Building your Audience through Social Media
You all know that social media is extremely important for doing business. The more people see your work, the more opportunities open up as a result: sales, freelance jobs, collaborations and whatever else you might be looking for.
But there is something fundamental that gets overlooked quite often: What you have with your audience is a relationship. When I see creators struggling with sharing their work online, it is often because they feel as if they're spamming and annoying people with their content. They get the impression that they're putting a burden on their followers, when in reality, they're giving them something. For so many artists, it's hard to believe that others actually want to see their work. But guess what, they do! That's why they hit that follow button.
Any good relationship, should be built on mutual trust. So trust your audience when they say that they love your work, trust that they're happy about regular updates and trust that they're looking for ways to support you. In return, they trust you to keep making art and to share it with them.
Sharing is Caring!
I personally love the word sharing for what it is that we're doing on social media, rather than posting. Sharing implies that exchange is happening between the creative and their audience, instead of it being one-sided. I came to realise how important sharing is when I read “The Art of Asking” by Amanda Palmer. She describes the creative process in three steps:
“Collecting the dots. Then connecting them. And then sharing the connections with those around you. This is how a creative human works. Collecting, connecting, sharing.“
Or in concrete terms:
1.) Cultivating experiences and inspirations.
2.) Creating artwork based on them.
3.) Sharing the artwork with others.
I've come to realise that, to me, the third step is almost as important as the previous two. Think about a musician that will put in a lot of passion and energy not only into writing and recording their songs, but also into performing them. As a visual artists, social media is our stage. It is a place where we have control over how we want to present our work and ourselves to the world and it can be a place that allows us to connect with our audience on a deeper level. With this positive mindset, I don't perceive social media to be a burden. Instead, I see it as a fun way to share my days' work with like-minded people, just how I would hand my sketchbook over to a friend and tell them what I've been up to.
Though I've been on DevinatART since 2010, it took me a while to arrive at the 21st century and I only got my first smartphone in late 2014. That's when I started my Instagram account, and few years later, Twitter. Since then, I've managed to build a large audience. From all my followers, I think I have only ever met 15 people in person. All the others have discovered my work online, on one platform or another. When things really started to take off was when I stopped taking freelance work in early 2017. Now I'm in the fortunate position of being an independent creator. That means I can share all my artwork right away, which is a huge advantage.
Since we all love lists, here are some best practices that I've learned over the years when it comes to social media in general:
1. Don't create for the sole purpose of posting on social media. The urge to make artwork should come first, not the need to “feed” your social media. It's better to create work that you're passionate about at your own pace, rather than putting out forced drawings every day.
2. Don't share 20 pieces of artwork in a single day. Instead, spread them out evenly to one or two per day.
3. Building your audience gets easier over time. The more followers you already have, the quicker you're getting new ones. If I take my Instagram account for example, I hit 50k in March 2017, so it took me two and a half years to get there. Then I hit 100k in January 2018, so that's seven months for the same amount. So please, be patient and hang in there.
4. Even though your fans show up as numbers in your profile, they're people. They're individuals with their own lives and feelings and they deserve to be treated as such.
5. Reply to your fans and block trolls! Fight the urge to defend yourself against people that want to provoke you. It's really not fair to talk to the jerks out there and to ignore your fans, is it? Of course, after a certain point, you won't be able to get back to every single comment by your followers, but at least take the time to answer people's questions and to thank a few that left nice and thoughtful comments.
6. Have high quality photos and scans. We're all artists here and know this stuff, so I won't go into too much detail. Just this: Take photos in daylight if possible and edit them to look nice and professional. Snapseed is a free app that is great for basic photo editing on the fly.
7. Make your presence about art. My preferred ratio is 90% to 10% when it comes to business vs. personal, but you have to make that decision for yourself. Just be aware: If your profile says that you're an artist, that's a promise to your followers. They might be disappointed if they don't get to see any art.
8. If possible, try to have the same handle, username and avatar on all platforms. You want to make it easy for people to find and recognise you.
9. Engage! Ask questions in your captions so that people have a reason to start a conversation with you. Polls can be fun, too. They're built into a lot of platforms and they let your fans know that you're interested in them and value their opinion. Polls are amazing to test out ideas or new products. If you're unsure whether making shower curtains with your art on them is a good move, ask your audience! They'll tell you whether they want those or not.
10. Comment on other people's work. You're making their day a little better and there's also a slight chance that they might check out your profile in return (of course, this shouldn't be your goal, but it does happen). So I'd recommend having your art as your avatar instead of a photo, because that's the only impression that a lot of people get when they read a comment of yours. Personally, when I see an icon that I like, I often click on it and follow if I enjoy the rest of the work.
11. It's ok to bring back older work. There are even specific hashtags for this: #throwbackthursday #tbt that encourage you to go back to some point in the past and re-share that moment. Social media is very short-lived, so it's likely that your more recent followers haven't seen any of your older work. So take them on a trip down memory lane. Even digging up the stuff from half a year ago is totally ok. Your fans that have already seen it, might say “I remember this one” or “this is the first thing I saw when I started following you”.
12. Stay up to date on the platform you're using. Look out for algorithm changes and what to do to adjust accordingly.
Why I like it: I don't anymore (thanks, Facebook!). But it's still the platform where I have the most followers, so I'm maintaining my presence there.
1. Only post your best work on your profile. That includes works in progress and other things, too. Just take it easy on anything that might be more informative than visually appealing. Save that stuff for the stories. If your posts don't do well, your reach gets decreased in your next post. And if you have no idea what I'm taking about: The algorithm releases a new post only to a fraction of your followers in the first few minutes to “test” how it's performing. If the engagement is high, it has passed the test and will be released to more of your followers as a result. If it doesn't do well, your future posts might have an even harder time to reach people.
2. Reply to comments within the first hour of posting something to your profile. This will increase engagement and help release that post to a higher percentage of your followers.
3. Don't put large text on your images or the algorithm will bury them. As far as I can tell, small, handwritten text will not be recognised. So if you want to inform people about your sale, don't write it in large block letters onto the image. Rather, add an eye-grabbing photo and write the info in the caption. Stories, on the other hand, encourage text. So use those for your promotions.
4. Make your account a business account to get access to statistics and to use links in your Instagram stories. Note that this only works for accounts with 10k+ followers that also have a Facebook page. (I had to bite the bullet and make one just to be able to upgrade my Instagram account.) In the statistics, check at what time your followers are most active and use that time to share your work. As for the links in your stories, these are incredibly valuable. Instagram usually only allows you a single clickable link in your bio. So having those extra links in your stories makes them the perfect place to direct people to your store, Patreon or Kickstarter. About paid promotions: I personally haven't used those, but I have heard several people talk about how paid posts have screwed up their engagement on their following, unpaid posts. So be wary of those.
5. Use hashtags. On Instagram, you'll most likely be found through hashtags. It's what people type in when they're looking for when they want to discover new accounts that meet their interests. So there's no shame in including them. Put them in the description of the post, not the comments (that used to work, but doesn't anymore). Word is, that since the beginning of the year, it is counterproductive to use too many tags. People say that five is the sweet spot. They should match whatever is is that you're creating. Here are some ideas: #artistsoninstagram #instaart #instaartist #art #drawing #painting #fantasyart #portrait #tarot #landscape #surreal or just your name (#djamilaknopf). I like to have my most common hashtags saved in a note on my phone, so that I only have to copy and paste them. To have them not clutter your caption, you can add a few dots and linebreak before you insert them.
Why I like it: The art side of Twitter feels like a real community. Since it's not only image, but also text-based it's easy to chat with anybody. Most artists are very approachable. Also, you run into a lot of writers and art directors, which is great when you're looking for work or connections. Also, I like how you have more control over your posts than on Instagram, for example (clickable links, for god's sake!). My audience has grown very quickly since I actually started actually using Twitter. Before, I was just sharing my work from Instagram through an app, with cropped cations and weird links. It wasn't ideal and I got almost no traction. On Twitter, audience building works mostly through sharing (retweeting). As soon as “bigger accounts” take notice of your work, everything starts snowballing. But looking back, it took me so long to figure Twitter out. So I hope these tips will help you make good use of the platform:
1. Be aware of the crop! Twitter crops all images to a landscape format. So if you have a vertical piece, it might be a good idea to post two images side by side (the original one and a close-up, for example), because then they both get displayed in a portrait format.
2. Image posts generally do better than plain text because they grab people's attention. So if you post a link to a YouTube video, for example, include a preview image. It's more likely that people click on it if they can already get a glimpse of it.
3. Posts with four images are more likely to be shared on twitter – like a small collection that people want to pass on for others to see. So if you have a few images that fit together visually or have any other common theme, that's ideal!
4. Pin a post to your profile with your four best artworks and links to your website, Patreon, etc. If I'm visiting someone's profile and I'm scrolling for a few minutes without seeing any art, I'm unlikely to follow that person. So make sure that the first thing people see is a sample of your work and places where they can support you.
5. Jump on popular hashtags as soon as you see them pop up. #artistsontwitter #artvsartist #visiblewomen etc. If the timing and your work is right, these can bring you over a thousand followers in just a couple of days.
6. Revive your posts. Comment on previous posts to bump them up in your timeline. Or retweet them. But I personally prefer to just add a comment with some information that I hadn't mentioned in the original post, or thank my followers, or add some emojis that fit the artwork – whatever I feel like. You can revive your posts as many times as you want. This is especially useful for Kickstarters or any other long-term projects that you're promoting. Your own replies add up to a thread and give a sense of progress of what's going on in the campaign. You can also create a thread in which you add works in progress. But I would recommend you create a separate post for the final artwork. If you have previously shared something that got a lot of traction, it can be a good idea to add a related post to that one instead of making a new one. For example: I recently did a study that did pretty well. A few weeks later, when I had completed the process video, I added the link to the original post of the study. I would say you can bump new posts up to three times a day. This might seem a bit much, but think about how much content floods people's timelines every day. So a huge percentage of your audience is likely to miss it. Also, your followers are probably living in different time zones. So you're not spamming, you're just making sure that everyone has a chance to see your post.
7. Share advice and experiences. If you're learning something about yourself and your relationship with your art, chances are, other artists can relate to your experience. I like to post things as a reminder for myself and I have found that they resonate with others and get shared as a result. You can make a single post or create a thread if it doesn't fit into one (type your first tweet and hit that little plus icon below to add more).
8. Retweet other people's work. Twitter makes it easier for you to be a curator, which is pretty cool. So you're not only helping out others by sharing their work, but your collection of retweets also tells a story about your own taste and interests.
9. Support other artists! One of the best things when you have a large following is that you can influence other people's careers in positive ways. I have been given great opportunities simply because other, more “famous” artists retweetet my work. Now I'm finally in the position to do that for someone else. I recently introduced #FeatureFriday where I pick out artists with smaller accounts that I think deserve more attention.
And lastly, a word on the dreaded concept of “promotion”. Again, I have my own philosophy when it comes to self-promotion. It ties in with the relationship between creator and audience that I've talked about earlier. I believe that when you're constantly keeping your end of the promise to your fans (sharing artwork), it's ok to ask for something every once in a while. But I think promotion is most effective when the image you're sharing is the primary focus and the call to action is secondary. So I try to casually slip promotions into my regular posts. For example, if I'm posting a new tarot card, which is likely to get more traction than my other posts, I mention that the tarot project is supported by my patrons and I include a link. That makes it feel less forced than a post that has the sole purpose of promoting my Patreon. And again, if people don't want to support me, they can still enjoy the illustration and ignore the caption.
I really believe that social media can be such a great place to hang out with people that share your interest in art and if you treat it that way, it makes it a lot easier to build a relationship with your audience. And if they haven't found you yet, they will. Just lead the way by sharing your art.
Djamila Knopf is an independent illustrator and fine artist. She works and lives in Leipzig, Germany, surrounded by beautiful old buildings and greenery. Her art mainly features character portraits and tarot cards, but she's been finding herself increasingly interested in detailed background illustrations as well. Her work has been published by Dragonsteel Entertainment and in Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, among others. When she's not drawing or painting, she enjoys eating out, reading genre fiction, bouldering, travelling, and binge-watching tv shows online.