How to Make Success with Your Smallest Viable Audience

Succeeding with Your Smallest Viable List

[Editor’s Note:] Given the widespread unrest in the wake of the senseless brutality of George Floyd’s murder coming on top of the coronavirus and the financial disaster in its wake, it was hard to find the motivation to publish this week. I do so because it seems like keeping to a schedule is how we will find equilibrium going forward.

The world is forever changed. It’s my sincere hope that we as a nation and civilization come through the suffering and pain into a better world with justice and equality for all.

This post is updated from one published a year ago. It is inspired by Seth Godin’s June 5, 2020 post titled, “Average is not the same as typical.”  His thoughts are in alignment with mine when he talks about marketing to your smallest viable audience. I call it a small but mighty list. Either way, the sentiment remains the same.

Of all the arts and practically any business for that matter, visual artists need the smallest group of buyers to create long-lasting success. Think about it. Authors, musicians, playwrights, and filmmakers all plan to market the fruits of their creativity to thousands, tens of thousands, and more to create the success they desire.

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You can crush it with a small list!

How to Make Lasting Success with a Small, Mighty ListHave you taken the time to break it down? Do you know how many sales at what price you need to bring in a specified annual income? The graphic here mentions $50,000, but you can choose any figure you like.

For example, using a $50,000 desired annual income and a modest, average price for your originals of $1,800, you need about 28 sales made to patrons directly to hit your target.

Typical direct marketing gets a 4-5% sell-through from a list. At that rate, you’d need about 700 people with some degree of interest on your list to sell 28 originals. (28 divided by 700 = .04) But, that’s typical, and you should never settle for typical in making your art or marketing your art.

Market the smart way

Instead of looking at everyone as a prospect, get specific. Very specific. Remember, you only need a relatively small group of patrons to create the success you need. To sell 28 originals to a list of 200, you need to get a 14% return on your list. (28 divided by 200 = .14)

I realize to get an immediate 14% return is daunting. There is a learning curve to everything. But, I would also argue that it’s not that hard to build a list of 700 mildly interested email subscribers. I further argue spending time and effort on building an email list tops the list of smart things you can do to market your art.

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Do it both ways

You don’t have to choose to build a bigger list versus a smaller list. I believe if you concentrate on creating a small, mighty list, you will benefit from a more extensive list as a happy byproduct. A small, mighty list is one where your prospective buyers and active patrons are highly qualified. They have shown, or you have created in them, an interest in your work that goes beyond casual. Most buyers of art who are not collectors of art are casual. They don’t take collecting art seriously, and they usually only buy when they have a particular need.

There is no reason not to have casual buyer prospects on your list and to keep them warmed up for the day when they need a piece of art. Still, keep your focus on building a list of people who will take an active interest in you and your art. They are the ones who are most likely to buy multiple artworks from you. These patrons will work to help you advance your career in other ways, for instance, making introductions to influential people. It’s a probable outcome your happy patrons will buy three, four, five, or more pieces of your art throughout your career.

That sounds hard

It’s true that finding ideal buyer prospects and connecting with them is a challenge. But, consider the alternative, which is selling your art to strangers. No matter how you slice it, selling to strangers is the harder row to hoe. Having someone else make sales is why some artists want to work exclusively with galleries. While there is nothing wrong with working with galleries in general, it’s far from ideal.

First, you need a string of them to sell all your art. Second, you have to make and then sell twice as much art to earn the same as selling to patrons directly. Third, there are not enough of them to go around. There never were enough in the best of times for the gallery business, and we’re far away from those days. Sadly, we know they’re not coming back. Lastly, you give up all control of your distribution when you work exclusively with galleries or other third-party distributors. And, that is a situation fraught with peril.

Start thinking about direct patronage

I suggest you read this post to learn more about direct patronage. It is the small, mighty list concept. The reason I strongly advocate this approach is I don’t see a better solution for artists. If you want the best for your career, then nothing beats selling most of your work to people who know you, love your work, and who want to support you.

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Besides being the best thing you can do financially for your career, I believe having closer contact with your buyers is fulfilling, heartwarming, and soul-satisfying in ways that are incomparable to others. A gallery selling your work is, at best, a pleasant thing. You eventually get your cut of the sale, but you get little if any feedback and zero personal interaction with your would-be patrons. It doesn’t come close to selling your art with a passion for those who love it.

So what now?

Marketing your art is a lot like making your art. Before you get started, you have to make decisions. Yes, you can sometimes achieve exciting results by letting your muse wander. But, in the long run, you will get more done and have more rewarding results by having a plan and working it.

When it comes to how you get your work to market, the better your plan, the better your results. If you work at building an ideal client avatar and then focus on marketing to those who closely match that ideal, you are going to get faster sales and higher returns on your efforts than by doing anything else.

You don’t have enough time or money to market to everyone. It would be hugely wasteful even if you did. So why not turn your attention to making a plan to build a small, mighty list and then acting on it with zeal? That’s your key to success… the kind of self-made success based on marketing and relationships that you control and that cannot be taken from you like those with third-parties can.

Want some help?

The Art Marketing Mastery course is available at the lowest price ever to join.  We cover how to build a small, mighty list. Learn more here.


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  1. congratulations you have perfect justice, knowing that the hardest job is what to sell, the art of selling becomes a way of life itself,
    I think that what is very difficult for the state of the artist is even the lack of knowing how to sell
    a true artist is even a unique state of passion, which is very difficult to keep and time passes
    each artist has millions of ideas, but unfortunately only a few are identifiable in collectors,
    you can not be Plato and Aristotle at the same time, it’s wonderful and lived up to success.
    you have perfect justice, and I am grateful for the natural sincerity you wrote with
    with christian esteem
    I’m going to be still persevering
    thank you

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