How to promote and build your creative business without using social media

We examine why creatives are leaving social media, why it's increasingly useless for self-promotion, and some IRL alternatives to get your business up and running again.

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Whatever social media platform is your go-to, you might have noticed recently a dearth of posts from your favourite creatives and more time-wasting nonsense from randoms. If so, that's probably partly the fault of the algorithms, which seem to continually push towards more and more irrelevant content. But it's also pretty undeniable that fewer and fewer creatives are posting on socials, period.

This might be just a blip, but it feels like a historical shift to me. I first joined Twitter in 2008, when I was working on a web design magazine, and the web development community had fully embraced it as their network of choice. Anyone who was anyone was there, the spirit was friendly and constructive, and it was a great place to get inspired with new work and ideas, not to mention make contacts (who often turned out to be proper friends in real life).

For illustrators, graphic designers, animators and photographers, other platforms like Instagram have served a similar purpose. But the party couldn't last forever, and nearly two decades later, most of us are getting tired of it. And some of us are, if we're honest, quietly letting our social accounts wither and die.

It's not that we've cancelled or left these platforms in a formal way, and we probably never will. And we'll still post something every now and again. But for most of us, it's just not central to our working life any more.

Digital burnout

Recently, we took a deep dive into the question Is social media for self-promotion over?. The brief answer is: increasingly, yes. And the reasons are pretty well documented by now.

We're all tired of the constant search for clicks, likes and other affirmations, which is terrible for our mental health. On a more practical level, we're not getting the same kind of engagement, and this becomes a vicious circle as more of us drop out of socials and stop interacting with each other. Plus, with the launch of Mastadon, Blue Sky, Threads, et al, there are simply too many networks to keep up with these days.

Most fundamentally, we're all facing digital burnout. And especially following the pandemic, doing things in real life turns out to be what we needed all along. Not just psychologically, but career-wise too. Because while platforms like Twitter fostered new connections for many years, we've learned that it's really the word-of-mouth recommendations or networking opportunities that have delivered the best results.

In short, today, we're asking, what is the point of social media from a work perspective? If it's to continue feeling connected to the creative community, then that's okay (and we'd love you to keep doing so via our own Twitter; sorry, we just can't bring ourselves to call it 'X'). But if it is to promote oneself, then perhaps it really is time to put our efforts elsewhere.

So, how can you build your freelance creative business away from social media? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Get networking IRL

Firstly, and most obviously, you must start getting out there in the real world. These days, you don't have to live in London to meet fellow creative professionals. There will surely be fellow types wherever you live, even in the countryside; you might just have to put in some extra effort to find them and maybe form your own group.

Either way, aim to book at least two networking events a month and show up with a smile and willingness to make new connections.

2. Email people!

Secondly, start to contact clients and potential clients directly. Yes, there was a time when posting something cool on socials would get them running to you, but unless you're incredibly talented or very lucky, that's no longer working for most of us. So, focus on alternative strategies. For instance, drop an email to existing clients, share news of something that might impact their business, and proactively offer a solution. This could be as small as asking them what they want to do about Twitter becoming X.

As for potential clients, seek out the people you'd love to work for, write them a nice note explaining why you're such a fan, and suggest ways you could help them make their business better and more successful. Who wouldn't want to receive a message like that? Even if they're not interested right now, they may pass your name on to others.

Are emails getting ignored? Maybe try sending physical mailouts. That's how we used to do things in the "old days", and people still love getting something physical and personal through the post.

3. Build your own platform

Thirdly, invest some time in building and developing your own owned platforms, such as a website, newsletter or blog. Yes, this takes effort, but remember how much effort it is to post on multiple social platforms regularly. And there, you don't even own your content or how it's presented to others: the platforms do and can block it, shadow-ban it, or even delete it if they so choose.

By creating your own platform, in contrast, you have total control and ownership of your content, and your followers will always get to see everything as you intended. For more details, see our article on how to promote yourself through blogging

4. Optimise your website for Google

Fourthly, don't forget SEO. Google can bring your website or blog a huge amount of traffic if you set it up correctly and add inspiring and useful posts regularly. It's not about keyword stuffing; it's about making your content relevant to your audience and doing a few technical things to make sure Google can access and rank it accordingly on its search pages, such as adding descriptive alt text to images.

This will attract more organic and relevant traffic than the chaos of social media provides, making it easier for potential clients to discover you. Start with this guide to SEO from UX Collective.

5. Look locally

Finally, it's often easiest to look for work close to home. Tell friends and family you're available for work, and get them to spread the word. Visit local businesses you love, and explain that you're available to help them. Often, you may find you're the first designer/illustrator/photographer, etc., that's ever approached them, so you'll be pushing against an open door.

6. Ask for testimonials and reviews

It doesn't matter how much marketing spin you put on your website; what's really going to tip the balance in encouraging people to book your services is hearing from other clients how happy they are with you. So ask everyone you've ever worked for, past and present, for testimonials and reviews.

As long as they're five-star, put them on your website and in your newsletter and maybe even a short one in the footer of your emails. If they're not, then at least you'll have the opportunity to get useful feedback on what to do better in future. And the very act of asking for a testimonial often reminds past clients you exist and prompts them to book you again!

All these ideas might sound a bit basic and, well, boring. And we must admit, many of them will take some effort to put into practice, and you won't get the instant endorphin hit of likes and comments from your social followers.

But when it comes to actually getting you clients who pay the bills, believe us: they will work a lot better. And at a time when rents, bills and food prices are rising, that's ultimately going to make you feel a lot better than the ephemera of fun but ultimately meaningless social media interactions.


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