March 01, 2015

Artist's Guide to (Ugh) Self-Promotion

Weird truth. Artists, who often hate self-promotion, despise shmoozing, and eschew direct discussion of their work are the ones who MUST promote it.  It's annoying, but true.

No one likes it, but there are very few occasions where someone who creates a work won't also have to be a bit of a cheerleader for their own work.  People want to know you believe in the value of what you've produced.  And until you can afford some hot shot agent who gets paid to sound excited about you and your work, you're all you've got. (Aside from your mom's affirming comments on FB. Thanks, mom!) 

I've been a theatre artist for about half my life now and in that time I've learned a few things about how to attract attention, and how to "sell" your work, be it studio art pieces or performances.  None of this is based on marketing classes or research, but purely on my personal experience.

1. People need to be encouraged to do ANYTHING. Even the things they want to do.  

It's easy to feel defeated when only a few people show up, or when people don't notice the poster, or don't read the article, see the ad or any of the above.  I hear people saying "we need theatre in this town" and yet they've never been to see a play at Lee or the Ocoee Theatre Guild.  I have been personally involved in the creation of roughly 20 plays in Cleveland and Chattanooga in my 5 years in this town.  And yet people say they wish there was some theatre for them around here. It's enough to make one crazy.

So, I must remember how there are dozens of things I've NOT done or tried, even though I'd like to them. I'd like to try yoga someday, I always enjoy writing, I'd like to read more books, see more live musicians play.  And yet, I often don't.

Someone who doesn't "bite the hook" of whatever you're promoting isn't really saying "no" to you. They're sometimes saying "not now" and sometimes, they just didn't even see the hook.

2.  Your friends and family should support your art because they love it, not because they love you. 

When I was 15, my older brother was put in charge while my parents went away for a long weekend. He suggested I should call all my friends and throw a party.  He was ten years my senior and was certainly more experienced at parties than I was.  I was mostly a well-behaved nerd who had never been to the kind of party he was imagining, much less thrown one.  But I was game.  So, I started to make some calls.  Jeff, my brother was sitting in the kitchen, listening in as I made my first call.

"Hi, _____?  Yeah, are you busy tomorrow night?  I'm having a party.  Yeah, at my place.  You should come.  It won't be as much fun if you're not there.... okay, well, think about it.  I really want you to come"

When I hung up, Jeff gave me some sage advice.  "When you invite someone to a party, they have to believe it will be a good time whether they are there or not.  They cannot, for one moment, worry that the burden of the party's fun will be on their shoulders.  They should instead feel like they would be missing something if they weren't at the party."

And of course he was right.  People who care about you MIGHT do you a favor and come to your show, or your buy your CD, but that kind of patronage will drop off very quickly.  Unless, they start to love your work.  Your relationship with someone will buy you a first chance.  Your friends and family will be more likely to support you than a stranger in your beginning days, but if they don't enjoy themselves, they will stop.

The principle is the same for family/friends as it is for strangers:  If it's good, they will want more. So make it good, and convince them in the promotion of the thing that it's something everyone will enjoy, whether they are one of those people or not.

3.  Get attention.  Sell.  Give details.  

When making a poster, ad, Facebook message, whatever. The first thing you must do is get noticed.
It's worth noting here that sometimes, the most professional looking advertising can blend in with all the other advertising.  Just because it's slick and impressive for you, doesn't mean it will stand out thumb-tacked to a bulletin board of other ads, or on a page of newspaper ads just like it.  Think of where your ad/poster/FB status gets seen, and what makes people take a second look.

This might involve thinking way outside the box. When I started an improv team at Taylor University, the only approved way to promote events was to hang flyers on the bulletin boards, but they were badly overloaded and no one really looked closely at them. I needed a new way to advertise that wouldn't add clutter where school administrators didn't want it.  So, I bought a few 24-can packs of Coke and I wrapped each can in a label.  One side said "drink me," the other side listed the dates and times of our improv show. Then, we placed them all over the largest academic buildings on campus between the two busiest class sessions.  As a result, not only were people picking up our advertising and walking around with it, but they were being asked about it as they walked into their next class.

In my experience, getting attention is about 70% of the work of advertising.

Then, once they do look more closely, clearly and concisely say what your thing is and why they might like it.  In the smallest number of words possible.

Then finally, give the deets.  (date, time, phone number - remember that people will actually go looking for these things once you have done a. gotten attention and b. sold your event)  Don't make the mistake of thinking "the date is very important so it must be really big!"

When advertising on social media, get something in people's newsfeeds that's attention-grabbing. Then include a LINK to an event or page with all the details.  A huge post with lots of dates, times, and prices will be passed over.

4.  (Re: Events) Keep times, dates, webpages, admission prices extremely simple.
When I took over as the sponsor for the Lee improv team, they were a very skilled group of performers but their shows were $1, or a canned good, Friday at 8, and Saturday at 7 and 9.  This was confusing, hard to remember, and a mess on all posters and advertisements.  Now all shows are a dollar and all shows are at 7 and 9.

Keep pricing super simple.  I know it's tempting to think of different groups that should get varying discounts, but this helps no one.  When a person understands what something will cost them, even if it's a bit more expensive than they'd hoped, they will be more willing to pay than if they need a calculator to figure out discounts and multiple price plans for their group.

5.  Win over NEW converts by going to them.  Don't expect them to come to you. 

Whether you are a visual artist, a musician, or a dancer, someone who doesn't know you or your company, or maybe even, your art form, will not cross all the unknown psychological barriers for an unknown quantity.  So, bring your art to them.  Set up a workshop at a local school or community center where you teach people how to do something, then, once they are personally connected to you and your art, invite them to something.

People RARELY go to an event cold.  They know someone involved, or they've heard testimonials from people they know about it.  But if you're starting something new and expecting ads, posters and radio spots to get people to your event, you're dreaming.

6.  Build a community around your thing.

If you want a long-lasting following, take advantage of the ways in which art is a communal event. If someone comes to a play, it's likely that they appreciate the communal spirit of a live event, or they'd just stay home and watch Netflix.  Play to that.  Go learn names, introduce people to each other.  Have talkback sessions, parties, and events that don't just connect patrons to your work, but to each other. Make the "regulars" feel like part of the family by sending out "in process" photos of a painting, or a recording of a live session, or rehearsal photos.  When you can create a fan base that has made your art a part of their life, everyone who knows them is being sold on your work when they have a conversation or ask them about their weekend plans.  Make your fans insiders and they will sell your work without even trying.

Those are just my thoughts for now.  There are probably a million articles like this around the internet, and I'm reminding myself of these things as much as I'm telling you. But in truth, that's most of what this blog is.

Happy promoting!

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