How important are Instagram followers? Five creatives on how to market yourself online

Studio Nari, Bráulio Amado, Miranda Barnes, Tess Smith-Roberts and Derrick Ofosu Boateng answer your questions surrounding the sticky subject of social media and networking online.

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Given the exceptional circumstances of this year, we at It’s Nice That approached our annual Grads series a little differently. In late April, we launched a survey calling all creative graduates to tell us what advice they need and from who. We’ve listened and now we’ve acted. As a result of the survey, this year’s advice pieces seek to answer the most pressing questions asked by those of you directly affected, from the people you wanted to hear from.

There’s no doubt that social media plays a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of the creative industries today. Whether you’re a five-hour-a-day scroller or still living that pre-smartphone life, there’s no denying it’s a ubiquitous presence. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is still open to debate, especially when it comes to bolstering your work.

For many creatives, platforms like Instagram have allowed them to cast the net wide, reaching prospective employers on the other side of the world, and it works vice versa too. We, for example, find the creatives we write about and commission in this way on a regular basis. What’s more, with no coding skills required and a uniform aesthetic to how imagery is displayed, there’s a level of accessibility that using social media as a portfolio grants – it levels the playing field as, really, all you need is an internet connection.

There’s a flip side to all this, though. With more accessibility comes more, well, people. And the onslaught of content can feel overwhelming. There’s pressure for creatives to have perfectly curated feeds and to be putting out work on a regular basis. Sometimes it can even feel like the worth of your work is measured by your follower count. But even if you nail all the above, how do you know what to post? How do you get your profile in front of the eyes of the right person? And is it really worth all the effort in the end?

Here, Studio Nari, Bráulio Amado, Miranda Barnes, Tess Smith-Roberts and Derrick Ofosu Boateng weigh in on the subject.

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Studio Nari

Caterina Bianchini

Caterina is the Scottish Italian founder and creative director of Nari, a creative consultancy and branding studio based in London, established to bridge the gap between design and art. Nari’s clients include Nike, Apple, Boiler Room, the Barbican and Selfridges & Co.

How important is it to distinguish between your personal and professional life online?

We have previously had creatives apply for positions in the studio and their application portfolio is sometimes just their Instagram handle. This obviously presents some of their design work but there also tends to be a sprinkling of personal shots in there too. For me, I don’t really want to see your personal life documented on a tool you are using to present your work – it's really distracting and in turn removes a lot of the thoughtfulness from what you are showing. Ideas are lovely little imaginary things that happen in your head and they should be protected and showcased in an environment that elevates them. Just like pieces in a gallery, the noise around them should be removed so you can concentrate and appreciate them. Seeing your beans on toast #foodporn alongside a beautiful concrete poetry layout really ruins things… Keep ‘em separate!

What benefits are there to having a strong online presence?

There are huge benefits. Social media is a way of communicating with people and it should feel like that’s what you’re doing with your audience. Giving them an insight into your process, your ideas or your inspiration, especially if you are working in the creative industry. I don’t want to be served constant content that looks highly curated or like a shop window; I much prefer posts that pose a question or spark an idea. It should feel like you’re having a chat, not performing a well-rehearsed presentation. I think that is actually where a lot of people get it wrong and find their engagement goes down, because the content becomes expected or predictable.

We use our Instagram as a way of showing things we are working on, or processes – I like to think of it as a digital scrapbook and try not to be too precious about what we show. I think if your Instagram is just an extension of your portfolio or website, it isn’t interesting – it’s not communicating, it’s just another way of advertising.

If someone reaches out to you, what catches your eye? And how should they reach out?

The studio definitely tends to work with people who want to create something adventurous or who are open to seeing what that could look like. So with that in mind, if a graduate was to reach out to the studio, we would always be looking for a thinker rather than a doer. Creativity for me is thoughts, it’s the way someone thinks, how their imagination works. That’s number one. Then number two is how they apply those thoughts, how they capture that essence of conceptuality in something that could work in the ‘real world’. A good creative should have an understanding of conceptuality and an understanding of craft.

The things that catch my eye are those ideas that feel strange and new or include a deliberate wrongness. Because for me, strangeness and imperfection are the most beautiful. I think it’s very easy for someone to learn how to use a design programme or design according to textbook traditions but it’s impossible to teach someone how to think.

If they were to reach out, I’d say do something unusual, or extra. When we receive printed goods in the post or little objects, that really catches my attention. I always try to make a point of contacting that person to say thank you. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, just a simple thing that will stick in someone’s head.

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Bráulio Amado

Bráulio Amado

Originally from Portugal, Bráulio is a designer and illustrator living in New York City. Having previously held positions at Pentagram in New York, Bloomberg Business Week and Weiden + Kennedy, he’s been running his own studio, Studio BAD, since 2017.

Do you have any advice for those experiencing imposter syndrome? Is it something you’ve ever experienced yourself?

I didn’t feel imposter syndrome until I got further in my career as a graphic designer and illustrator. So if you have just graduated and feel it, THE WORST IS YET TO COME! Kidding – I think everyone feels it and it’s a normal thing. We are creative people and a lot of the stuff we do has our personal touch or angle on it, and being insecure or having doubts about what we do is part of what makes us ‘us’. The main thing is to figure out how to get over it – the way I deal with it is to start a new project right away so I don’t have to think about what I did before. I don’t think this is the best way to deal with it, but...

How often do you post your work on social media? And what kind of things do you post?

I post quite a lot, and part of it is because of imposter syndrome. If I do something new every day, I don’t have to worry or feel insecure about what I posted yesterday. When I started a few years ago, my work definitely wasn’t as mature as it is today, and just putting something out in the world on a daily basis, even if it was a sketch, an experiment, a photo, or a finalised project, helped me be less precious about it. I would often do quick drawings just to post something. Eventually, I ended up becoming the designer for a club that has parties and events almost every night. So nowadays I post a lot because I pretty much have to do a poster a day (well, this was before coronavirus). But definitely, one post a day is the max.

How useful a tool has social media been for your career? Has it been something you have intentionally utilised?

I hate to admit it, but Instagram was and is a crucial tool for my career. Something I was doing for fun all of a sudden became serious, with people following my work and clients wanting to hire me through Instagram DMs. I would say I get more DMs about work than proper emails nowadays. It’s so weird. I don’t think clients even check my website anymore?

At the same time, I hate that I’m part of this platform that’s owned by Facebook and I wish I didn’t depend on it. I mean, it’s crazy that I have +70k followers, I have no idea how that happened. I don’t post my face or photos of my life outside work on it because it feels weird. I don’t want people to know what I look like, I just want to design and draw cool stuff, and get hired to do more of it. Anyway, I hope someone starts something new, or that Instagram vanishes forever and people end up getting back to websites and emails.

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Miranda Barnes

Miranda Barnes

Based in Brooklyn, New York, Miranda received her Bachelor of Arts in Humanities and Justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice before turning to photography full time. She was an INT Graduate in 2018 and has since gone onto exhibit across the US, was made a Magnum Foundation fellow in 2019 and her clients include The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Time.

Do you feel the pressure to promote yourself? If so, how have you dealt with this in the past?

Naturally, I find that I am a good networker, so I never had too much of an issue promoting myself. But at one point last year, I definitely felt I was putting pressure on myself way more than I should have. I’ve learned, like many people, that social media is a facade, and people are showing you what they want you to see. I’ve started to remind myself of this, and it helps with the pressure of feeling like I always have to have something in the works. Mental and emotional health comes first, always. I started to practice this and make it part of my daily routine, and I now find it’s easier to navigate the ups and downs that come with being a creative.

How important do you think having a strong/consistent social media presence is for those entering the creative industries?

That’s a tough question. I do think that people in positions of power still use social media as a determining factor on whether or not they should hire you! Not all, but some. This pandemic has changed things, though, and it will be interesting to see what will happen post-quarantine.

I do believe having consistent social media helps, but I’ve also learned that it’s important to have a personality online. Many times, editors or producers want to make sure that – not only can you complete a commission – but you can also make whoever you are photographing feel comfortable and less nervous if needed.

How many of your commissions come through Instagram vs your website?

One of the first commissions I received was for The New York Times through an editor who found my work via Instagram! I did, however, have a website to show some more of my work (which wasn’t much at that point!). I think I get a fairly decent amount through my Instagram, but having an up-to-date website is crucial.

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Tess Smith-Roberts

Tess Smith-Roberts

Tess grew up in Norwich before heading to Kingston School of Art where she studied illustration. After graduating in 2019, Tess quickly established herself in the industry, moved to London and was signed by Synder New York. Her clients include Rimowa, The New York Times and Soho House.

What tips can you give new grads reaching out to art directors, studios or prospective employers?

Make sure your email is personal to whoever you’re sending it to! I think that’s really important, nobody likes a blanket email. Maybe mention a project they did that you like, or why you think you’d be a good fit to work with the company. I would also send your portfolio as a link to your website instead of an attachment, to make sure it won’t go to their Junk folder.

I found making a spreadsheet of people I’ve contacted and when really helps. It’s good to stay organised, and this also means you won’t accidentally email someone twice. Also, remember that a lot of people won’t reply! I’d say a good 80 per cent of my reaching-out emails go unanswered. This is not a reflection on you at all but art directors must get so many emails that they couldn’t possibly reply to all of them. Also, if they do reply, you might not get work with them for a few months, if at all – it depends if they have a project they feel will suit you or not. If you haven’t heard anything at all, though, maybe in a few months’ time send them an update of your portfolio. But definitely don’t spam them with emails!

Have you ever found yourself comparing your work to others online? What are the positive and/or negative impacts of this?

Yes, all the time! It’s so easy to do, I feel like everyone does. Especially in a time when other peoples’ work is so accessible! Sometimes when I see a really great piece of work, I’m like, “Damn…. Why didn’t I think of that!? Why is my work not as great as theirs!” Which is obviously not a good way to think about yourself and what you do. It can fill you with self-doubt, but then I guess in some ways, it might push me to make better work.

Do you have any tips for those interested in growing their following on social media? And would you recommend this as a goal?

Just keep making things you like, and post them whenever you want to. Don’t make things for social media, make them for yourself. And then hopefully people will see how great you are, and you might grow your following at the same time. But also if you don’t gain lots of followers, who cares! As long as you’re happy and enjoying the work that you’re making, then that’s all that matters.

I guess having a larger following does also mean getting more work, and getting paid to do what you love, which is great! So in that sense, I think aiming to have one is good, but you shouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself. If you’re passionate about what you do, I think that will come across in your work. By sharing it, hopefully people will recognise this and you will gain more of a following, and maybe more clients. But I don’t think it’s essential to being successful. If you have great work and love what you do, and get in contact with potential clients, then you will definitely get work. So ultimately, I don’t think the number of followers you have matters.

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Derrick Ofosu Boateng

Derrick Ofosu Boateng

Based in Accra, Derrick is a photographer who captures the world around him in all its vibrancy, solely on an iPhone. He first started taking photos on his father’s phone and was encouraged to take up the profession full time after receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback on Instagram in 2017.

What tips would you give to emerging creatives for getting noticed by prospective employers? How have you used social media in the past to do so?

Emerging creatives should come out with their own peculiar style which stands as their identity. The world is changing and prospective employers go looking for innovative and creative people. Also, they should be consistent and must work hard to always be relevant in their field. Being consistent in the creative industry is key to getting recognised! I feel emerging creatives should spend more time on analysing and thinking about the works they want to create in order for them to put out good work. Finally, hard work is very important for everyone, whether you’re emerging or professional.

Do you think it's still important for creatives to have a website, as well as an Instagram account? And why?

Instagram is an extraordinary media for publicising your work, however your website should exist and be a place where the intention of your work is exceptionally evident and where it’s easy to have an exchange of some kind. Instagram contains a small amount of information, meaning it’s an ideal place to attract potential clients. On the other hand, a website gives more opportunity for nuance; progressively indulgent in substance, and authenticity.

Have you ever felt pressure to post work or keep up a certain image online?

No, I haven’t felt pressure to post online. I take delight in the work I do. I hardly ever pressure myself to do anything. I take my time to edit my works and so, therefore, I feel no pressure deleting them. Before I bring up a concept or a work, I make sure I’m confident in myself and also have confidence in the work about to be posted. Creativity involves critical thinking and therefore if you allow yourself to be under pressure, you will hardly think well.

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.

rbd@itsnicethat.com

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