Ant Smith

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12 Tips for Marketing and Crowd Funding a Solo Photography Exhibition

Project 269 ran for one week in the Art4Space studios in Stockwell, London. Around 400 people visited in the 40 hours it was open, and in excess of 8 million people heard about it one way or another. The exhibition was fully crowd funded which meant I was able to go ahead with it despite limited personal funds. Hopefully the experience and exposure will lead to more opportunities, time will tell on that front; but since this isn't an uncommon approach for emerging artists and photographers I thought my experiences may prove useful...

Here I want to look at how I used social media to build a following, attract funding and gain exposure with the major broadcasters.

Building a following

Many photographers go to great trouble to ensure their work is protected:

  • perhaps by only putting a portion of it online;

  • adding watermarks;

  • Only uploading low resolution images;

  • using sites that try hard to prohibit downloads;

  • ensuring the metadata includes the copyright information.

None of these approaches are very effective (although I use some of them to a degree), and if we start from a perspective of protecting our rights we risk alienating the audience: "Why isn't my station included?"; "I can hardly see the image because of that ugly watermark"; "It's all pixelated on my Cinema Display".

It's right to use an appropriate degree of protection, but it's important to start from a basis of understanding the audience need. For example, if I worry about protecting my work I'd upload images at something like 900x600 pixels; equivalent to a print size of 3"x2". It's not so bad if they get stolen because they won't look good printed.

But most monitors currently have a 1920x1080 resolution and people want to view images full screen. But that's an equivalent print size of around 6"x4", which is going to look fine as a postcard, or greeting card, or phone skin. You could well imagine an iconic image of London might get ripped off in order to create such products.

But what really is the likelihood and impact of that risk? I don't really want other people making money out of my work, but while I'm a unknown photographer it's unlikely any such thievery will impact my own (meagre) sales. On the other hand, uploading crappy little files is going to impact the experience of my work; is going to make it harder for people to love what I do.

So I applied the principle of putting the audience first and I uploaded reasonable resolution files without any ugly watermarks.

Tip 1: don't be over protective of your work

You want to invite people in, not lock them out.

Another risk with this project was that someone else would get wind of it and complete their own version before I did. As an unknown photographer, being first was important if I were to have any hope of creating a 'news worthy' story (for when I wanted to exhibit the work). So if I thought about myself and my own needs I'd have kept very quiet about the whole project until I'd finished it. But you don't build a following by hiding what you're doing.

And you don't build a following overnight. If I'd finished the shooting then released the whole collection in one go I'd be faced with a long uphill battle to get people interested. Once a person had seen the collection, what would bring them back to look again? Each successful connection with a person might lead to some word of mouth at that time but then they've gone, moved on. Even if it's a great collection and they do return, they're unlikely to share it again because it hasn't changed since they last saw it.

But if I released the images as I made them, over the full 20 months of the shoot, then people would keep coming back (and they did) to see the next instalment. And there would be a reason to keep sharing the work, because it was evolving and growing.

I've said before (in other posts) that the creative process is a journey. The artist goes on a journey as they make the work (it isn't all known and fixed at the start), and it needs to be a journey for the audience too. By involving people with the work as I created it, once it was finished I already had plenty of engaged and interested 'early adopters' who were crucial in then helping to take it to the next level, quickly.

Tip 2: don't be over secretive about your work

Take people on the journey with you.

This approach also allowed me to engage this growing following so that they weren't just consumers, they were participants. I would get messages telling me when something interesting was happening at a given station. If I was finding it hard to chose which shot of a station to use I'd get feedback from them, so they were helping to shape the end product. The work benefitted from many minds. And all those minds had a stake in it as a result. So before I'd even finished I had a whole host of folk helping to share it with genuine enthusiasm - and share it again. And again.

It was beautiful. I almost wish I was smart enough to have planned it that way!

Tip 3: engage your followers

It's not all about you! Give people a reason to feel a part of the work.

During the period of shooting then my approach was to share the work freely, at a good quality, and to let the world know what I was doing. A business savvy agent would probably have been horrified that I was risking the commercial value and first to market possibilities of the project. But if I'd put commercial concerns first I would have had a weaker body of work (that hadn't benefitted from the hive mind) and I'd have finished in isolation with a struggle to get anyone to bother to look at what I'd made. If you want to build a following you have to trust people, give them what they want, and let them participate. You have to avoid being jealous and precious of the work.

Crowd Funding

Once the shooting was complete I wanted to create an exhibition of the work, but I didn't have the personal funds for that. In fact, I've always resisted commercialising my photography except for ensuring it paid for itself. I'd do an occasional commission when I needed a new camera for example.

This approach has ensured two things

  • I've been able to develop my own style, not one that is based on "what sells"

  • I've avoided getting ahead of myself, the kit I've used is kit that I've earned; the quality of my work springs from my capabilities more than those of the camera

I think these are important principles. I didn't want to create a vanity exhibition. I wanted to see the work presented at a level commensurate with the value it could attract. So I decided to try my hand at crowd funding, which seemed viable as I knew I had a following for the project.

Tip 4: don't over invest in the work

Let the work earn its own way.

Initially I resisted going with the big players (Kickstarter, indiegogo etc) because it seemed like all of them had bad press for one reason or another (I was sceptical about some campaigns I'd seen on them). I found a small platform that looked good, but they didn't link with PayPal and that seemed to raise the barrier for donors so I discounted them. Then I made a terrible mistake.

I found a small UK provider that specialised in arts project funding. It seemed ideal. The site was a little quirky while I set the project up, but I thought that was just a set up issue and it wold be fine when running. I was wrong. I was never able to get a picture uploaded, which meant the link looked rubbish whenever I shared it. Worse still, once I'd published the project I wasn't able to change it at all, even though I hadn't received any donations yet. This meant I was stuck with an unachievable high target - and if I didn't meet the target all donations would be returned. I couldn't get responses to support e-mails and it was impossible to track down the founder and discuss any concerns. The target wasn't met and I had to start all over again on indiegogo; having inconvenienced all my most helpful supporters. (I'm not naming the platform I used as I'm sure many others found it just fine. And besides, they've gone out of business now!)

Because you're dealing with other people's money the most important thing with a crowd funding platform is that it just works simply and reliably. Although I don't like the corporate nature of indiegogo, ultimately it's better that I compromise myself and use them than risk inconveniencing my supporters. I wish I'd gone with them in the first place. This mistake cost me over £200 in pledges I wasn't able to get re-committed when I switched platforms, and it added two months to the funding time. Chose your battles!

Tip 5: reliability and simplicity is all that matters from a crowd funding platform

You want to concentrate on your project, not the platform.

I then chose indiegogo because they have flexibility in their funding models. With this project there was a range of possibilities that would effect the budget needed. I wasn't tied to a particular venue, duration or date - so those costs were highly variable. Also, crowd funding wasn't my only revenue stream. I was also making some sales in my online shop. So I didn't want or need to set a fixed target, which this platform supports. It was also possible to keep receiving donations after the main funding cycle, which was useful since some things would be bought last minute.

I set up a range of 'perks' that are supposed to encourage donations. I started at £1 since I knew I had skint friends who'd want to support me, so I wanted to make the burden as small as possible. Then I made sure I had options well spread out, so perks at the £4, £10, £30, £60, £120 and £180 levels. In all cases its important to remember these are primarily donations not sales. As much as possible needs to go to the project (that's what people are supporting) but at the same time they need to feel they're getting something reasonable in return, beyond the good karma - especially if you're asking strangers to support you (and I really didn't want crowd funding to be just begging from friends).

Tip 6: create a range of incentives

And value every pound pledged

I did two things to ensure donations were largely spent on the project, not the perks, but donors still felt very well rewarded.

First, as far as possible, I ensured the give-always were also part of the exhibition. So a donation of £180 meant that the donor got a small metal print, costing around £35. That's quite a large proportion of the donation spent on the perk - BUT the print was first used in the exhibition and then given to the donor. This meant the entire donation supported the exhibition AND the donor received a fairly expensive print, complete with provenance (not just any old print) for their support.

When it came to the smaller donations (£30 and under) it wasn't really possible to spend money on something that contributed to the exhibition which I could then give to the supporter. Bearing in mind I'd been given the money for the exhibition, I kept the cost of the perk low. So a £30 donation came with a £1 greeting card with an image of choice on it. Whilst staying true to the principle of the donation, it seemed a little miserly. But you can make people feel valued in ways that are more effective than simply spending money on them.

I made up 'perk packs' that cost very little money, but took a lot of time to make and were quite personalised.

Everyone who donated got one of these (as well as any perk they were due) and they included:

  • a letter of 'provenance' proving they'd supported me (in case I become famous!)

  • A signed copy of the exhibition programme (a small number from the batch I had to make any way)

  • A 2"x3" colour sticker with one of the images on it (17p printed on my Polaroid PoGo that I already own)

  • And a hand-folded lucky origami crane I made especially for them (5p for a really beautiful piece of origami paper)

This came to a substantial pack despite costing less than 50p to make and I believe people did feel as though their support was appreciated. In fact one kind lady, after receiving her crane, donated another two times.

I think this is another example of how your own needs are best met by serving the needs of others. I was careful to spend the money on the exhibition not the perks (which is the donor's expectation) AND to think of creative ways to show they are appreciated. I didn't just set up a fund and squeeze as much money out of people as I could!

Tip 7: avoid overheads

Don't spend too much on incentives, make people feel valued by your efforts instead

It wasn't a massive crowd funding project, I 'only' raised £1,300. But crucially I raised enough. Also, the average donation was £30 - that seems quite high to me and I think reflects all the attention I paid to building a following and genuinely appreciating the support I was given.

Of course, to be certain my crowd funding wasn't just begging from friends I needed to get some exposure for it. I'd also need to start building a greater awareness of the project so that when the exhibition opened it might attract a few visitors. So when I started the crowd funding project I set about on my 'marketing campaign'.

Gaining Exposure

There were 6 months between starting the crowd funding and open the exhibition.

In that time the project was featured:

  • Twice on the ITN London 6 o'clock news (reach of 8m)

  • Twice in TimeOut magazine (circulation around 300k)

  • Twice on the TimeOut blog, and

  • In a video by The Londonist (30k views)

Which is a phenomenal amount of coverage. Repeated coverage in the same channel may not spread the reach much further than the first report, but it is extremely helpful in making the story memorable. So how did I get this level of press attention?

First of all I made sure the link to the crowd funding project was as memorable as possible, without having to undergo any technical set-up or committing to buying a domain, by using the bitly.com link shortening service and customising the short URL to http://bit.ly/FundProject269. Not an ideal or elegant solution but certainly easy and good enough.

Tip 8: make a memorable link

Use the customise option that bitly provides

Of course I'd already built up a following for the project so as soon as I posted this it was getting plenty of shares. When I shared it myself with individuals I made a point of asking them to help me out by sharing it further. I never directly asked anyone I sent the link to donate, only to help me by sharing it further. They could decide for themselves if they wanted to, or could, donate. It's another example of how I always tried to respect others, to avoid putting my needs first. All the received wisdom is to badger your friends and family into supporting you with cash. But this is utterly unsustainable, borders on creating a vanity project, and robs your work of the chance to really prove its value. I wanted people to support the project, not me.

There's an awful lot of bad advice available when you start a crowd funding campaign. I was inundated with passive aggressive messages telling me that I would FAIL if I didn't spend a hundred quid on specialist services to get my project funded. I suspect some of these services might be quite useful, but I wasn't looking to get-rich-quick here and I detested the tone of these contacts so I went it alone. Which meant I had some serious work to do.

Tip 9: you can't buy good press

Well maybe you can, but not on a budget.

I already had lots of shares happening on Facebook so I concentrated on Twitter. Everybody says that you should tweet lots, but my tweets only get seen by up to 800 people (the number of followers I have) and every tweet goes to that same group.

So rather than simply sending tweet after tweet I thought about who would have lots of followers interested in my project. So I searched for people who were tweeting about London or the London Underground and who had a large following. People following, for example, The Londonist, were certainly interested in what was happening in London - if I could reach them my tweets would be very well targeted. So I would reply to any Londonist tweets about the tube asking them to retweet the (short) link to my project. My reply would be seen by others engaged with the original tweet, and if I could get a retweet it would be seen by many of the 600k people following the Londonist.

I did this with several influential bloggers/tweeters, all of the rail unions, and with various TfL Twitter accounts. I did get a number of requested retweets and my tweets reached an audience much broader than my own account could ever have managed.

Tip 10: target influential bloggers and trending stories

Don't just tweet, hold conversations

But getting noticed by these 'big' accounts isn't easy; there's so much traffic on those accounts that messages quickly get buried. So I used this tactic constantly, sending a dozen or more replies several times a day. Each one specific to the context of the original tweet, so that I wasn't simply spamming. This sounds like a lot of work! But the thing about microblogging (tweeting) is that you can do it in micro moments. I would do a bit of Twitter work while walking to the tube, during a cigarette break at work, over lunch etc... I fitted it in around my life using what would otherwise be short five or ten minute stints of doing nothing else.

Tip 11: microblog in micro moments

Try to make tweeting your project a part of your daily rituals

As well as looking for influential accounts I could ask to retweet my project I looked out for trending stories. One week during my campaign we all suffered a tube strike. This meant there was a lot of stories about the tube flying around and I was sure to join the conversation about them all. During this time researchers were actively looking for an interesting angle on the story and my project got noticed by the ITN London 6 o'clock news team which led to them inviting me in to the studio to talk about my plans. As ever with news stories everything was last minute and I had to shuffle my work calendar at very short notice, but I agreed to the interview first and then worried about how to make it possible. If I'd dithered there's a strong possibility I'd have missed the opportunity, and then of course wouldn't have had the follow up interview when the exhibition opened either. It's important to know when to say "yes".

Without feeling like you have to compromise or pander to the demands of the media, it's worthwhile being flexible to secure their involvement. For the second ITN report they wanted the installation complete four hours earlier than I had planned. I knew this was impossible, but rather than giving a blank 'no' I felt we could get close enough to done. So I said we'd start earlier and try to get it finished in time. This was enough, the reporter came down. In the event we weren't finished in time but because he'd come along he was able to make a very workable (in fact excellent) video. He went away to edit it while we finished the installation and then we sent our own photos over at 5pm to be used in the broadcast. On this occasion it was impossible to meet the demands of the news team, but rather than saying that we adapted a little bit and made it work out. The best creative results spring from saying 'yes'.

Finally, once you start getting some pay off for all the effort to promote your work, remember to follow up with people to at least say thanks. When you're busy with a project it's easy to let this slip, but it's not only good manners, it's part of maintaining good relationships. This makes the difference between a campaign and a one-off story. By being prepared to say 'yes', by creating honest and thoughtful interactions, and by following up after the fact I was able to forge good links with the people behind the media channels. This is why I had several follow-up reports. I had to e-mail one reporter three times to get the second story published, but I was able to do that without seeming to be a nuisance because I'd kept my contacts warm, genuine and friendly. I didn't just seek to use them, I thought about their needs and how we could work together to make an engaging story. This is much, much more powerful than any number of pay for marketing services you'll be offered along the way.

Tip 12: say 'yes' and 'thank you'

Don't be a user, try to be flexible and appreciative

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