How To

Using Your Craft to Build a Community

Recently I spoke at the Semi Permanent design conference in Sydney alongside Gemma O'Brien and Breana Bunce. We gave a masterclass on how to use your craft to build a community and more specifically how to use social media to foster an audience. The masterclass included a 40 minute conversation between Gemma and I (mediated by Bre), a demo from yours-truly based around the idea of using social media as a storytelling tool, and a hands-on workshop by Gemma on how to recreate her incredible hand-drawn script.

It ran really smoothly! The crowd was awesome and we got a lot of great feedback (someone said they got the more out of our two hour session than they did the whole three-day conference! Insane!) - it was a shame that the talk was only open to a fraction of the attendees of the conference. A lot of these points were covered throughout the panel, and have also been sent through to me in the form of emails, Tumblr asks, snaps, and hidden Facebook messages buried in secret inboxes that I only find out about years later, so I thought it would be useful to young creatives and creators in general to tackle the topic here on the journal. 

You ready?

That question: How did you first get started posting your work on social media?

I've answered this before plenty of times in interviews and podcasts so I'm sorry to those who have heard it before. For those who haven't, and for those who want to take another trip down memory lane, here it goes.. I started as everyone does, a complete amateur - hungry (still am) to learn new skills and elated by the prospect of being able to translate my ideas to paper, I had been drawing my whole life and always interested in mark-making but it wasn't until later that I began exploring new mediums and sharing my work online.

During my final year of high school, I started a Tumblr page when I should have been studying. It's become a total cliche but I had no idea what my blog would turn into or that I would even post my work there, it started as a space to store my tidbits - brief thoughts, phone photos and scans of my film photography. After posting a scan of one of my drawings online, it became really apparent that the internet was not only for embedding glitter icons and choosing which song would represent you best on your MySpace profile - but that the internet was the perfect environment for reaching a prospective audience and connecting with other like-minded creatives.

If you were to start over how would you go about it?

I don't know if I'd change anything. Things have been pretty sweet.

I get the idea that people are really terrified to share their work online, and while there are definitely risks (things like copyright infringement, copy-cats and sourceless sharing) I've found that the positives have greatly outweighed the negatives. It's a lot easier to begin sharing on any platform when you don't have an agenda - the important thing is to experience and experiment with how you use each channel and focus on creating awesome work.

Snapchat is relatively new for me, so I'm currently beginning from scratch so-to-speak. It's so new that there's no one way to post - no formula like there seems to be on Instagram. I'm just doing my thing, capturing it, having fun and everyone seems to be responding really nicely to it. The advice I always give to people with similar questions on how to approach sharing what they do online is to be genuine, show what you're interested in, and just do your thing - the internet is such a huge place that we've seen so many niches been carved out by individuals simply doing what they love.

Statistically Instagram doesn't make the top lists when it comes to sharing/engagement, why do you think Instagram meets yours and the needs of other visual artists so well?

One thing that sets Instagram apart is that its primarily a visual platform, and what I mean by that is that you need to post something visual, either a photograph or video, where as other platforms either allow you to post a range of media, or encourage text based posts in which you can attach accompanying visuals. It's this uncluttered format which means the visually-orientated creatives can focus on and experiment with creating rich imagery without really worrying about everything else. It also means that as an online space, users expect and are interested in seeing captivating visual content first and foremost.

Snapchat is one of the top 5 fastest growing platforms, what are you seeing as the strengths of this channel.

It took me a while to get onto Snapchat, I was under the impression that only tweeni-boppers used it to send nudes to each other and didn't see how it would be relevant to what I do until after I began using it. Once you get your head around the gestural navigation it's really easy to use - there isn't much pre-meditation involved from the perspective of an individual because the content will be gone in 24 hours, and that's actually very freeing. I think something that is appealing to Snapchat users, myself included, is the authenticity that the temporariness breeds. I use it mostly as a sort of BTS to what people see on Instagram and an insight into what's going on in my studio - an instant vlogging platform, useful for sharing videos of myself hanging out with other people's dogs.

Instagram has evolved from an image editing and sharing platform into something much more complex, and in doing so has become a lot more contrived.. wait, maybe that's the wrong word.. more devised(?). Even though I post in relative real-time I definitely, to some extent, art direct and curate my feed for the sake of flow and consistency. When you look at social platforms as a means for storytelling it can be useful to post thoughtfully as well as genuinely. The Instagram we've come to know is more mediated than it used to be - it's become a place where we're used to being advertised to, and a place where it's become necessary to state something is 'not a sponsored post' in order to prove your opinion is genuine. There used to be a time where Instagram acted as a little window into someone else's world, and while that's still quite true today, those windows are just a little more polished than they used to be. Snapchat is still a really young platform, and I think the rawness of posts and perceived authenticity is really, really refreshing.

How deeply should I engage with my audience? How often do you have a one to one conversation with your followers?

This really depends on how much free time I have. Being responsive to your audience can be as time consuming as having a part time job if you let it. Your social channels should compliment what you do and not obstruct your creative process, so while I think it's important to engage with your audience, not to the extent where you're spending more time managing a community than engaging with your practice. In the same vein, if your livelihood and business relies on the audience you've fostered online, answering important questions and responding to people's feedback is definitely positive - I think a lot of us sometimes forget that each unit and number is a real-life person who's experience with you is individual and not collective to how you conduct yourself across all of your social channels.

How regularly should I post?

I used to try to post daily, but that got exhausting very quickly especially while I was working an agency job four days a week. I think that consistency is important (consistency in quality of posts, and consistency in regularity of posts), but I definitely don't think you should be creating work specifically for social media if your practice doesn't call for it. Christian Watson of 1924us, an illustrator who works predominantly in branding, is a great example of someone who does this well. His feed is coherent, his storytelling is engaging, the posts are always on brand and the dude averages like 3 posts a day!  This regularity does have a specific effect - I regularly visit his page even if I don't see him on my feed because I know there will always be something new. I think three posts or more a day is definitely on the extreme end of the spectrum and quality is definitely > quantity, but if you can manage both, go for it! 

What kind of posts drive engagement?

Video is huge at the moment. It's most of what we're seeing on Facebook, it's heavily bumped up on Instagram's explore page and it's super-engaging content. It's also a really important storytelling vessel; people want to be involved in your process no matter how mundane you consider it to be - they aren't in your world, so the role of social media as a storytelling tool is to help them be apart of it. With video content becoming so easy to create (the timelapse feature on our iPhones, Facebook's live video and the ease of use of Snapchat) - there are no excuses to not be onto that shit.

Is offline activity important?  

Offline activity is absolutely important. All social platforms have a shelf-life, so think about what you want to be left with without the followers/subscribers/likes/comments - we need to work towards something more substantial than just data. That doesn't mean that the two can't work hand in hand; things like exhibitions and conferences are two examples of "real-life" things that boost my online engagement (through magazines/digital publishing, word of mouth online etc). Experiencing something in a tactile way is so much more immersive than seeing it in a tiny square - it can be a lot more emotionally fulfilling and more likely to drive meaningful engagement online than a share or seeing a video

Your social media following is now so strong that brands value it as an ad space, and want to associate themselves with that.  How do you manage the commercial demands on your professional identity?

There's a lot of controversy around influencer content that has been paid for by brands or initiated by agencies, but I think there's a point to be made and a line to be drawn between selling your opinion and selling your services. This may be a massive generalisation (mainly because I'm an outsider looking in), but the monetisation of fashion blogging is a great example of influential people wearing and selling brand's clothing by implying these brands are who they would normally choose to wear (when in some cases this isn't true). While I don't feel personally affected by it, I can definitely understand people's ethical concerns. In the case of working with brands as an illustrator/creative - we are posting what we would be posting anyway - our solutions to creative briefs, process images and projects we were proud to be apart of. I've worked on both social and non-social based content/creative, and in the case of the former I've been very selective and specific about the kinds of briefs I take on.

I make sure to work with brands that I like and believe in, and if I plan on posting the job to social I make sure the content that I post is native to my feed, and is interesting to my audience. I do not take on social campaigns where I'm specifically asked to post or speak to my audience in a certain way, in fact the small percentage of social-based work I actually agree to, are projects that I want to work on from an experience/illustration perspective and those in which I have creative control.

What advice do you have on managing the tension between contractual demands and artistic integrity? 

I think it comes down to having a strong identity and brand. If you have a strong sense of who you are as a creative and even as a person you will automatically have a distinct line drawn between what you will and will not do, and in turn a strong set of values to go along with it. This is important in situations where you're presented with a brief or a contract as you can easily spot things you'll need to change to suit who you are, which by the way is something you can do.

I find myself reading articles about the power of 'yes', but guys the power of 'no' is a fantastic thing! I've been presented with contracts or briefs that make me uncomfortable (because of things like lack of creative freedom, or the requirement that be too advertise-y) and every time I've flat-out refused. By doing so I'm not only maintaining the quality/integrity of the work I produce, but often the brief or contract will come back amended to suit my audience and I. Speaking from a non-social perspective, the power of no is important when it comes to the licensing of creative material, and budgets. Do not sell yourself short - creativity is the lifeblood of our industry and young creatives are some of our most valuable yet under-valued resources.

If there's anything I'd like you to leave with (I know there's already an information overload here) it's these four points:

1. Be yourself (sorrynotsorry for the cliche). Make your own niche, let your audience find you, and stop looking at other people as a compass - forge your own path.

2. Find consistency. Without being overtly formulaic or predictable, be consistent aesthetically (in your style of posts, in editing) and in regularity (how often you post).

3. Tell beautiful stories. The way you tell your story is super, super important - figure out how you can tell genuine stories beautifully. On Instagram I do this in a number of ways: I use time-lapses to show how I made something from start to finish giving people a literal sense of how I do what I do, and I use flat lays to show the aura of a work. Show more than just a static image of what you made, show how you made it, why you made it, the materials you used, where you were when you made it and what you were eating at the time (just for kicks).

4. Focus on creating great work. This is probably my most important point. While this entire post is about social media - at the heart of success of any kind is hard work and determination. Focus on creating something great, and the rest will fall into place.

I really hope this was useful, and I'm sorry again that all of my journal posts are so incredibly long - I talk a lot! If there's anything else you'd like to know, any follow up questions you have or anything else related to social media, building a community or puppies please leave them in the comments below. Maybe we can put together a part two!



All photographs captured by Toby Peet