World Printmakers: A Shoestring Website Success Story, One Year In

The evolution of WorldPrintmakers.com -- "It's a little like having a pet boa constrictor."

Last year round this time, I had just unloaded my ruinous telephone-wine-sales business (lifetime oath: zero employees) and was looking for something productive (and therapeutic) to do on my own. I'm basically a freelance journalist, my wife is a painter/printmaker and we live in Spain. I thought I might try a Spanish printmaking website. That's how SpanishPrintmakers.com was born.

I had no money, so I was a one-man band. First I convinced my wife and a group of her printmaker friends that it would be a good thing (especially since I was putting them on for free), so they all contributed etchings or screen prints for me to photograph and publish on the site. Then I started researching and writing the content: the background information on printmaking, biographies of my artists, etc. The main object of the content was to establish credibility both with art buyers and the Spanish printmaking community, so the articles were full of useful information.

My IT experience was pretty much limited to word processing and knocking out price lists in Excel, but I thought I could probably come to grips with a website design program. I started out with Front Page (easy but a bit limited) and wound up using Dream Weaver, which has a steepish learning curve but works great once you get the hang of it.

I stayed up late all night one night and introduced the site into a couple of dozen search engines. I had no idea what a "meta tag" was, mind you; that came later. A few people began to visit the site and we received some encouraging emails. I was feeling quite chuffed at this point, when Mark Shoebridge, one of the partners of my server (Nostracom.com) phoned me and said, "Mike, your site looks great but I think you've limited yourself a bit with 'Spanish Printmakers.' Internet is global, Mike, and you're wasting 90% of its potential." He added, "I've just had a look and the "WorldPrintmakers.com" domain is still free. Do you want me to register it for you? That's how World Printmakers came about. Mark, an Irish IT manager transplanted to Granada, Spain, is the kind of guy you need on your side if you're going to start up a website on a shoestring. Besides offering constant moral support and excellent advice all along, he actually accepted a couple of etchings as payment for registering both domains and hosting the sites.

Meanwhile, the question loomed: Was I ready to take on the world? Basically all I did to convert Spanish Printmakers into World Printmakers was to change the background color from oatmeal to a sleek black. Since my wife's printmaker friends in Spain were from half a dozen countries, anyway, they worked fine as an "international collection of artists" with which to prime the pump.

I thought my work was almost done, but in fact it was just beginning. A website project, if you do it properly, is 10 per cent site construction and 90 per cent promotion. These percentages might even be more extreme if there is no budget for promoting, as was my case. We were heading into summer, with its oven-dry 40 degree Centigrade days here in Granada. So I took to all-afternoon siestas (Spanish Yoga) so I could stay up through the cool of the night browsing the Web looking for fine-art printmakers. I would glean them out of the search engines and send them a two-line note: "I saw your prints on the Web and found them very interesting. I'd like to invite you to have a look at World Printmakers (http://www.worldprintmakers.com) and see if you don't think you should have some work for sale with us."

Results were poor in the beginning due to my imperfect understanding of Web psychology. I was trying to charge artists a $35 fee to post their work on the site and this put them off. Internet was - and still is, to a large extent - about free stuff. People are so accustomed to getting great services for free that they take a lot of convincing actually to pay for anything. Finally it struck me that I had to offer a simpler free option along with my display-for-pay plans. That began to work. Not only did I get the free participants. I started getting more paying clients, as well.

With artists now coming in regularly, I turned to potential advertisers. Why not? It was the month of August and World Printmakers was up to a whopping 1,260 page views monthly(!) I upgraded my phone line to ISDN and spent the rest of the summer nights writing emails to art-supply companies on both sides of the Atlantic. I actually got a few advertisers before "banner ad" became a dirty word. I had no idea what to charge them. So I went to Altavista and typed in "banner ad rates." Wham: rates for all occasions, from Thomson Publications to the Quarter Horse Review. I wound up charging them $450 a year. After all, we did have more than 1,200 page views!

Over the next few months, besides continuing the contacts with artists and advertisers, and sending out press releases, I tried to outfit the site with all the features that the big guys have: an opt-in newsletter, a discussion forum, a search engine, a site map and an Amazon affiliate bookstore. (We've actually sold a few art books. It's like pennies from heaven.) All of these features are available as free services on the Web, and it was just a question of subscribing to them.

From the beginning I was concerned about traffic statistics. I subscribed to the excellent free services of Hitbox.com and put their little mini-banner at the bottom of every single page of World Printmakers. I confess I've become something of an addict, checking in two and three times a day, especially at critical times such as after mailing out the newsletter or at the end of the month.

The site has now been online for a year. The graph of page views over this period looks really interesting.

There was a leap in page views from March to April. Therein lies a story. World Printmakers started to get a bit of coverage in the art magazines, both on and offline, as well as quite a lot of compliments via email. One day a message arrived from an art professor in Florida, inquiring whether World Printmakers would like to host the virtual version of a big print show they were preparing. I said, "Sure, delighted!" They sent the images; I prepared a nice layout for the show and put it on the site.

Then it occurred to me to mail out a simple three-line email to practically my entire email address list, announcing the show. The response was immediate and massive, and by the end of April my page views had jumped 48% to just over 20,000. The message seemed to be clear, and almost embarrassingly simple. You want traffic? Update your site, then tell people you've updated it. The next month, I topped 25,000 page views. Now my next goal is 30,000 or more. 50,000 is just around the corner. I can feel it in my bones.

I know what you're thinking: "What about sales? Where does the income come from?" In truth, there are very few sales as yet and certainly not enough paying artists to justify the time I am putting into this project, say 8-9 hours a day for a year. One possible income source would be sponsorship, and I actually have a couple of possibilities which I am pursuing. Another would be to sell the site to someone who could use its infrastructure for their own ends, a foundation, a big art-supply company or a culture-conscious bank or other company. In any case, as I see it, World Printmakers is mainly a grappling hook into the (not-so-distant) future when people won't buy anything unless it's on Internet(!) And I'm prepared to work and wait.

World Printmakers, which started out as a fragile pink preemy, has developed over the last year into a robust adolescent Website. It's a little like having a pet boa constrictor. We now know what it requires; it's just a question of feeding it! Start with a nice plump feature story at the first of the month, then a juicy interview round the 15th, a medium-rare mailing on the 25th and a dose of warm statistics on the 31st. And don't forget to update the links pages and take out the stale material.

I try to give the site a cultural and didactic tone, as opposed to the crassly commercial look which seems to abound on art sites. I love prints and printmakers (I'm married to one, remember?) and I hope that shows through. Will anybody ever make any money out of World Printmakers? I don't know. But we will have a lot of fun trying. While we're at it we may actually make something which transcends money. I would like that.

Freelance journalist Mike Booth left Michigan for Europe when he got out of the Army in '68, discovered Spain, never went home. He lives in a stone cottage on a mountainside with his printmaker wife and a slew of animals and grandchildren.


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