25 Ways You are Failing at Promoting Yourself, Your Products and Your Work

Self promotion. Whether the words stir up enthusiastic excitement or deep-rooted repulsion inside you, there is no doubt of its importance to those of you for whom attracting clients and buyers is important.

The more flexible, in control, and independent we want to be in our craft, the more of an understanding of self-promotion we need.

The trouble is, many creative freelancers, and self-employed people in general, are walking into a life of independent work with little understanding of what works and what does not work, especially when the rules, at least on the surface, are changing.

I plan on looking at promotion and marketing a lot more closely through Red Lemon Club over the coming weeks, but for now, let’s look at those things that are not working, so that you know what to leave out of your promotion strategy (and what to start putting in):

1. Being too ‘salesy’

The fact is that people are no longer switched on to anything that sounds like a sales pitch or to anything that sounds like someone is trying to sell them anything, full stop. Selling in a ‘salesy’ way may have worked in 1945, not so much today.

“Selling in a ‘salesy’ way may have worked in 1945, not so much today.”

Selling these days is a gradual process, one in which you nurture a positive emotional connection with potential clients and customers, giving them a choice as to whether they want to buy from you or not.

In my view, it’s ok to make people aware of a sale, product or launch about 5-10% of the time, amongst people who already know you and already have some rapport with you.

No more than that.

2. Thinking only about the short term

Shift your perspective from short- to long-term. In the short term, you want to sell your product or service today, or you want more newsletter subscribers today, so you push your sales pitch onto anyone and everyone in one go, all in one day.

With a long-term perspective, you work at it bit by bit day by day, taking small steps in building trust with people from the ground up. You’re dedicated to working on building a legacy, not being a one-hit wonder.

3. Not knowing your product

What is it that you are selling? Sounds obvious, but you need to be completely clear in your mind as to what it is you have of value to offer people, and how it can benefit them. Then, it becomes easier to explain to people why they need your product, especially when they can sense your own enthusiasm for a product that you actually ‘get’.

4. Having no system

Promoting your stuff without a system in mind will inevitably lead to frustration and burnout.

Sure, you may find the occasional success by sending out thousands of emails or the odd tweet about something, but by not having an idea as to why you are doing what you are doing, you will struggle.

An example of a system would be in setting target-oriented goals using specific means, such as getting hold of ten leads every week through engaging on forums, and then following up with each lead within 5 days or acquiring them. Another example would be in attracting 300 new subscribers to your newsletter each month via your blog posts and other means, and keeping them interested through weekly newsletters and further, ongoing engagement.

“By not having an idea as to why you are doing what you are doing, you will struggle.”

A good system should be tailored to your preferences and your style, and what works for you. In today’s environment, you get back what you put in, and the more of a defined system you have in place, the more efficient these efforts will be.

5. Not knowing the basics

It’s a little known (or known, just often forgotten) secret that a huge reason as to why some people are good at some things and not at others, is simply knowing (the basics and more) of what you are doing.

This means getting some books out and reading some articles (like this one and others!) on how to promote your work and attract new customers and clients. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be at an even further advantage by learning the specifics of how to market your work.

6. You are not demonstrating credibility

Having a wonderful portfolio of quality work can often be all it takes to convince a prospect of your applicability for a project. This is one form of credibility. However, there are many other forms of credibility that you can, and should make obvious to potential clients.

This includes demonstrating expertise in an area in your field through blogging, teaching and newsletters, testimonials, past clients and awards. Actively and consistently engaging with an ever-growing group of people and followers, will too build your credibility as a professional.

7. You look desperate

One of the biggest turn-offs for prospects and potential buyers of your stuff is when you are transferring the message that you lack something. If it sounds like you absolutely need something, it looks desperate, and you discredit yourself and the value of what you can provide.

An example of this is asking for a Facebook like without even knowing the person you are asking, saying anything ‘salesy’, or hammering a 50% off sale all day through Twitter.

“If it sounds like you absolutely need something, it looks desperate, and you lose credibility.”

Find another way. That way is to introduce people to your product by engaging with, and helping others all the time. If your product is truly remarkable, which it should be, people you attract into your sphere will help market it for you.

8. Promoting all at once

Keep any obvious promotion to a small proportion of the overall action you are taking and focus on sharing pieces of what you do bit by bit. It’s better to email two or three people a day every day, than five hundred in an impersonal, bulk email whenever you remember to.

9. It’s all about you

Keep reminding yourself that the art of self-promotion isn’t about the self at all. It’s not all about you. You need to be thinking about your audience; your market; your people and what you can bring to them, and what you can do to improve their lives, and serve them.

Give advice, write interesting stories and blog posts to inspire others, promote the work of other people and businesses. These are things that bring people to your own brand, indirectly, and these are things that will get people to spread the word about you.

10. Stomping instead of treading lightly

Be sure to direct an awareness to how you are coming across in places that are visible, such as on social media sites. The dangers of upsetting the trust and perception people have of you wherever you go are now very real.

Avoid being aggressive, pushy, controversial and insulting. Tread lightly. Think before you speak. People will respect you for it.

11. Not doing the ‘tedious’ stuff

Too often overlooked is the ‘small’ stuff. All those things you think you don’t have time for because they are too monotonous, tedious, small-scale, boring or hard work. Little and seemingly difficult things are often the most important.

If you do these things, such as writing a meaningful blog post, especially when you don’t feel like doing them, you will be a cut above so many others.

A lot of things you can outsource, but a huge chunk of hard work is unavoidable, especially when it comes to dealing with people, responding to emails and questions, and simply serving people.

“Little and seemingly difficult things are often the most important.”

If you look into the memoirs of successful people, you will see the ‘tedious’ work they went through to get where they got. As they mostly had passion for what they were doing, this tedious work would have actually been enjoyable, because an appetising goal was in sight, and it can be the same for you too.

12. Not expanding your people base

This should be a central element to the work you do in generating exposure for your work.

Even though you may have several loyal and great clients, your business is stagnant if you aren’t continually (and I don’t mean to the point that you are exhausted – it’s a gradual process) bringing in new people to your circle of influence.

13. Misunderstanding the value of word of mouth

The most effective form of promotion that exists, is when other people tell others about how good your product or service is.

What are the best ways to increase the likelihood of your service spreading through word of mouth? By being surprising, and going the extra distance for your clients. People are unlikely to talk about you much if you are just ‘good’ at what you do. Go extra.

14. Directing your marketing to the wrong places

Knowing where and to whom to direct your promotional efforts comes with an understanding of your product or service and your targeted group. Once you know for certain what kind of people will benefit from what it is you do, then you will be clearer on the direction in which to point your self-promotion effort.

The first place you should be looking to make contact with is where your previous clients are. Repeat business is a very real thing. Get previous clients on your newsletter and keep them updated that way. Better still, get them on contact list so that you can eventually reach out to all of them individually.

15. Not continually learning or adapting

This is a follow on from point 5. Once you know the basics (and beyond) of what it is you need to be doing as part of your promotional strategy and business as a whole, you can’t stop there. Things change, people change, fashions change, and you need to be continually learning and adapting to stay on top of the game (it is, after all, effectively an exciting game you are playing).

When you stop learning, and adjusting and improving based on what you’ve learnt, you are losing ground.

16. You do not have a mentor

Having people to learn from and look up to as you go along, whether a direct friend, coach or colleague, or someone who’s insight you can follow indirectly (such as in a book), is hugely valuable. A mentor has been there before, gone through failure and experienced success.

Taking this experience is invaluable, especially when you can refer to this someone over the long term.

Get as close as you can to any kind of mentor, who has been there before and the benefits will be profound.

17. You do not use stories

Telling stories as a backdrop to the way you present yourself as a brand in any setting has tremendous power. Story-telling has always resonated well with human beings and hooking in our interest.

Use interesting stories to create a context around what (and why) you are sharing, and you will move from simply being a faceless provider of something, to a real, juicy, flesh and blood person that we can relate to.

18. You don’t truly love your craft or product

Do you really have a strong interest? One that keeps you motivated just by thinking about it? Or perhaps you are doing something that simply gets you by. If it’s closer to the latter, that might explain why it’s tough to try and sell something that you’re just not massively proud of.

Work on something that you’d want people to know about. Promotion will then inevitably be easier.

19. You are failing to make use of technology

If you are turning your nose up at technology, not to mention the huge value technology of all shapes, media and sizes possesses in aiding your promotional activities, you could be falling behind.

Scratch that, you are falling behind.

20. Relying too much on technology

On the other hand, it’s very easy (and addictive) to get eaten alive by the attractiveness of various forms of technology so that you end up with too much to do with too many options and too much complexity. This way you also fall behind, and never really gain a foothold anywhere.

Strike a balance; see where things are working, and what technology can (and doesn’t) work for you; keep things simple, and you will reap the rewards.

21. You are driven solely by money

If the ultimate reason for what you are doing is linked to monetary gain, you need to either re-adjust your focus so that developing your craft/work and bringing it to the world becomes your main priority, or find something else to work on that you can become genuinely excited about.

Having your eye on financial reward for your work is absolutely fine, in my view, and a great motivator. But if a passion for the work you do falls too far behind, you will likely fail to succeed.

This imbalance will shine through via shoddy, rushed work and various other unpleasant manifestations.

22. Not presenting a defined product

When it comes to your actual product or service, we have already talked about the importance of knowing what exactly it is you are ‘selling’, as well as who exactly you should be directing your marketing towards.

This is all important stuff that come before presenting your product to real people.

The next hugely important thing is in presenting something that is really obvious to people. No matter how ‘original’ what you have might be, people need to be exactly 100% clear on exactly clear what it is they could potentially be using or buying and how they will benefit from it.

23. You are shouting, not having a conversation

This is a nice analogy to think of when getting the word about your stuff out there. Instead of advertising your work (shouting, blabbing on about yourself), you need to be listening, engaging with people and adding to the value of other people’s lives (conversation).

Quit shouting so loud and listen!

24. Forgetting to make use of past clients

Past clients, of all the potential people you might work with in the future, are the most likely to work with you again.

Take advantage of this and keep them in your networking loop. Treat them well, and add to their success as a means to have them remember you when they next come to needing your services.

Also don’t forget to ask previous clients for things after a job is over. Getting a good testimonial from one is gold. Use it and post it on your site or with your products (with permission).

“Past clients are the most likely to work with you again.”

Ask a client you had a good experience with to recommend referrals of other appropriate prospects for you after a job. More often than not, they’d be happy to help or at least recommend someone they know who may be able to work with you. Asking is underrated and so often fruitful.

25. Your work is not different

Like with any product (and this applies to your services), make sure you differentiate yourself from the rest through the work you do. The way you work with people also falls into this. Being different means you stand out. Standing out is noticeable and memorable. Think and be different (thanks Apple).

As these points show, promotion is not just promotion. It permeates throughout everything you do when you have a product or service to share with the world. Understanding it and how you might be doing it in such a way that restricts your success as an independent creative or freelancer is hugely important.

There are other points and I’m sure many stories people have if they are willing to share, so do contribute in the comments below!



  1. Some interesting points…it would have been nice to seen things worded in the positive…as understanding what we arent doing….doesnt automatically suggest a better way

    …also…I am not sure about the term “making use of your current clients”……

    …maybe “finding new ways to engage and involve” might be slightly more elegant than “making use!… what do you think?

  2. Thanks Neil, I use the term ‘make use’ in the nicest way :). I fear if this post would have been too positive you may never have read it through to the end!


  3. Hmmm..

    …i dont understand how giving people answers or some interesting questions to stimulate more useful activity… rather than identifying problems would prevent reading?

    maybe its just me 🙂

  4. This is very insightful. And thanks!
    I find that making more ‘money’ gets to the most of us. It’s hard to find that balance in doing what you love and making a good amount. I guess we should consider putting our hearts in what we do first. 🙂

  5. Great advice, as usual 🙂 I particularly like the comment about knowing what you are selling. It’s too tempting to try and show multiple styles but I’m learning how important it is to have a strong brand image and apply it in many ways. I’ve seen Orla Keily use her most popular design a gazilion ways, and it’s somehow made me like her patterns even more. Interesting. Maybe that’s the secret behind Snoopy’s ongoing success.

  6. Hey Alex,
    Thanks for posting this and previous posts, just to let you know this is all beneficial, applicable and inspiring to music people too!
    Keep posting please! : )

  7. Knowing what you’re selling?
    …it’s too tempting to try & show multiple styles!
    Bit of a conundrum (great word) there for a lot of freelance illustrators, one day I’m asked to create an illustration aimed for kids the next maybe a graphic cutaway!
    I enjoy doing both and get payed for both!
    Really love seeing the work of illustrators who have and work in a very distinctive style…but what if you dont!
    Be great to hear comments on this.

  8. Alex, really enjoyed your post my work is in a bit of flux at the moment and I’m trying to distill what I do. So very helpful reminders. Thanks

    Perhaps another to add is make it easy for people to get in touch with you. For example I noticed Helena Juhasz comment and clicked on her profile. She has a blog full of cartoons = visually intriguing. But there are no other details about her on her blog like how to reach her, follow her on social media or what type of work she is doing, looking for.

  9. Jan…often what you are selling isnt your direct service or product – but what your service means to the buyer

    …for instance…

    if you always deliver compelling images on deadline sell that..

    …if you sell the most avante guarde illustrations, sell that…

    …if you ar really focussed on delivering excellent service to help your clients figure out what they want in the first place….sell that

    I know this sounds a bit marketing-y but try and understand what the brand value of your creative practise is…and what makes it special…and then make those values the core of your marketing messages to clients

    • Thanks @Neil, all very true with reference to @Jan – it’s not necessarily about making the selling point all about the art/craft itself. But I do think you are limiting your ability to succeed if you do not present a clear skill with a clear style that makes it yours — even if it is constantly evolving and developing. If you do work in multiple materials and styles, I would suggest marketing each one as if you were a different entity, even brand. If it’s all in one place, you are watering down what you have in the eyes of prospects.

      For example, Nate Williams works in two styles, and actually has two different personas, separate sites and separate brands to make each distinct from the other (his own name and his other pseudonym: Alexander Blue).

      http://www.alexanderblue.com/ (more whimsical, aimed at younger audiences)


      http://www.n8w.com/ (aimed at older audience)

  10. Mathieu, excellent! Yes, these ideas apply to anyone with a craft, skill, service or a ‘product’ of any kind.

  11. @alex exactly….this is why Nate williams has two separate website channels for his work….

    The stylistic impact of each of his strands of his creative work has a different meaning to his audiences…

    The thing about marketing a particular style is that it is a taste based offer (like/dont like)…and making your offer about what you bring as a creative/business/service provider can offer scope for negotiation around style which is more flexible and more taste based

    This is why really successful creative companies build their product offer on their core values, approaches and processes rather than their outputs end style…

    For instance Anthony Gormley brings the same research methods to a private commission and to a community project…which is what makes his art so amazing…

    Spencer Tunick brings a particular methodology of taking pictures rather than a description of what the pictures will look like

    …both…are concentrated on the value within the offer, not just of the stylistic end product

  12. Thanks Neil, Alex both

    Coming at me from two not disimilar angles,
    but REALLY helpful

    … in that, what you’re actually offering?… & how to broaden your market without compromising your workstyle, gives me plenty of food for thought! Thanks

  13. WOW! Skimmed & printed….I’m swept up in this currently as there has been a recent wave of interest in my work…Need to improve my PR efforts, I think, and this will be helpful. Thanks!

  14. Alex,
    Great points as usual. I would add consistency to the mix. Similar to the long-term view you mentioned. Developing a schedule for self-promotion is very helpful. Something many of us creatives have a difficult time with. Myself included.

  15. Alex for being very young, you have a very good and clear view about working with people, in ways that generate trust to help build relationships.
    I’ve learned in a very short time, about 4 years, on ebay, that the art I am making today while improving does not always appeal to my past customers, in the sense of them wanting to buy more. This year my number of clients is down considerably, yet most are all new clients and the bidding prices have increased with many of the sales. So It is not clear why my past customer is not still interested. I guess It might simply mean they love what they bought before, but do not need to buy more, in other words they are very happy as is. They enjoy seeing and reading my newsletters and so I continue to include them.
    Good review and when you write your review on those points that do work will be excellent contrast and a more complete picture.
    Jim Springett-wildlife painter

  16. @Neil great thoughts. Yes, your process, your values, your boundaries and your style all contribute to the overall picture people have of you when making decisions about hiring. The clearer this is, the better.

    Great to have a particular style as well as being known to deliver in a certain, consistent way (think Anthony Gormley), but I would imagine pulling off several styles by one person more difficult if they are not already very famous.

    @Jan, my pleasure, all the best with everything.

    @Loretta – good to hear of people printing this out!

    @Brian – absolutely – consistency is really one of the major bonds linking things together.

    @Revelle – thank you for your point!

    @Jim – it is difficult to say with art that is bought – it could well be that you need to keep expanding to attract new customers, if the art is of a ‘buy once and cherish’ nature!

  17. My question way back – great response from all!

    …changing the subject entirely “The Dandy”

    used to work for the Dandy many years ago, sad to hear they’re folding (print wise) a great learning curve!

    they’re going digital …is this the way for all the trad’ mags/comics etc

    …will they survive?

  18. Thanks everyone for the very interesting thread and great feedback. I will definitely make my contact info much more clear. Every day is that much closer to what I envision for myself 🙂

  19. @Jan I think the important question is whether content in a particular medium, like physical paper comic books will stick around, rather than the comics themselves, though fashions and trends do change.

    I think paper products will be massively affected in the way they are consumed, with digital replacing most of what is bought and read; though paper will never die out, in my view. I have a kindle, but still buy paper books.

    As for the Dandy itself, who knows? It depends on whether it’s still popular, and whether the creators re-invent it if it is struggling.

    @Helena, all the best to you!

  20. Hi Alex, and everyone else who has taken the time to comment!
    I mainly just wanted to say thank you Alex, I am not a big reader and I get distracted easily, so reading up on ‘how-tos’ is not a huge pass time of mine. HOWEVER, every time I receive an email with your tips, it is always appropriate, useful and digestible enough for me to take the time to read it. I just wanted to make sure you know that it is helping a lot and it is inspiring how dedicated you are. It is also always nice to feel/ know that there are plenty others at a similar stage in the game.
    Holly 🙂

  21. @Holly Sharpe, thank you for a really motivational comment. It’s always a real pleasure to hear feedback about how these tips are helping people. Thank you!

  22. Wonderful article, Alex. I actually read this word by word. This is actually what I need because I am still a little clueless as to how I will “promote” myself out there. I also don’t want to sound too preachy or too obvious in selling my services. 🙂

    • Thanks YK! Great to hear it 🙂 A lot of the way to best promote ourselves is actually the opposite of the way people think it should be.

  23. Thank you for the great article Alex.

    You have some very good points and some very painful ones as well. Haha. I’m certainly realizing that I’ve gotten so caught up in doing what I love that I’ve missed the mark on many of these valid strategies. Thank you for the reminders and all of the supporting information. I’m going get going on those goals and put together a “system” right after I finish subscribing 🙂

    • Wonderful to hear that, Brianna! It is easy to lose track when there is no system – I’d love to hear about yours! Thanks for subscribing, there will be plenty of extra information through the newsletter. Alex

  24. I was especially interested in the concept of separate identities for different styles. I’ll have to explore that further. When I started I learned watercolour and then decided to explore lots of other mediums like acrylic, pen & ink, oil, pastels etc. thinking that I would fall in love with one over all the others. Didn’t happen. I like them all. But I’m not getting any younger so I think I’ll choose two and concentrate on those going forward. Another point you mentioned that impacts me is to narrow down what I’m selling and not water it down by offering this, that, and the other. Lots of food for thought so thanks Alex.

  25. good article,I understand your message but my only credability is my portfolio.I cannot get enthusiastic about self promotion.I only look at my art at not at my market so I guess I am doomed to have lots of unsold paintings all over the studio..My only real hope is word of mouth but I know that GOOD is not enough -you have to be INCREDIBLE…..
    http://www.barry horner.com

    • My answer Barry is that if you want to create art – then absolutely go for it, and create in such a way that brings you alive.

      If you want to sell paintings to make money, then create paintings with an understanding of a market and how you can tailor your output to that market.

      The third way, is to strike the balance between the two, and that is what Red Lemon Club is about and what is in the interest in those of us who want to build sustainable careers as artists and craftspeople.

      Good luck!


  26. Great article! I just recently signed up with the site.

    PR is something I am doing for our little digital company now and the article gave me some new ideas and also confirmed some things I had suspected and noticed. The “telling stories” idea is just something I inherently do as part of my personality and that seems to be paying off in the forums I visit where some of our clients are. It definitely does give it the flesh and blood aspect and seems to make it more grass roots somehow . That aspect is important to us as we sell digital downloads and have the hope that they are not illegally shared too often.

    • Thanks Andrew! Story-telling is a great way to add some context and depth to your product, which will give your brand/product/service a lot of buoyancy in a sea of other products and competition (forgive my poor metaphor). Good luck!

  27. Thanks for the reminder. Concentrating on client work, while it is the core of my business, can sometimes blot out the other business needs I’m overlooking. I see a ton of lists like this, yours are always well thought out.

  28. Enjoyed your article. I think your points are valid. It’s very difficult, though, to walk that fine line between being too pushy and not being pushy enough.

  29. Great list, Alex, I will actually print it out too, as a visual reminder, since promoting yourself isn’t something one is ever “done with”.

    Being precise, charming and confident in communicating what I bring to the table as well as mentioning two to three former renowned clients has worked wonders for my mailing list.

    Researching contacts can easily take up a big chunk of a chosen workday though and I could be better at spreading it out over the work week.

    Keeping it steady is definitely one of my challenges 😉

  30. Alex, thanks so much for your generosity in posting this article. Great information, and an excellent reminder of how much things have changed in the last few years.

    As you write in the first item in your list, “Selling these days is a gradual process, one in which you nurture a positive emotional connection with potential clients and customers, giving them a choice as to whether they want to buy from you or not.”

  31. @Dave, thank you. That is appreciated.

    @Kate Thanks for your comment! I don’t think it should be difficult once you have grasped the concepts and shifted mindset. It shouldn’t be about choosing to be pushy in any sense of that word, however, but more along the lines of what was discussed in the article.

    @Sarah Great to see you are getting results! And yes, consistency really is a powerful thing once we grab a hold of it.

    @Joanne thank you!

  32. Thanks Alex for the succinct way you wrote this piece.
    Having passion for a business is key and one of the most important things for me was to balance this with the ” the long term” strategy! Things don’t happen over night and nurturing is key to our business in every sense and I have had to accept that I can’t work at my normal pace as everyone else needs ” time” .
    Adaptability and changing with the shifting sands of ecommerce, financial downturns and social trend is essential to any business these days and supporting creative people who are not tuned into that is challenging but also rewarding in the long term.
    Learning something new every day is essential development and reading your article made me smile because it gave me the confidence to know that I was on the right track even though I have a long way to go- along with every one else!
    Financal reward is important to make a business survive, but I agree that without vision and focus on other more positive issues, this can turn into very negative results.
    The momentum of people working together is so important for any business and the artisans and businesses joining us now do so because they want to be part of something a little bit different and like what we are trying to do. I call it collective co-operation.
    Thank you again. I will join your newsletter and await more informative tips!

  33. Really useful article, thank you. So much of it rings true, especially the ‘mentor’ aspect, in it’s various guises. Making art can be really solitary and such a huge part of learning and growing is social.
    Also, my best opportunities have always been through word of mouth, so it’s great being reminded that the web is a large scale extension of that. All the best, Bex.

  34. Great article Alex :-).

    I think the main take-aways I get from this (and what’s worked for me) are:

    – You have to put something in to get something out

    – Not just your product, but the whole feel of your company has to be uncluttered and easily understandable. From top to bottom.

    – Like everything else, perseverance is critical. I totally get what you mean about being in it for the long term. In the past i’d always half ass it promoting my projects, but now I keep going and I have gotten SO much more out of it. What’s that quote people say “The point you feel like giving up is the point you should continue” or something much more articulate!

  35. Hi Alex

    …everything is changing so fast!

    You have to look at what you’re doing and read and follow as much as your time allows – get a lot of reality checks from reading you and the comments/replies from the RLC (don’t mean that to sound like a political group)

    Have to update and add more info to my stuff!
    A definite….to state the obvious deduced that partly from reading your articles!….Thanks!

    Alex when I get the email come in from RLC I always get three of the same email are you just really keen to make sure I read ’em! or is there some kinda glitch!


  36. Alek; Phenomenal Site with amazing articles. I am going out on my own in business and Red lemon is fast becoming a quick ref bible.
    Have a great weekend

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