If you had told artist Jaime Barks back in 2020 that 2021 would be her best year ever as an artist, she would have laughed.
The outdoor-inspired painter from Chattanooga, TN used nature as her escape and inspiration during lockdown, slowly pivoting from in-person events and sales to an online gallery, sending a regular newsletter, and managing an ecommerce site.
“My goal as an artist is to bring the emotion of nature alive,” says Barks. “I favor a more impressionist style over photo-realism, because I want to capture what it feels like to be on top of a mountain, not just what it looks like to be there.”
After spending years in the nonprofit world doing events and marketing, she took the leap into full-time creative work in 2016. She knows first-hand how challenging it can be to produce work you’re proud of while running a business at the same time. Says Barks, “It’s such a hard profession and can be so scary to jump into. But I’m so glad I did—I love that I can go into the woods and paint and call that work. And while being self-employed is a lot of work, it allows me to set my schedule which gives me more time with my kids and family.”
Though she’s only been using ConvertKit for the past six months, she’s already seeing results. With 500 people on her email list and growing, she’s able to use automations to live her life without worrying over her business—whether that’s taking her family hiking on the Appalachian Trail or pursuing artist residencies with the National Parks. “In June, I spent two weeks in the Alaska backcountry with the Forestry Service, and it was awesome,” she says. “If someone signed up for my newsletter, they’re still getting an email through ConvertKit, even though I haven’t seen a cell signal in forever. ConvertKit frees up so much time for me.”
Here’s how you can do the same:
Why every artist needs an online presence
Art is an investment—and should be treated that way. That means not everyone is going to buy, buy, buy every single piece you create.
While the majority of Barks’ income came from teaching opportunities, she used to sell most of her outdoor-inspired paintings at shows, art fairs, and galleries. When something didn’t sell at an event, she’d put it online.
She had a website and social media accounts, she didn’t pay much attention to them.
That all changed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I spent five years of my life getting to where I was as a professional working artist, and I said to myself, ‘I am not losing this,’” says Barks. “It lit this fire under me to do something differently. I spent a lot of time figuring out how to pivot and refine.”
While being self-employed is a lot of work, it allows me to set my schedule which gives me more time with my kids and family.
— Jaime Barks
Constraint breeds creativity, or so the saying goes, and for artists like Barks, it was time to do just that. “2020 was such a low year for me, but it turned into a great revamp so I could narrow my focus on what I wanted my creative practice and my business to be like,” she says. “And in that process, so many opportunities opened up. 2021 has already been my best year ever. It’s truly amazing what can happen.”
For her, that meant focusing on her online business and redefining her ideal customer. “It’s much more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep an old one,” says Barks. “Even though I had heard that and I knew that, I still put more focus on these gallery events and shows for what were typically new clients. In 2020, I shifted my mindset and how I made my work accessible.”
By paying more attention to your online presence, building a loyal fan base, and cultivating relationships with the people who purchase your art, it’s more likely that you’ll build a sustainable business model.
Build relationships with buyers digitally
For Barks, re-building her business in the middle of the pandemic started by going digital-first, investing more into her website. “I’ve put a lot more effort into my email campaigns, my website, and my photography and my videography,” says Barks. “My first step for any new piece is that it goes into my online shop, even if I’m showing it at an in-person event.”
Her website pulls together her entire online presence—visitors can learn more about her work, upcoming artist residencies, or browse through paintings available for sale. But rather than showcase paintings the way you usually see them online—with plain gray or beige backgrounds or framed on a wall—she hired a photographer to make her website feel more like her, and help her art come alive despite being online.
It makes sense to bring nature-inspired paintings where they belong: In nature.
“I just started being more intentional with it,” says Barks. “Sharing where the paintings originated from seems to connect the dots in people’s brains a little bit. I work with an awesome photographer who helps me take pictures of my paintings in the woods or even holding a painting so you can see the scale of it.”
Pictures are the lifeblood of what I do.
— Jaime Barks
And it made a huge difference. Putting herself into her photographs of paintings connects people more directly to her as the producer, and gives her more opportunity to tell the story behind the work, whether that’s going behind-the-scenes with works in progress, playing with scale and tone, or showcasing the places that inspire her.
Her website also serves as the hub for her email newsletter, which is still a new part of Barks’ online strategy. She uses a modal pop-up form to capture new subscribers right when they arrive for the first time to immediately capture their attention.
“The biggest one of my biggest increases for my business was adding that pop-up to my website,” she says. “The ConvertKit pop-ups look really good with very little effort on my end, and see a steady increase in email subscribers just from that.”
Drum up excitement with your social media presence
The upside to investing in better photography and videography is that Barks can use it throughout her online presence, including with her social media channels. Barks uses visual-based social media channels like Instagram and TikTok because it helps her build stronger relationships and reach more people.
Because social media can take so much time, she schedules everything ahead of time with a tool called Planoly. “It has made such a big difference, because I can schedule my posts at specific times far out in advance. It’s completely visual so I can see what my entire feed looks like, and automate the whole thing so I don’t have to think about it.”
While social media isn’t her main focus, she does use it to hype upcoming launches, especially for loyal followers. She runs regular “drops” for new paintings, adding them to her website all at once rather than as she completes them. “If I have a new body of work, I’ll send an email blast and update my social media that says, ‘Tuesday at 12 PM ET I’m doing a big shop update,” says Barks. “I’ve had so much more success with controlled releases like that. It really builds excitement.”
It’s also a big way she grows her email list—teasing upcoming drops on her Instagram, adding countdown timers or other features in her stories, and telling them to sign up if they want to be the first to know all contribute to her paintings selling quickly.
3 ways to drive sales with email automation
Social media is a great way to build excitement, but ultimately, what’s going to drive sales is a channel you own: Email.
Barks uses three main types of emails as part of her marketing strategy:
1. An evergreen email newsletter
Barks’ newsletter forms the core of her email strategy. She sends a regular email newsletter through ConvertKit every 2-3 weeks. While she may promote upcoming events or painting drops, she uses the newsletter mostly to help people get to know her better, writing about her life and creative work. She keeps the newsletter very visual-heavy, since that suits her work.
“Pictures are the lifeblood of what I do,” she says. “My newsletters are only a paragraph long, and I focus on the visual elements as much as possible.”
Even though she sends newsletters at least once a month, she writes them in batches, focusing on evergreen topics and her personal story for the newsletter and sending more timely emails in between the newsletters. “I get a cup of coffee and a piece of paper and brainstorm a ton of different things I could write about, usually inspired by my existing art,” she says. “For example, a recent newsletter is focused on the story of one of my paintings, which was a very creepy, misty forest hike, so you can see my process in creating the piece.”
Then, she schedules them so that even if she’s traveling, the newsletter always goes out. “I schedule everything out in ConvertKit so I know if someone enters their email into the pop-up on my website, that they’re gonna get something from me, and for the next three months and I don’t have to think about it,” adds Barks.
2. A launch email and targeted follow-up
From there, Barks slots in another one or two emails each month, depending on what’s going on. For her ecommerce drops, she sends a launch email and a reminder—automatically tagging anyone who engaged with the email or visited her online shop after receiving it.
“ConvertKit is all set up to tag anyone automatically when a subscriber engages with the email,” she says. “Then, four days later, they get a second reminder email, and I can see I’m getting the sales. Plus, it’s good not to spam my entire list.”
3. Targeted one-off campaigns for upcoming events
Barks also tags new subscribers as she learns more about them. Her goal is to build relationships with a small number of passionate buyers who love her work—rather than trying to be everything to everyone.
Whittling down my list into different groups based on their behavior has been super helpful.
— Jaime Barks
That means collecting additional data based on subscriber behavior. For example, she tags anyone who engages with emails for upcoming events, refining her list so that in the future, she’s only promoting events that are geographically relevant to them.
“ConvertKit gives me the ability to refine my list down so I can better target people,” says Barks. “I did an in-person event in Chattanooga, and anyone who signed up at that event I tagged with that location. And those people, plus anyone who clicked on the email I sent promoting the event, will go into a better list for next year. Whittling down my list into different groups based on their behavior has been super helpful.”
Targeted emails like these ones build trust, but they also give subscribers what they’re interested in. If you live in California, getting an email about a local event isn’t useful, and makes it more likely that you’ll skip the next one. By staying super targeted to what her subscribers are interested in, Barks can build a stronger relationship.
ConvertKit automation gives you the ability to build your business and live your life
For Barks, ConvertKit has been a total game-changer.
“Running your business is such an important part of your work, if not more important than the visual work, because if you’re not doing these things, then no one will find you. You can’t be in the studio making amazing work and expect it to sell if you’re not putting it out there.”
Automating the online portion of her business gives Barks room to create more and enjoy time with her family. “We took a huge trip out to Texas last spring as a family, and just knowing that I don’t have to think about my business, it’s been a huge help,” says Barks.
This freedom allows her to pursue new opportunities, like artist’s residencies in exciting places and be there for the little moments of joy with her family. Most of all, it helps her treat her business like a business—and show up every single day.
Says Barks, “Building repeatable business processes, even as an artist, is what makes you successful, rather than just focusing on when inspiration strikes. You just have to keep going.”
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