offered the choice.
Often, there’s no ‘unsubscribe’ link at the bottom of the email (a legal requirement in many parts of the world). So the only way to get off the list is to email them directly and ask to be removed. Which would be uncomfortable for both of us.
In some countries, you may well be breaking the law by adding people to your list in this way. You are also damaging your reputation. How do you feel every time you receive an unsolicited email? Even if you like the person and the newsletter is good, it’s hard not to think “Surely they could have asked…”.
Plus the more people who hit the ‘report spam’ button when they receive your emails, the more chance you have of ending up on a spam blacklist, which means you’ll find it harder and harder to get your emails delivered.
Solution: Invite people to subscribe, and make it worth their while.
The essential requirement for building a non-spammy list is that you ask people to opt in, by putting their e-mail address in a web form. You also need to give people the option to unsubscribe at any time – the easiest way to do this is to include an ‘unsubscribe’ link at the foot of every email you send. Don’t worry about the technicalities of how to do this: Aweber, or any other decent email service provider, will walk you through the process each time you set up a new list.
No, this isn’t as easy as adding people to your list without permission, and your list will grow more slowly. But if you want a quality mailing list – composed of people who are genuinely interested in hearing from you, as opposed to people who may be indifferent or downright annoyed by your messages – it’s the only way to go.
As an incentive to subscribe, it’s normal to offer a free gift. You don’t need to give away a 25-week course – other popular options are sample music tracks, ebooks, shorter email courses, and regular newsletters.
8. Using Social Networks for Socializing
OK I’m being slightly provocative with this one. Of course social networks are for socializing – but if you look at them purely as a way to keep in touch with friends, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to build your professional network and get your marketing content (see no.2) shared widely, bringing you new visitors, subscribers and customers.
But if all you’re doing is hanging out on Facebook sharing cat videos or playing zombie games with your usual circle of friends, you’re not doing your business any favours. And depending on what you share about your private life and opinions, you could be actively harming your business. Are you comfortable with the thought of potential customers scanning your profile, status updates and photos? Because they’re doing it.
Solution: Target the most relevant social networks and use them to build your professional network and get your content into circulation.
Read through my article The Top 10 Social Networks for Creative People. Pick one or two networks that look most relevant to your business. Get to know interesting and potentially helpful people in your field. Share links to your own and others’ content.
Make it clear where you hang out online by adding ‘follow me’ or ‘connect with me’ links to your website. And encourage visitors to bookmark, Tweet and share links to your content by adding ‘share this’ buttons to your site.
9. Making It Hard to Buy
I once asked a writer friend why he didn’t have prominent links to his books on the sidebar of his blog. Here’s what he said:
But surely they can find them on Amazon?
Yes, they can, but they won’t.
Unless you include a prominent link, they won’t look on Amazon. They won’t rummage through your site to find your shop. They won’t know you’ve written a book, or recorded an album, or that you have artwork for sale, or that you could design them a fabulous website. They won’t magically guess what you have to offer.
They won’t know what you want them to do – buy your work, come to your show, hire you for a project – unless you ask them.
And they won’t understand the value of your work unless you spell it out and show them what you put into it, and what they get out of it.
They won’t buy if they’re afraid to ask the price, or whether you ship overseas, or whether it’s too heavy to mount on the wall, or whether it will play on their MP3 player, or whether you charge by the hour or the project, or whether you do the copywriting or just the design, or whether they have to sign up for an annual subscription or whether they can just buy an hour of your time.
Solution: Tell people what you want them to do. Explain the buying process and make it easy.
Have prominent links to your shop, gallery or ‘hire me’ page. If you’re selling goods, make it quick and easy to buy. Display prices clearly. Have one or two options for shipping, and say how long it will take. Spell out your guarantee and returns policy. Take credit cards and Paypal. Don’t make people set up an account before letting them buy. Test your checkout to make sure it works!
If you’re selling services, reduce anxiety by explaining what you do, how you do it, how long it will take, how you charge (by the hour/day/project) and how much it’s likely to cost. Testimonials help, especially if you include customers’ names and website addresses. Make it easy to contact you with enquiries.
10. Doing Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Back-to-Front
Every time I run my workshop on Internet Marketing for Creative People, a hand goes up and someone asks how they can ‘optimize their website with the right keywords’.
While keywords are definitely important, it’s a common misconception that the most important thing you need to do to get a new website to rank well on search engines is to fiddle about with the keywords in your website text, as well as the hidden meta tags at the top of the page.
Firstly, forget the meta tags. Google ignores them.
Secondly, when starting out with a new website, it’s more important to attract links from other websites than to get caught up in the fine detail of keywords on your site. When search engines see a lot of inbound links to a website, they take that as a strong indicator of the value of the site – particularly if the links come from sites that they already rank highly.
This is why for several years I managed to rank very well on search engines and attract a lot of search engine traffic – even though I didn’t bother doing SEO in the usual sense. Because I was writing a blog that people enjoyed, I naturally attracted a lot of links from other bloggers, which was a good thing in Google’s eyes.
Don’t ask for link exchanges. No-one with a site worth getting links from will take you seriously if you do that. Instead, content marketing (see no.2) is a much more effective way of attracting valuable links.
Here’s a quote from Brian Clark, who knows a lot more about SEO than I do:
Here’s the deal . . . much of what determines the ranking position of any particular page is due to what happens off the page, in the form of links from other sites. Getting those links naturally has become the hardest part of SEO, which is why we’ve seen the mainstream emergence of social media marketing as a way to attract links with compelling content.
Put simply: If your content isn’t good enough to attract good, natural links, it doesn’t matter how “optimized” that content is.
Now I’ll admit I ignored SEO for far too long. It wasn’t until last year that I really started to take it seriously. I could have done even better if I’d take the trouble to learn the basics of SEO earlier – so don’t make my mistake.
Solution: First, Produce great content (see no.2) that will naturally attract links from other sites. Then optimize your most important pages.
And once you have some inbound links and quality content to optimize, then it’s worth investing some time tweaking the keywords on your site. That’s why it’s called search engine optimization.
A tool I use and recommend for this is Scribe – it basically reviews the text you’ve written and gives you a detailed feedback about how it will look to a search engine – and what you can do to tweak it and improve your rankings.
Well, there it is. You’ll notice that a lot of the solutions I’m proposing take more time and effort than the ‘quick and easy’ alternatives. There’s no getting round the fact that internet marketing is a medium-to-long-term approach – but if you’re serious about making a successful business out of your creative work, that’s the timescale you should focus on anyway.
And the good news is, if you get the fundamentals right, you can have a lot of fun with this stuff. If you ask me, creating amazing media and hanging out with interesting creative people online beats cold-calling or paying for advertising any day.
If you want to know more about leveraging the internet to build a business around your creative talents, you’re welcome to download and share my new ebook Freedom, Money, Time – and the Key to Creative Success.
If the ideas in the ebook touch a chord for you, you may like to know that The Creative Entrepreneur Roadmap (formerly known as the Lateral Action Entrepreneur Roadmap) will soon open its doors to a new group of students. If you want to be first in line when the course opens (and to read the second free ebook I’ve written) you can hop on the advance notice list.
What Would You Add to this List?
What other common internet marketing mistakes do you see?
Are you willing to own up to any of your own – and the solutions you found?
Any tips to help artists and creatives find more fans and sell more of their stuff?
About the author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and a coach who specializes in internet marketing for artists, creatives and entrepreneurs. For more advice on using the web to find your fans and build your creative business, sign up for free updates from Lateral Action.