I started the Art Marketing Project to help fine artists with their marketing, and before that, for about 20 years, I worked in marketing for arts organizations. I’ve learned a few things along the way that I’ll share with you now.
Here are my top takeaways from 20 years of art marketing:
Marketing is about storytelling
These days, people are so saturated with all the advertising and promotion coming at them that they’re more likely to do business with people they know, like, and trust. For that reason, it’s more important than ever to make personal connections with your potential buyers.
The way to make personal connections is through storytelling. That involves telling stories about your work, about the processes behind your work, and also telling stories about yourself personally—for example, how you came to be an artist.
Sharing your wins, and even your losses or challenges really helps connect people to you. And when people are engaged with you, they are more likely to buy your art.
Keeping a blog is one of the best ways to make use of storytelling. Here's my post about that: Why an Artist’s Blog is the Most Efficient Marketing Tool.
You need to spend money to grow
I’ve spent years managing marketing and advertising for large arts organizations as well as helping independent artists and I can tell you this: you need to spend money to grow your business.
Yes, you can start out by building your business organically, figuring it all out for yourself and spending very little money, but that will only take you so far. To get to the next level, you’re going to need to invest some money.
In the old days, if things went well, you could rely on a gallery to market your art. But things have changed. These days, artists need to market their own work.
I’m not suggesting that you throw a pile of cash into one pot and cross your fingers, hoping for success. Instead, I suggest that you adopt a testing mindset (see 7 Important Mindset Tips for Art Marketing Success) and find out where a modest amount of money spent can bring you a good return. From there, you can continue to move forward, testing as you go, to gradually build your audience and your art business.
Having a plan is critical
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I talk about planning a lot—in fact I teach a course on creating a marketing plan for your art business—and that’s because having a plan is critical to your success.
A marketing plan will guide you to make informed, strategic decisions rather than simply doing what your friends recommend—or flying by the seat of your pants.
A plan will help you feel confident about every move you make to market and sell your art—in an authentic way, without feeling pushy.
Plus, when you’ve got marketing goals and you keep track of your results, you will be able look back monthly, quarterly, or annually and know what's working so you can keep doing what works, and eliminate the things that don't work. Which leads to . . .
Marketing never stops
Marketing is an activity that you need to continue as long as your business is running. You can’t focus on marketing for a few days every quarter and then ignore it the rest of the time and expect your business to succeed.
Marketing is a marathon, not a sprint, and to succeed, you’ve got to keep at it—daily, weekly, monthly.
Be consistent, keep your momentum going, and your audience will build over time.
The best marketing cannot sell what no one wants to buy
This is a big challenge for some artists because (and I get it) you might long to create work that comes from your soul and not be concerned about its commercial qualities. If you want to sell art, though, you need to bridge the gap between where your passion lies and where people want to spend their money.
If you are struggling—maybe your art's not selling even though you've got a large audience, even though you've been in five or six galleries—you may need to consider with an open mind whether what you're creating is sellable.
One of the keys to creating work that people want to buy is to embrace the uniqueness of your own style. You may have a unique talent, skill, approach, or palette—explore your personal creative voice and own it with confidence.
If you are one of 200 oil painters who creates landscapes, for example, you need to differentiate yourself from other artists who paint landscapes in oil. Otherwise, it could be hard for people to see the value in your work compared to something they could pick up on Etsy for $40.
No one is good at all things
Marketing can be a lot of work. You need to look after your website (the words, the images, the technology), what you share on social media, how your photos are shot, how you represent your work, and how you speak to people when you meet them personally—just for starters!
That's a lot of different skills, and no one is an expert at all things. Case in point: I am a marketing person. I have two degrees in marketing and I've been in marketing for 20 years now. And before that, I was a graphic designer, so I’ve spent nearly 30 years in the marketing field and yet, I don't do all my marketing myself.
I am good at creating beautiful imagery, strategy, and teaching. But I am so-so at writing. I write well enough; I just don't enjoy it. And so I hire people to help me.
I do come up with the content; I just don’t write it! The way I process my thoughts is by talking, not writing. So I record the content on audio and I have a writer who turns that audio content into a blog post for me.
I can’t get away with not creating blog posts for you and not creating emails for my subscribers, so I’ve found people who help me get those things done. I suggest you do the same for the tasks you don’t enjoy.
Marketing is always changing
Always, always, always changing.
If you're going to be the person in charge of marketing your art business, you need to stay on top of the latest ideas. That may mean spending the time to read and learn, and possibly taking courses.
You could also join a mastermind group, hire a coach, or connect with friends who are more experienced in marketing.
If you’ve developed your marketing plan and it’s working for you, that’s great, but be sure to keep on top of it. If you say, “I'm going to put this on autopilot and I'm not going to change anything for the next five years,” you’ll be left in the dust.
Things change way too quickly in the world of marketing. Don’t get caught snoozing.
Relationships are key to success
Marketing is about relationships as much as it is about storytelling. Develop relationships with the right people and you'll build a network that can support your business in an ongoing way.
I’m talking about strategically building a network of people who can help you build your business, people who will think of you when opportunities come up. This is different from “networking” (handing out your business card at events, for example), and it's worth putting your effort into (see Grow Your Art Business by Building a Network).
How about relationships with past buyers? Don’t overlook the opportunity to ask for a recommendation or a referral from them.
People buy your work, you receive the payment, ship your art to them, and thank them.
Get to know your buyers a bit on a personal level. Keep in touch with them via email messages created especially for them. Ask for referrals. Create special promotions to invite them back. And find ways of rewarding them for being a repeat buyer.
Marketing is all about putting yourself in your customer's shoes
Marketing isn’t about pushing things on people. It’s about striving to understand your potential clients—what they want, what they're interested in—and putting yourself in their shoes. From that vantage point, you can design your business and your marketing, and provide opportunities for them to buy.
When people ask what I do for a living, I say that my job is to be the advocate for the customer in every situation. My job is to think like them, have their best interests in mind, and help them find what they want.
Think of it altruistically: people want things. It's our job to help them find just the right thing. If your artwork is perfect for them, you're adding a lot of value to their lives. You're not pushing your work on people. You're connecting them with what their heart already wants.
One final impression
One last note, which is just a fun tidbit that I want to share with you. It comes from my experience in marketing at art museums.
Here it is: People love impressionist art.
Pay attention to your local museum. You will probably notice that they put on an impressionist exhibition every few years. Museums do this because they know that a broad spectrum of their audience will flock to it.
I know a number of very successful artists who paint in this style. It's the kind of work that people want to buy and hang in their homes. They love it because of its beauty, because of its historic value, and just because . . . people love impressionist art.
Lessons learned: the best marketers use storytelling to engage their audiences and gain trust; marketing is about relationships and putting yourself in your customers’ shoes; you need a plan and you need to spend money to grow; even the best marketing can’t sell what no one wants to buy; no one is good at everything; marketing is always changing and it never stops! What marketing lessons have you learned? Tell me in the comments below.
Create a Marketing Plan for Your Thriving Art Business
In my course, Create a Marketing Plan for Your Thriving Art Business, you get access to all of my experience in art marketing. Read about it and add your name to the waitlist. I'll let you know the next time registration opens.