As an artist and designer, for over seven years I have been working on developing my designs, and sharing my work with people who will enjoy it and want to bring it into their homes (whether that’s via stitching patterns they stitch up themselves, wallpaper or phone cases with my art on it, etc). Part of my journey has been using social media, not only to connect with people, but as an “adjacent” learning platform, like Facebook groups that are an integral part of the many business and art courses I’ve done over the years. For many artists, they believe that social media is the best way to find their people and market their work. I am going to challenge that assumption in this post.
I am going to preface this post by saying yes, this is “off topic” for the majority of posts and tutorials I do on my site. And yes, this is influenced by the recent hack of my Instagram account with 7k+ followers, and how insanely difficult (literally nearly impossible) to recover it was. But this post is actually about things I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and how I can help my fellow artists and surface pattern designers (and others who use social media just to be social and want to get a bit of a “behind the scenes” about what you see on social media). I hope you find this post helpful. ❤️
Top three problems for artists using Instagram
1. Instagram has become synonymous with “marketing,” and it shouldn’t be
If you’ve been an artist on Instagram for more than a hot second, you’ll know that Instagram has become a defacto “gallery” or “portfolio” for our work. But why? Instagram has only been around about ten years, so why have artists fallen down the rabbit hole of believing that Instagram is the only way to showcase our work these days?
One reason is that Instagram itself has been very good at convincing all of us that they are “the” way to get seen, to get noticed by influencers, hell to become “influencers” ourselves (whatever that means to you). But here’s the thing, their purpose is not to market your business or care about your interests — their business is to care about THEIR interests. Instagram and similar platforms are incentivizing you to create so much free content for them, with the ever-dwindling hope of “views” or “followers” or “engagement.” Their algorithm is constantly changing to keep people on the platform, to make it “sticky” so users don’t want to leave (which is why the only traffic you can drive off the platforms is usually paid traffic, aka paid ads). Instagram’s priorities can be seen so easily if you scroll your Instagram feed right now — I bet most of what you will see are videos and Reels. This is to compete with TikTok, they’re very open that they are wanting to prevent users from migrating there, so they’re trying to do what seems to be working well for TikTok (short snappy eye-catching videos).
What this means for you is that unless you want to all of a sudden shift to making Reels and videos, your posts likely aren’t going to be seen at all by your followers. The implication of this is that Instagram’s business priorities end up dictating what YOUR priorities should be, and they may have nothing to do with each other. How you run your business inadvertently ends up becoming far too “directed” by social media platforms to meet THEIR needs. Like think about the last time you made anything — I can almost guarantee at some point you thought about stopping and taking (or did take) photos for work in progress shots to post to social media, or think about how the time lapse video of your illustration in Procreate was going to turn out and if it’d look good on Instagram. That’s the platform dictating your workflow and priorities, not you. Even well-known and well-respected artists like Lisa Congdon have talked about the algorithm shift and how it doesn’t align with her priorities as an artist or entrepreneur anymore.
There’s an urban legend among artists that you can only be found by manufacturers, licensing companies, art agents, etc via social media. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, for every one post you see in an artists group of someone saying, “I landed a great licensing contract and they found me via Instagram,” you’ll find a hundred people bemoaning their lack of “success” on the platform. Or those who get approached by “small start-up businesses” who are completely clueless about the real costs of licensing art and usually end up just sucking up a ton of your time going back and forth, and ending in no contract. Often those who got “found” or became “famous” through Instagram credit their success with their timing getting on the platform (like Lisa Congdon does in this post while questioning if all the changes are right for her). Of course I’m not denigrating Lisa’s success, she’s an absolutely incredible artist who deserves every ounce of recognition she’s earned. But timing or assumptions can play into things as well. Peggy Dean has said most of her early followers were people who found her via her books, Skillshare classes, collaborations with other brands, workshops with companies like Design Cuts, her digital products on Design Cuts or Creative Market… not through Instagram directly. The assumption is that if you have a large following on social media, that’s how people found you in the first place — nothing could be further from the truth, the reality is often much more complex and nuanced.
It’s a complete lie that you “have to” use Instagram or any social media for your business. So many artists and businesses don’t, or have left entirely. As an example, Kelly Rae Roberts quit Instagram and Facebook two years ago, and is still wildly popular and doing well (and she became very well-known from her in-person retreats and blog, not social media). Cal Newport, author of “Digital Minimalism” and six other books, plus a wildly popular podcast, has never been on social media. Jewellery designer Tara Brach quit social media after realizing it didn’t serve her or her business values. Others who have quit include illustrator Julia Bausenhardt, and artist Rebecca Green took a sabbatical from Instagram to refocus on her work and her inspirations. Look at who exactly is telling you that you “must” use Instagram or you’re doomed to failure as an artist. Many of those touting the benefits are those selling courses on how to “hack” the algorithm, those who want to raise their own perceived status and experience by showing off their large following (and telling you that you can do the same if you drop a cool grand on their “must-have” course), etc.
So how can you take advantage of this? Define what your marketing goals actually are. “Getting your work out there” or “raising awareness” of your brand are not measurable goals, but things like website visits, sales from social media platforms, and the number of people going to a certain page on your site (like your email sign up thank you page) are measurable, and have a direct impact on your business. Some things are not measurable by you, like traffic you drive from social media to other platforms like Spoonflower or Society6. But you can absolutely track traffic to your own website (via Google Analytics, and I believe you may be able to connect it to an Etsy shop as well). As an example, in my own analytics, I can see that less than 5% of my website sales came from Instagram or Facebook since Jan 2021, and only 5000 of 280,000 website visitors in that timeframe came from those platforms. Other traffic sources do so much better for me (SEO aka Google search, direct traffic and email subscribers). It’s so easy to assume that certain platforms are working for you because they’re “supposed to,” but unless you actually measure your results you may not learn that say 80% of your marketing time (on Instagram and/or Facebook) is going to 5% of your measurable results. Your time is literally better spent elsewhere, not spending hours researching and messing with hashtags, learning how to make an “engaging” Reel, etc. Even making more art would be a much better use of your time (fancy that…).
If your goals are to sign with an art agent, or get a licensing contract, pitch directly to the agent or company. You are saving them time from having to hunt via Google search, social media, LinkedIn, etc to find new artists, and time is literally money for them. You are also showing you’re proactive and not just waiting to be “discovered” on the socials, so you’ll likely be good to work with. You’ll also be doing things that most artists find really hard — direct pitching and marketing directly to their target audience. That means you have a massive advantage and are getting more “bang for your buck” as far as where you’re spending your time and energy. Not sure how to stand out in a crowded marketplace? Pitching and direct marketing is one way to do it, and is so underrated because people think it’s “scary.” It’s really not, and if you have troubles knowing what to do there are lots of great courses out there like Elizabeth Silver’s Start Your Surface Pattern Business (which I’ve done and it’s great) and Shannon McNab’s Pitch Your Portfolio (which always gets rave reviews from students), to name just a few.
If you want more ideas of how to do your marketing without social media at all (or using it in a much more limited and strategic way), I can hiiighly recommend Leonie Dawson’s Marketing Without Social Media course (affiliate link). I’m absolutely not recommending this just because I’m an affiliate for it — I’ve gone through this short course several times myself and have gotten literal pages of ideas from it of other ways to market my work and have a lot of fun with my followers and customers. Because to me the fun and magic of art and making your surroundings pretty (and maybe a little snarky) is all part of the business, it’s not all down to the financials. Of course the financials allow the business to keep operating, but creating Peacock & Fig has always been about more than that to me (and I hope to those who love my work). Creating enjoyment and beauty and fun is just as important to me. ❤️
Phew, that was a long section, so much to say. Don’t worry, the next two are much briefer. 😊
2. Instagram has zero customer support and massive failures in security
I potentially will write a separate post about my recent “experience” with Meta’s support and security procedures (as even I was shocked), but there are many things that you should consider when deciding how much effort you want to put into Instagram and Facebook for your business. For instance, you can’t report someone’s account as being hacked (only for impersonation, meaning someone made a duplicate account and is pretending to be you, NOT that they took over your account and have hijacked it for illegal purposes). Even if you do report your own account for impersonation (which of course you have to do from a separate Instagram account) as impersonating YOU, you may get the same autoreply I got which basically said, “Didn’t look at your report as we’re too busy with other reports, but our bot thinks it’s fine so it’s probably ok and we’re not doing anything about it.” The lack of a report option for a hacked account speaks volumes to me. They can auto-ban you for hate speech for saying something like “fat white guy” in a comment (and you might be referencing the main character in Family Guy, and that’s not even a real person). Meanwhile an account sending hundreds or thousands of identically phrased DMs (when that’s not normal for that account) goes completely unnoticed and “isn’t a problem” for their bots or security.
I was also shocked that posting the word “hacked” in personal Facebook posts and business page posts (warning people about the hacked account so they didn’t get sucked in) instantly attracted dozens of other hackers trying to get you to contact “their guy” (aka another hacker) in the comments, as you can see in the image above. Why is Meta not immediately preventing that? It’s not hard, clearly these accounts are using bots that could be shut down or prevented entirely. It would be so easy when you’re already distressed to be further violated by more hackers. You’re so vulnerable because you want immediate help, and there is none available on these platforms. There used to be a live chat for business accounts (it was hard to find, but it was there), but that disappeared with the creation of Meta it seems. Also, if your credit card is tied to your business ads account, you might end up with ads being run on your account without your authorization, forcing you to cancel your card entirely and deal with that mess. In short, would you trust your finances to a bank that had no way of being contacted, or not being able to close an account if your credit card was hacked, etc? No you wouldn’t, and yet this is what the actual behind the scenes of some of these companies is like when trouble arises. Banks are legally obliged to take care of your data and money, as is Meta, but they are so big no one can have any effect on their policies short of legislators.
3. Artists are all so closely connected
Wait a minute, you’re probably thinking how is this a problem?? We all support each other, learn from each other, and collaborate with each other. Yes, those are fantastic positives, and I’ve adored meeting so many amazing artists all over the globe and being part of this community. But, our closeness and interconnectedness (particularly on social media) does leave us very vulnerable. If one of our accounts get hacked, we all trust each other so it’s so easy for us to not question anything slightly “off.” Like the lovely Latifa of Jasmin Blooms Designs lost her account via my hacked account, because we’d done several classes together and were in several shared Facebook groups — she trusted it was ME contacting her asking for help, she’s not to blame at all. And now she’s had to start a whole new Instagram account, which I of course feel horrible about and responsible for, even though I personally couldn’t stop it. If I can be vulnerable and fall prey to a hack, as a former military intelligence officer and cyber threat analyst, then anyone can. I even looked up what the hacker was asking me to do, and it seemed to align with Instagram’s new identity verification procedures they were rolling out — clearly the hackers know this and are taking advantage of changes. At the very least, please make sure two-factor authentication is turned on for your accounts. Even if it’s a pain to log in, it’s worth it, you don’t want the ten days of absolute pain and heartache I experienced, knowing other people were being scammed in my name and there was nothing I could do about it.
Another “problem” with us being so connected to each other on platforms like Instagram is that it can actually negatively affect the reach of our posts to our followers. It’s very common in many artist groups or class groups for people to share their Instagram handles, so we can follow each other. The theory is the more followers you have, the better your posts will do in the feed, and the more “legitimate” you look as an artist (which is obviously problematic on a whole range of fronts). Plus of course, then we can keep in touch with each other once the classes end, etc. But what actually happens is other artists are unlikely to interact with your account as a “real” follower or customer would. So you end up with your “engagement ratio” out of whack — if you have a bunch of followers and almost no engagement from them, that can actually make your reach drop in the algorithm. In the past it was not uncommon for people to buy followers, so the ratio of followers to engagement was one way for Instagram to “penalize” accounts for having a bunch of inactive (and maybe fake) followers. And besides the engagement rate, it’s all too easy to assume that the more followers you have, the more successful you’ll be, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Focusing on stats like the number of followers can distract you from looking at the real data which is more important to the growth and sustainability of your business. It also leaves you “addicted” to the number, you feel so down when you see a low number and so uplifted when you see it growing. You can lose all rationality about evaluating whether this tool is actually producing measurable results for you. These platforms were designed in ways that are similar to casinos, they’re meant to be addictive, and we often forget that.
So now that all that “happiness” is out there, now what?!? 😂 Am I saying you should leave social media right now and burn your phone? No, not at all. There are many reasons to use social media for personal reasons or business, my intention with this post was to bust a few holes in some myths and help people take a step back and evaluate what they do want. At this stage I don’t even know what I’m going to do, whether I’ll permanently step back from using certain platforms for my business, change how I use them, etc. I still rather feel like I was burned by a hot stove, and will be permanently scarred from the horrible experience I went through, but I also know a lot of my followers and customers love using these platforms to connect with me. Likely I’ll put more effort into getting people onto my email list (and we have fun every week, I love connecting with people via my emails and blog posts), and the rest I’m going to think about. It was truly awful having all my thousands of lovely followers being “weaponized,” I’d worked so hard to build up my following and art over seven years only to have it all used against me and my followers. Crying every day and being really distressed for so long was terrible and I don’t wish that on anyone. But it can happen so easily, whether it’s a hack (like Miriam Bos lost her 50k+ Instagram account to a hack and is trying to rebuild), or your account randomly gets shut down because of a tech glitch or something you didn’t do. I heard recently from one woman who lost her Instagram account in the huge outage on 4 Oct 2021, and because there is no real person to talk to she was never able to recover it. Social media is very “fragile” and always changing (and often not to your benefit as a business owner). I hope this article encourages other artists to make sure their business is on more stable ground, so it’s resilient if you do lose one platform. ❤️