As I mentioned in an earlier post, between the rearranging going on in publishing these days and the lackluster economy in general, many illustrators are looking for ways to keep up with their contacts and new ways to market themselves. I've noticed with the souring job market that more places are coming out of the woodwork to offer illustrators a path to connections and jobs. My own research into new marketing venues led me to the decision to write a post about on-line portfolio sites.
These days having an on-line presence is not an option. It is essential. On-line portfolios sites, such as theispot.com or childrensillustrators.com offer a searchable database of illustrators. Each 'member' is given their own personal portfolio page with different levels of image categorization and back-end management depending on the site. Besides the members' portfolio page, most sites also allow the members' illustrations to show up randomly on the home page and other pages of the site. The number-one most important thing anyone should understand about having an internet presence is this: the more traffic on a site/image/portfolio, the higher it will come in search rankings. Traffic can be greatly affected by changing the portfolio is some way. The second most important thing anyone should understand about having an internet presence is that usually no one searches past the third page of results, whether it's a google search or a search on a portfolio site. How does this affect your decision to advertise with an online portfolio site? For each site with which you create a portfolio, you have to maintain that portfolio or risk losing ranking. Sometimes this can be as simple as rearranging the order of your images, but illustrators that are uploading new work every week will always show up above an illustrator that uploads a couple of times a year. This portfolio manipulation has a snowball effect: As an illustrator manages his or her images to keep them high in search rankings, potential buyers then click through to those portfolios keeping traffic high, which insures that those images will come up again and again. Since all portfolio sites also allow members to post a link to the member's own personal site, this snowball effect will spill over to the illustrator's personal site if a buyer clicks through to their URL.
Every illustrator I know (including myself) relies heavily on postcard mailers to get projects. Mailing is certainly important (come back next week for my post on that) but in an industry where small and mid-sized publishers often hire a third party designer to find an illustrator - without sending their file of postcards to that designer - it's important to be in many places at once. As a member of a couple of on-line portfolio sites for a few years, I have found the advantage to on-line portfolio advertising to be three-fold: First, and most obvious, you are getting your work in front of an art-buying audience. I've actually been contacted by designers hired by publishers to whom I have mailed for years, only to be told by the designer that they haven't seen those mailings but had seen the very same image on-line. While not every person surfing a particular site is a serious buyer, they seem to be great resources for studios that hire a high volume of illustrators in a year, such as those who work on children's educational products. While sometimes not the most glamourous products to work on, these kinds of projects are great for an illustrator trying to break into children's publishing by giving the opportunity to get practical hands-on experience illustrating a manuscript. In my personal experience these projects can also be quite lucrative.
The second advantage is the ability to get feedback on which image might be catching a buyer's eye. Some sites allow a potential buyer to attach an image from an artist's portfolio to an e-mail asking about a project, others have programming built in so that a member can track which of their images are getting the most hits. A few years ago I had an image of kids flying kites that was a real winner; over and over again I was contacted about a project with the buyer referencing that image as why they chose me. This created a great opening to find out specifically what a client might like about my work, and in turn I could apply that to future illustrations.
The third advantage is that snowball spillover affect I mentioned earlier. As you funnel traffic from an on-line portfolio site to your personal URL, that causes your personal site to rise on any search rankings. I like to think of this as the "you just never know" effect, as in you just never know when someone will find you and like you. An art director googling a baseball story, unrelated to art, comes across you because your baseball image has high traffic rankings. He finds you, he likes you, he bookmarks you, it's just a hop skip and a jump to a project. The i-spot tracks both image hits and keyword hits, an especially useful feature because you can adjust the keywords on your own domain to match, thereby increasing its chances of traffic.
Things to Consider
As with any marketing decision, you should keep in mind a few things before deciding to advertise with an on-line portfolio site. For starters, they are an investment with the yearly costs running from $200 to over $600. Some sites offer a free basic portfolio listing, but these provide few of the advantages and attract a host of less than professional artists, causing serious art buyers to shy away from perusing those listings. Time spent maintaining your portfolio on the site can be a drain. It's a good idea to set a schedule of regular maintenance for your entire online presence, both your personal site and portfolios sites. Before signing up with a site you should also query them about how the site is promoted. A site that is not advertising itself is not advertising you. Be sure you know enough about the industry to know where children's book producers are hanging out - virtually and in the real world - so that you will know if a site's marketing plan makes sense for the industry you are trying to reach.
The 64 Million Dollar Question
What everyone wants to know before they sign up for something is.... does it work? Do you get projects from these sites, is it worth it? I've talked to several illustrators both current and former subscribers of various sites about their experiences getting jobs and their answers were as varied as their work. Some people had gotten no work, others had said a site paid for itself within a few months. Of the two sites I have consistently advertised with, one has paid for itself several times over the course of my history with it, the other has not paid for itself yet but has yielded a small but significant number of high-profile contacts that I believe will be worth it. The one similarity I did find was that the artists with the most success had allowed more than a year for the site to work for them. Years ago in art school, a teacher told our class that he personally knew of art directors that waited to see if an illustrator appeared in a sourcebook for more than one year in a row to make sure they had staying power before hiring them. Therefore this teacher went on, if you plan to advertise in a sourcebook, plan to afford it for at least two years. I've always felt that this theory also applies to advertising with a portfolio site. My personal rule has been a 3 year window - if after 3 years I have gotten no jobs from a site I will drop my advertising. I have yet to have a 3 year dry spell.
My personal experience with online portfolio advertising has been a positive one. No illustrator should rely primarily on an online site to send them jobs but researched wisely and maintained diligently I do think they can become part of a successful marketing plan.