The Numbers that Count

Morning Song by Celandine - work in progress detail

Morning Song by Celandine – work in progress detail

I get obsessed by numbers.

How many new Facebook followers this month? How many likes on the latest artwork? How many readers of this blog post?

The fact that we can track so many statistics on people’s reactions to what we share means that we’ll naturally tend to get sucked into a deep whirlpool of perpetual stat checking.

Whenever I post something new, I spend a fair while running around checking on the reactions. Sometimes the numbers make me happy. Sometimes they disappoint. But it’s brought me to wonder – which of these are actual indicators of my artistic success? Which tell me something real about my progress, and which are completely misleading? Here are the things I came up with.

1. Not the number of FANS, but the level of ENGAGEMENT

I hear many artists on Facebook lamenting their posts’ low reach. As you probably know, not everything you post on your page is shown to all your fans. We all have too many friends, we follow too many pages to be able to take in all of the content they produce. So Facebook has algorithms that try to guess what you want to see the most. Many complain that Facebook is purposely throttling the reach of professional pages in order to force us to pay for promotion. I’m sure some of this is going on, but primarily the issue is one of genuine interest. If a page keeps posting content that doesn’t inspire you to engage with it, Facebook realizes that content isn’t floating your boat, so it shows you less of it. If you’re always liking or commenting on a page’s posts, you’ll be seeing more and more of those posts in your feed.

Because of these mechanisms, it’s actually harmful for your page to gather fans who aren’t really interested in your stuff. They don’t engage with you, they don’t care about you, and they dilute your reach to your genuine fans. This is why I don’t believe in aggressive Facebook marketing, especially the paid ads. I’d rather slowly gather people who choose to follow me because they’re excited about my work, than get lots of page likes from people enticed by a giveaway prize and nothing else.

2. Not LIKES, but SALES

Social network popularity pretty much qualifies as a drug. There is a definite high to finding a post of yours has exploded on Tumblr and landed you 600+ new followers, But when you’re assessing the objective success of your various social media profiles, it makes more sense to focus on those that generate concrete results. Does your online activity drive your sales? Are you even including calls for action in your posts? A call for action doesn’t have to be a sales pitch – it can be an invitation to sign up for your mailing list, a link to your website, or any other invitation to connect more deeply with your work. What you don’t want is having a post go viral and then having large numbers of people look at your work, think ‘oh, that’s super pretty!’ and then forget about it and move on.

Real-life example – I have five times more followers on Tumblr than I do on Behance, but I’d trade fifty Tumblr followers for one new Behance follower any day of the week. Why? Because my Tumblr followers don’t engage with me in any way beyond simply reblogging whatever picture of mine they liked. Honestly, a lot of the time, they don’t even do that. Behance, on the other hand, has brought me in contact with potential paying clients in the past, so I’m very interested in showing my best face on there.

3. Not SINGLE POSTS, but TRENDS over time

It’s happened to everyone – you make something you’re totally proud of, plaster it all over your social media, and – nothing. Crickets chirping. Naturally you immediately start to despair and question your talent, general worth, and sanity. But so many things influence a post. What time was it? (Hint – posting on weekends leads to heartbreak. Shockingly it seems everyone actually has something sensible to do in their free time). Where did you post? The audience is subtly different at each place. Something loved by Pinterest may be totally ignored by Tumblr, and get a mediocre reaction on Society 6. You’ll naturally get occasional outliers in both directions – the freak success and the freak failure. Looking at a single post gives you a poor notion of how you’re doing overall. but trying to spot trends pays off big in the long run. You can see what type of artwork consistently tends to get solid reactions. You can test different posting days and times, and work out which ones work best for your audience. You’ll get a feel for the different platforms and their preferred content. (Hint – pictures!!! All everyone wants is pictures of pretty things).

Recently I’ve started to focus on making more of the sort of art that has been getting the best reactions from my followers across different platforms. This doesn’t mean I’m not staying true to myself – in fact, I’m discovering that my favorite pieces are often my audience’s favorite pieces. But this additional layer of thinking – not just ‘what do I feel like painting next’, but also ‘what are people most likely to respond to’ – is really helping me shape a recognizable style and start pulling together a coherent portfolio – something that a year ago seemed like mission impossible.

4. Not the judgment of others, but your own

This one is tricky, because while self-confidence is a great thing, our artistic success will finally depend on the judgment of others. But this is something we have no direct influence over. I recently finished a piece I was really proud of – I thought I really went a step beyond my older stuff in terms of quality and complexity. I was excited to share it. And pretty surprised to find that its reception was lukewarm at best. It did far worse than my previous piece. At first I was like ‘BOOOHOOOO WHY DON’T YOU LIKE IT, LOOK HOW HARD I TRIIIIED!!’, but then I looked at the piece again and came up with a bunch of very salient reasons why it may not have struck a chord with my audience. (Hint – none of them were ‘It sucks‘). Beyond these reasons, which give me interesting ideas to try in the future (the colors were perhaps too garish and diverse, the layout was centered instead of a repeating pattern, the style was far more painterly), there came the realization that, loved or not, this piece has taught me a bunch of new techniques, it came out exactly as I had imagined, and I am absolutely still proud of it.

The failure of one individual piece to connect with the audience seems like a failure only in the present-focused mindset – that we all tend to have – of secretly hoping for every next piece you make to be ‘The One’ – the big break that will bring you stellar success and riches beyond measure. But before The One – if there is such a thing – there is a long, winding road of stepping stones that let you keep hopping steadily forward. This Yellow Brick Road stretches both behind you and in front of you, and each brick carries a lesson – even the ones that break when you step on them.

Especially those.

So, yeah. By all means measure your success – we all do it, there’s a strange comfort in it. But make sure you’re measuring the right things first.

Are you a like-hound? Do you check all your profiles a hundred times after posting new work to see how quickly the likes and comments are rolling in? Are you usually satisfied with the reactions you get? Let me know in the comments! 

If you’d like to learn more about my creative process on the piece that didn’t get as much of a public reaction as I had hoped, sign up for my cute monthly newsletter! I’m completing the final third chapter of a detailed process tutorial explaining step by step all the work that went into it. It won’t be posted anywhere else, so if you’re interested, this is your chance 🙂 I’ll include links to the previous two chapters too. 

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2 thoughts on “The Numbers that Count

  1. I can’t say I’m a Like hound but I am quite pleased when complete strangers Like my blog posts or Instagram photos. 🙂 Engagement would be nice, but I’d even settle for plain old Likes. While I would love for the Likes to translate to sales, I have the luxury of being patient right now. Really enjoyed your thoughtful and thought-provoking post though!

    • I like the way you phrased that, ‘I have the luxury of being patient’. I have the luxury of being patient right now too, and I’ve been feeling a lot happier since I’ve taught myself to enjoy it. And yes, it’s a great feeling to find you’ve made something and it resonated with a stranger.

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