Social media is now officially part of an artist's job. There's no getting around it--if you're a writer, your agent and editor expect you to have an active social media presence, a website, and maybe even a blog. If you're a painter, you need to display your art online which means professional-looking photos of your art, an online storefront, and an Instagram and maybe a tumblr for your drawings. It's 2017 and it's almost impossible to avoid the dual identity of real life and social media life (unless you are one of my ex-boyfriends, in which case you apparently belong to the club of people who do not exist on social media, which probably should have been my first clue).
And probably that means you have some experience with social media. Most likely you have a personal Facebook account, an Instagram account cataloguing all the meals you've eaten since 2012, and maybe even a Twitter where you can participate in mocking the world as it goes down in flames.
But that doesn't mean you know how to sell your art on social media.
You see it a lot, especially with new writers who have to promote a book: a regular Joe-Schmoe Twitter feed is suddenly filled with ***PROMOTIONAL MATERIALS!!!*** As their follower, maybe you click on the first one you see because hey, this person is occasionally funny, maybe their book is good, and then you see that their book isn't even hitting the shelves for 18 months, and it goes to the back of your mind. But then next time you log onto Twitter, they're still clogging up your feed with ***PROMOTIONAL MATERIALS!!!*** And the next time. And the time after that. And then they send you a DM, which they have never ever done before, asking you to pre-order their book, and suddenly you are done, and you unfollow them.
This is because social media marketing is an oxymoron. You will not sell any of your product by directly shilling on social media. Not in meaningful numbers. Not in a way that won’t come back to bite you later.
Here's how you should think about it instead:
As an artist, your social media presence is the Costco sample tray. You are there to serve up free samples of your work and personality*. How many times have you ever bought the actual thing you sampled from the Costco sample tray? I have literally never done it. But--do you ever not go get a free sample from the Costco sample tray? It's a key part of the experience. There are people who go to Costco instead of other stores because of the free samples. And that is the goal: exposure. Then, when they walk into a bookstore, or need an illustrator for a project, they will remember you. They will recommend you. They will think about you positively. Because you give away free things.
"So what kind of free things should I give away?" you ask. "Not my art, surely. I want people to buy my art. And I can't sit there and produce new, Twitter-friendly art every single time I want to Tweet something." You are correct.
The best way to think about building a social media brand for your art is to think about what makes you follow other people on social media. Why does NASA have 27.6 million Instagram followers? Why was Wendy's pretty non-PC Twitter account so successful? When you break down the reasons you follow people on social media, you'll find they break roughly into the following five categories:
1. Bite-sized samples, a.k.a. free stuff
This category is filled with free, short fiction; links to free samples; one-off sketches, short comics, or other free and fast versions of your art. Pretty straightforward. Give people samples of your product with no strings attached.
This category is why the Wendy's Twitter feed was so successful: it was entertaining to watch Wendy's roast other fast food establishments. It was a refreshing break from the usual, bland marketing that also brought a laugh (in one notable moment, someone asked the account for directions to the nearest McDonald's and Wendy's tweeted back a photo of a garbage can). We, the followers, got free entertainment by following the account. Were we more likely to go to Wendy's? Marginally. But did our positive feelings about the brand increase? Yes. By a lot.
Entertainment can also just mean "interesting facts about a subject" or "new article on a topic." So share the latest news from your industry, stuff you personally found fascinating that isn't totally related to your art, or retweet an article your friend recommended.
3. Emotional Engagement
This category is harder, but it can be done. This is the category for photos that tug at the heartstrings (think the Sarah McLachlan commercial for the ASPCA) or make people angry (like that photo of the white guys screaming with Tiki torches in Charlottesville). It has to be sincere, related, and real. It is easy to fail at this category because it can easily slide away from meaningful and into "obvious sales pitch." This is the category that companies end up issuing formal apologies for, so use with care.
4. Personal Connection
This category is often underestimated, in my opinion. This is how you find your real fans. Never forget that if you are NASA, your core audience is "people who like space." You don't need to convince people who don't like space to start liking space; you just need to give people who like space cool photos of space. There are a LOT of people who already like space. Just find them. Give them what they want. #Fukkinnebulasyeahbro Write romance novels? Tweet the latest in romance news, books, films, and whatever.
This is also the category that most of your personal use of social media falls into. All your Facebook friends? You know them personally or have social obligations to them. You met a cool fellow artist at a conference? Add them on Twitter. Making personal connections is the heart of social media. Respond to your friends' posts. Be an active follower and commenter. Retweet things. This is the nitty-gritty grind of social media marketing: participate. Your circle will grow organically.
Lastly, a final reason people follow accounts is just because they post pretty stuff. Instagram is all about the pretty pictures. NASA has a ton of followers who are just into the aesthetics of space photos. Offer the occasional photo of your backyard or your bookshelf. Make pretty art and post pretty photos of it. Entice people with the dopamine reward of looking at something beautiful.
Take a few minutes to write down and examine your favorite social media accounts that you follow. Categorize their last few posts--which categories do they tend to fall into? Then come up with a few bad examples (United Airlines, for example, or the Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner). How did they fail at these categories?
Finally, take your own art, and find ways that your own principles, aesthetics, and tendencies can fit into the five categories listed above. Brainstorm some posts, try them out, and see how they do. Which categories resonate best with your audience? Which ones get you the most new followers?
By now you may have figured out that there isn't actually that much of a difference between your own personal social media accounts and your Official Branded Art Account. You unconsciously succeed at social media on a personal level already by emulating other accounts you like, sharing personal news and jokes you thought of, sincerely engaging with other people on different platforms, and other, no-strings-attached moments of happiness, beauty, or success in your life. Just translate that so it's about your art instead of about your personal life. You can do this. It's 2017.
*Make sure it's your personality and not the canned bullshit one that you think people want to see.