When I started out as a self-employed psychotherapist and coach, in the mid-nineties, I was completely clueless about marketing. I thought it was the antithesis of my work – something commercial and tacky and dirty, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
So I suffered the fate of most young creatives – frustration and confusion. My clients’ lives were being changed, so I knew I was doing good work. But there were never quite enough clients, so I was constantly anxious about money. I was also confused: If I was so good at my work – and my clients told me I was – then why was I struggling?
Then I rolled up my sleeves and decided it was time to get my hands dirty. I was going to learn to promote my work, and make my business a success. So the intention was there, but the knowledge was sadly lacking – you see, I didn’t realise there was a difference between marketing and sales.
These days, I know that making a sale is just one small step in a larger process, of developing products and services for customers, and letting the world know about what you have to offer. And that larger process is called marketing. But in my mind back then, it was all the same thing.
So I sat down with a telephone and made lots of cold calls to companies. I’m talking hundreds of calls. I hated it. It scared me to death. Some days I procrastinated nearly all day. A few days, I actually did procrastinate all day. But I still made a lot of calls. And I eventually brought in a lot of business.
So I succeeded at sales without doing any proper marketing. But it was painful. Like doing surgery without an anaesthetic – it worked, but nobody would choose to do it twice. There had to be a better way.
I went back to college and did an MA in Creative & Media Enterprises – a kind of MBA for creative entrepreneurs, where we studied theories of creativity, intellectual property law, and the creative economy alongside traditional biz subjects like strategy, business models, and marketing.
Then one day while researching for marketing essay, I came across an ebook by Seth Godin that changed my life.
Seth explained that if I started writing something called a ‘blog’ I could get my ideas out into the world, and create new connections and opportunities. This was back in 2005 when most people had never heard of blogging, let alone thought of using it as a marketing tool.
That sounded more like it! Instead of cold-calling people who had never heard of me, I could sit at home and write, and people would call me!
It was great in theory, but not so straightforward in practice.
When I looked around at the successful bloggers on the scene, I saw them being clever and insightful and wowing people with their ideas. So I tried to do that. But for some reason, my blog didn’t take off the way theirs did.
I even had one person who unsubscribed from my blog leave the comment ‘Not as insightful as Seth Godin.’ Ouch!
I floundered for a while, trying different types of blog post – reporting on industry news, going to events and writing about them, sharing links to other people’s blogs, sharing my thoughts on creativity.
I also began sharing some of the actual ideas and techniques that I was using with my coaching clients. After a while, I realised that these were the most popular posts, and the ones most likely to attract comments, links from other bloggers, and even business enquiries from creative studios.
The penny finally dropped when I decided to stop thinking of my blog as a marketing channel, or a platform for my ideas, and start using the blog as a coaching tool.
I shared as many practical tools and techniques as I could. I described the creative process of famous artists and creators, and what we could learn from their examples. I shared stories of my own struggles and successes, and what I had learned along the way.
And my blog took off. Month by month, I received more visitors, subscribers and new biz enquiries than the month before. I released a free ebook, Time Management for Creative People, and it went viral.
Writing that blog transformed my business and changed my life. It brought me readers, clients, customers, friends and even business partners from the other side of the world.
And there was a paradox at the heart of that blog’s success: I only succeeded at marketing when I stopped thinking of it as marketing.
I stopped seeing it as separate to my work as a coach. I made my marketing an extension of my work into the wider world. A way of helping more people than I could reach in 1-2-1 conversations or workshops.
Everything I’ve created for my audience since then, not just the blog but my books, my elearning courses, my free 21st Century Creative Foundation Course, and my podcast, has been designed to extend my coaching out into the world and help you, wherever you are in the world.
So when it comes to your marketing, stop thinking of it as ‘marketing’. Instead make it an extension of your work.
Don’t start by asking ‘How can I persuade someone to buy my stuff?’ Instead ask ‘how can I share my work and give someone a real experience of it?’
If you’re an artist, put your art out there so we can see it.
If you’re a writer, publish at least some of your writing out there in public, on your website or your blog or on Medium, where we can all read it for free.
If you’re a musician, let us hear your music.
If you’re a coach or teacher, put your teachings out into the world, in writing, in videos, on a podcast or whatever.
If you’re a speaker or performer, get someone to film you in action and share the video.
And so on.
Not only is this the best way to reach people and give them a sense of the real value of your work. It also takes away the artificial division between your work and your marketing. So you don’t have to divide up your time into ‘doing your work’ which you love, and ‘selling your work’ which you hate.
There’s no real distinction any more – it’s all just different aspects of your work. Some is for public consumption right now, online. Some is exclusively for your customers or your clients. And all of it is authentically you.
You can hear an audio version of the article in this episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast, starting at 2’32”.