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Marketing and Selling Work in a Difficult Economy

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In the past 10 years, the U.S. economy has suffered two serious and prolonged recessions. One might assume reasonably that before the next decade is over, there will be at least another. The U.S. economy is resilient, but knowing that better times will return eventually doesn't help anyone in the middle of a downturn. Some full-time artists may find that they need to get a part-time job, while others will put renewed effort into strengthening ties with current collectors and establishing awareness among prospective ones. What to do: In that latter category, artists should become more involved in their communities in a public way, such as giving a talk or writing an article in a local newspaper on some arts-related subject, establishing themselves as experts in their fields. Similarly, taking part in a local charity benefit or community project has the potential of generating free publicity. The local media may be willing to profile a specific artist only once every so often, but teaming with other groups (Chamber of Commerce, Habitat for Humanity, Rotary International, a local museum or school, for instance) offers additional opportunities for one's name and work to be brought up in a positive way.

Artists should make a greater-than-usual effort to remember the names of the people they meet, following up with a written nice-to-meet-you note and the hope of meeting again. Additionally, responses to emails and telephone calls should be prompt, because a prospective buyer's interest may wane if that person is kept waiting. Creating a lasting and favorable impression can make the difference between finding and losing a possible buyer.

Artists with websites should take a second look at how easily they can be found by someone making a search; if their site doesn't come up high in a search, they might alter their Meta-tags or improve their links. Perhaps, text messaging and videos might be added to their methods of alerting current and would-be buyers to the completion of new work, exhibitions or other events.

Of course, when finances are strained, ordinarily enthusiastic buyers may show reluctance to make any purchases, which may prod artists to offer extended payment terms, such as layaway (down payment now, then monthly installments for two or three months until the object is paid for and can be taken by the buyer) just letting the collector take the work (putting down, say, half the purchase price and paying off the rest over a negotiated period of months). This type of flexibility creates potential risks for artists -- will the artist need to hire a repossession company if the buyer stops making payments? -- but is more likely to generate good will and more sales.

Another possibility is to accept payment (in whole or in part) in the form of barter, such as goods (appliances, food, furniture, or an automobile, for instance) or services (such as the preparation of a tax return, legal advice or dentistry). Barter is taxable at the ordinary market rate -- a lawyer may charge hundreds of dollars per hour -- and must be reported as income to the Internal Revenue Service, so it might be advisable for artists in, say, the 15 percent tax bracket to be paid at least that amount in cash. However, the absence of any actual cash as payment could make sense if a new buyer is a good prospect to become a regular collector. Yet another option is to create a loyalty or rewards program for regular and long-time collectors, which many companies offer to their customers, offering a discount on their fourth purchase after they have bought three, for instance. "Easier terms are better than discounting prices," said William B. Conerly, an economist in Lake Oswego, Oregon who consults for businesses, "and the best customers are the ones who pay you."

On the other side, artists should examine their work and home expenses to determine if there are ways they could reduce spending. For example, artists who rely on professional photographers to produce images of their work may want to learn how to use a camera, or advertising that hasn't produced new buyers over a period of time might be eliminated.