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Marketing for Artists



How many times have you been told that the secret to success in business is marketing?  If you’re like me, I was sold on the need for marketing early in my business career, and have made it core to the growth of my art business.  So why then is my business growing so slowly?  Does it just mean that I suck at marketing after all?  What if I were to suggest to you that marketing is not “the” secret, and that you’re doing everything right? 

Every business guru seems to support the notion that marketing is “the key” to unlocking business success.  But scratch the surface, and you’ll find that most articles and videos out there seem to conflate several concepts under the title of marketing.  It’s hard then for me to distinguish between sales, advertising, publicity, and marketing.  Part of me really, really wants to lump all of these concepts together in my head, and a quick survey of the literature would confirm that others do as well.  Perhaps that’s because we need to be able to do all of these things at the same time.  So I think we should begin with a few definitions.

Marketing includes all those things you do to get a customer in front of you in your business.  Sales then, becomes the actions you take when you’ve got them face to face.  So marketing includes design issues, research, data collection, and storytelling.  It’s the master plan on how you intend to present your product or service to the world.  

It’s a little easier for me to understand that advertising is a subset of marketing, and refers to those activities that are aimed at getting the word out about your product.  It’s about making the connections with customers, and showcasing your marketing efforts to those customers.  Advertising may well be very specific and time sensitive, and there could be a variety of advertising campaigns to support one marketing goal.  If marketing is the plan for “what”, then I guess advertising is the plan for “how”.

But then what is the difference between advertising and publicity?  Publicity seems to be so similar.  Whereas marketing and advertising lean forward, considering what strategies will be employed in the future to achieve wanted gains, publicity is about right here and right now.  Some distinguish the two by saying that publicity is free, where marketing is not.  As we all know, publicity can also be good even when it’s bad.  Hopefully it is something that works to support our marketing goals, but publicity seems to be less about a controlled message, but rather about gaining attention.  Marketing is the “what”, advertising is the “how”, and publicity is the “hey look!”

Regardless of the differences between these concepts, we creative freelancers must do all of them, all of the time.  No pressure there.  Is it any wonder that many artists don’t want to think of themselves as marketers.  We’ve talked before about the need to be self-reflective, and to be honest with ourselves.  So let’s admit that there is more going on here.  From classical times, the arts were considered to be above commercial concerns.  Blame the ancient Greeks, the academics, or the aristocratic classes, but much of that snobbery still exists today.  It amazes me though, as Michelangelo and Leonardo daVinci both were paid for their work.  And we can see that many of the great masters ran studios that functioned like art factories.  But the notion lingers.  I’ll never forget that when booking artists to speak to our high school students, I brought in a successful author who writes young adult fiction.  She presented to the kids, and they seemed really interested in her career as a writer.  At some point, she mentioned that she had been approached for a possible movie deal, and that there was interest in developing her fantastical characters into action figures.  The students were visibly appalled.  They couldn’t believe that she would consider anything more to her writing than theme, plot, and language.  She had sold-out.  They had been taught by the educational system to believe that writing was a noble pursuit, and that precluded the notion that there was a commercial component to the career of an artist.  She and I were both stunned at their response.

Unfortunately, we are all part of that same cultural environment, and so are our customers.  I know many artists who won’t refer to their clients as customers, or to their art as a product.  While that may be part of their marketing strategy, it may also be a stereotype that’s getting in their way.  Take a quick self-check about your own presumptions and attitudes, and feather them into your overall marketing plan.  If you truly want to portray your work as above commercial consideration, you’re going to need to find strategies for marketing your art in that way.  I have no problem seeing my artwork on a pillow cover or a shower curtain, though I don’t feature those types of products in my studio.  I suggest we should be sensitive to the biases of our collectors, but provide a variety of experiences and entry points to our art.  

It’s also strange that in all of the conversation surrounding marketing, publicity and advertising, I’ve not yet mentioned sales.  I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that until recently, I always assumed that marketing was selling.  I believed that if I could get my work in front of enough people, some percentage of those people would buy it.  And that does happen, but not very often.  We’ll talk about sales in another blog posting, but what I’m beginning to understand is that marketing does not equate with sales.  Marketing efforts bring people to the door, but I must be a salesman to bring them past the threshold.  It seems to me to be a glaring hole in my business plan.  It’s not a huge surprise to me, since I have an aversion to selling.  And how can you run a commercial enterprise if you don’t want to sell?  I think Bogdan and I both feel very uneasy with sales because we don’t want to push people to buy something they don’t really want.  I still hold that deceiving people like that is a terrible way to sell art.  But there are people who DO want to purchase what I create, so the trick is to use my marketing strategies to lure people who ARE interested in buying art, and then using sales techniques to insure they leave with the products they want to take home.

The only other thing I want to mention about marketing is to reiterate that social media, online platforms and video streaming are not going to go away when the dust settles from COVID.  The pandemic really pushed many of us along a pathway that we should have started down before the virus hit.  If we are going to be competitive in the future, we all need to find ways to incorporate these technologies into our overall marketing strategies.  Yes there’s a learning curve, and yes it will be easier for some than for others, but never forget that it’s your art that you’re selling.  Trust in the quality and appeal of your art, your writing, your music, or your designs, and know that no one else can create what you can.  Marketing trends will change over time, but it’s not your advertising they want to own, it’s your art.  Make conscious and deliberate steps to incorporate these new technologies into your business.  They’re here to stay.

One of our goals this year was to do just that.  Since January, I’ve been writing a weekly blog, filming a weekly vlog, and recording a weekly podcast and video-podcast.  Last month, Bogdan and I started streaming a 30 minute, live “Art Chat” on Zoom every Thursday from 11am (central time here in the USA), that we then post on YouTube.  We’re committed to utilizing this outreach, together with our postings on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.  It’s a lot, I know, and it may be too much for those who work alone, or who still have a job elsewhere.  The point is that there are loads of options available, and many of them are free.  Never let the fact that there too many choices freeze you into inaction.  Pick one platform, and if you don’t see results, pick another.  Remember that failure is just a tool for growth, so you really don’t have much to fear.  Give it a shot, build on successes, and enjoy the journey.

John Bishop Fine Art's "Conversations for Freelance Creatives" is a weekly blog/vlog/podcast that creates a community, a conversation, between creatives in all sorts of fields at all sorts of levels.  We want to discuss what we’re learning, what we’ve experienced, and whom we’ve met in our journey of running a freelance creative business. John Bishop is a visual artist living in Houston, Texas. His work is largely abstract, and explores how to turn mythic, archetypal symbols into individual experiences allowing us to see them in a new way, with fresh eyes. His work can be seen online, or at his studio at Silver Street Studios, 2000 Edwards Street, Studio 108, in Houston.


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