How to Create a Cult-Like Following

How to Create a Cult-Like Following

Self-taught calligraphy artist Seb Lester has over one million followers on Instagram alone. Add his tens of thousands of fans across Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo and YouTube into the equation, and it’s quickly clear that he knows a thing or two about self-promotion. 

He’s not the only one. Whether or not you believe that some call London-based illustrator “the Justin Bieber of drawing” - as his website once professed - he’s amassed a huge social media following, with a 33,000-strong Twitter army ready to support his projects, share his news and buy into his Bingo empire. (Who else could hit a £35,000 Kickstarter funding target within nine hours?)

But building a reputation in the cut-throat creative industries isn’t easy. So how did once-little-known artists like Seb, Bingo and others craft such impressive industry profiles? And can anyone do it? Leading designers and illustrators share their savviest self-promo secrets…

01. Create good work

The best way to build your reputation as a designer or illustrator is to produce outstanding creative, on time, on budget, with a smile. If you’re looking for the holy grail of self-promotion – word of mouth – then this is it. But what if you’re just starting out, or doing this already? [Image: Timba Smits]

02. Slow down

Timba Smits - Mocking Jay

“My number one pro tip would be to remember this: good things take time; great things take a lifetime,” says Timba Smits, creative director of iconic movie magazine Little White Lies (image above) and youth culture magazine Huck.

“My trick is to slow down, take my time and create great work when others feel pressured into making work on the spot, illustrating off trend forecasts and falling into the hyper-cycle – regurgitated ideas and styles,” he adds. “Your career shouldn’t be a race.”

03. If you don’t have work, invent it

“Studios and illustrators don't usually start by being given fantastic projects, so sometimes you need to bulk out your portfolio with some personal ones,” points out Verònica Fuerte, founder of Barcelona-based Hey Studio. “It's a chance to show people what you can do.”

She’s right: personal projects offer a prime opportunity to demonstrate your skills and design thinking. Clients commission what they see, so set yourself a mock brief and share the project on your website (make sure it’s clearly marked as self-initiated work).

04. Do something different

Personal projects also offer a platform for truly experimental work - and that’s one of the best ways to gain attention from prospective clients, collaborators, your peers and the press. Think Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Cap, or Justin Maller’s Facets, both of which resulted in global attention and new income.

(If finding time for self-initiated projects sounds easier said than done, wait for our pro guide on how to do exactly this next week.)

05. Take risks

“Don't play it safe. Risks are how you learn,” adds Verònica. This might seem like strange advice from a studio like Hey that’s built a cult-like following in part due to its bold, geometric aesthetic and vibrant use of colour, but a recognisable style isn’t everything.

The other strand to Hey’s success is the team’s desire to experiment and constantly push their creative forward - which is how the studio’s work captured the attention of clients like Apple, Monocle and Nokia. “You might occasionally make a mistake, but even if you do, the next time you try you will have learned something from it,” she continues. “Risk-taking pushes you and makes you better.”

06. Master social media

If you get it right, social media is one of the most effective ways to expand your industry reach. A solid strategy is about being proactive and engaging in good PR: don’t spam people with links to new work - seek to make human connections instead.

It’s all about engaging the right audience with valuable content, so be part of the conversation, have an opinion, share advice and links to useful resources. Give people a reason to follow you. “Ask questions - people love to respond to questions,” advises Bingo, whose Hate Mail project (above) caused an internet storm. “Start discussions. Be provocative.”

07. Don’t be boring

When asked why over 30,000 people choose to follow him on Twitter, Bingo told journalist Rob Alderson: “Because I don’t tweet about what I had for lunch, DIY, family, TV, babies, being bored at work, birthdays, Christmas, dieting, shopping, socialising and looking forward to the weekend.”

Illustrator and letterer Tobias Hall agrees: “It’s important to communicate with personality, both when you’re chatting with your clients and with your followers on social media. It pays to establish some sort of tone with your posts - it makes them more engaging than a boring plug of your latest piece.”

08. Connect often and regularly

Maintain an active social media presence: this means posting often and regularly. “I try and post once a day,” Seb Lester told the crowd at OFFSET Dublin 2016, earlier this year. “I can usually post something in 15 minutes.”

What time is best? “I use analytics. If I post between two or three pm GMT as the East coast wakes up - that’s a sweet spot.” And has he ever paid to boost a post? “I paid £50 on Facebook and it did okay. But Instagram just explodes for me.” [Image: Seb Lester, Passion print]

09. Make something shareable

Bingo uses wit, but if humor isn’t your thing, the key is simply to give people something to share. “You want to make something that hundreds of thousands of people want to show their friends, or share with someone to make a boring day at the office more interesting,” he explains.

“It could be something interesting; a news story like the Panama papers, for example. I try and do something funny that everyone likes so it transcends race and gender and age, and everyone can share that joke rather than it be for a specific audience.”

10. Show your process

For Tobias Hall, the shareable element is his creative process. “From my experience, people often love to see the process more than the finished piece,” he says. “The posts that get the most attention in my case are usually photos or videos of me drawing, rather than the final art.” [Image: Tobias Hall]

11. Organic growth is best

“Building your online and offline profile, audience and social media following takes time and care," says Timba Smits. "Organic growth is best, so the 5k, 10k or 100k followers you have are genuine followers who are keenly interested in what you’re doing and what you have to say."

“My solid advice for managing your social media is spend most of your time making good work, then post about it and the rest will happen naturally. Trust me: great work doesn’t need to shout. Remember… being famous on Instagram is like being rich in Monopoly - it doesn’t matter.”

12. Stay confident

Ultimately, the best way to grow your industry profile is to stick at it. “Visual and written information moves so rapidly and arrives in such endless amounts that it’s hard to keep up, both in consuming it and making it," reflects Timba.

"It’s common to look at the work of great illustrators you admire online and at first feel inspired - but then also a little doubt about how you’re ever going to reach their level of profile. But you know what? You will - if you work hard enough and for long enough. Remember, they all started out as you once.”