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Why Artists and Creatives Have an Unfair Advantage at Internet Marketing

Cartoon: Him - I don't know whether to be a millionaire or an artist. Her - Can't you compromise? Become a millionaire artist or something?

Drawing by Hugh MacLeod

If you’re an artist or creative person of any kind then ‘creating’ is a lot higher on your list of priorities than ‘selling’.

One of the great joys of pursuing your creative passion is the sheer pleasure of writing, painting, making music, acting, taking pictures or whatever you do — without any ulterior motive, and without needing to show any kind of ‘return on investment’. You do it because you love to do it. Amen to that.

On the other hand, even if you don’t want to be a millionaire, I bet you wouldn’t mind a little fame. Not vulgar Hello! Magazine celebrity, but maybe the respect of your fellow artists, and some critical recognition. A few adoring fans probably wouldn’t hurt either.

You don’t have to be rich as well as famous, but all of us have bills to pay, so I’m guessing you wouldn’t mind earning a decent living from your creative work. Getting paid to do what you love has to be one of the greatest gigs on earth.

We are now living at a time of unprecedented opportunity for artists and creative professionals. Once upon a time, if you wanted to get your work in front of an audience, you had to submit it to an editor, agent, manager, curator, talent scout, whoever. A gatekeeper who had the power to open the gate and usher you through, or slam it in your face.

They called the shots, so when they said “Jump!” we jumped — and when they said “10%” we agreed to 10%. What else were we going to do?

Now, the Internet gives you the chance to gatejump, to build your own platform, find your own fans and sell your work directly to them. And it won’t cost you a fortune. Most of the software and tools you’ll need are either free or very low cost.

And that’s not even the really good news — it gets even better …

Your Creativity Gives You an Unfair Advantage

One of the biggest trends in internet marketing at the moment is something called content marketing. In a nutshell, it means creating and giving a way original media content that doesn’t look like marketing — but functions like marketing.

For example, Matthew Inman creates hysterically funny cartoons and gives them away for free on his website The Oatmeal. And because they are so cool and funny, lots of people send their friends to look at them, via Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. When you visit his site, he offers to send you more cool cartoons for free. What’s not to like? I’m just one of thousands of people who have signed up for his free cartoons.

As a result, Matthew has a mailing list of people who want to hear from him. He also has a shop on his website, where you can buy posters and mugs of his cartoons. And he has a book coming out soon. Not everyone who visits his site or signs up for his mailing list will become a customer — but enough of them do to create a nice income stream for Matthew. So Matthew gets to be a professional cartoonist, his website visitors get a good laugh for free, and his loyal customers are even more thrilled with their purchases. Win-win-win.

Not only that, but people like me, with audiences of our own, start doing his marketing for him, by writing about his website and recommending his stuff.

Is Matthew highly creative? Yes. Is he generous? Yes. Does he have a smart business strategy? You bet.

Matthew understands the fact that what people are looking for online is original and remarkable media content. In his case, he’s producing entertainment. But others have succeeded with art, news and particularly education. He is a visual artist, so obviously he uses images. But others are using text, audio and video just as successfully.

You see, even when Matthew gives away his cartoons for free, he’s not really giving them away for free. He’s giving them in return for visitors to his website and subscribers to his mailing lists. In a nutshell, he’s giving his work away in return for attention. Now that he has an audience paying attention, he’s in a very strong position to sell products, services, advertising or whatever else he wants.

Matthew’s success (ahem) illustrates one of the central paradoxes of Internet marketing: the less your media content looks like advertising, the more effective it will be as advertising.

If he had started a website that was nothing more than an advert for his books and posters, how much traffic do you think he would get? Not much. But because he is giving away something genuinely valuable and making it easy for others to copy and share it, he’s created a business that virtually markets itself. Welcome to the future.

In my own case, my business was transformed the day I added a blog to the Wishful Thinking website. Before that, I had a nice-looking brochure website that told people what a good coach and trainer I was — and which hardly sold a thing. When I started the blog, my website traffic took off — and so did the new business enquiries. My version of content marketing is to write educational articles with practical tips for creative people. Over the last four years, this has become my main source of new business, and has led to some amazing business opportunities I’d never have dreamt of when I started out.

Internet marketers have known about content marketing for years, and some of them really do earn millions of dollars a year with little more than a laptop, a network of trusted associates, and some very large mailing lists.

Nowadays, companies in all kinds of industries are starting to cotton on to the fact that they need to start thinking like media companies, and producing original articles, videos, podcasts, educational resources and news updates, if they want to command attention and generate online buzz and business.

And you know what? Lots of them are tearing their hair out. You don’t go into the frozen food business because you want to work in media. But now they are faced with having to create entertaining and engaging media content, or be left behind.

Even their marketing departments are confused. Remember the paradox: the more your media content looks like advertising the less effective it will be as advertising. If you’ve been working in a traditional marketing department — categorising and ‘targeting’ people and treating them like ‘consumers’, bombarding them with advertising and marketing-speak — this is a hard lesson to learn.

You of course, don’t have that problem. Creating original, engaging, remarkable images, sounds, text, music or video is what you do best. You’re already a one-person media company. Even if you hate the very idea of marketing, you should know that when it comes to Internet marketing, your creativity gives you an unfair advantage.

If you’d like to know what you can do with that advantage, read on.

Option 1: Build Your Own Audience

The first and sexiest option is to do what Matthew did and build your own audience online, creating a remarkable website that you love to work on and people love to visit and tell their friends about.

If you do this smartly, it means other people will send you potential customers, you’ll be found easily on the search engines and you will gradually build up mailing lists of fans who are prepared to pay good money for your work. Kevin Kelly famously estimated that a creator needs only 1,000 true fans to make a living via the Internet. The number obviously varies depending on what you are saying and how much you can charge for it, but the basic principle still holds.

This is the route chosen by artists Natasha Wescoat Hazel Dooney, Hugh MacLeod and John T Unger, graphic designer David Airey, musicians Steve Lawson and Tobias Tinker, craft artist Emily Martin and writer Justine Musk.

If you’re reading this thinking “That’s all very well for those people, but I work in such a non-commercial medium that I can’t imagine earning enough money from it”, then hold that thought for a moment. For one thing, who would have thought that solo bass playing could be the foundation of a viable career?

And for another, even if you would struggle to earn a living from your primary creative passion, maybe there’s something related to it that could provide you with a viable and fulfilling business.

For example, I write poetry, and not even the trendy hip kind of poetry at that. Old-fashioned stuff like sonnets, blank verse and sestinas. I’m not banking on it making me a millionaire any time soon. But I’ve discovered that people are willing to pay me to teach them about creativity, productivity and other professional skills for creative people. The result is that I love my work so much that it doesn’t really feel like work. And thanks to the wonders of content marketing and the Internet, I even love the marketing side of things.

What could be more fun than writing about your favourite artists, writers, films and rock stars? Nice work if you can create it — and I’m glad I did.

Option 2: Partner with Others

Remember those company owners tearing their hair out at the prospect of having to start producing media content? To them, it’s a nightmare — but for you, it’s an opportunity.

You have the ability to write the articles, draw the images, record the music and produce the videos they need. What’s to stop you teaming up with them – to help them create the online presence they need, and to allow you to learn a decent living doing something you enjoy?

I’m not suggesting you go out and start composing odes to frozen peas. (Not unless it really blows your hair back.) Pick a company you really admire, whose products or services you use and recommend. Have a look at their website — how does it compare with Matthew’s? Could you help them do better? Can you see yourself writing about them, or building them a website, or helping them make educational videos that genuinely help their customers? If so, what’s to stop you getting in touch with them?

I’m not talking about freelance gigs either. You have an unfair advantage, remember? That’s worth more than an hourly rate. Look for companies who are willing to partner with you, for a share of the profits or even a stake in the business. That way you reap the true rewards of your efforts, and both of you have a real investment in making the venture a success.

Have a look at the English Cut blog. It’s written by Savile Row tailor Thomas Mahon. When he started it, he was in need of new clients. Now he has a long waiting list of people who want to spend thousands of pounds on one of his suits — which he attributes directly to the success of his blog.

Now have a look at the Stormhoek wine blog. Stormhoek is a small South African winery, which was in need of new customers before it started the blog. And thanks to the blog and various other initiatives, its sales have skyrocketed in the last few years. And for some reason they’re doing very well in places like Silicon Valley and Texas.

In both cases, that “some reason” is cartoonist Hugh MacLeod. Not only does he run his own successful business by his Gapingvoid website, he’s the mastermind behind English Cut and Stormhoek’s online marketing. He showed them how to use blogging to command attention and attract new customers, and it worked out very well for all concerned.

I also use partnering in my business. As well as running Wishful Thinking, I’m a partner in Lateral Action with Brian Clark, one of the most successful Internet marketers on the planet, and Tony Clark, who is also Brian’s partner on hugely successful ventures such as Teaching Sells and Third Tribe.

Now why would a couple of ‘big shot’ American entrepreneurs want to partner with an introverted poet from England? One reason is that I love writing about creativity, and I’m prepared to write and edit the Lateral Action blog which powers our content marketing strategy. Meanwhile, they get to work on the bits of the business they love doing. Win-win-win again.

Here’s the Bad News

You knew there was some bad news, right? Whenever I run my workshop on Web Marketing for Creative People, I can sense people getting excited when I tell them about the opportunities of the online world. But it’s not long before someone raises their hand and asked the following question:

But doesn’t this take an awful lot of time?

And the answer, of course, is “Yes”. If you really want to succeed online, it will take a lot of time. Let’s face it, if you want to succeed at anything worthwhile, it’s going to take a lot of time.

If you feel discouraged by that, think about how you feel when somebody admires your skill at writing, drawing, playing music or whatever. “I’d love to be able to do that,” they tell you, “but I bet it takes a lot of time to learn, right?”. And what can you say?

Of course it takes a lot of time — but you do it anyway, because you love doing it, and because you want the results it gives you. You know there are no shortcuts, but you’re happy to accept the challenge.

Finding and nurturing your thousand true fans is hard work, make no mistake. It takes a lot of time, not to mention creativity and sheer persistence. Only you can decide whether the potential rewards are worth investing your time and effort. Or whether it would be easier to go the traditional route, and catch the eye and win the favour of the gatekeepers in your industry.

Technically, it’s not rocket science but there is a bit of a learning curve involved. You can get help with that, but unless you already an active internet user, you’ll need to be prepared to learn a little about the technical side of things. I should point out that I’m not a programmer or web designer. I am a wordsmith and a ‘people person’ with a background in psychotherapy, coaching and training. If I can do it, so can you.

Probably the biggest hurdle for many creative people is the very idea of putting yourself out there and selling things. You might worry that it feels like ‘selling out’. Or that it’s just plain scary. I’m afraid I can’t sugarcoat this bit: if you want to earn a living from your creative work, you need to learn how to sell.

Even if you opt for employment, you’ll still need to ‘sell’ yourself to an employer, and ‘sell’ your work to your manager, your teammates and your clients. If you’re a freelancer or entrepreneur, you’ll have to takeaway those inverted commas and learn how to sell full stop.

On the plus side, if you adopt the content marketing approach, you get to produce fabulous work that functions as advertising because it doesn’t look like advertising. Which makes it a hell of a lot more fun to create. :-)

If you’d like some help with this…

I offer a specialist creative coaching service to help artists and creatives succeed with their online marketing.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree that artists and creatives have an unfair advantage at internet marketing?

Have you successfully used creative content to promote your business?

If you haven’t started internet marketing yet – what’s holding you back?


  1. Thank you for this wonderful article – I couldn’t agree more ! This has been the foundation of my business as I do consider myself an artist-programmer, having dug deep into both worlds – I love combining creativity with technology and after all- screens display graphics better than text, in my opinion.


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