The results of my 2-year experiment...
I get a lot of animators asking me how to build a following and while my audience size is relatively modest at the time this post is being written, it has seen exponential increases in size and massive growth spurts within the past few months. Before that, I spent two years testing out all the different things they tell you to do online: blogging, podcasting, social media, rinse, repeat.
When you're trying to build your audience on top of working full time to pay the bills and develop your skills as an artist, this can all be very overwhelming. The aforementioned methods also got me a grand total of about 200 social media followers in a two year period and even fewer subscribers to my podcasts.
Don't get me wrong, there are people who have cracked the code on how to get millions of social media followers or get their podcast to #1 on iTunes. Google it. If I really cared about that I would be focusing my efforts on it, but truthfully I'd rather be making art.
Problems with these methods:
Social media followers and likes don't exactly pay your bills. You also have to compete for people's attention with everyone else in the digital world who's saying "Hey, look at me! Look at me!" Lastly, social media platforms come and go, so your 10K+ followers on [Insert Popular Platform] might not be there for you in ten years.
Do you know anyone who still uses Myspace? Me neither. Why spend your time and energy building a big sandcastle that's just going to be swept away in the ebb and flow of digital trends? In fact I'm seriously considering deleting my social media accounts except for Facebook (I'll explain why in a minute).
I love social media, don't get me wrong. It's a great way to connect with other artists and drive traffic to your website, but you have to spend lots of time actively engaging with other people who (for the most part) are going to see your work on there and say "Hey, that's neat", give it a "like", and forget about it instantly.
Blogging & Podcasting
I quit blogging cold turkey ages ago. I'm only writing this post because I've had so many people ask me about this subject and it deserves an in-depth response. From what I understand blogging is great for SEO (Search Engine Optimization, which ranks your website higher on Google searches) and I'm sure it has a million other benefits . . .
If you want to spend your days writing blog posts. If you'd rather spend your time animating, drawing, and working on your pitch for your animated series, skip blogging all together and spend your time jamming in the studio instead. :)
Podcasting is also incredibly time-consuming to record and edit unless you are using a service which lets you stream live and instantly upload the episode to the web. I will highly recommend podcasting if you are using it as a chance to interview artists you admire.
It's a great way to forge one-on-one relationships with other professionals in your field, learn from them, and give them a chance to promote their work (even if you only get a few listeners or views). Podcasting by itself, however, is not the best way to build a following because once again you are competing with an endless ocean of digital content online.
So what would I recommend? What have I done to spark massive growth in my following this year?
Learn everything you can about email marketing and apply it.
I've been able to build an email newsletter with a modest readership in about four months. Way more people than I could ever get to follow me on social media in a two year period. -_- Thankfully I have a friend who's a digital marketing expert who put me onto this, and I would not be recommending it unless I had seen tangible results for myself.
So while my audience isn't big, it's growing at about an average rate of 100 new newsletter subscribers/month, and this number is increasing all the time. Not bad considering I started from scratch as a no-name freelance animator. This. Works. Trust me.
1. Create an email newsletter & set up an autoresponder
An email newsletter delivered via an autoresponder (a service which automatically sends emails written by you to the people on your list) is the fastest and easiest way to build and maintain a following. I use Mailchimp for this but there are plenty of other services to choose from.
Social media platforms come and go, but experts say people will be using email well into the future and it's the most direct way of interacting with your audience (and a lot less work than blogging, podcasting, and maintaining multiple social media accounts).
You can automatically send emails to people who sign up for your list to keep them updated on your projects and inform them of important upcoming events.
2. Identify your target audience
Figure out who would benefit most from the art and content you are creating. For instance:
- If you're making animated shorts, a large bulk of the people who will enjoy watching your films will likely be other people in the animation community, so you'll want your email list to be comprised of those types of people.
- If you're making experimental animation, people who are into modern art and avant-garde films will likely be the sort of people you'll want to go after.
- If you're making a feature film, you could target not just animators but also people in the indie film community. I got a lot of support from the indie filmmaking scene in Pittsburgh when I was animating my feature Grey Island.
3. Create an irresistible "opt-in offer"
The idea is to give people something valuable (for free) in exchange for them joining your email newsletter so they know you aren't going to waste their time.
The opt-in offer just has to be something positive and helpful for other people that they HAVE to have! You could offer people the chance to watch one of your short films for free, a free tutorial, free Photoshop brushes, you name it.
4. Create a landing page for your opt-in offer
A landing page (also called a "squeeze page") is a one-page website created for the sole purpose of giving your target audience your free opt-in offer in exchange for them joining your email list. I use Leadpages but Squarespace also lets you do this and, as with email autoresponders, there's tons of other options out there.
Something to keep in mind when creating your landing page: K.I.S.S. - Keep It Super Simple! Less is more here. Only put things on the page which will aid in getting your target audience to join your list! People's attention spans are very short and the more things you have on the page the more likely visitors will become distracted and not opt-in for the free goodness you are giving them.
It doesn't need to be fancy and it's typically not something you would put in a graphic design portfolio, but it works. :)
5. Drive traffic to your landing page
Put a link to your landing page in the bio of your social media accounts. Now, whenever you post something with the hashtag #animation, anyone searching for that hashtag will see your post and if they check out your profile, they will see the link in your bio and be inclined to check it out.
From there they will ideally sign up for your email newsletter (if your opt-in offer is a "must-have" for them) and BOOM! You just gained a new audience member, and you no longer have to compete for their attention with other people on social media because you'll be sending them updates on your work directly to their email inbox.
Another great way to gain new followers is by posting your opt-in offer (with an attractive banner image and copy, posts with images stand out!!) in forums and Facebook groups. I posted a link to one of my free videos series for animators in a few Facebook animation groups yesterday, and I got over 120 new subscribers overnight.
Just make sure you only post it in appropriate places where your target audience (the people who will actually reap the rewards of the offer and not be annoyed at your shameless self-promotion) are hanging out.
If you got money to blow, Facebook advertising is the the most efficient ways to get new audience members. Google info on creating an effective Facebook ad. Create an ad for your free opt-in offer. When people click on the ad, they will be taken to your landing page.
You should only run Facebook ads if you are making more money than you spend! Profit must always exceed your expenses when it comes to being an independent artist.
6. Keep your list happy
Respect & integrity
DO NOT SPAM PEOPLE! A person giving you their email means they trust you will treat them with respect and not waste their time. Do not blow them up with constant self-promotion and only send them content or works of art which are entertaining, informational, or valuable to them in some way.
You could share with them a cool short film you found online, a project your friend is making, or maybe a behind-the-scenes production diary about how you came up with the idea for your new animated series. People love a good story. :)
If you have a film, artwork, or anything you are selling, you can offer it to your list once in a while. Just don't overload them with prompts to buy stuff from you. People don't mind being sold to if you are giving them more free stuff than you are sales pitches.
ONLY SELL YOUR LIST STUFF THEY NEED! If you try to sell someone something they don't really need you are wasting your time and their's. Promise you won't do that okay?
Don't be shy, say hello!
Autoresponders typically let you send people an automated welcome email when they join your list. This allows you to deliver the free opt-in gift to them and give them a warm welcome to thank them for supporting you!
Since the majority of people will stop reading your emails after they get what they opted in for, you want to use this as a chance to engage with them personally. The best way I've found to elicit a response from new subscribers is to ask them about a problem they are having relating to the service you provide.
For example, I started a list to get aspiring artists to join Indie Animation Pro, an online community of animators geared towards helping each other succeed in animation. In the welcome email, I asked new subscribers:
"If I could help you with 1 thing to help you make a living off your art, so you can bring your unique ideas to life and share them with the world, what would it be?"
This communicates to your tribe you actually care about serving them in some way and you're not just looking for fans to gush over how awesome you are or buy art prints off your website. It also helps you identify what are called "pain points", which are the things your audience is having trouble with and which your art, products, and/or services, will help to alleviate.
As the months went by I received tons of responses from young animators telling me about the things they struggle with the most. From there, I tallied up the results and found the top things concerning aspiring animators are:
1. How to get started in animation
2. Their dreams of making their own animated series
3. Desire to get better at character design
4. Desire to manage their time effectively
5. Struggling to stay motivated to work on their projects
6. A community to provide them with support, collaboration, critiques, etc.
Using this knowledge, I was able to tailor the video content I was sending my list to better help them solve these problems for themselves. I was also able to use words lifted directly from their email responses on my landing page, leading to way more subscribers than I was getting before I actually took the time to listen to my audience.
In other words, if you are willing to forget what you think you know about your target audience and just ask for their input (people are dying to tell you what's wrong with their lives, if you don't believe me check your social network feed) you will be better equipped to market your work to them.
You can have multiple lists if you're working on multiple large projects. I'm currently building one for my new avant-garde animated feature film, Grey Island. One of the main reasons I made the film is because I saw a lack of creative innovation in mainstream animation.
I started asking my fellow professional animators online what they think the biggest problem in animation is right now and, surprise, surprise, one of the top problems they see is a lack of creative innovation in mainstream animation.
So my weird, indie film actually fulfills a need for people! It's certainly not a mainstream project but it's certainly original, and I now have confirmation there are least some people out there who will benefit from watching it who I can begin to make nice with (and therefore grow my audience further.)
7. Make friends, not followers!
If I haven't hammered it into your head by now, building an audience has very little to do with you getting anything, whether it be subscribers, attention, fame, glory, or wealth.
Funny enough, when you focus on contributing something beneficial to the human race, some of those things start to show up anyway. The most important thing to realize is: it's not all about you!
There are plenty of other animators out there who are also doing awesome work and want their animation to be seen. Many of the people who sign up for your list will likely be some of these beautiful people.
This is why it's important to engage with your followers and take genuine interest in their work. Subscribe to other artists' newsletters. You not only help them by being a part of their growing tribe and get whatever value they are adding to your life, but you also can glean valuable insights from the way they market to you and apply it to how your iterate your work to your followers.
Focus on forging healthy relationships with other people who are also striving to make their dreams become a reality. They will have your back when you are down and out, and they may even be able to help spread the word about your work to their audience. One good friend is worth a million casual social media followers, never forget it.
8. Track results and increase your ROI
A return on investment (ROI) is basically what you get back after investing either time or money into an endeavour. If you invest a ton of time on social media attempting to get people to click the link to your landing page in your bio, you better be getting a lot of people signing up for your newsletter!
If you are paying for Facebook ads, you better be selling something to your email list which makes you more money than you spend. Most landing page services allow you to track the "conversion rate" of your page. A conversion rate is the percentage of visitors to your page who are actually signing up for what you're offering.
Online marketing experts say a good landing page will have around a 20% conversion rate. I've found this to be more or less true. Of the 20% who opt-in I've found only about 45-50% of people actually open the emails I send them. A good autoresponder will allow you to track this as well.
If your landing page has a low conversion rate, try changing the copy, colors, images, etc. Some services let you "split test" squeeze pages, which means you can have two variations of the same page to track which one performs better. If people aren't opening the emails you send them, come up with catchier headlines and tailor the content you send them to address their pain points.
9. Never lose sight of what's important
I hope this post helps you. Expect a new blog post from me next year (or never). I need to get back to drawing now okay? :)
Remember your worth is not determined by the size of your audience, so don't be discouraged if your numbers aren't in the tens of thousands right now. Most importantly remember the reason you create art is not for approval or attention from others, but for the joy of creating!
Keep doing your thing and never change for anyone. Don't do a certain style of art because you think it will get you more followers. Don't shut down your genius ideas because you think they're "too weird". No matter what type of animation you do, even the weirdest, fringiest films will find an audience.
Be yourself. End of story. And if you want to see how an effective email newsletter works in action and get more tips which will help you succeed as an animator, I recommend this free video series: