Social Media for Artists: My Fifth Grader Could Do That

Marketing your own work can be the hardest part of being an artist. It can feel artificial, foreign, tedious, and even antithetical to the work itself. Yet for professional artists it's necessary, and, when done right, it can actually be rewarding and fruitful.

Social media is free and ubiquitous, and as a marketing tool it comes easy for some. But for every artist to whom it seems totally natural to tweet their latest pins using a series of well-placed hashtags, there are plenty more artists who are wondering what the heck you're talking about.

For those in the latter group: Take comfort and read on. Innumerable artists are successfully using social media in ways that are true to their personalities and their work . . . and even fun to keep up with.

CCA alumnae Mia Christopher (Painting/Drawing 2012) and Kelly Lynn Jones (Painting/Drawing 2002, MFA 2010) both have been particularly effective in building large online fan bases and vibrant digital identities.

Central to both of their approaches is the idea that their personal and professional lives are integrated -- something most working artists can certainly relate to. Social media allows them to interact directly with fans of their work, and puts a human face on their professional-artist personae.

Ah, Geocities . . .

Growing up, when she wasn't busy making "weird web pages about Beanie Babies on Geocities," Christopher was hanging out with her friends on AOL Instant Messenger. Her family moved around a lot, so social media's early forms were her gateway to the world -- venues for self-expression and connections to friends.

As today's social media emerged, her artistic career was developing simultaneously, and she easily and organically began to integrate those tools into her professional life. "It has been pretty natural," she reflects. "My art practice is very intuitive, and I feel like my online activity mirrors my modes of working."

That said, Christopher reminds everyone to take their social media presence seriously and professionally. Her various profiles on Facebook, Instagram, and the rest may be cross-sections of her personality, but she still has to be judicious about how she presents herself.

Her golden rule: "I try never to post anything anywhere that I wouldn't be able to stand behind in a number of contexts."

Little Paper Planes

Kelly Lynn Jones is the owner of Little Paper Planes (LPP), an online store that very recently gained a brick-and-mortar presence at 855 Valencia Street in San Francisco.

Whereas Christopher herself grew up with social media, Jones's company grew up with social media. She started LPP the same year Facebook was founded in a Harvard dorm, and only a year after Myspace captured the hearts and minds of high schoolers everywhere.

"There was never a master plan," says Jones, "but as social media grew, Little Paper Planes grew. As a new platform would launch, I would try it out and see if it made sense for us."

Content 101

A successful social media strategy involves regularly posting diverse and engaging content to one's different accounts. This keeps fans from getting bored and shows off the complexity of your life and career. Recent posts on Christopher's Facebook page include a photo of a cake she baked, a photo of a Titanic film poster she saw at a garage sale, and, of course, pictures of her paintings.

LPP's Facebook page is used for posting news, random things the team likes, funny pictures and articles, new products, and upcoming events. Jones uses Pinterest to catalogue LPP's publications and the work of its artists. She posts to Instagram photos from daily life and the shop. She uses Twitter to aggregate posts from all her platforms since some people might be accessing one but not another.

"Facebook is important because it gives your followers a sense of who you are as a company. It creates the story. This personal touch is what separates LPP's social media presence from that of most other organizations. Each post is signed by whichever member of the team left it. There is no feigned universal voice for the company."

Christopher isn't necessarily trying to push sales with her online activity, just as she wasn't trying to push Beanie Babies back in the halcyon era of Geocities. "I don't have an explicitly commercial angle to it," she explains. "I'm more driven by a compulsion to connect. I treat Facebook as a place where I can share things I document from a variety of sources. It becomes an online record of my life."

Christopher is somewhat unusual in that she doesn't keep separate Facebook accounts for her personal self and her professional self. Most social media advisors would tell an artist delving into social media to establish separate presences for each, if they have the bandwidth to do so.

To Instagram or Not to Instagram

There are a few standard social media platforms, but the total count is huge, and growing constantly. It's impossible to keep up with them all. The key to success is experimenting with different tools and finding out which ones make sense for you.

Instagram is a natural choice for visual artists because it entirely photo-based. Pinterest likewise is mostly about images. And whereas on your official website there is really no good way to display, for instance, inspirational images you've scavenged from the web and the world, both Pinterest and Instagram exist precisely for this purpose.

Allison Byers, CCA's Communications associate and social media maven, particularly admires Christopher's adroit use of Instagram: "What's great about it is that she'll post a picture of a random piece of trash or a paint splotch on the sidewalk, and it's not her work, but it references her aesthetic. It gives fans of her art a chance to see the world through her eyes."

Jones reports that Instagram has been a great tool for expanding LPP's reach among collectors as well as a way for her to find new artists to represent. She has followers all across the planet, from Iceland to Russia, Istanbul, and South Africa. And sometimes these connections surface in what older generations might call "real life."

Soon after opening her shop on Valencia Street, for instance, Jones struck up a conversation with two people in the store. They were designers, and Jones realized she had recently started following them online because she was excited about a particular product of theirs. It's now something she sells at the LPP shop. "That," she says, "is a pretty common story."

A Palette of Options

Jones used to use Flickr the way she now uses Pinterest, but today she's finding Flickr less and less relevant and is considering closing her account. The lesson: Don't feel bad about stopping an account that is no longer useful. It's far worse to let it languish.

And another big lesson: Don't forget the "social" in social media. Be true to yourself and your business. Keep it professional, but make it fun. Use it to make genuine connections with old friends, new fans, colleagues, and beyond.

"Social media constantly reminds you how very, very small the world is," ruminates Christopher. "It's really cool to get in touch with someone you haven't seen since childhood and find out that they are making art too."