Don’t Work for the Promise of Exposure

Artists, creatives, and the ever-evolving exposure con.

*big sigh* I’m feeling sassy.

I try to be grateful for every opportunity that comes my way, but some opportunities aren’t actually opportunities at all. Especially when the ‘E’ word is dropped into the conversation.

Exposure. I have a love/hate relationship with this concept.

Artists at every level have been fed an exposure pitch, and many artists (including me, too many times to count) fall for it, because exposure is something artists need to reach their goals as creators. More eyes on your work equals more potential for success, right? Yes, of course–but also no, because it has to be the right kind of exposure. I’ll talk more about this later.

First, what does an exposure pitch look like?

Exposure pitches comes in all shapes and sizes. Basically, someone will ask you, a creative person, to provide a good or a service to them, either for personal or commercial use without any intention of paying you, because your work will be seen by a new audience. Sometimes, these arrangements can be beneficial. Sometimes this is the start of a partnership. A lot of times, it’s just a waste of your time and resources.

Creatives of all kinds hear these opportunities. For example:

Graphic designers might hear, “Will you design my business cards/logo/product packaging/website for free? I’ll give you credit and tell everyone to use you for their graphics.”

Musicians get, “I’m hosting an event and would love to have performers. I can’t pay you, but there should be a good turn out.”

Artists, “I’m opening a new office downtown and there’s a huge wall behind the reception desk. I’d like to display your work. You can put your business cards on the desk for anyone interested. No, I don’t want to buy it.”

This is a very short list of examples. I bet you have your own experience with someone offering you exposure as payment. (Want to leave your stories in the comments below while commenting is open?)

Exposure is not payment. Your skills have value.

Exposure itself isn’t a bad thing. Exposure is great! It is what allows artists to find new customers. I love exposure! What I don’t love is when people/businesses/opportunists think exposure is a replacement for money.

Exposure is not money. Exposure does not guarantee money will find you. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Exposure by itself is not a fair trade for your goods and/or services. Sure, sometimes exposure pays off and you get access to the right audience, the right buyer, the right connections that eventually lead to a sale, a commission, a professional relationship, etc., but exposure is not a guarantee for any of these things.

Exposure is a gamble. Maybe you will get something out of it, but most of the time the person offering you the exposure will get the better end of the deal. When an exposure opportunity presents itself, make sure it’s the right kind.

What is the right kind of exposure?

Recently, I had someone pitch that I “donate” one of my pieces to fill the window of an empty storefront inside of a mall until they get a new tenant to rent the space. Had they asked me four years ago, I would have jumped on this free exposure and been excited. My response today was “You can rent a piece from me.”

The store front would have gotten plenty of foot traffic. There would have been a lot of new eyes on my work. My name and social media info would have been displayed. Maybe someone would have wanted to buy that piece. Who knows, I could have missed an opportunity by passing on the offer, but I’m definitely not losing sleep over it for two reasons.

Reason One: They approached me. I would have been providing them a service (filling the window to make it look more attractive). I would have taken the item out of my online store (where it has a higher chance of selling) and driven it to the mall for installation, and I would have received no guaranteed return from my time and efforts.

Artists need to stop thinking everyone is doing them a favor and start asking themselves what service they are providing. Hanging art to make a business look more attractive is not a favor to me. I would be adding value and should be paid, but why would a business go buy art when artists will jump at the opportunity to provide it for free? Artists need to stop agreeing to this.

Reason Two: This was the wrong kind of exposure. It was the wrong setting, the wrong context, and the wrong audience for my work. My art is not a pair of shoes or a candle at a home goods store. It’s not an impulse buy, nor a mass produced consumer item. People are not going to the mall to look at or buy art. Had I agreed to take exposure as payment, I find it unlikely anything would have come of it.

It’s important to know who your audience is, what you are selling, and where it belongs. The right kind of exposure will connect you with an audience that overlaps with your target audience. Hanging your art in a dentist’s office might get eyes on your work–but of all the people going in there, how many people a.) like buying art b.) like your art and c.) are actually thinking about buying art at the same moment they are nervous-sweating about the filling they are about to get?

If you are going to work for free, focus on the right exposure, but even then you should plan on getting no real benefit. Unless a payment is discussed ahead of the work you put in, you need to set expectations low.

Case in point: When I was in California, I was asked to do live-painting at a two day art festival as entertainment. I could display some of my work behind me while I painted, but I couldn’t sell my work since artists who applied to sell at the event were charged a few hundred dollars for a booth. I thought this was fair, and brought a stack of business cards to hand out to anyone who stopped by to watch me paint. I was happy to trade my time in exchange for the exposure, because this was the perfect place to find art buyers. Or so I thought. I thought this audience was my ideal audience. It was a well known fine art event in a Southern California city known for having money. My brain went: “Alicia Keys bought a house here! I’m gonna make so many lucrative connections! Yay, commissions! Sell all the art!”

Spoiler alert, I did not sell all the art, or book any commissions. I passed out some business cards. Gained a few followers on Instagram. Sold one print off my website. Got knocked into while I painted, and I had multiple people let their dogs pee on the little patch of grass a foot from where I sat. I spent 20 hours between two days to make $30ish dollars. Even when exposed to the right audience, things might not go as you hope.

I’m not saying don’t work for exposure, but never work for exposure alone.

Don’t skip on every non-paying gig that presents itself to you. I’m not saying exposure isn’t worth as a whole. I’ve spent a lot of time doing things that didn’t make me money, but I’ve learned a lot about what I should and shouldn’t do in the future to find success as a result. If you have never done what someone is presenting to you, then you don’t know the outcome. In that case, the experience alone might be worth it.

I wouldn’t take back most of the things I’ve done in the pursuit of finding success as an artist, but I can definitely say that I am getting more protective of my time and I’m less willing to work for no guaranteed return.

Not all exposure pitches suck.

When you are just entering the creative world, every experience is valuable. Exposure is necessary for success, and it’s not easy to know what opportunities are worth exploring. When someone approaches me with an exposure pitch, I ask myself a few questions:

What do you have to lose? Time? Money? Evaluate your risks and ask yourself if you are okay getting jack squat in return for the investment you put forward. I set expectations low and spend as little money as I can to prepare.

What do you have to gain? The possibilities are endless, but what’s the probable outcome? Be as objective as you can here, but sometimes you never know until you try.

Who are you working with? Is this a new company? A potential future partnership? Another artist or creative that has just as much or little to give as you do? If you are approached by someone who has little to give, then maybe exposure is a satisfactory payment for you. I’ve asked musician friends to provide content for my videos on IG in the past. I wasn’t exactly rolling in money at the time, and could really only offer my audience as payment, but working with other creative people is a great experience on its own.

Now, If you are approached by a big brand or an established business that can afford to pay you, then think twice about that exposure pitch.

What audience will you reach? Designing a free tattoo for your high school acquaintance won’t generate much exposure for you. Creating art for a celebrity with 1.5 million followers on IG on the other hand is a different story (but they can afford to pay you…). Know your audience.

What can you learn? Will it be fun for you? New experiences are important. Take responsible risks and try new things. Maybe just for the hell of it.

Exposure doesn’t mean squat without a call to action.

If you agreed to work for exposure, once you get an audience’s attention, what are you going to do with it? If you don’t give direction, you are wasting that exposure. If you are displaying at an event, make sure people know they can buy your work. Hanging your art at a business? Make very clear signage, and give directions of how to buy your work. Live painting somewhere? Bring a butt-ton of business cards and tell people how they can support you. When I did this, I should have put a big sign up that said FOLLOW @MESSYEVERAFTER or OPEN FOR COMMISSIONS. If I ever do live painting again, I will do it differently.

Don’t waste your audience’s attention once you’ve got it. Figure out your call to action and maximize the use of the exposure someone has given you.

Maybe you won’t make money. Maybe you’ll learn the hard way as I have so many times that exposure is often a con to get you to provide goods and services for free. In that case, you will still have gained something. Maybe you’ll find yourself writing a blog post about it years later to help other artists. #worthit

Know and declare your worth.

This is something that every artist will come to with time, but artists need to set aside their desperation to be validated as creators and start seeing themselves as businesses and established creators. Opportunities for exposure are great, but don’t work for free when you provide a valuable good or service. Don’t work for free when you can spend your time on paying clients.

If you take anything away from this post, artists and creatives as a whole need to start declaring their work isn’t free. Put a dollar amount on the work you do. Those who respect your work will pay it. Those who don’t aren’t worth your effort. Those who simply can’t afford what you are worth might deserve your generosity if you deem the work is worthy.

***

Please leave questions and comments below while commenting is open or reach out to me directly through Instagram or email. I’d love to hear from you! Make sure to sign up for my email list below to never miss a blog post. New posts are published every week (kind of). And if you’d like to see more content like this in the future, consider becoming a Patron of mine! (See details below.)

-Kelly

@messyeverafter

P.S. You probably know by now that I am here to help artist’s with these posts. If you need help with your online branding, Instagram account, or just want a creative accountability coach, then check out my consulting services. You can easily add a session to my online calendar now.

Read more about my consulting services and book an appointment today.

Do want to help me create more blog content? I want to keep providing content like this for free, but I need your help. If you enjoy my blog posts and gain any inspiration from the content I put out there, please consider becoming a Patron of Messy Ever After on Patreon. Pledging just $1 a month enables me to keep helping artists like you. Plus, you get extra little perks!

Further Reading:

What is Your Call to Action?

If you don’t have one, you should change that now.

Calls to action. Do you have one? Do you have multiple? What is a call to action? If you are a creative person trying to make it online, you need to be aware of this concept. Basically, a call to action is a command for your audience. It’s the sales pitch on social media captions. It’s the long ramble YouTubers give at the end of their videos. A call to action is any action your audience performs that will benefit you as a creator/business. 

Like, subscribe, turn on notifications, visit my website, become a patron on Patreon, support this content with a donation, follow the link in my bio, visit my store, buy merch, buy art, buy something else, share this post, bookmark it, visit my blog, sign up for my email list, and so on.

Calls to action are very important. Sometimes they are subtle. Sometimes they are in your face. Whatever form they take, you need to be aware of how to use them on your audience.

Why do you need a call to action?

It is not enough to just be on social media. It is not enough to just get a follower’s attention. Yes, you can attract new followers by simply sharing your art, but will you get art sales? Will you generate income or grow your email list if you are not giving your audience direction? You can, but using a call to action will increase your odds for success.

I remember when my Instagram following started to grow, I was filled with excitement when I got my first DMs asking, “Is that piece for sale?” It was a great feeling, but the fact a follower had to message me and ask this meant it wasn’t obvious my work was for sale. I wasn’t effectively communicating my call to action, and I was potentially missing out on sales as a consequence.

I got my audience’s attention, but had no idea what I should do with it after that. A call to action is the next step.

What is your call to action?

What do you want from your audience? What is your main focus? If you want to make art sales, then create calls to action that point your audience in that direction. If you just want new followers, then your call to action will come in the form of great content alone. (Please, please don’t use “follow me for more content like this” or anything of the sort in your social media captions. Also, do not drop unsolicited calls to follow you in strangers’ DMs or post comments. That is a waste of time and energy. Focus on creating great content.)

Every creator/creative business will have slightly different calls to action. It’s up to you to determine what you are pushing to your audience. Every social media profile and post/caption are opportunities for a call to action.

What do calls to action look like?

Calls to action in social media bios:

Instagram/Facebook/Tiktok/Twitter bios should always have a call to action and a link to whatever action you are asking your audience to perform. Focus on one, maybe two calls to action. Make sure your call to action is your main goal as a creator online at the moment.

All of these calls to action should be made clear when your audience taps on the link in your bio.

Examples:

  1. Commissions open, Email me at ____
  2. Join my email list
  3. Read latest blog post
  4. All art for sale
  5. Shop my store
  6. Sign up for my e-course
  7. View tutorials on YouTube
Hard Sells:

Hard sell calls to action get right to the point. Introduce an attractive piece of visual content to get your audience’s attention, and then direct them to your desired action immediately.

Examples:

  1. New pieces are in my shop! Follow the link in my bio to claim one.
  2. Hey! Follow the link in my bio to read my latest blog post.
  3. My commission schedule is now open for the month of May. DM me now to get on calendar.
Soft Sells:

Soft sells are less aggressive and open with something related to your call to action, but they don’t demand the performance of the action. Think of soft sells as just showing up and providing information to those who might be interested. I try to make the majority of my social posts soft sells.

Examples:

  1. This piece of art was inspired by *insert backstory to your art*. I am excited to finally put this piece into the world. If it speaks to you, it is currently available for sale. Follow the link in my bio and tap on the Shop button.
  2. Lately I have been thinking about *insert topic your audience might be interested in*, and this inspired me to write a new blog post. You can find it through the link in my bio.

The benefit to a soft sell is that it can double as a conversation starter, which leads me to the next kind of call to action.

Conversation Starters:

A call to action doesn’t need to focus on sales, nor does it need to focus on actions that benefit your tangible business goals. A call to action can be a call for conversation, a call for community, or a call for stories. This does two things. 1) It helps you get more online exposure as your posts get more engagement. And 2) It helps you connect with your audience while reinforcing your brand.

Social media is a popularity contest in a lot of ways. Posts that get more engagement get seen by more people. A call to action in the form of a question that can lead to conversation in the comments can then boost your exposure to a wider audience.

Think about the topics that relate to your art, your creative process, your brand, yourself, etc.. Then write a caption where you share a bit of your own thoughts before you turn the focus on your audience. Give them an opportunity to talk about their own experiences. Get to know your audience and let them get to know you.

How many calls to action can you have?

You can have a variety of calls to action. I have many that are tailored around all the things I do in my business. (Like sell my art, write blog posts, support my Patreon page, do consulting sessions, commissions, corporate licensing, and more.) The areas that make me the most money are the calls to action I focus on more often. Seems obvious, right? It’s not at first. You never know exactly what will be your biggest stream of income until you try it, promote it, and see what happens.

When you are first starting out, I suggest focusing on one money-oriented call to action, and a couple of community-oriented calls to action. If you want to work mostly on commission, then push that call to action most often using hard sells, soft sells, and then give your audience a break with conversation starters.

As your business grows, you can start introducing more calls to action that cater to your diversified income streams. Since I have multiple calls to action, I created a landing page for the link in my IG bio with buttons that I point to with each call to action I use in captions. (ex. New art is in my shop. Follow the link in my bio and tap on New Arrivals.)

What if your followers get tired of you selling to them?

If you want to sell your art, then you need to see yourself as a business. That means you have to think like a business too. You have a product to offer and you are online to sell it. Your followers should be following you because they enjoy your art and your brand. A true follower won’t get annoyed by your calls to action if a) they genuinely enjoy what you do and b) you offer quality content around your calls to action to keep them engaged.

To keep your audience from getting burned out on calls to action, stagger your use of hard sells, soft sells, and conversation starters. Don’t just bombard your audience with hard sells like “This piece is available for sale. Go to my website now to buy it,” on every caption you post.

How often should you use a call to action?

You should use a call to action in almost every social media post you create and your social profile bios should always have a call to action. Like I said above, don’t do a hard sell every time you post, but at the very least, plan on using a conversational call to action.

If you have your audience’s attention, don’t waste it.

***

Do you have a clear idea of your call to action now? If you don’t, I am always here! You can easily add a consulting session to my online calendar now.

Please leave questions and comments below while commenting is open or reach out to me directly through Instagram or email. I’d love to hear from you! Make sure to sign up for my email list below to never miss a blog post. New posts are published every week (kind of). And if you’d like to see more content like this in the future, consider becoming a Patron of mine!

-Kelly

@messyeverafter

P.S. You probably know by now that I am here to help artist’s with these posts. If you need help with your online branding, Instagram account, or just want a creative accountability coach, then check out my consulting services.

Read more about my consulting services and book an appointment today.

Do want to help me create more blog content? I want to keep providing content like this for free, but I need your help. If you enjoy my blog posts and gain any inspiration from the content I put out there, please consider becoming a Patron of Messy Ever After on Patreon. Pledging just $1 a month enables me to keep helping artists like you. Plus, you get extra little perks!

Further Reading:

You Can’t Be Trusted To Judge Your Own Art

I have been, and will probably always be my own worst critic. I default to thinking everything I do sucks. My art, my writing, my face, and whatever else I can think of. My inner critic says it all blows. My inner critic is an asshole, and it should not be trusted. If you have an asshole inner critic too, then you my friend cannot be trusted to judge your own art. Or anything else you create for that matter.

I can be somewhat objective and evaluate the technical aspects of my art. I can tell you if I am lacking negative space and balance. I can tell you when I need more contrast or need to rework different forms. This is basic critiquing and every artist should learn how to recognize and manipulate design principles. What we cannot be trusted to do is judge the objective value of our work.

Is it good enough to show the world? Is it good enough to sell? Is it straight garbage to add to the dumpster fire of my life? Things like that. Most of the time, the judgment is wrong and biased.

I have created work that I hated, and it sold immediately. I have created work that I thought was amazing, and it sits in my studio for years. I’ve learned that the accuracy of my judgments needs improvement–but it’s been easier to just stop trying to judge my work at all.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

When I was writing my novel a couple of months ago, I kept hearing this nagging voice in my head that was all like “You’ve never written a novel. You will not be good at this. This book will be terrible. Who are you to think you can do this?” Before I accepted I was an artist, that voice said the same thing about my art.

Happily, I ignored that voice and continued writing (I’m working through third draft edits at the moment. Jury is still out on whether or not this thing does in fact suck major donkey balls–but that’s not my biggest concern.) While I was taking a break from writing, I googled “How to know if you suck at writing” and came across a video explaining the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

“The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Essentially, low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability leads them to overestimate their own capabilities.” -Verywellmind

This filled me with hope. If I believe I am amazing at what I am doing, then that might actually mean I am worse than I think–so if I believe I suck, does that mean I am actually better than I think? Maybe. I might just have the ability to recognize my own incompetence and lack of skill. I might not be good–but I have the power to recognize that and try to get better.

You have to believe you suck just enough to keep you moving forward, but not suck so much that it paralyzes you.

Judgment Paralysis:

Past me would judge my work so harshly that 1) I didn’t show it to the world and 2) I let myself get so discouraged that I stopped creating. (I did this over and over again with writing most of all, but art as well.)

If you do either, then you have work to do. Dial back the judgment. Your internal critic needs to be quieted.

Grow while recognizing weaknesses:

Current me knows that my art isn’t the greatest, my writing could definitely still use a lot of work, and perfection is unattainable, but growth is always a good goal.

You’re not going to be perfect. You’re not going to be the best. Just make art and keep moving forward.

F**K It. Put it out into the world.

Every day I work on art, I still think 75% of the time “Well, this is garbage.” But I still finish the work and put it on social media and in my online store.

I have trained myself to not give shit if my work is good or bad. I make art that I enjoy. I put it into the world. Then I go make more art. I repeat that cycle and hope some of it sells. When I get tired of art, I go write. I don’t think I am great at writing, but I keep doing it. Maybe I am the worst, but that doesn’t matter, because I’ll only get better at what I do the more I do it.

Make the art. Put it out into the world. Let everyone else decide its value. But, if they do think it sucks, f**k ’em, because the value of art is subjective. Really, nobody can be trusted to judge your art objectively, but especially not you.

In summary:

Don’t judge your work. Recognize your weaknesses, and keep practicing. If you do judge your work, don’t let that stop you from creating or putting it out into the world. And if you think you’re the best f***ing artist that ever existed, then you probably do suck at what you do, but high five for being confident! Keep putting that art into the world!

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

***

Please leave questions and comments below while commenting is open or reach out to me directly through Instagram or email. I’d love to hear from you! Make sure to sign up for my email list below to never miss a blog post. New posts are published every week (kind of). And if you’d like to see more content like this in the future, consider becoming a Patron of mine! (See details below.)

-Kelly

@messyeverafter

P.S. You probably know by now that I am here to help artist’s with these posts. If you need help with your online branding, Instagram account, or just want a creative accountability coach, then check out my consulting services. You can easily add a session to my online calendar now.

Read more about my consulting services and book an appointment today.

Do want to help me create more blog content? I want to keep providing content like this for free, but I need your help. If you enjoy my blog posts and gain any inspiration from the content I put out there, please consider becoming a Patron of Messy Ever After on Patreon. Pledging just $1 a month enables me to keep helping artists like you. Plus, you get extra little perks!

Further Reading: