Although many, if not most, people utilize social media in one way or another, I find that an honest discourse about its use as a legitimate tool for any sort of personal or business endeavor can either be quite taboo and often vitriolic, or full of misinformation and generic marketing slime. I’ve seen many people voice opinions such as "the numbers don’t mean anything to me" or "caring about engagement on social media is mental illness," and I find it interesting that this sort of sentiment often comes from individuals who are privileged to already have a large following and/or are already well-off due to other means. Under the right circumstances and depending on your goals, a social media following can be incredibly powerful and has provided many creators a livelihood that may never have been available to them otherwise. If you’re reading this, you probably know that.
At the time of writing I have a relatively substantial following for the niche I’m in, all things considered. Because of this increased visibility, I am able to allow work to come to me, rather than seeking it out actively. The amount of DMs and emails I get related to potential commissioned work varies, but in general I get at least five enquiries per month of various sizes and subjects. Many of these opportunities do not come to fruition, but some do, given I’m interested and have the time. My twitter presence has also allowed me to offer paid pixel art tutoring, find other artists to assist with game dev work, and facilitate collaborations like #mommymarch.
In the years I’ve spent in the pixel art community I have witnessed the rise (often slow, sometimes meteoric) of many other pixel artists as well as their inevitable periods of growth stagnation, and while there is certainly no silver bullet for social media success, there are some patterns I have noticed and some kernels of insight I hope may be useful to other artists hoping to increase the visibility of their work and improve the viability of freelance pixel art as a full-time job, as social media has done for me. Most of this has little to do with pixel art specifically, as it's not particularly different than any other creative endeavor. While Twitter is currently my main focus (as I enjoy the platform more and find it more conducive to the type of creator I want to be,) social media platforms, and the types of content that they prefer, are constantly in a state of flux, so I’m not going to focus too much on the specific requirements of each platform or strategies related to specific aspects of how each platform functions.
The Bare Minimum
There are some basic rules of thumb to consider when posting your art—especially your pixel art. If your work is presented poorly or is not uploaded correctly, it doesn’t matter how good the work is. Make sure you are up to date with the guidelines for uploading art by taking a look at the specific platform’s current documentation. I know that for Twitter this information can sometimes be quite obtuse or poorly documented, so when in doubt don’t be afraid to reach out to a fellow pixel artist or pixel artist group with questions about how to achieve the optimal clarity of your pixels. For platforms which do not support lossless file types (like Instagram,) sacrifices will have to be made, but you can still make an effort to make sure your pixel art appears as crisp as possible (such as upscaling and cropping your art correctly before uploading.)
Always use a private secondary Twitter account to test your work first. You never know how the algorithm is going to crop or compress your work (at least for the time being,) so it’s much smarter to experiment with and compare various versions of the same post in private rather than having to shamefully delete a tweet and upload it again, hoping no one noticed (they did.)
In general, I’d say watermarking or signing your art is a good idea, as if it does well online (or even if it doesn’t) it will be stolen and re-uploaded to Pinterest eventually. You have been warned. Try to make it as unobtrusive as possible, as an unnecessarily large signature only serves to highlight the modestness of a small or mediocre art piece. If an art thief wants to steal your work, they will find a way, no matter how big your signature is. I do also suspect that art without watermarks tends to perform better, unfortunately.
Also be wary of any rules and guidelines regarding content the specific platform may consider "NSFW" or otherwise unsuitable. (More on NSFW art later.)
If you are a pixel artist who is open for commissions or other paid work, make that clear in your profile. Make it easy for potential clients to contact you by having an email address or other off-platform method of contact available somewhere and by keeping your DMs open.
Your media tab is your art gallery. Images you retweet will not show up in this tab, but any reaction gifs or memes you post will. Memes can be a fun (and sometimes important) way of engaging with your audience, but be aware of what your ratio of memes to art is. If someone comes to your profile looking for a pixel artist to hire but they have to scroll and scroll in order to find a single sprite, they’re probably going to move on to someone else. Having an easily accessible link to a real portfolio somewhere in your profile is also a good idea.
The numbers are not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the art. This works both ways—there are incredible artists whose work goes unnoticed, while other less skilled or less experienced artists experience much greater success on social media, due to numerous interconnected variables which are impossible for anyone to fully understand or harness. While there are things you can try which may improve the performance of your posts, it’s not really in your control. It’s okay, and probably inevitable, to experience frustration when things do not do as well as you hoped or expected, but try to keep your emotional investment in each post to a minimum. Even as your follower count increases, the ratio of posts that really take off to posts that just do okay (relatively) will most likely be low. This means that social media does prioritize quantity over quality to some extent. You should do whatever you can to make the most of the body of work you have, without sacrificing your level of quality or emotional well-being too much.
One rule of thumb I’ve found helps diminish my emotional investment in individual posts is "don’t overthink it." You never know how anything will perform (even if you think you know, you don’t. Trust me.) I find it’s usually best to go with what comes naturally, as often those things do perform well, and even if they don’t you’ve invested a bit less time and emotional and mental energy in it.
At the time of writing, this tweet is my most successful one ever—I made the sprite in about two hours one evening on a whim, and did not at all expect it to do well:
This is one of the works I'm most proud of, and despite posting it countless times in various contexts, it never performs very well:
Here's a joke I wrote in two seconds that really resonated with people:
The point I'm driving home here is that you will never be able to predict what will work or what won't. The variables at play are much too complex, but you do have to be in it to win it.
Of course, there is no social media strategy that can make up for irredeemable work, (and even if you could somehow turn bad art into followers, it’s certainly not a good foundation for a successful career.). Unlike big corporations, most of us aren’t fortunate enough to have our own social media managers, and we must take this role on in addition to the hard work of actually making art. Most of your time should be spent honing your craft, so, to make the most out of all your thousands of hours of practice and labor, don’t be afraid to repackage and repost your work. Not everyone who follows you has seen each individual post, and your new followers almost certainly have not. You should prioritize reposting art which you last posted further back, but you can also find ways to frame or alter your new art in more than one context and get several posts out of each piece. You can also share your WIPs, but don’t be too surprised if the final piece ends up with less engagement than your initial sketch. It’s worth noting that if you are going to create several chances at success by posting variants of the same piece, you can also use this as an opportunity to share the work at more than one day of the week and/or time of day. There are some sites and infographics out there which claim to know the optimal posting windows for each platform—it’s maybe worth taking a look at those, but I would not recommend taking these as gospel. It’s often said that weekends are especially slow days for Twitter in particular—I do think I’ve found this to be true to some extent, but take a look at your previous posts and see if you notice any patterns in the days or times of your posts which do well or do really poorly. It’s worthwhile to check out any relevant hashtags (#pixelart) as well as your peer’s posting habits to see if there is any information to be gleaned there. If your social media schedule does not align with your ideal posting window, scheduling your posts is always a good option.
Find creative ways to invite engagement (even when you’re not posting art.) If someone is actively participating in social media, they probably want to feel heard. Giving people a simple choice (two or three options) is one way to make engagement more accessible to more people. Another way is to share a controversial opinion—but be wary, even a well-intentioned joke can and will be taken as offensive by some. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t read the comments.
On Trends and Authenticity
Social media is always changing—not only in the way the platforms literally function, but in the cultures and microcultures they’re made of and in their trends. If you’re going to hop on a trend, you better be quick, as it seems like things come in and out of relevancy faster and faster each day. I would not recommend an acute trend-chasing approach (riding the waves of things like current memes and trending hashtags) to most artists, as it requires a lot of active engagement in the digital zeitgeist and the ability to drop all other responsibilities at a moment’s notice, which many may not have the luxury of. Even so, you should observe the trends and make note of larger-scale, longer-term patterns you see within various art circles. Certain platforms make this easier than others—on Reddit you can sort by top within certain time frames, which can help you get a feel for what tends to do well. Each subreddit has its own culture which is also constantly evolving, but I’ve found that (in recent times at least) overwrought titles with some bit of a narrative often perform better.
Even the best pixel artist is not going to flourish in every style and subject matter possible. Everyone has their own level of versatility in their craft, and while IMO it is worth encouraging this quality in one’s self by going out of your comfort zone, it’s up to you to make the judgement call on what is worth investing your time in and what you would enjoy doing. Would you really want to become known for something you hated making and you dread making more of in the future? Unfortunately, people who follow you for a certain thing are unlikely to continue supporting you if you shift to an entirely different thing.
Trends do tend to be cyclical, and so your time may come and go and (if you stick around) come back again. If you’re in it for the long haul and you have plenty of patience, keeping consistent in your subject matter and style may be all right for you. Changing up your content and experimenting with things does introduce even more variables to consider, but as someone who does get bored of doing the same thing over and over, it’s worth it for the creative growth and potential of reaching different audiences.
When you are first starting out on a social media platform, it is crucial that you get some initial eyes on your work in one way or another. Using hashtags like #pixelart and #gamedev (if relevant) and sharing your work in mutual support threads, pixel artist discord servers, etc. can help with that initial push of visibility you need to get the ball rolling. So much of Twitter is about having the right pair of eyes on your tweet at the right time—certain eyes may be more valuable than others in terms of the traffic they can drive, but every eye is valuable.
However, the pixel art world is only so large—and maybe that’s just fine with you. Many pixel artists make a living without a large following; there’s nothing wrong with that. That said, large growth does tend to come from pixel art which is able to somehow break through the pixel art bubble and into the greater Twitter sphere, where more eyes with different networks of followers may see it and share. I suspect using hashtags like #pixelart in your post makes this more difficult, but you must weigh the costs and benefits yourself. I’ve found engaging in other Twitter communities outside of pixel art to be very fruitful, as other types of artists and creators have an even greater potential reach. Avoid the trap of marketing to pixel artists. Your audience is consumers and lovers of pixel art, not just pixel artists themselves. It's easy to get caught in this trap, especially early on—there is some value in building rapport with your peers, but ultimately we're not here for a circlejerk.
Art share threads and hashtag events (such as #visiblewomen and #portfolioday) can sometimes be a good way to boost the visibility of your work, especially early on when you may be struggling to get noticed. However, most people participating will not see significant traffic, and, not only will some view this as spam, it is speculated that the twitter algorithm may also factor in this behavior when determining how visible it will make you and your work. In the summer of 2019 I was shadowbanned for a period of at least several weeks, and while it is impossible to know why this occurred (as Twitter does not explain how or why shadowbanning occurs) it is possible that my participation in these sort of art share hashtags was a factor. I have since gone back and forth on whether or not this is something I’m willing to do—currently, I would recommend you be selective with this behavior, unless it’s something that seems to succeed for you consistently.
You can try to make people want what you’re making or you can try to make what people want to various degrees of success, but ultimately this is not a viable long-term solution. You need to find something that you can provide with dexterity and ease that people inherently want in that moment. Explore your personal interests and see if you think anything has potential. Assuming you are not psychic, you cannot make any real predictions on the success of your ideas, so these ideas must be tested. Ideally, these tests should require a minimal amount of time and effort—in other words, create an MVP (minimum viable product.) There are certain concepts which really cannot be executed in such a way, but if you have the time and the dedication then go for it. If you want to learn more about how testing and constant iteration are crucial to remaining competitive in our culture of disposability and abundance, check out The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
Engaging with your Community and Branding Yourself
In the ideal situation, the thing that you are best at, that you enjoy the most, and that comes easiest to you is exactly what many people want in that exact moment. If people are really hungry for what you’re serving up, it doesn’t matter what plate it’s on or how bad the service is. However, for the vast majority of us this is simply not the case, and so success on the platform requires some active engagement on our part as well as creative presentation of one’s work and oneself as an individual. Not only is posting and ghosting incongruous to the way social media inherently functions, it will not do you any favors in harboring good will from your peers and potential supporters.
Although not everyone has a lot of time to spend on social media, it’s very important to invest some of the time you do have towards engaging with your communities in authentic and creative ways. Your peers are not idiots. They can tell when they’re being used, and they know when you really don’t mean what you say. If you only engage with someone when you have something you are hoping they will help promote, they will probably notice. If you jump from project to project or subject to subject as soon as one doesn’t make you instantly rich and famous, they will probably notice.
Speaking of "instantly rich and famous," no, NSFW art is not a one-way ticket to Success Town, as I’ve seen many people suggest. While adult art is a legitimate and viable niche, there are many hurdles which accompany this genre, including any stated platform restrictions, secret platform restrictions (shadowbanning, etc,) and potential societal disenfranchisement—not to mention the artistic challenges inherent in any new subject matter you may choose to take on. Make sure you’ve thoroughly thought it through before moving into this sector, and I wouldn’t recommend it if it’s not something you truly enjoy and are fully comfortable with.
Your desperation is palpable. As a general rule, don't complain publicly about how something performs or how your work is performing in general. Nobody likes a complainer, and even if you get a couple of pity likes it isn't worth it in the long-run. You don't want your support to come from a feeling of pity.
Most growth will be slow and interspersed with periods of stasis. Occasionally, I will see someone rise quickly—this tends to occur when the individual has successfully created a gimmick in regards to their work and/or how they present themselves.
Those who are lucky enough to fall into an artistic gimmick which people seem to really enjoy and enjoy sharing reap the greatest benefit when they continue with this gimmick consistently until the well has run dry. Remember, people who supported you for one thing tend not to support you for another. It’s good to be known for something, to be "that guy that does X," but sometimes this thing can be unrelated or only tangentially related to your main artistic thrust.
People like to see a strong point of view, not only in your art but in your voice and in the way you present yourself. An interesting phenomenon I’ve observed is that nice guys do sometimes finish last, and that behaving like an asshole online does benefit certain individuals on social media, as in life. I suspect this works better for men, but I’m no scientist so I can’t say the evidence is conclusive here. Proceed with caution.
People tend to want to develop a parasocial relationship with you, which generally requires creating a fantasy of who you are and what your life is like through what you choose to share with your audience. No matter how attractive or consistent my art is, my life is not particularly *aesthetic*, and I don’t blame you if yours isn’t either. We all have our priorities. Just be aware that what you choose to share will play a role in creating a larger portrait of you and your narrative in the minds of others. Be thoughtful in what you choose to share, if anything. There are many artists who succeed while retaining their privacy, so if you don’t feel comfortable with sharing your face or your life this is a viable option—just know that some may find this path to be more of a struggle.
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to succeeding on social media, just as there's no way to "get rich quick." Anyone suggesting otherwise is just a charlatan out to make a quick buck. The most important thing is that you remain versatile but consistent—what worked yesterday may not work next week. The same piece of art that garnered thousands of retweets may not have received even a single like if it were posted an hour later or by a different person. Feel out the landscape, and adapt your approach in a way that you can comfortably sustain without it negatively affecting your life too much. As discouraging as it can be to languish in obscurity, the key quality of those who succeed on social media is patience (or having a lot of already successful friends who will boost you.) If you've got the talent to make art that people enjoy and engage with, you will grow your follower base, make professional connections, and maybe even meet some friends along the way.