Making great art. Getting discovered. Going viral. Millions of people seeing and buying your work. Money. Fame. Recognition. Respect. Love…
As an artist, my ultimate dream has always been to entertain my own audience; a dedicated audience who craves my work, my style, my personality, my brand. Marketing guru Seth Godin calls it “tribe-building” (Godin 3). In studying change management systems, I came across a quote by Dr. David Cooperrider: “Human systems grow in the direction of their deepest and most frequent inquiries” (Cooperrider 21). I believe that the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our questions. After my first feature film failed to recoup it’s investment, I realized that my narrative filmmaking practice was not sustainable. But it prompted a question that took me on an epic journey of personal growth and self-discovery: How do I create a sustainable flourishing model around my art practice? As Trinity says when she first meets Neo in The Matrix, “It’s the question that drives us.”
Because of the space within which I work, I have been fortunate to observe many entrepreneurs and internet marketers at work. It is fascinating to see how they create sustainability through the creation and distribution of their own content. Just like artists, these creative entrepreneurs have their own style or personality, they have a specific practice or vocation, they explore subjects that interest them, and they create their own work, content, media, etc.
Contrary to what I learned in the traditional art world, I was surprised to find that there are so many ways to make money around one’s work. Learning from entrepreneurs like author Hal Elrod, musician Brotha James, video creator Brian Johnson, artist Austin Kleon, photographer Chase Jarvis, podcaster Pat Flynn, podcaster John Lee Dumas, author Robert Kiyosaki, self-publishing author Chandler Bolt, author James Altucher, filmmaker Jeff Hays, speaker Sean Stephenson… I’ve been able to learn how to consistently make great work, build an audience, and monetize that audience.
So how do I build my own audience like this? How do you build your own audience? How can I bring this wisdom from the personal development, online marketing, and entrepreneurship worlds to help other artists build an audience and create sustainability around their work? These are the questions I’ve found myself asking while hanging around this world.
It was December 2014. San Diego, CA. Still beautiful and 70 degrees. I stood in awe as 300 fired-up entrepreneurs waited anxiously at the doors of a beautiful hotel ballroom. Music was bumping inside. The energy was electric with anticipation. As soon as the doors opened, everybody rushed in, racing for the best seats. It was Hal Elrod’s first event ever. I had met Hal Elrod a few years earlier while shooting my first film. Soon after, he hired me for some video work, and became one of my biggest clients. I was honored when he asked me to document his first event. It was cool to see his organization grow over time and I couldn’t believe how successful his first event was. How did he create an explosive demand to fill an event with 300 fired up fans waiting at the door in anticipation? Hal was the first to teach me about a concept known in the internet marketing world as “platform building” otherwise known as “list-building”….
The term “platform” was most famously coined by Michael Hyatt in his book, Platform; Get Noticed in a Noisy World, who became the first “guru” on the subject of blogging. “Very simply, a platform is the thing you stand on to get heard. It’s your stage. But unlike a stage in the theater, today’s platform is not built of wood or concrete or perched on a grassy hill. Today’s platform is built of people. Contacts. Connections. Followers” (Hyatt 2). This platform can be in the form of page likes, subscriptions, followers, e-mail list, or old school phone numbers or addresses; however you are able to reach out to people. The idea is that the bigger your platform, the bigger your reach/impact, and the bigger your potential income.
My question then shifted: How does an artist build a large platform in a loud and noisy world?
“For artists, the great problem to solve is how to get oneself noticed.” – Honoré de Balzac
When I pitched the idea for The Miracle Morning Movie to Hal Elrod, based off his best-selling book of the same title, he was intrigued at first. It took about a year and a half to finally convince him, but once he was convinced, it was full speed ahead. For about a year, I was blessed with the experience of traveling the world to interview some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs for the film. As an artist with a goal of creating a sustainable art practice, I got way more education than I could have ever imagined. I interviewed a lot of amazing people, but the first day of interviews is still branded in my memory forever. That day in San Diego, Hal and I interviewed six awesome entrepreneurs, including Pat Flynn (Smart Passive Income), John Lee Dumas (Entrepreneur on Fire podcast, one of the top podcasts on iTunes), Chandler Bolt (Self-Publishing School), and Andrew Ferebee (Knowledge for Men podcast). There are definitely some major stars in the film, but it was Chandler and Andrew who resonated with me most because they were younger than me and already building their empires. Andrew went on to make multiple five figures per month helping young men relate better to women. Chandler went on to launch his Self-Publishing school teaching new authors how to self-publish their first book, which made $1.2mil in the first year of business. Throughout the production of the film, I’ve seen countless other entrepreneurs do the same.
There are so many ways to build your platform, and everybody has different advice. Michael Hyatt focuses on very specific tactics like “Don’t hire a proofreader,” “Use a blog post template,” “Write posts faster,” “Promote your older posts,” etc. Hal Elrod taught me the value of “squeeze-pages” or “opt-in pages” designed to collect e-mails by offering something valuable for free. Jeff Walker, known for his book Launch, focuses on audience-building through the pre-prelaunch, prelaunch, launch, and post-launch of your product. Scott Kirsner’s book Fans, Friends, and Followers, focuses on leveraging the power of the internet for relationship-building. But on that first day of interviews, it was Andrew Ferebee who introduced me to Russell Brunson’s book DotCom Secrets, which focuses on list-building as a means to the end of closing the sale. After studying thousands of sales funnels as a kid, Russell explains traditional marketing paradigms with four simple questions: (1.) Who is your dream client? (2.) Where can you find them? (3.) What bait will you use to attract them? (4.) What result do you want to give them? These simple questions are based on traditional marketing knowledge that you’d learn in any marketing or business class.
Regardless of what advice you follow, the two most important things to understand are (1.) your voice and (2.) your audience. The rest will sort itself out.
Again, the question morphed: How do you pinpoint your artistic voice and audience? The immediate answer that arises is “daily practice,” because practice makes perfect.
But in the business world, it’s called “content marketing.”
I believe it was Bill Gates who said “Content is King.” Not sure why he would be the one to say that, and I’m not sure why we should listen to him, but it certainly resonates. Instead of reading or looking at images, billions of people watch their favorite movies and TV shows everyday. Watching has become part of our daily lives because it somehow taps into our natural human tendencies; it is visual, it moves, it is emotional, it is relaxing, even hypnotizing. Storytelling is how we’ve been communicating and learning for thousands of years, ever since we were able to draw on cave walls (as early as 30,000 years ago). And the most effective way to tell stories is through moving images. If an image is worth a thousand words, then I wonder how many words a moving image is worth? It is no wonder that when the television was first invented in 1927, the government supported and even helped fund the research and development of this box that could bring moving images into homes. They found that moving images had hypnotic effects on the brain, making people more docile and complacent, which motivated them to invest in utilizing broadcast television as the “primary medium for molding public opinion” (Human Resources Documentary: Social Engineering in the 20th Century, 2010).
As a young filmmaker, I was fascinated by the idea of YouTube, and began studying how people interact with videos online. In a 2009 Content Guide published by YouTube, they relayed what they had learned that year. I remember it very clearly: “Consistent audience requires consistent content.” So it seems the key to building an audience is to consistently publish content.
Content Marketing has been around since 1895 when John Deere published a magazine called The Furrow with a goal of adding consistent value to farmers – value in the form of education, networking, latest innovations, entertainment, anything that farmers might enjoy. Of course, since the magazine was published by a tractor company, their end goal was to create a marketing channel in which they could place ads for their own tracts to sell. But today, because of the internet and social media, it has become the one and only way to market oneself. Marketing experts are saying traditional advertising is DEAD. Free must be a part of every business plan just to get attention. Why content marketing? When you “drip” valuable content consistently, it keeps you fresh in the mind of your community, builds trust, builds relationship, builds brand, builds awareness, and creates an expectation of authority. You become the authority figure in your field if you consistently educate, entertain, or add value to your audience. You become the first person they think of when it comes to your practice, whether it be artistic or business. In marketing, this is called “brand positioning”: the process by which you position yourself, not in the marketplace or on the shelf, but within a psychological niche inside the mind of the consumer. But it is difficult. You must do it CONSISTENTLY. Remember, consistent audience requires consistent content. Like it’s a disciplined job.
In his NY Times best-selling book Steal Like an Artist, artist Austin Kleon writes, “The Secret: Do good work and share it with people” (Kleon, 74). Simple. Austin is a great example of an artist who has very clearly defined his voice and audience. He describes himself as “a writer who draws,” and his two NY-Times best-selling books, Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work, are written for artists trying to find their way in this noisy world. The content he shares consistently on his blog has a very specific aesthetic and message; it’s a visual form of word art, where what is written is just as important as what is blacked out.
Austin’s not-so-secret formula: “It’s a two step process. Step one, ‘do good work,’ is incredibly hard. There are no shortcuts. Make stuff every day. Know you’re going to suck for a while. Fail. Get better. Step two, ‘share it with people,’ was really hard up until about ten years ago or so. Now, it’s very simple: ‘Put your stuff on the internet.’” (Kleon 79). There is an art to making great art. There may not be an art to pressing a button to share it, but there is definitely an art to sharing it intelligently....
TIME & SPACE
How often do you share? That’s really up to you. “You want hearts, not eyeballs. Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you” (Kleon 129) or how pure your water is. But Austin suggests what he calls a “daily dispatch.” “A daily dispatch is even better than a résumé or a portfolio because it shows what we’re working on right now” (Kleon 48). My favorite example is John Lee Dumas’s, Entrepreneur on Fire podcast on iTunes. He saw a need to be filled for a daily podcast. There were weekly podcast, biweekly podcasts, triweekly podcasts, but no daily podcasts. So he was the first one to publish a podcast episode everyday. Now he’s one of the top podcasts on iTunes. Why does that work? People (especially entrepreneurs whom are JLD’s niche audience) run daily, drive to work daily, or do some kind of daily routine for about half an hour, and his episodes are always about half an hour. Regardless of the frequency, it must be consistent. “Building a strong relationship with your audience online requires some sort of regular, predictable pace of communication. Just as your relationship with your best friend would fade if you decided not to call” (Kirsner 14).
Which platform do you choose to share from? Again, that’s up to you. “The form of what you share doesn’t matter. Your daily dispatch can be anything you want – a blog post, an email, a tweet, a YouTube video, or some other little it of media…. Social media sites are the perfect place to share daily updates. Filmmakers hang out on YouTube or Vimeo. Businesspeople, for some strange reason, love LinkedIn. Writers love Twitter. Visual artists tend to like Tumblr, Instagram, or Facebook” (Kleon 51). “It’s not necessary to have more than one solid place where fans can find your work and keep up with your career,” but “the best platform is your own website with your own web address, since that gives you the most control over how you look” (Kirsner 13).
THE WATER CYCLE
The way I see it is that platform-building is a matter of harnessing and directing the flow of energy. Understanding the physics behind energy, The Law of Conservation of Energy states that the total energy in any given system remains constant; it cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed to another form. This idea makes artists into alchemists, transmuting energy from one form to another. If you’ve ever been to Cafe Gratitude, you know what I mean. Every Cafe Gratitude location is a magical place where food, gratitude, health, and love are transmuted into money. The Engelhart family (founders of Cafe Gratitude) in their manifesto Sacred Commerce, describes creative entrepreneurs as “‘merchant priests,’ referring to a past and present lineage of ‘financial alchemists’ transforming the world through dedication to intentional enterprise” (Engelhart 1). I like to think of this energy as a liquid, fluid, flowing like a river. It can run thick, rapid, strong like the Colorado, or light like a local stream. It can explode like a flash flood! It can dry up and become a barren ravine. If list-building is a means to the end of sustainability, eventually all energy needs to be converted into money. I see money simply as the most universal form of energy. If energy cannot be created or destroyed, then this must mean that energy cannot be received without giving, and cannot be given without receiving. So the key is to jumpstart the process by first giving energy, forcing the laws of physics to bring energy back to you. An e-mail address is a physical manifestation of that energy. Other manifestations of this energy can include a like, a subscription, content, and eventually money.
Because I think of it as harnessing the flow of a liquid, I like to use the water cycle to illustrate the internet marketing model of list-building. This water cycle starts with the clouds in the sky. Clouds are your content. The more clouds you make, the more it rains traffic. The lake or reservoir is your marketing channel where all your rain (traffic) is captured. Traditional marketing channels are things like TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, anyplace you can advertise to people. The larger the lake or marketing channel, the more people it reaches, and the more expensive it is to tap into. Scott Kirsner, who documented how hundreds of artists were using the internet to build their fanbase and careers in his book Fans, Friends, and Followers says, “It’s this powerful new link with the audience that the old power players don’t understand. They still live in a world of press releases, flashy billboards in Times Square, and expensive-but-never-changing web sites” (Kirsner 4). The old system is interrupting, flashy, ego-driven, hollow, and deceitful. But modern marketing channels are free, plus they allow you more control, interactivity, and specificity. In order to capture that traffic and grow your lake, your marketing channel must have a way for you to keep in touch with people by asking them to “like,” “subscribe,” “follow,” such as a YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter page, Instagram, or e-mail list on your website. “You need to have a conduit to your audience that will allow you to communicate with them when you’re doing something new, rather than waiting for them to migrate back to your site again” (Kirsner 20). The idea is that by putting out a bunch of content and creating your own list or platform, you are creating your own channel that you control through which you can market your own products. Obviously, the larger the lake, the more reach you have and the more potential income you can create.
Your dam is your work, your art, your product, your value, your offer; whatever it is that you want to sell. Here’s where your alchemy skills are tested. The bigger and better your dam is, the more energy you are able to transmute into a money river that flows down to you and your family of “villages.” How well-built and maintained is your dam? How well-trained are your dam workers (your team)? How strong are your pipes (processes & systems)? Can they handle explosive flow? What kind of river does your dam create? Is it a raging river? Or is it a trickling stream? How good are you at providing energy and sustenance to your company, to your family, to your team, to your vendors, to your partners, and to all their families or “villages”? What villages do you need to create a healthy and flourishing water cycle?
The water cycle metaphor is also effective in illustrating the concept of niche audiences. One of my mentors, Scot Lowry, CEO of Fathom, a $20mil digital marketing company, continually affirms to me that the “riches are in the niches!” Like any lake or river, the water can be clean, dirty, salty, or pure mountain spring water. How pure is your water? Meaning: How precise is your list? Is your list a bunch of nondescript people of different demographics, psychographics, different interests, and different needs? Or is your list 100% single moms in real estate? Is your list 100% middle-aged male golfers? Is your list 100% young independent filmmakers? The more pure your water is, the more specific your list is, and the better your relationship will be with them, the easier it will be to market to, the higher your conversion rates will be, the more your work or products will resonate with them. Purified water starts with the quality of your clouds(content) that amplify your brand and marketing message, then continues with the quality of your dam(product of offer) that provides a very specific value proposition. There’s a lot more that goes into this, but again, the most important things to understand are (1.) your artistic voice and (2.) your audience. This requires a lot of deep reflection, self-knowledge, personal growth, and understanding of your strengths, your unique talents and skills, and what it is that you have to offer the world that people need. As long as you have a clear understanding of your voice and your audience, the specifics of time and place will sort themselves out.
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Brunson, Russell. DotCom Secrets: The Underground Playbook for Growing Your Company Online. New York, NY: Morgan James Publishing, 2015. Print.
Cooperrider, David, and Diana Whitney. Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2005. Print.
Godin, Seth. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 2008. Print.
Hyatt, Michael. Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012. Print.
Kirsner, Scott. Fans, Friends, & Followers; Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age. San Bernardino, CA: CinemaTech Books, 2009. Print.
Kleon, Austin. Show Your Work; 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered. New York, NY: Workman Publishing Company, 2014. Print.
---. Steal Like an Artist; 10 Things Nobody Told You about Creation. New York, NY: Workman Publishing Company, 2012. Print.
Walker, Jeff. Launch: An Internet Millionaire’s Secret Formula To Sell Almost Anything Online, Build A Business You Love, And Live The Life Of Your Dreams. New York, NY: Morgan James Publishing, 2014. Print.