We recently had the pleasure of talking to Dave Tabler of TheIspot. We asked Dave what we thought were some challenging questions during this interview and he was very accommodating. We think you'll find our in depth discussion with Dave to be very informative.
Back in 1996, the predominant way for artists to market themselves was through annual sourcebooks. The books contained hundreds of pages that, unlike the newly emerging "information superhighway," were not easily searchable. They were expensive to advertise in, and extremely limited in reach and print run. Because of mailing costs, the publishers tended to send them to US-based art directors only. Artists' representative Gerald Rapp of Gerald and Cullen Rapp recognized that this new medium, the Internet, overcame every single one of those barriers. He partnered with a technology company and built TheIspot.com focusing on what he knows best, which is successful, innovative marketing for illustrators. Jerry also felt very strongly that artists would benefit from a central point from which to license their existing work as stock, where they could set their own prices and be supported by a marketing and technical staff to maintain their collections and handle transactions. The stock part of TheIspot launched a couple of years after TheIspot Portfolio section was established and now proudly hosts over 25,000 rights managed images.
How do you market and advertise the site? How do you get art directors and designers to the site to browse through the portfolios?
Originally we marketed the site using such traditional print channels as direct mail and multiple ad pages in trade magazines, and we continue to maintain robust programs in those venues today. In more recent years we've added a mix of mass email, social bookmarking, and social media. We maintain web banners on various design sites and were pioneers in Google’s AdWords program. Obviously, the options are constantly evolving and we always keep our eyes open for the next opportunity to promote our subscribers effectively.
Roughly how many artists presently promote their work on TheIspot? What would you say to those artists who haven't joined TheIspot because they feel as though it would be difficult for their work to be found amongst the many members currently there?
The number of artists on the site at any given time hovers around 1,000, a quantity that offers buyers a rich variety of talent broad enough to provide a solution to most any illustration project they have. Artists who are concerned about being found should remember that Google has fundamentally changed our cultural understanding of how to search for what we want. Five or six years ago art directors would put in one keyword and manually plow through the results. As users have become more comfortable refining searches through multiple keywords, TheIspot’s search engine capability has evolved accordingly. The single most important thing an artist can do to take advantage of that is to keyword their images thoroughly and accurately. We employ a full-time strategist to review portfolios and help our subscribers shape their presence to receive maximum return on their investment in TheIspot.
Are there statistics available for the site? How many daily visitors does the site get? What's the average time spent on the site? Do you have this information available for artists prior to joining?
All of these types of statistics are publicly available to all on sites such as www.compete.com or www.alexa.com.
New online, paid portfolio sites seem to be popping up everywhere. Some charge less to be part of their group of artists. How is TheIspot different from its competitors? What extra value does TheIspot offer that the others don't?
TheIspot is not the least expensive site out there, it's true. We're in an era where the cost of online storage is dropping dramatically, and it's easier than ever to whip up a site using off the shelf content management system software packages. Much of what artists pay for, then, on portfolio sites, boils down to a human factor: how carefully do the management teams craft, promote and maintain the professional profile of a site? Do sites maintain adequate safeguards against spammers and hackers on the back-end? Is the programming kept current? Is the design and aesthetic flow of a site held to a high standard? Is the staff knowledgeable about industry trends and dedicated to sharing that knowledge with the artists it serves? Is there support for artists who have questions on how to improve their results on a site? At TheIspot we’ve always taken each of these issues very seriously. We’re in constant dialog with our designers and developers as well as our subscribers to elevate the quality that we’ve worked so hard to build.
Like any successful business, TheIspot seeks to encourage repeat customers. One way to do that is to lower the fee a renewing artist pays as a way of saying thanks for the vote of continued confidence.
You've outlasted so many other paid online portfolio sites. For instance Portfolios.com is now defunct. What do you attribute to TheIspot's longevity? How has TheIspot kept going in this ever changing environment?
By first of all recognizing that the environment WILL always be changing. It's important to maintain a site balance of seasoned, well respected professional portfolios while still encouraging talented emerging artists to post as well. We’re very proud of the fact that some of our subscribers have found success with us for 10+ years, but we’re still thrilled to be part of the careers of blossoming talent. Sites that have failed during the time TheIspot has existed have not recognized the importance of that balance and what it means to both subscribing illustrators and the art directors who use the website regularly.
You've explained how TheIspot is different from other paid portfolio sites. What's the benefit of joining TheIspot when now there are so many free online portfolio sites like Coroflot, deviantArt, Behance and Carbonmade, etc.?
Free sites usually place no restrictions on who may join. And so you, a high-end professional, may find your portfolio juxtaposed alongside student and hobbyist portfolios. This does not make a positive impression with art directors. Free sites are not there first and foremost for the success of the artists. They generally rely on paid banner advertising to make a profit; to attract and keep advertisers they have to show high traffic volume. Not necessarily quality traffic; any traffic will do as long as there’s lots of it. By giving away web space to anyone who wants it, they get both free content and built-in traffic, which they translate in ad sales for their own profit.
Subscription sites, on the other hand, must deliver results if they expect artists to continue being a part of their site. If the traffic coming to a subscription site isn't made up of designers and art directors with real budgets, artists will not receive commissions and ultimately the site will fail. Subscription sites have a strongly vested interest in maintaining qualified buyer allegiance, and it takes money and careful strategizing to drive that traffic and keep it coming back.
Well, we like to take on illustrators that know where their careers are headed – established illustrators or ones that show promise. We take into consideration things like industry awards from third party organizations like, Communications Arts, Print, How, etc. We also take into consideration how the other illustrators already on the TheIspot feel about whose work is alongside theirs. We try not to be too formulaic about it but we like to think we’re pretty good at spotting talent. We’re a quality site that upholds a specific level of excellence. The illustrators that market their work on our site and the people that look for talent on our site depend on us for that.
Have you found that with the current state of the economy fewer artists are advertising on TheIspot?
Obviously we're not immune to the effects of this most recent recession: 2008-2009 were challenging years for artists overall and that of course impacted us. One thing that's been gratifying to note through all of this is that, having been around as long as we have, TheIspot has a very solid base of loyal site supporters (both artists and site users), and that stood us in good stead during these leaner times. We have definitely noticed an up-tick in the industry overall since late last fall, and we’re looking forward to more signs of a strengthening economy.
What would you say is the percentage of artists who renew each year vs. those who don't?
We've tracked this figure very carefully for a number of years. The renewal rate fluctuates less than you might imagine. It's easy to assume that during a recession many more artists will not renew, but in fact the renewal rate during the worst of this recession fell only about 4% from our normal non-recession rate of 75%, and has been rising again in recent months.
Of course- we encourage feedback! Any business that's not willing to listen to its clients is a business not long for this world. As a result, some of our best and most creative ideas for refining TheIspot have come from our subscribers. We’re also fortunate to have a team of talented, open-minded developers who are as enthusiastic about the ongoing evolution of the site as we are.
Besides a place to market their work, what other features does TheIspot have to offer artists?
One of our great strengths has always been the sense of community surrounding the site. We were one of the first industry sites to offer a chat forum devoted to illustration, Art Talk, where artists came together to discuss the issues of the day and get all kinds of needed feedback and guidance on pricing, legal issues, marketing, copyright, etc. With the rise of blogging, we've maintained that sense of community in the What's New art news area of the site, where TheIspot subscribers can highlight jobs they've done, awards won, and exhibitions they're involved with. The password protected My Spot section contains an array of tools for artists to edit their portfolios or stock collections and follow traffic patterns to their images.
Lastly, from your perspective, are you optimistic about the future of the illustration profession and TheIspot's place within the industry?
There will always be changes in the industry that will shock most people as they're first occurring. But if you stand back and look at the incredible proliferation of web-connected electronic devices and the astonishing visual worlds that have arisen around and through them, it seems foolhardy to suggest that the need for imagery to supply those worlds will vanish. There is now and will continue to be a high-end portion of the market that values quality, original illustration in all media. That's the market we serve and support.
I think it's important for your readers to understand that, while we ARE optimistic about the long term viability of both the profession and our place in it, we are aware that it will always take hard work to stay out front. The changes I just alluded to are often tricky to navigate; TheIspot is not now and never will be in a position to rest on its laurels.
Thanks to Dave Tabler and all the folks over at TheIspot for taking the time to participate in this interview. These were not easy questions to answer and his honest and candid responses are very much appreciated. Hopefully many of you will benefit from this in depth look into the Theispot.
Visit TheIspot and investigate further at theispot.com.
Enjoy these other interviews on Illustration Pages also.