Marketing is an art form: Creative rebel’s guide to self-promotion

Published by Nela Dunato on in Marketing, Tips for creatives

Creatives typically find marketing tasks a chore, or even in direct opposition to their values. (Which always reminds me of this hilarious Bill Hicks segment.) Hmm, and we wonder why most artists suck at it? You can’t exactly become awesome at something you hate doing, no matter how much effort you put in.

Artists really don’t have to suck at marketing. In fact, people in the creative fields have an advantage over other businesses when it comes to content marketing—the perfect method of promoting creative work.

Marketing is an art form: Creative rebel’s guide to self-promotion

The reason many artists don’t use content marketing as much as they could is that it seems to come with a preset list of rules, to-dos, shoulds, and tactics that change faster than the weather. Artists rebel against rules and shoulds. We want freedom of expression, not an editorial calendar.

While promotion is a lot of work and there’s no avoiding that, it doesn’t have to be hard. Once you’re over the technical learning curve, you can have as much fun with your marketing as you want.

Since I believe everything is an art project, I find that art doesn’t have stop at your chosen medium. You can use any of the digital tools currently available, and create new art forms that complement your primary medium.

You rock at art. Now apply the same principles to marketing.

Any new skill comes with a learning curve. And in any skill, the biggest learning comes from doing. Just reading books and buying courses won’t do you any good if you don’t experiment and verify whether this technique is going to work for you. Some may not, so be prepared for that.

Remember how you’ve learned your craft. At first, there was a lot of observing of what masters do, reading books, copying, using formulas, following step-by-step tutorials… And later, you cast away all the crutches and started creating in your own way—expressing your unique creative voice.

It’s the same with marketing. At first, you may be literally following a recipe and plugging your own content into a framework someone else designed. But you’ll soon find that:

  1. It’s derivative and boring.
  2. It just doesn’t work for your audience without a lot of tweaking.

That’s to be expected.

In any art form, there are rules and fundamental principles that a beginner artist needs to learn in order to understand how to make better art. Once you learn the basics, you can start bending, stretching and breaking the rules outright.

Artistic growth happens in the rebellion

Nobody became a renowned artist just by following the rules. Similarly, no one became great at marketing by sticking to a framework taught in 50-year old books. The best marketers discover new insights and write books of their own.

You can choose to adopt a data driven marketing approach: watch the stats, split test everything, make decisions based on research…

Or you can decide that you don’t care about numbers, and want to have fun first and foremost. (Nothing wrong with nerding out with spreadsheets if you happen to enjoy that—but it’s not for everyone!)

Marketing experts say focusing on numbers is the way to go, but for a micro-business that runs mostly on the founder’s enthusiasm, I vote for methods that make business more enjoyable, and less of a chore.

Those that are able to hire a numbers person to run their campaigns absolutely should take advantage of that. But those of us who run our operation ourselves are better off choosing a sustainable way which makes use of our creative gifts, and blazing our own trail.

So how do we, creative rebellious types, go about marketing?

Follow the path of the artist.

If you’ve achieved proficiency in any creative skill, you already know how to do it.

Here’s what that looks like.

Step 1: Learn the basics

Find a reputable source of marketing information and throw yourself into it with everything you’ve got. The goal here is to become self-sustainable as soon as possible. Nibbling bits and pieces here and there won’t work, because it will keep you dependent on outside influences for too long.

Here’s a selection of good (free!) beginner resources geared toward creative professionals:

From there, you’ll easily find your way to more useful information.

(While you’re at it, you might want to check out my book The Human Centered Brand, the complete guide to branding for creatives and service-based business owners.)

Once your head is full of so much new information you feel like it’s going to explode, you should have a clear idea on the following:

  • Who your ideal clients are and where to find them.
  • What’s your unique value proposition and how to use it to stand out from your peers.
  • How to decide on the pricing that covers all your expenses and reflects your brand.
  • What marketing channels are the best for you at your current stage, and what avenues you might want to explore in the future.
  • How to create sales pages that are easy to navigate and communicate the value of your offer.
  • How to craft a basic e-mail launch sequence for special offers.
  • How to use social media to create connections.
  • Where to find potential partners for collaboration and/or referrals, and how to reach out to them.

There’s quite a bit to learn, so that might take a while—and it will be completely worth it. When you can most of the above off the top of your head, you’re ready for the next stage.

Step 2: Experiment

Many people get perpetually stuck in the first stage—unaware that they know enough—and think that they still have a lot more to learn before they’re ready.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: you never feel ready. Ever. You’ll need to get over yourself and just start implementing.

The first time you do anything will feel like doing an extreme sports stunt. Or going on a date. A mix of excitement and I’m-about-to-piss-my-pants terror.

“What if it bombs? What if everyone thinks I’m a loser? I’m so anxious right now I might vomit.”

Creating anything new is an emotionally vulnerable experience that makes us wonder if our idea is stupid and if people will laugh at us.

The fact that you feel this way doesn’t mean you’re not ready. It means you’re a human being taking a risk. That’s a good sign, because at the other side of this experience you’re going to emerge as a different person. A more mature person who’s ready to take on a bigger challenge.

Typically you’ll want to start with something small and simple.

  • Publish your first blog post.
  • Send your first newsletter to both people on your email list.
  • Boost your first Facebook post.
  • Send your first gallery pitch.
  • Apply for your first networking meetup.

When you have a few small things under your belt, you can tackle a more complex subject like a new service launch, conference talk application, crafting an auto-responder sequence, starting a weekly video show, and planning your editorial calendar for the next quarter.

After this, you might start considering things that are even more demanding, like organizing your own live event, or launching a crowdfunding campaign for your first physical product. Jumping straight into crowdfunding without even knowing how email marketing works wouldn’t end well.

Every small step will give you more confidence, and you’ll grow more capacity for bigger things.

Stuff that used to frustrate will become easy. Things you once thought impossible will become doable.

By experimenting, you’ll learn which marketing activities work for you, and which don’t. You’ll get a feeling for your own preferences and strengths. Maybe you hate writing long blog posts, but you love filming videos. Maybe Twitter gets on your nerves, but Instagram feels like home.

This information is vital. Take note of what works, and why. Write a journal entry after every experiment you try:

  • What worked well?
  • What didn’t work so well, and why do you think it didn’t?
  • What would you change next time?

If the first time you try something doesn’t work, give it another go. Don’t give up altogether. Sometimes it takes a bit more skill to make things work, and sometimes you just get lucky and it works the first time around.

Don’t get too attached to the outcome—success or failure doesn’t say anything about you.

You’re good enough even if your launch bombs.
You’re good enough even if nobody opened your newsletter.
You’re good enough even if you don’t get selected as a conference speaker.
There’s always next time.

After a while, you’ll get confident in your marketing skills, and stuff might start feeling a bit repetitive. You’ll notice patterns in other people’s newsletter subject lines. You’ll be able to dissect anyone’s sales page. You’ll spot a blog headline formula from a mile away. It’s a bit like Neo seeing the Matrix: the underlying structure will become obvious to you.

You’ll start itching for something different—for fresh ideas that defy formulas and delight people. And that’s exactly what the next step is all about.

Step 3: Break the rules

In step 1, you’ve learned the rules. In step 2, you’ve been applying them and taking note of your results. Now you need to take a good look over your notes and make some difficult decisions.

The first difficult decision to make is:

Which marketing activities should you stop doing?

If you’ve been diligent with your experiments, you’ve accumulated quite a large to-do list. Your marketing schedule may at this point look something like this:

  • Publish a blog post every Tuesday.
  • Send a newsletter every Tuesday.
  • Upload a video to YouTube every Friday.
  • Post an update on Facebook every day.
  • Post 3 Twitter updates every day.
  • Publish 2 Instagram posts every day.
  • Pin 10 images to Pinterest every day.
  • Send 10 podcast pitches every week.
  • Answer questions in Facebook groups every Thursday.

Just keeping up with this to-do list is a full-time job. When are you going to create your art?

If you can afford to hire a virtual assistant to manage your social media, or pay for an app that lets you schedule all your posts once or twice a month, it becomes more manageable.

Still, if you look closely at your results and how you feel about doing these tasks, you’ll realize that some marketing activities have to go in order to make room for new activities. (To help you decide, read my post How to know when to quit a marketing practice.)

Only by cleaning up your plate, will you free up time and energy to do the next big step:

Create something new.

By following other people’s tactics and frameworks, you’ve been stuck on the “me too” train. (Not to be confused with #MeToo.) That’s useful for learning the mechanics, but soon you’ll realize that you can do better.

You know your audience better than anyone. You know your strengths better than anyone. You know your resources better than anyone.

You’re ready to create something from scratch.

I can’t tell you what this step is going to look like because the whole point is that it’s different for everyone. Here are some great examples of artists who have pushed their creative boundaries and used media to explode their audience:

  • Lisa Congdon did several 365-days art projects on her blog before that became a widespread thing. Her projects were later published as books.
  • Shepard Fairey was completely unknown until he started creating “OBEY” street art that appeared all over the United States and attracted massive attention. After that, his art was exhibited in renowned galleries and earned millions of dollars. (And he got into some legal trouble along the way.)
  • Casey Neistat became a famous vlogger because of his well-produced daily video series, running from March 2015 to November 2016.
  • Jennifer Lee was one of the first people to run an online video summit to promote her book “The Right Brain Business Plan”, at a time when people only did audio tele-summits. She knew her audience was made up of “visual types”, and did something technically challenging and never seen before in this community.
  • O. Westin runs a popular Twitter account @MicroSFF where he posts ultra-short sci-fi and fantasy fiction in 140 characters.

Some of these people didn’t even plan for their project to become a viral hit. They wanted to do it because it was enjoyable, fun, and a bit quirky. They kept showing up even when no one was watching, and after a while more and more people started paying attention.

Forget “marketing strategy” and start thinking in terms of “multimedia art project”.

By consciously stepping away from “best practices”, you’ll allow yourself to see other options. Take some time—a day, a week, or several weeks—and write down ideas for potential projects you could run either online, or in the physical world to introduce more people to your work.

Write down the obvious ideas. 365 days project. Podcast. Daily video show. Illustrating a famous literary classic. Don’t worry about being original at this point, just get it all out of your system.

Next, write down the not so obvious ideas. Poke them further. See if you can dissect them into elements you can combine and rearrange in a different way.

Then, let your ideas marinate. The best thing to do after an intense ideation session is to take a nap, or do something completely unrelated. Let your subconscious mind chew on the options you’ve explored. When it’s done its job, you’ll start getting ideas “out of nowhere” about your project. Write them all down.

Go with the idea you feel most excited about.

The key to successful art/marketing projects is consistency. That’s what all the examples I’ve mentioned have in common. These people kept showing up, day after day, week after week, month after month.

The only way you’ll be able to do this and not hate your life is to choose something you’ll enjoy along the way.

Don’t do it for the promise of followers and clients. Do it for the experience.

The first few weeks you do it, no one will notice. The initial audience growth will be slow. If you do it only for the numbers, you’ll give up. Choose something you’re willing to stick with even if no one ever shows up. Do it for the art, not for the attention.

Can I guarantee that this will result in more followers and clients? Absolutely not. But neither can anyone else guarantee that their advice will work. Maybe you’ll have to try a couple different projects before anyone takes notice. Each time, choose the one your creative spirit pulls you toward, especially if it feels a bit scary.

That way, you’ll never feel like you’re “doing marketing”. You’ll do what you were born to do: making art.

Forget “marketing strategy” – start crafting innovative multimedia art projects.

Tweet this!

Step 4: Reinvent yourself

If one of your innovative ideas works out well for you, you can bet there will be others copying your example. Nothing wrong with that, it’s how the society makes progress. One person forges a path for others to follow. Then others can in turn build something new by using the resources available to them.

I can tell you from my experience that when others catch onto your fresh idea and start emulating you, it does sting a bit. You might think “Hey, but this was my thing.” Well, now it’s also their thing.

As more and more people join the bandwagon, fewer will connect your name to this type of project. Perhaps marketers will appropriate this method and start teaching it to the masses. The “golden days” of your marketing/art project are over. It’s time to start something new.

Luckily, there’s plenty more ideas where that one came from. Don’t be afraid to step back from something that was working if you’re no longer getting the “juice” out of it. Your most committed audience will follow you wherever you go.

Artistic growth never stops, and marketing is no different.

Tip on creative self-promotion: Stop treating marketing as something “other” than your art – integrate it into your art.

Stop treating marketing as something “other” than your art – integrate it into your art.

Tweet this!

What’s your next step?

Where do you currently see yourself in the steps I’ve outlined above? What can you do to blaze through it and get ready for the next one?

If you’ve been wallowing in the “learn the basics” phase for months without applying any of the information, you need to snap out of it and commit to testing one of these tactics and see how it works—and more importantly, how you work. Knowing what you like and what you don’t like is crucial info that will help you pick the right project.

Can you jump straight to step 3? Maybe you can. If you’re a natural marketer like I was, and quick to learn new technology, maybe you don’t need all the preparation. There are people with zero marketing experience who pulled off very successful projects.

But then again, if you haven’t jumped to step 3 yet, why haven’t you?

Maybe you’re afraid. Maybe tech scares you. Maybe emailing people scares you. There’s an antidote to that: practice. That’s what step 2 is all about: growing more comfortable with the practical and the psychological aspects of marketing, so you can launch your creative project with no breaks.

And of course, you don’t need to do the steps in the exact order. You can go 2-1-2-3-2-4 or whichever way you like. That’s kinda the whole point.

You’re the creative type. You’ll figure it out.

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

6 responses to “Marketing is an art form: Creative rebel’s guide to self-promotion”

  1. Another great post! I found my self stuck on stage 3-waiting for that new excitement of doing something different that moves my bones! And I liked when you pointed out how we after a while detect “marketing pattern” -been happening to me a lot-the newsletters titles, blogs-all the same way…

  2. Thank you, Honorata!
    Ahhh yes, I’m currently there as well :) that’s why I wrote this. I’ve gotten a bit bored with classic weekly blogging and newslettering, and now I’m scaling back to make room for something new and exciting.
    Can’t wait to see what you come up with! ;)

    Things do lose their lustre a bit when you notice they all follow the same pattern, don’t they?

  3. I love the idea of breaking the rules of what’s expected with content marketing. Thank you for putting that rule in, Nela. I know there are so many creatives out there who hate the thought of marketing their business BECAUSE of all the rules they have to follow when it comes to marketing. You have to experiment, like you said, to find out what works best for your business. How can you do that without trying marketing tactics out for yourself? You won’t know if the tactic works until you try it for yourself, right? At least, that’s what I’ve learned. In fact, I had been all but ignoring Instagram as a marketing tool until earlier today. I made an account and found out just how much of my ideal client was there so I’m a perfect example of not knowing until you try. So thank you for putting this valuable information out into the internet space, Nela. I appreciate that work you put into it.

  4. Thank you, Lisa! I’m so happy to hear you’ve enjoyed this post.

    And congrats on discovering Instagram! It’s great that you’ve decided to put preconceived beliefs to the side and actually gave it a try. And well, if you didn’t like it, that wouldn’t be so tragic.
    I never thought I’d like LinkedIn because it was a pretty crappy service in the past, but I’ve discovered that many of my clients use it, and decided to become more active there.

    Thank you for your kind comment.
    P.S. I took a peek at your site, and I love your mission. Will check out some of your posts too! :)

  5. Hi Nela,
    This is such a great post! I am currently researching this topic for a post of my own relating to music promo. This is easily the best post I have seen on the topic.

  6. Thank you very much for your kind comment, Jay!
    I’m so glad you’ve found it helpful. I’d love to read the post you’re working on, please send it along when it’s published :)

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