Art tutorials are so hot right now, with creators from Dominic Qwek to Will Terrell inspiring thousands of budding artists to create their own work.
Naturally, we needed to take a closer look into the art of selling them as well, so we enlisted the help of James Gurney, author and illustrator of the New York Times best selling Dinotopia book series.
James has produced three art tutorial videos: How I Paint Dinosaurs, Australia’s Age of Dinosaurs, and Watercolor in the Wild. Each tutorial follows paintings all the way through from start to finish, with every step thoroughly documented and the author’s voiceover explaining the thinking behind the paint brush.
"’How I Paint Dinosaurs’ by James Gurney is a superb adventure into the world of hands-on professional illustration; using dinosaurs as the vehicle, it packs an entire art school into one engaging, thoroughly entertaining package."
—Terryl Whitlatch, creature designer and concept artist
In this case study, we focused on the launch of his most recent tutorial, Watercolor in the Wild, so you can see, step-by-step, how he got the word out. Enjoy!
What are the main tools/networks you use to reach your audience?
Although as a painter I use traditional, hand-made media like watercolor and oil, I have eagerly embraced some digital tools, such as blogging. I’ve written over 3,000 posts on a daily basis since for my blog, GurneyJourney.blogspot.com. On Facebook, I have 4800 friends on my personal FB and 10,700 likes on the public page, but I only use Facebook promotionally to echo blog posts.
On YouTube I’ve posted 118 videos, with 770,358 Views and 10,016 Subscribers. I regard YouTube mainly as a promotional ecosystem and as a testing ground for new ideas. I don’t do Twitter, Instagram, or any other social channels, and haven’t yet set up an email marketing system.
What were your main promotional strategies?
1. The build-up
I tried out Nathan Barry’s suggestion to announce early and build awareness over time. However, I’m starting at a bit of a disadvantage because I don’t have an email marketing account in place—I’m more of a MailChump than a MailChimp.
But thanks to Gumroad’s Customer Update system, I was able contact the 400+ people who had purchased my two previous videos. About two weeks before release, I sent an email to my Gumroad gang telling them what was coming. On my daily art blog GurneyJourney, I did a detailed blog post about a week ahead describing the upcoming release.
2. Launch day
The launch day was a Monday, a day that Google Analytics told me that my blog gets quite a bit of traffic. On Monday I released the two-minute trailer, which introduces the video and gives some excerpts. The Gumroad sales page actually went live the night before for my Gumroad customers with a 10% launch day discount.
3. A week of blog posts
I scheduled a “Watercolor Week" on the blog, set to kick off on the day of the launch. I created a week’s worth of posts that went deeper into each segment of the video. The purpose of each day’s post was to entice new customers, but I didn’t want to pitch too hard. I also wanted to deepen the experience of the paying customers and foster a sense of community among them.
On the day before Watercolor Week began, I showed a stack of all the YouTube thumbnail designs so people could see what was coming up. People said stuff like I’m so psyched for this! I can’t wait to place my order! and Really looking forward to the videos on Youtube :D (poor art student, so free is good right now :) ) That last person who can’t afford the download at the moment is just as important to me as the paying customers.
4. Blurbs and reviews
I produced a physical DVD to be ready when the Gumroad download launched. That gave me something physical to send to potential reviewers and blurb-writers. I had advance copies of the DVD in hand a couple weeks ahead of launch day.
I sent some out to a few artist friends, inviting their feedback. Fortunately, the first review came out a day before the launch, so I was able to include a link to that along with the kickoff announcement.
I also used Gumroad’s offer code feature to distribute about five digital review copies to magazine reviewers in other countries.
5. Value-rich content for free
On Tuesday I released a video excerpt about suggested art supplies. I embedded that video at the head of a long, information-rich blog post about the materials. Blog posts are better than videos for conveying such detailed information. I wanted people who had bought the video to be able find this information, so I captioned that section of the video with a search suggestion so that they could find it.
I released two other five-minute excerpts of the video, totaling about 25% of the for-sale content. Each video ended with links back to the Gumroad sales page. I also put live links in the YouTube description panel. Within two weeks of release, these videos have racked up a total of over 20,000 views.
Each sample clip has intrinsic value as a stand-alone video, but it also serves as a promotion for the full video. While it’s hard to make any income directly from YouTube, even if you create viral videos, it’s a great promotional tool for Gumroad creators, referring 11% of my sales, more than Facebook generated.
I also ran a poll asking blog readers to vote for their favorite watercolor pigments. I shared the results of the poll later in the week. This involved people in the blog, and they kept coming back to learn more, plus I learned something from my readers.
6. A bonus product
In addition to the main 72-minute feature, I produced a second video for sale on Gumroad that was a “Bonus Features” collection. It had some exclusive new material, and some remastered YouTube shorts with added voiceover. It was a fun collection of extras that I called “bite-size inspiration” for people to own in HD video.
As with the main feature, I let people download the MP4 video file, knowing that some people will copy the video without paying. But I’m not worried about that. As long as I keep my prices fair, the non-paying customer today will likely decide to become a paying customer tomorrow. At the head of each video, instead of a threatening FBI warning, I put a little a message thanking people for buying the video, and reminding them that their support allows me to keep creating more cool stuff.
I used Gumroad’s helpful feature of permitting multiple files in a single offering by uploading PDFs of additional articles to add value to the Bonus Features offering. Even though the sales volume of the Bonus Features was only 15% as large as the main feature, it was well worth doing, and it added a bump to the sales six days after the release.
7. Focus on the customer’s creativity
Something spontaneous happened late in Watercolor Week. After I published a blog post and a Facebook update where I talked about ultra compact watercolor kits, people started sending me images of the custom compact watercolor kits that they created. I jettisoned my planned content and put the spotlight on their achievements instead. The blog became a forum for a lively exchange of ideas against the backdrop of the Gumroad release.
8. Reinforce in print
I wrote an article for an art magazine called International Artist scheduled to come out a month after release. The article zeroed in on the same artwork that’s in the video. Captions with little play buttons directed readers to watch the free excerpts and the trailer on YouTube. Gumroad’s custom titling feature allowed me to rename the URL as “gum.co/watercolor” making it easier for a print exposure to bring in potential customers.
9. A thank-you video
I shot an exclusive thank-you video for Gumroad customers in my workshop. In the video, I showed some updates to the painting gear I had talked about on the main video, and I told them about some of the projects that are coming up, with news that I haven’t announced publicly elsewhere.
I also sent individual thank-you emails to customers who chose to add $10 or more to the “Pay What You Want” base cost of $15.
Here’s the text of that email, which I customized for each person:
“Dear ________. I just want to take a minute to thank you for your generous donation above and beyond the asking price of my new Gumroad video. When I chose the “price-plus” option, I never anticipated that so many people would extend a hand so givingly. I’m really touched by your gift, and will invest the funds in the tools I’ll need for making more and better videos in the future. Enjoy the video, James Gurney”
10. Demo the methods
At the end of the week, after talking so much about techniques and materials, and answering lots of questions from people who had bought the download, I thought I should practice what I preached. So I took my watercolor kit to the county fair and did an impromptu portrait of the oldest carnival worker, and posted about it on the blog and Facebook.
How it all came together…
Let’s take a look at some results…
James’s main channels - his blog and YouTube - both performed well in terms of views and sales of his products. His strategy of reaching out to friends and influencers in the art world paid off too. While he didn’t get as many views from these reviews as he did with his owned properties, the conversion rate was very high, showing that people trust a recommendation!
In addition to the promotion strategies shared above, James also turned on Recommended Products in his Gumroad account. This allowed Gumroad to suggest his products to people who bought similar items from other creators. Recommendations had an extremely high conversion rate of 36.8%
James’s experiment with allowing people to pay $15+ instead of a flat fee worked out quite well, with 14.5% of people paying more than $15. His launch day offer code also effectively introduced a sense of urgency, and encouraged many people to purchase on the first day.
Any final thoughts to share?
My background is as a painter and a writer, not a marketer or a sales guy, so all this is kind of new to me, and it’s fun. Instead of working with a big publisher that keeps all this info to itself, I get to work all the levers.
I’m grateful to Gumroad and its community of artist-publishers for sharing information to help me succeed with self-publishing.
What I come away with is that the new digital arts economy is different in several fundamental ways compared to the old one. These differences are suggested by the following four paradoxes:
- You have to give something away in order to sell it.
- People will pay more if you let them set their own price.
- Promote others if you want to advance your career.
- Share your trade secrets and you will benefit.
These principles seem counterintuitive to someone like me raised in the pre-digital arts economy. The differences arise because people buying digital content understand that they’re directly supporting the personal vision of the artist. They’re not just buying a product; they’re buying into a relationship.