Give away your best stuff for free and people will become fans, and a percentage of those fans will end up paying you. But is this really true? Can you put the genie back in the bottle?
We all saw how it happened with the traditional media. Whenever a news site put up a pay wall, we just skipped to the next – free – news source. When customers get used to getting content for free it’s hard to charge money for the same content later.
When I started this site, a friend of mine advised against charging money for it. People can find free comics tutorials on YouTube, why would they pay for it? Nevertheless, I have people paying for access to my premium program every month. People I am sure would NOT be paying for access, if I hadn’t already built trust with them through all the free content here and on the newsletter.
And speaking of building trust, have you noticed there aren’t any ads on this site? That’s because I made a conscious decision not to try and cash in by putting blinking banners and sponsored content here. This is my site and my message, end of story. The reason I can keep the site up and running is because of the awesome people who sign up for premium access.
If you’re a semi-pro artist I’m sure you use stuff like Instagram to promote your art. Some artists are wary of putting their content on these platforms as it might get stolen or copied. And while it certainly happens once in a while, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. You can post work-in-progress or detail shots rather than finished artwork and your followers will be just as happy. Besides, the more loyal fans you have out there, the bigger the chance that they will let you know if your work shows up in weird places.
A lot of web artists are having success with Patreon or other micro funding sources and others again use their free online comic as promotion for a printed copy. It turns out that a lot of people are actually willing to pay for something you already gave away for free, because now they have a relationship with you and want to support the work you do. The pay-first-get-content-later model has been turned on it’s head and artists need to navigate this new world. But it seems a lot more people are finding ways to make money on their art without being chosen by the gatekeepers previously needed to connect with an audience. There has never been a better time to create your own job, even though it may be a patchwork of tiny income streams.
That said, I sometimes worry that by giving stuff away for free, you could be attracting the wrong audience. I mean, if people sign up to get something for free doesn’t mean they will ever pay you a dime. You could argue that the reason they go for your free stuff is because they are freeloaders. While posting our art on Instagram may very well help build an audience, it could also have a downside. Are we not just training people that art is something that should be available at your fingertips for free?
I realize this post doesn’t provide many answers. If there’s one thing I want you to take away, it is this: Be mindful of how and why you give away free content. Focusing your efforts on getting followers and likes on Facebook is not a sure-fire way to pay the bills. And unless you have a buy-button on your site (or a sign-up or support-my-Patreon button) you could very well be running in circles, trying to fill a bucket that has a hole in the bottom. You need to be able to capture some of those visitors, convert some of those likes and clicks into cash. Maybe not right now, but some day when you have a favor to ask, a book to launch or a Kickstarter that needs support. We all need to eat. And likes aren’t that nourishing in the long run.