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Please Don’t Tell me About the Free Publicity

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As my sister texted the other day, “‘Free exposure’ are the words every artist wants to hear. :P”


I try to keep things generally positive here on The Artisan Life, but I feel like it’s time for a little bit of a rant. Well, maybe not even a real rant…just sort of a vent, I suppose. And hopefully also a little inspiration.

When I was planning our DIY wedding, I saw so much advice telling brides to ask new photographers, DJ’s, planners, etc. to work for free in exchange for the ‘publicity’ and ‘experience.’ I’ve also seen the same advice being given to people with online stores (on Etsy and other marketplaces). Just ask someone who wants to get into photography to take nice photos for free! They’ll be so happy to do it! I’ve also seen plenty of advice to Etsy sellers, bloggers, photographers, etc. telling them to participate in giveaways for the publicity.

Please don't tell me about the free publicity

I fell for this a few times as a new blogger/Etsy store owner. I participated in a handful of random giveaways and blog reviews of a free (to the reviewer) product in return for the ‘publicity.’ You know what it got me? A bit of extra hassle, including one time when I had to mail a giveaway winner’s package twice because her address wasn’t right the first time. None of the winners or reviewers ever purchased from me in the future, and no one ever used coupon codes I created as part of a giveaway.

This isn’t to say I think all giveaways and donations are worthless – far from it! I believe running your own giveaway with your own items can be great. When you make the choice to give away your own things to your followers, you’re telling them thanks, showing your appreciation, and getting them involved. I gave away a handmade pen last November and was perfectly happy to do so. I’ve participated in giveaways before to support friends and causes I believe in, and I’ll probably do it again in the future. I’m just tired of people trying to convince me to do so because it will be great for publicity because, well, it isn’t.

The last person who asked me for free items in exchange for publicity wanted four free things which, she said “is a small price to pay for the publicity.” Yes, actual quotation. Sorry, but nearly $80 of merchandise and the time it takes to make those items isn’t free to me! Additionally, this person actually had fewer followers than my younger sister has FaceBook friends, and my sister occasionally shares my store for free because she’s a cool sister. That’s actual free publicity! Recently a costal living FB group shared one of my items. A page manager convo’d to tell me they’d be linking up, did so a day later, and I made a sale from it. Yay! That, again, is actual free publicity. Me giving away handmade items to have you share some photos on social media is not free publicity, unless you’re an actual celebrity. If I had a novel and Oprah wanted a free copy to share it with her ‘book club,’ get me to the Post Office!

The big thing that (I think) people overlook is that this isn’t free for the artist doing the donating, even if the ‘item’ isn’t physical. For someone who makes tangible items, they’re obviously giving up the direct costs associated with making the item, indirect costs (wear on machinery, shop overhead, etc.), their time, cost of packing material and postage, gas to the Post Office, and so on. I’ve seen articles saying you should ask someone who’s trying to get into photography to take your wedding/product/portrait photos for free because they’ll jump at the chance for the practice and want to have their work out there. The same goes for designers, DJs, singers, musicians, etc. “Ask them!” articles say. “It’s free for them to do and they’ll get practice and publicity!” I’m sure a few people have volunteered their time and talents for these reasons, but most artists I’ve talked to are also sick of hearing about the free publicity and so-called “opportunities” afforded by working for free.

Working for free isn’t “free” for any artist, and it might not even be particularly useful practice. Take my aforementioned sister, for example. She’s a singer and has a vocal performance degree. Her boyfriend is an organist and composer who also has a music degree. They’ve literally spent years of their lives studying music. Do you honestly think performing a song at a wedding is going to provide that extra practice that pushes them over the edge to stardom? Additionally, it can be difficult for others to see, but performing isn’t actually free for a musician or someone else providing an intangible product. It isn’t just half an hour and one song – it’s hours of preparation time, driving to the venue, showing up early, possibly purchasing a physical copy of the music, owning appropriate clothing to wear, having a music stand, etc. Plus, singing singing for free can actually cost the singer money if they need an accompanist. Unless you’re providing one, they’ll have to pay out of pocket and hire someone else for musical accompaniment. Other artists with intangible products also have costs associated with their craft. Photographers, for example, need a camera, lenses, and potentially filters, a tripod, light bouncers, etc.

Beyond the fact that giving away goods and services isn’t free, I’m tired of seeing things that tell bloggers, artisans, and artists that it’s a good way to get your foot in the door. To me, this is like telling you “You aren’t good enough to pay money for yet. You have to give yourself away.” That’s a load of nonsense! That thing you just made? It is handmade, it is unique, it is awesome. You are awesome! Society bombards you with messages to conform, to be the same, to buy, wear, and do the same things as everyone else, but you made your own thing! It’s a handmade luxury good, and you need to treat it that way and give yourself some respect. Same thing goes for you, musicians, photographers, and singers: y’all are awesome, too. You spent time in a windowless practice room while your friends were at the beach, you got up stupid early to catch a sunrises photo, you made sacrifices to save up for the instrument you wanted. You, your time, and your talents are worth a lot more than nothing.

you are awesome

But, having said all that, I do actually donate items. I gave away two items just last week! I do believe in donating time and talent, but I don’t do it for the alleged publicity. In order to get a donation from me, someone has to:

Have a mutual acquaintance, be someone I know, or at least be a prior customer or online “friend.” Not only am I highly unlikely to give things to a stranger, but sending unsolicited requests for donation via Etsy conversation is against Etsy policy. Yep, that’s right. It is against Etsy policy to randomly send unsolicited convos to people asking them for donations. Now that you know that, you can mark the next request that comes your way as “spam” and move on without regret! I have, however, said “yes” to people who I actually know, or at least know of. I’ve donated to local events and participated in blog giveaways when the blog owner was an online friend, but for me it’s always about supporting the cause or individual, not the perceived publicity.

Explain their cause. I donate items to the annual Pearl Harbor Submarine Spouses Association auction because it supports scholarships for submarine family members. I’m not an active member of the group, even though I’ve attended a handful of meetings, but these scholarships go to people in my community who need them and I can get behind that. I’ve also agreed to make items at significantly reduced prices for an animal shelter and a charity event supporting suicide prevention awareness. “Your donation will help keep shelter pets warm” is a much more compelling reason to donate to me than “I’m popular on the internet.”

And that’s pretty much it – if I don’t at least vaguely know a person and they aren’t looking for things for an actual cause that’s bigger than snagging something free, I’m not going to give my time or items away.

How do you feel about random requests for donations? Do you ever say ‘yes’ when someone you don’t know asks for a donation? What makes you decide to donate goods/services, if you do at all?


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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Edi March 4, 2016, 06:48

    Wow, I didn’t know that these brides were being advised to ask for free product! I’ve had this happen a handful of times. Saying they will put out my guest book and my business cards at their wedding if I’ll make it for them for free. Number one…tacky! Who advertises at a wedding! No thanks, I don’t want my name tied to a practice like that!
    I’ve chosen to only donate to local causes and family or friends’ events/causes.
    Yup…mark it as spam and move on!

    • Natashalh March 4, 2016, 06:51

      Sounds exactly like what I do! Local causes/things for people I actually know. I agree that putting out business cards at a wedding is pretty tacky!

  • BeadedTail March 4, 2016, 07:30

    The world of social media has resulted in many tacky request under the guise of free publicity. I get asked to donate items for auctions for animal charities. Some I ignore, some I participate in but none have resulted in any sales so I do it to help the animals only.

    • Natashalh March 4, 2016, 08:10

      I once saw a quotation: “Being popular on the internet is like being rich in Monopoly.” Unfortunately, a lot of ‘popular’ people don’t see it that way! I definitely do donate time/items, but, as you said, for the cause and not the ‘publicity’ or hope of sales.

  • D. Renée Wilson March 4, 2016, 09:35

    *Standing up waving hands in the air saying amen hallelujah.*
    I hear you. I feel you. I’ve donated so many custom portraits, signed prints, discounts and gift certificates over the years that I don’t even think I could recount them all.
    I quickly learned to only donate to things that I truly wanted to help. I pick one charity a year, now, and a portion of custom pet portraits always go to rescues. That’s it. Anymore becomes a drain, and it’s not fair to anyone.
    I reward people that support me, and people that support me by buying art help me donate annually to charities. The end.

    • Natashalh March 4, 2016, 10:05

      I’m sensing an animal theme with what we’re willing to donate! It can be easy to feel bad when saying “no” to a request, but, as you point out, it’s really not fair to anyone when you’re always giving yourself away.

  • Julie March 6, 2016, 23:13

    I’m not selling any services or goods, but I have to say, being on the buy-side, I wouldn’t think of asking for free goods for publicity. Especially since you’re not some massive corporation who can make widgets in two seconds for a cent..! Loads of tacky people out there… Sigh Well written…!

    • Natashalh March 7, 2016, 06:10

      Right?! It gets pretty annoying to deal with. And thank you. =)

  • Duni March 7, 2016, 08:00

    This post takes me back to about 6 years ago when I fell for exactly that!
    Thankfully I have learned a lot since then and these days only work with
    serious companies who pay me.
    Sometimes I receive a donation request via my personal email. I’ll look
    into it if it is for animal causes. I ignore such messages that come in through
    my business email.

    • Natashalh March 7, 2016, 09:29

      Live and learn and all that. =) I believe you have to treat yourself like a professional before you can expect anyone else to do so.
      I like that we have quite the animal theme going on in the comments!

  • Tatiana March 7, 2016, 13:19

    I haven’t done any animal giveaways, but no one has asked me to sing opera arias for their shelter fundraiser! 😉 I have totally fallen for singing for something for free and then having me (our mom) pay for an accompanist. At least for one of event it was for a scholarship I had won the year before. At another one, my publicity was going to be that I’d be mentioned in the event’s write up on page 10 of our little newspaper. Um….? xD Not so helpful! I have, however, volunteered to sing for certain friends’ weddings or recently, for a funeral of a friend’s friend for free.

    • Natashalh March 7, 2016, 13:54

      And you sang at our wedding! There’s totally a difference between doing something for a friend/family member and having a rando ask for it. I think you could have a great charity event, though “Opera for a-paws” as a play on both “a cause” and “applause?”

      • Tatiana March 8, 2016, 05:01

        That is definitely a clever event name!

  • Dannelle February 14, 2018, 02:36

    Hi there,
    Thank you for this post! I officially started my handmade business last year and have been super frustrated by the amount of requests I’ve had for free items. I think it’s harder as I’m a faith based business so the expectation seems higher as it’s the Christian thing to do. I believe in charity and helping -that’s part of the reason I started my business, but I also have two toddlers now and am trying to help supplement our family income so it’s a hard balance! I have felt that strain to be generous as I am so new, but am not sure at what point I say no. Did any of you start off giving a ton away for free and that helped build your following? It’s hard to find your target market I’m learning ! Thank you

    • Natasha February 14, 2018, 07:02

      I’m so glad you found it supportive. I have a new baby and I agree that putting the littles first and trying to help you family are both important and necessary, but it can feel really bad to say no to people! Quite honestly, I don’t think giving anything away (except to my mom and sister) gained me any followers or ‘actual’ customers at all. The only giveaway I personally felt truly good about was one I hosted for a “daily gratitude challenge” here on my blog because participants were mostly established online acquaintances and it was fun to see people participate/send the freebie to a ‘friend.’

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