Doing Self-Promotion Right
Excerpted from Living the Dream: Putting your creativity to work (and getting paid) (New Riders)
By Corwin Hiebert
Confidently sharing your passion and unique talent turns connections into opportunities. By pursuing your ideal client in ways that excite you and are within your means, you’ll grow your business through genuine relationships.
Creative Work: Jay Goodrich is an internationally published and celebrated photographer and writer. His work focuses on architecture, nature, and adventure.
When I was in grade school some of my interests were cooler than others. Looking back, I think my ninja phase had the most positive impact on my popularity; maybe I should have continued my “training.” Ninja movies were all the rage back in the mid-’80s and I embraced the phenomenon better than anyone I knew. I fabricated my own nunchucks, convinced my Mom to sew me a black fabric facemask, and practiced my own style of martial arts in the backyard. Sneaking around the neighborhood, recruiting other “ninjas,” and building up the necessary weaponry kept me busy for an entire summer.
The best part was the money I made selling the tools of the trade, such as throwing stars. There was an aluminum door factory in our small town, and they would dump the discs punched out for doorknobs by the garbage cans. I would collect them and use tin snips to fashion them into crude but effective throwing stars. I’d sell them for $0.25 each or ten for $1.00. Throwing lessons cost extra (even though I had little to offer as an instructor). To drum up business I simply had to run around and throw things and kids would flock to me, wanting a piece of the action.
Little did I know that I should have aspired to be a Samurai (a much more noble warrior), but pretending to be a high-kicking, karate-chopping mercenary during my two-month career as a ninja entrepreneur was exhilarating nonetheless. The exciting and death-defying action of self-promotion can sometimes feel like battle, but when entrepreneurs approach their marketing efforts like covert operations, they can avoid the shameless opportunism and self-adulation, which usually just sabotages their businesses anyway.
Adjusting Your Attitude About Selling
You’re a successful marketer when you share your character, unique vision, and talent in an authentic way, and then take the necessary actions to persuade a buyer to commit means.
However, from what I see and hear these days, self-promotion often looks more like desperation: Creatives are pushing their services instead of working to draw buyers into their creative influence. Self-promotion is a hot-button issue for me because it’s rarely done in a way that elicits genuine curiosity. Promotional efforts are often hardcore schemes and stunts and they’re touted as the solution to all the problems of small business ownership. Many self-promotions close doors instead of opening them. Effective self-promotion comes from a healthy expectation that you can make the most of the opportunities in front of you; it’s not about chasing people around.
Clarifying what self-promotion is not can be more valuable to your business than trying to pull yet another marketing stunt. The term itself is misleading; it assumes there’s an alternative, that someone other than you can and will lead the charge of promoting you. In the world of the emerging creative business owner, all marketing is self-promotion. Even if others get involved it still all comes back to you.
Should one of the usual suspects (postering, flippant leave-behinds, a barrage of social “networking”) actually yield new work, it just injects new money into a corrupt system. Low-grade marketing always reflects a cheap business operation, which is why encountering yet another competitor on Craigslist shouldn’t concern you.
What’s more, if I hear another ill-conceived idea such as “a friend (competitor) of mine printed a beautiful postcard; I think I’m going to make one too and send it around,” I’m going to pull out my hair and mail it to whoever sends out that postcard.
And here’s my primary concern: Business owners who are arrogantly self-promoting end up making a lot of noise and they make things harder on themselves. Whether face-to-face or online, self-promotional efforts can be annoying (an unappealing noise) instead of giving reason to embrace the brand (a clear signal). I don’t work with people who exaggerate their abilities or experience and neither will your clients, at least not more than once.
Effective self-promotion doesn’t come from flinging marketing tactics around or flailing about with a big marketing stick. It comes from developing your selling attitude. Be calm, calculated, and cautious, and a selling attitude will flow from your work and your relationships. Having a selling attitude means you’re striving to put the customer first.
Creative entrepreneurs wear a lot of hats; self-promoter is one of them, but it’s more like a black mask.
Learning to self-promote means cultivating a frame of mind in which you can confidently present your talent and ability. Having healthy expectations of yourself, and the confidence to fuel action, make self-inflicted marketing efforts manageable and fun. If you feel compelled to create a selling environment that’s authentic, you’ve chosen to build towards a creative legacy.
It’s not about “the next big thing” or being super-savvy. Preparing and acting on marketing ideas you’re proud of represents your desire to share your passion and unique talent in the most genuine and focused way possible; you can’t go wrong when you take risks like that.
Banking on Your Expertise
I asked adventure sports photographer Jay Goodrich about connecting with prospects through the authenticity that comes through doing professional work that draws on your own personal experience. Here’s what he said:
As an adventure sports photographer, I focus on shooting sports like skiing, mountain biking, hiking—essentially, any activity that has do with pushing a person’s own personal limits in the outdoor arena. Photographing these sports grew right out of my own personal experiences participating in them. I know the passion inspired by a certain activity because I have tasted it myself. This connection allows me to produce an image that a nonparticipant might not think to go after.
A protective attitude towards self-promotion will do you little good unless you’re excited and positive about your creative work. No one can be more excited than you, ever. If you’re overplaying the humble card or belittling yourself in front of peers, collaborators, or prospects and clients, you’re very far away from being able to leverage a marketing tactic or make a sales pitch. Being sensitive, as artists can be, is totally legitimate; your work is personal (some more than others), but self-flagellation should be done only in private, where it can spur you on to new levels of excitement and drive.
Developing a promotional attitude does take time; there’s no quick fix for this because it emanates from your confidence. As you explore your craft and put yourself in situations where you have to talk about your work, or you feel compelled to make your move, you become more comfortable with who you are and what you offer a prospect. As you get to know more about what kind of work you love, and need, and how to communicate why you’re a good fit, you’ll develop the right kind of attitude, which in fact is your servitude. Here are a few ways you can begin to train yourself to have a selling attitude:
- Do and say things that make people feel good about themselves, and about their businesses; be a source of encouragement.
- Find ways to include others in your creative process or experience; inspire them to pursue something that’s important to them.
- Give credit where credit is due; if you’re going to name-drop, do so in such a way as to actually convey your admiration and esteem.
- Be as generous and kind as possible: foot the bill for coffee or lunch; do the little things that show you care about other people and their work.
- Get serious about over-delivering; find ways to go over the top with the promises you make, and do so quietly so as to not look like you’re fishing for attention.
- Be direct with people, and stay on-point when talking about your work; saying less is always a good idea because listening is more important.
- Strive to be as focused and productive as possible; let your tenacity speak for you. Decision makers are attracted to action.
Succeeding Through Subtle Persuasion
I was asked to give a short presentation on the mysteries of marketing to a group of young photographers. After seeing samples of their work, most of which was stunning, I stood before them and their wide-eyed faces and declared, “There’s no mystery.”
Marketing is nothing more than an attitude of sharing and serving. Instead of inflicting yet another stunt on innocent bystanders and trying to get them to pay attention, change your expectations and seek a more subtle, art-centric, relational approach to meeting people’s needs. Forget everything you’ve heard about “going viral” and blogging your way to a million dollars; sparking curiosity happens one person at a time and over a longer period of time than you might like. It’s the understated creative who produces and shares exciting work over and over again who’s building a creative legacy. I believe this now more than ever.
Presenting your work or an offer to your target market is hard at the best of times, but I think creative entrepreneurs have a more difficult time advertising their creative services or products because of the seemingly unlimited options available to them. It’s hard to choose. It’s not clear which path to take when it comes to how best to attract new business. Consider more subtle approaches to your self-promotion
Creative at Work/ Tamara Lackey is a professional photographer with a passion for creating authentic lifestyle photography, from children’s portraits to commercial and editorial projects. Tamara’s work has been featured in dozens of media outlets, including Vogue, O – The Oprah Magazine, Town & Country, Parenting Magazine, Food & Wine, The Knot, Professional Photographer Magazine, Rangefinder Magazine, Shutterbug Magazine, NBC’s The Martha Stewart Show, and ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Web: tamaralackey.com Twitter: @tamaralackey
Self-promotion can too easily take the form of something flashy. Graphic designers remake their business cards for the third time in a year because they can (not because they need them), musicians put up posters on telephone poles (but don’t seem to be growing their fan base), and photographers take two years to build a website (but don’t have a curated body of work to show). Creatives try a lot of things to generate interest. The tactics are neither good or bad, and the method and medium matter less than what they’re offering and how they engage with real humans as a result of the marketing effort. For example, entering an online contest with high hopes and then beating your social networks over the head with desperate pleas for votes or views doesn’t work, but winning a contest is a good thing. The cost of self-promotion is not always fiscal, and the rate of return is greater when you can leverage a marketing tactic through an experience that both you and your target audience can enjoy—such as embracing your contest competitors and showing your networks the creative company you’re keeping as a part of this contest.
If you’re scheming to put a tactic into play, what should you do or produce to get people interested? The answer: whatever gets you and your hit list wildly excited. There are a million ideas out there—personal projects, collaborations, schwag, online, offline—there’s no end to what can be done. Some tactics work for some people, but fail for others. There’s no magic self-promotion tool. But I will say this: Spend only what you have saved; don’t leverage credit to promote your work. If you’re creating a deliverable, make sure you can manage it easily and produce and distribute it in short order. Promotional items that take a long time to create and manufacture or are difficult to get in the hands of the right people end up costing you real money and real momentum.
Back in 2009, my wife, Eileen, and I attended the graduation show for Capilano University’s IDEA Program in Vancouver. This is where we met illustrator Drew Young. Within seconds of meeting us Drew was excitedly describing a collaborative project he had recently been involved in while in New York City. We heard about the other artists, the materials, the setting, and the sleepless nights. We were captivated and inspired. And guess what: He didn’t even feature that project in his display! Brilliant! We’re fans for life because he let us backstage. He made us curious. He had an attitude of selling because he knew that the status quo was to talk about the obvious, and he did anything but.
Buyers are attracted to people who expose themselves and their methods. When I get the feeling that I’m hearing the inside scoop, I feel like I’m connecting to something fresh and new. In other words, prospects take notice when creatives talk about the process, the people involved or impacted, or—better yet—the underlying concepts behind their work.
Being a subtle promoter means that you make deliberate choices and you share those choices as professionally as possible. Professionalism in the self-promoting world means you put your “how can I serve you” hat on. It’s not about you, it’s about your buyers, and your promotional tactics simply spark a conversation or give you a reason to reach out and follow up. It’s that conversation that matters. For example, sending an email blast is a tactic. But the professional will ensure people opted-in to the list, that the content is exciting and connects to them in some way, and that he knows what he’s asking of them. The pro doesn’t sit and fanatically watch web statistics or check email 100 times hoping for some action. The pro gets to work, doing other stuff, and then comes back to the promotion, looks at email traction reports (don’t worry, I’ll discuss this more later), and sees which five people clicked the hyperlink to his portfolio; he makes a mental note and prepares to send a short follow-up message in the next 24 hours, the subject being, “Thanks for visiting my portfolio! I’m especially proud of the bull riding shot—that crazy cow just about took me out 3 seconds after I took that! I’d love to connect with you at your convenience about contributing to your next marketing campaign. I’m available next Tuesday for lunch if you are. Otherwise, I look forward to staying in touch. Cheers!” I realize that’s a very specific example, but my point is that it’s NOT about the email blast, it’s about what you do in the aftermath. The ultimate goal of a promotion is to make “an offer,” which gets delivered in the form of “an ask.” Your marketing tactics shouldn’t try to accomplish much; just get your prospects curious so you can connect with them further.
Be a marketing ninja. Steel your mind and hone your skill of subtle persuasion so that when the time is right, your self-promotion can move swiftly and with precision.
The end-game of self-promotion is to persuade buyers to work with you, but we all know that persuasion is not exactly something you learn in five easy steps. Sometimes your personality can be your biggest aid, or hindrance, when it comes to convincing someone to work with you. Getting the conversation to that definitive moment where you can deliver “the ask”—the time when the answer is either “yes” or “no”—is what you’re aiming for.
The good news is that there doesn’t have to be a giant build-up to this moment. Good personal selling can happen at any stage of an engagement with any type of business contact—not just the “perfect” clients. The really good news is that you can train your prospects to say “yes,” even if you’re a so-called “bad salesperson.” This sales skill takes a bit of time to develop, but it can be employed, regardless of the tactic used, by anyone who can ask a question. Subtle persuasion can be unleashed by having a list of questions that build up to a more and more meaningful “yes.” That’s selling without a pitch, and it’s the best kind of selling. By asking questions, you’ll learn more about your prospects’ interest level and their needs, and you’ll get them comfortable with pursuing a working relationship with you. Here are five examples of “yes”-inducing questions (use the scenario of a photographer who is trying to sell services to a young couple):
- You mentioned earlier that you liked my photographs of kids. I loved shooting the one in the bouncy castle; did you like the one where the kid grabbed the garden hose?
- You’ve had photographs of your family done before. Did you like the experience of working with a photographer?
- It sounds like you’ve got an idea in mind for a photo shoot. Would it be okay if I asked you some questions about the carnival you’d like to do this at?
- I get the sense that you’d like to get this planned and happening quickly. Can I show you an amazing shoot I did with my own kids?
- Sounds like there’s a fit. I’d like to send you a quote later today. Is Tuesday afternoon a good time to discuss this further?
Self-promotion isn’t just about making your move; it’s about making a confident “ask” or a deliberate “move.” It’s about delivering a soft pitch that leads you to a hard “ask.”
Eight Ways to Create Curiosity
So what can you use to create curiosity about your work among your target group? How can you move someone from hit list to prospect? Here are a few ideas to consider bringing into the conversation when preparing a marketing tactic, and the ways in which you can subtly work towards persuading your prospects to engage with you further:
Selling the Sold: How to Treat Your Clients Like Prospects
I asked photographer Tamara Lackey about her promotional activities, and their success. Needless to say, she knows her stuff, as you’ll discover when you read her response:
Creative Work: “Kitty and Horse Fisherman,” photograph by Corey Arnold. Corey is a photographer and Alaskan commercial fisherman. He is currently working on a lifelong project entitled FISH-WORK, which chronicles the commercial fishing lifestyle throughout the world. Corey is represented by Charles A. Hartman Fine Art. Web: coreyfishes.com Twitter: @coreyfishes
Fostering Real Word of Mouth
When other people talk about you behind your back (in a good way) or support you publicly, they’re adding to your credibility and generating curiosity about you and your work. They’re adding to your mystique (as an artist) or your reliability (as a service provider), or both, by conveying to others that they believe you’re talented and trustworthy. Their words and actions serve as endorsements that can produce opportunities for you. Word of mouth is often viewed as simply the result of successful marketing, or the end product of a promotional effort. But I believe you can do more than hope for the best if you manage the relational dynamics at work and deliberately make the most of your human connections. When you create things you’re proud of and share them with passionate and influential people, you can be a successful self-marketer without blowing your own horn.
Small Steps Add Up You shouldn’t create your promotional efforts in hopes of a big break. Pie-in-the sky thinking is dangerous to your creative spirit. Always plan to build off your marketing ideas, and remember: It’s a long game.
This Ain’t Fishy Business
Here’s what photographer Corey Arnold told me about his inspiration for the FISH-WORK project and how the book impacted his business:
I was raised by a father obsessed with fishing. His early influence led me into a career as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. I’d come home telling wild stories of adventure on the high seas after a hard fought fishing season, and no one seemed to fully understand how intense the experience was. In 2002, I began to create a visual history of my life as a fisherman, a project entitled FISH-WORK. The resulting book encompasses about 8 years of my experience at work on the Bering Sea. I was fortunate enough to get the attention of Chris Pichler of Nazraeli Press, a well-respected curator of photography books; his books are often distributed in museum and fine art bookstores. As a result, the work attracted more attention from curators and collectors worldwide and helped to give me a hair more street cred as an artist.
The people around you want you to be successful. They want to be associated with someone of interest, someone creative and notable. One of the best ways to get the right people interested is to have the right people talking about you and your work. The idea is simple: By inspiring and equipping a few people to passionately spread the word about your creative work, your business, your experiences, and your character, you will have successfully employed the single most successful marketing tool—word of mouth. When you replicate your enthusiasm in others, you’re drawing outside the lines, you’re thinking outside the box, and you’re making an investment into your business. When you build up a team of ambassadors, you expand your marketing reach while narrowing your promotional focus.
Imagine, if you will, that instead of focusing on the big, scary job of attracting that elusive “market” you focused on a micro-network made up of six people. That’s it. Take a chill pill on all the marketing mayhem. Cast aside the big net and focus all your energy on a small but powerful group of people who aren’t necessarily buyers or clients of yours but are strategically placed friends and acquaintances. By relieving yourself of the pressure to promote your work to a large, impersonal audience yet to be determined, you target a few passionate people and invite them into the inner circle, converting them into creative ambassadors. Clearly, six is an arbitrary number in that too few isn’t worth it, and too many ends up being informal, but don’t focus on the size too much. Just think carefully about your contacts to identify the group that will work for you.
Some good, old-fashioned passion from humanoids that act like cheerleaders on your behalf, but who don’t stand to benefit directly from your success, is an amazing tool to have in your promotional arsenal. Normally, creatives leave word of mouth to chance, and their parents make up 50% of the crew. Instead, invite people into something more deliberate, a social contract that shows how much you respect and value them.
When choosing ambassadors, look for the following traits and attributes:
- They should represent your target market. Define as well as possible their place within your target market and find some distinguishing characteristics which reflect the diversity within that demographic. By focusing as broadly as possible within a narrow demographic you’re increasing your opportunity to influence a much more like-minded group of people. This is where the “awesome” is.
- They should command respect. Recruit people you and others respect. From their demeanor to their reputation, you need to be fans of theirs as much as you need them to be ambassadors for you. When that happens you’ll speak highly of those who share your passion for your work. You’ll want to mention their names and you’ll feel proud of that connection and partnership. That kind of pride is contagious. People want to be around people who treat others with respect. Foster that by engaging with caring and fun-loving people.
- They should be energetic. Your ambassadors should have a lot of charisma. Those who make great first impressions, have a compelling personality, who like to laugh, and who don’t like to eat alone are great candidates. A “go get ’em” attitude is infectious. Pick people you’d want to party or vacation with. Pick people whose businesses or careers are exciting and energizing to them. They’ve got to have a social network. It’s not about the number of Twitter followers they have; I’m talking about people who know people.
With a team of ambassadors you become a micro-marketer. Your job is to make it easy and exciting for your ambassadors to talk up your work. That’s it. Here are some pointers to help get your new disciples engaged and into the mix:
- Give yourself lots of time. A normal marketing cycle doesn’t apply in this circumstance. Your ambassadors are like über-fans; you can’t put a ton of pressure on them in a desperate panic to spread the word. If you’ve got a promotion or some new work coming up and you want them to help you get the word out, give them lots of lead time and keep them in the loop.
- Recruit or engage with the right people. Don’t work with a pre-existing group, like a committee, family, or friends just because it’s easy and they’re close by. Proximity isn’t necessarily a good prerequisite for joining your promotions team.
- Inspire them through social connections. Way before you start a marketing effort, find ways to get your ambassadors connecting with your prospects. Meet them both for dinner, drinks, or coffee. A trio or group connection is very powerful. By connecting passionate people with important people you create an atmosphere of enthusiasm and camaraderie.
- Let them engage with creation of the marketing material. When it’s time to spread the word, equip them with collateral they’ll actually use. Put in their hands something they helped develop. Consider giving them digitally printed business cards, special stationery, or a customized email signature. You may even want to find ways to make the collateral personalized to them so that they can share something tailored to their style or attitude. Whatever you do, don’t give them posters to put up; masking tape and push-pins are not becoming of an ambassador.
By working with six people, instead of focusing on the masses, you’ll turn a difficult marketing effort into a personable and manageable community-building activity. The engagement with your ambassadors is simply about increasing their excitement for your creative work and making it extremely easy for them to spread the word.
The single most important component of your marketing effort has very little to do with what you do, but rather who you are. When trusted people sing your praises, good things happen. This type of “viral” marketing will always make for the best leads. The credibility that comes from other people speaking well of you and your work creates a foundation of rapport that will stand the test of time. My business has been built nearly exclusively on this model and, in case you’re wondering, social media had little to do with it.
Referrals come from those people within your sphere of influence who are proud of the work you do, and they want to make themselves look good by making a meaningful connection. They look good to their friends and colleagues when they’re perceived as problem solvers or supporters in a time of need. When your creative work is the answer that’s being pursued, then it’s a win-win situation.
I don’t believe in systemizing this process. My reason is twofold. First, formalizing your approach to your business contacts, leads, prospects, and past clients can give rise to cold, sales-oriented engagements. Remember the adage that people go places because of who they know (not who they sold). By replacing the relationship dynamic with a selling dynamic, you’ll come off as a cheap. Buyers know when you’re following a sales script. The phone calls come at regular intervals, and the emails are clearly cut-and-paste. They know when they’re being prospected, just as you do.
The second reason I recommend avoiding systemization is that small business owners who err on the side of spending too much time organizing and maintaining their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool risk psyching themselves out and treating contacts too seriously. Do this and you risk seeming pushy and uninviting. The goal is to get those who dig your work to talk you up, and there are more thoughtful ways you can do this.
Here are a few thoughts and ideas on how to foster a healthy referral network and inspire your clients and associates to generate leads on your behalf:
- Over-deliver. Exceed your clients’ expectations whenever possible. I can’t stress this enough; it’s what gets people coming back for more and it’s what gets them talking about you behind your back. This is a not marketing tactic but a business standard that produces invaluable returns. Do things that make your clients’ work easier. Be more organized than they are. Be five minutes early to meetings. Deliver on time or early. Document the details of a project (even the ones that don’t involve you directly), and provide them with a flash of project management brilliance. Do whatever you can to be super-duper. It’s not about bringing donuts anymore; it’s about bringing your clients along for the ride on your “awesome” train!
- Contribute to the success of your business associates, collaborators, and like-minded contacts. I’m not necessarily suggesting you work for free, but by going out of our way to support or refer those you respect, you create a cycle of pride in each other’s work which is infectious. When you can say “I have people,” you’re expanding your clout, which makes a world of difference when it comes time for someone to reciprocate. When someone is looking to hire a solopreneur, credibility is issue number one.
- Give gifts without any strings attached. Send or deliver a small gift to a select few within your network just because you can. Send a short note with tickets to an upcoming concert or a preloaded coffee card. Consider it a random act of kindness with a not-so-hidden motive. A just-for-fun bribe can go a long way to sparking discussion. My friend Steve McMinn, a health and fitness specialist, asked his lead-likely contacts if he were to deliver a gift to them, would they want flowers or beer? Easy to ask, easy to answer, easily delivered. He wasn’t asking for a referral; he was simply spreading the love. This approach is effective because it is devoid of a blatant sales pitch.
A Video is Worth...
Testimonies are helpful, but they’re often static quotes lacking heart and soul. Video testimonials are better.
How to Be More Referrable
John Jantsch is a small business marketing consultant, a speaker, and the author of Duct Tape Marketing, The Referral Engine, and The Commitment Engine.
“Making referrals is a deeply satisfying way to connect with others,” Jantsch writes. “Asking for referrals is just the other side of the same phenomenon.”
I’ve been preaching this sermon to my clients for awhile now, especially to those who tend to protect (hide) their art, and themselves, from the world. Great opportunities are produced through an attitude of mutual support; make it easy for others to support you. I’ve adapted John’s How to Be More Referrable mindmap to help spark some ideas on how to shift your self-promotional attitude from pushing to attracting.Add Value Beyond Price
Inspired by The Referral Engine: Teaching Your Business to Market Itself by John Jantsch
Excerpted from Living the Dream: Putting your creativity to work (and getting paid) (New Riders)
By Corwin Hiebert
Copyright © 2012. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.