Chris Unitt is a new media consultant and founder of Meshed Media. He was editor of Created in Birmingham, winner of Best UK Blog 2008, before recently standing down. He helps artists and arts organisations to make the most of the internet.
This article will guide you through the important first steps of building an online presence. Pretty much all of these steps apply irrespective of your field or whether you are a freelance designer, a collective, an organisation or an institution.
The internet can be a big and daunting place. For the inexperienced, this guide aims to give you an idea of how to find the part that's relevant to you and show you how to establish yourself there. For those that are more established, I hope this will be a useful checklist to make sure the basics are in place.
It's important to realise that this isn't a set of hard and fast rules. Rather, these are some tried and trusted basics that will give you a platform to express your personality and creativity. If you have a different way of doing things and it works, that's excellent.
A couple of years ago it was standard practice for people to treat a website like an online brochure. An artist or organisation would put up some information about themselves and some examples of their work and that would be it. This was the equivalent of standing on a hill and shouting.
These days the humble website has become 'social' and can achieve so much more. By getting closer to the people who enjoy your work and interacting (chatting) with people who, until that point, may never have heard of you. Extended reach, lower costs and the personal touch mean you can make a much bigger splash than you could at any time in the past.
So how do you go about making the most of this? How do you get involved online?
There are three basic steps:
- 1. Listen
- 2. Engage
- 3. Create
It makes sense to deal with them in order.
To what your peers are doing
If you are new to this then it will help to spend a little time seeing what others are doing, getting the hang of the etiquette, tone and approach they use.
You can search within the latter services for any information you might want. To find blogs that are relevant to you, use Technorati and Google Blog Search. Once you've found a few good websites, look to see if they have a links page or 'blogrolls' and follow the trail.
If you find some websites or blogs that seem interesting or useful you should bookmark them. You can also subscribe to most websites (especially blogs) via email but, to save your inbox, I'd recommend subscribing to them using an RSS reader instead. This is a tool that will automatically fetch the latest items so you don't have to go visiting the same websites every day. I use Google Reader for this.
To what others are saying about you
Some might say searching for mentions of yourself online is egotistical. It's not - it's very sensible.
Use Google Alerts and perhaps the Social Media Firehose to find out where your name is mentioned online and what people are saying about you. You can get the information either as a regular email or using RSS (referred to above).
Admittedly, if your name is John Smith this may be tricky, but using combinations of your name and phrases, organisations or places that are particular to you may help.
Once you can see what others are discussing then try adding some comments. Just bear in mind that a comment box on a blog isn't a place to advertise yourself overtly. Think of it as a conversation in a cafe - if you saw a people chatting you wouldn't (I hope) jump in and start shouting about yourself, changing the conversation to suit you. Be helpful, be constructive, be useful and be relevant.
If you happen to find people discussing you or your work then think carefully about whether to respond and how to do so. A quick 'thank you' might be nice but it's not always necessary. However, you might have to grow a thick skin if you find comments you don't like. Don't take criticism personally and remember that sometimes the appropriate response is to say nothing.
If you want a guide to how you should deal with anything written about yourself then you could do worse than follow the guide used by, of all people, the United States Air Force - USAF Bloggers Guide.
All this listening and engaging is all well and good, but you're an artist - you create. You should be putting your work and voice out there. Here's how to build up your online framework for that.
You need to have your own website. Using nothing more than a profile on MySpace, deviantArt or Facebook is a start but these can be too limiting and, worse, it can look amateurish. The good news is that it's now really easy to get a decent website, and to get one cheaply.
I've seen hundreds of artists' websites and they all differ hugely from one to the next. Frustratingly, many simply aren't up to scratch. They're either outdated or have been designed to be too 'static' by people who don't appreciate that websites can be dynamic and can be used to engage with others.
Why is this important? Well, I like the analogy that a website is like a big billboard. Your advert can be as pretty as you like, but if it's in the middle of a big field then hardly anyone will see it; much better to put it next to a busy road.
My advice is to use a blog. That busy road I mentioned? The traffic comes from search engines and the 'blogosphere'. A blog is really just a type of website that happens to be fantastically search engine-friendly. You can still use static pages for your homepage, biography, contact details and portfolio, but having regularly updated news and other content that people can comment on, link to and discuss is essential.
Personally, I always use Wordpress. In terms of flexibility, features, support, ease of use and appearance I happen to think it's the best out there. There are two flavours: Wordpress - is the free version. With no prior experience your site can be up and running in under 5 minutes Wordpress.org - more complicated (but with more exciting possibilities). You'll need to buy a domain name and some website hosting and you'll also need a little know-how to upload the software to a server.
With Wordpress you can choose your own domain name to start with but it'll be in the format [yourname].wordpress.com. That's ok, but you can buy a domain name quite cheaply that cuts out the 'wordpress' bit and looks even more professional.
That's the 'technical' side, but what should go on this website? As I said, static pages can be used for some basic information about you, contact details and perhaps a portfolio of your work. The blog (or news section if that's a more comfortable concept) can feature any number of topics.
For example, you could talk about:
- what you are working on
- what influences you
- what you like/dislike
- what you aspire to
- what your normal working day consists of
- who you work with and who you'd like to work with
- your achievements
- what you learnt from your mistakes
There are no rules as to what you can and can't write so try out different things. Asking your readers what they'd like to hear about can work well too.
Linking to others
I can't stress enough just how important it is to link to others. Every time you link to someone from your website, a notification is sent to that website and if the owner is paying attention then they will know about it. You'll see why I suggested you talk about other people - it's a great way to raise awareness of yourself, as good as commenting on blogs, in fact.
So, that's your website set up and we've covered some topics to write about, but it's often better to show than to tell, which is where pictures and videos come in.
For example, behind the scenes pictures, videos with fellow artists or colleagues or a quick preview of an exhibition or work in progress could all work well. Show yourself on camera too - bear in mind that many people buy the artist, as much as the art itself, making personality, backstory and context all very important.
All you need now is somewhere to show off all this multimedia goodness. There are many suitable sites but this is what I recommend:
Of course you can upload your portfolio, photos, slideshows and links to other work all on your creativepool profile but here are a few more options:
Photos/flyers/posters - these belong on Flickr. You'll need to sign up for a free Yahoo account as they own this photo sharing service
Videos - upload these to Vimeo (for quality when embedding them on your website) and YouTube (because of the number of people using YouTube)
Documents/scanned reviews/press releases/flyers and posters (again) - use Scribd for these
Presentations - have you done a talk or presentation? Upload your slides to Slideshare.
Once these sites are hosting your content you can embed any of it back on your website. Even better, so can others, so if you're making available interesting examples of your work there's potential for them to be seen by a much bigger audience.
Of course, this is only the beginning. Once you have something in place, how you use it becomes more important. There's no right way (although there are a few wrong ways) to do this so leave room for experimenting and, if in doubt, ask your readers what they want to see from you.
Just don't expect overnight success. Judge your efforts by the quality of your visitors rather than the number of them. Ideally you will be building relationships and reputation, both of which take time but are very valuable as they can translate into sales, clients and offers of work.