Episode 49: Should You Advertise Your Creative Practice?

Digital marketing has revolutionized the world of advertising. After my art school days I spent a few years in advertising. Back then ads consisted almost exclusively of print, television, and radio. And creating ads, as well as buying media was expensive. But then the internet arrived—introducing all sorts of new channels—and the entire marketing paradigm was upended. One of the changes was the elimination of the high financial bar to entry for advertising. Now anyone can quickly launch an online ad campaign and spend as much, or as little, as they want. And that includes you—it’s quite simple to start an advertising campaign for your creative business—but should you?

Are you ready to take the struggle out of finding new clients?

There is no question that online advertising has changed the marketing world. And there’s also no question that it works. Back in the day, large corporations would spend millions on advertising campaigns broadcasting their messages in print and over the air waves. But exactly how effective those campaigns were was difficult to measure. No so with online advertising—this data driven environment is 100% measurable and testable. When you get it right you can start counting the clicks and conversions—and when you misfire, that failure has nowhere to hide.

But here’s the thing. While online advertising absolutely can work for certain kinds of products and services, it’s not the best fit for marketing a creative practice—in your case it’s almost always a complete waste of money.

Let’s consider why this is, and then some alternatives to buying online ads to market your creative practice.

Online ads work best for transaction-based consumer products. If you’re selling clothes, picture frames, or even digital products like music and movies, you can readily measure whether your ad campaign is working based on the click through rates and checkout completions. But when you’re selling a service, particularly a professional service, there is nothing to add to a cart, no one completes a purchase for a professional service in an online shopping cart.

Rather, when people decide to hire a professional, it’s because they have vetted them, believe that they have the capacity to deliver, and perhaps more than everything else, they trust that you will deliver. Establishing trust is an essential part of marketing a professional service. And no one is going to “complete the sale” without establishing that trust.

That’s why I’ve yet to find a creative entrepreneur that’s experimented with online advertising and found that it worked. Instead, they quickly cut their losses, stopping campaigns, and wishing they had their money back. And it’s not because the campaigns weren’t optimized, or failed to find the right colors or wording through A/B testing—it’s simply that professional services aren’t bought that way.

In fact, online advertising could even backfire, unintentionally degrading your trustworthiness. There is a world of difference between a prospect seeing your content in organic search results—which conveys a lot of confidence—to seeing your service in paid ads. Anyone can throw money into an ad campaign, competent professionals as well charlatans and hacks—and everyone knows this. So seeing your business in a paid ad could degrade your brand image—when a prospect starts to associate you with those less scrupulous advertisers.

I’m not saying that advertising can’t ever work for a creative service, but it’s highly unlikely, not to mention costly. I think creatives experiment with advertising because they’re looking for a shortcut to finding new clients. But there are no shortcuts in marketing.

Instead of wasting money on online ads, you need to invest time creating content that expresses insights, demonstrates competence, and validates your experience. That approach to marketing not only generates good leads, but begins to do that all important function of establishing trust. Content marketing is a proven approach to marketing a creative service—online advertising is proven to waste your money.

Until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.