How to Build a Student Following – Online and Off

If you want to teach, you need a pool of potential students.

You need a following. And a following suggests there is a leader. If you expect people to sign up for your classes or buy your how-to book, you must step up and be the leader.

You've got to position yourself as an expert.

How to Build a Student Following

Becoming known for your skills is not an overnight process. It’s a process that you must be dedicated to and in for the long haul.

I built Art Biz Coach using all of the tactics I share below. I think it would be harder to start my business today because the market is much noisier than when I opened back in 2002.

Your market is also robust. There are more people seeking instruction, and there are a lot more artists who are teaching in their own studios, in art centers and supply stores, and online.

In business terms, this presents both a threat and an opportunity. The threat is that more people are competing for students. The opportunity is that you can differentiate yourself.

The distinguishing characteristics of a successful, independent art teacher are:

1. True expertise in the subject.

Make sure you’re not rehashing what your teachers taught you. That’s called plagiarism. What have you learned on your own that you can give your students?

2. Proven success in the subject.

Have you sold plenty of art? Filled your classes? Won awards?

3. A real passion for teaching.

You can’t get in it just to make money. You must care about your students.

4. Consistent demonstration of all the above.

Don’t be a sort-of teacher. Be one that makes a difference in people’s lives by living up to your promises and delivering consistently for your students.

Here’s how you can do that.

First, Find Clarity

Get clear about the students you want to attract.

Who are they? What is their learning level? Where do they live? Where do they hang out online?

Get clear on what you will teach and why.

How is what you teach different from what others are offering? Why are you the best person to teach this class? What can you offer that someone else couldn’t?

Make sure you really are an expert in the subject you choose.

After you have clarity, you can begin building your platform as a leader.

Promote Your Expertise

Catch the rest and tell us what you look for in a teacher.

Create an email newsletter just for students.

If you don’t want to bother your buyers and collectors with a bunch of content on how to make art, segment your list into students and buyers. Yes, they may cross over from time to time, but knowing who’s who on your list will make life much easier for you.

Target your teaching messages to potential students.

Write how-to articles.

Teachers need blogs! You need a place to show off what you know and a blog – built on your site in a space you control – will do the trick.

Don’t be stingy with your information. Potential students need to trust that you will share what you know. Package the information differently in your teaching, and they will learn even more by consuming it in a new way.

Leverage what you write. Turn articles into free downloads as an incentive for people to sign up for your newsletter. You might also find that you can tweak articles later and submit to other publications.

Share your content on social media.

Writing first on your site and then sharing to social media can result in more traffic for your site. Use hashtags that potential students might follow.

Speak for free.

Develop a talk or demonstration that you can offer to artist groups and organizations.

I can’t begin to tell you how many free speaking gigs I’ve done. My clients know I don’t want you speaking without pay for long, but you kinda need to do this in the beginning.

I still sometimes speak for free if the situation is right. It’s a fast way for a bunch of people to get to know me at once. (Let me know if I can speak to your group if I'm in the area!)

After you have a number of engagements under your belt, you can begin charging for your speaking.

Create audio and video.

Audio and video add a different dimension to your offerings because potential students can hear your voice or see you. This builds trust.

Someone once came to one of my workshops after seeing a video. She said, “I thought, yeah, I could spend two days with her.” Undoubtedly, others saw that same video and had different thoughts, but they aren’t the right students for me. (That’s another topic!)

Comment on artists’ work online.

Write positive notes when artists post their art online.

If they asked for critical feedback, give it in a supportive way. The Oreo approach to giving feedback consists of three steps: this is what’s right, this could use some work, and this is really good. Always end on a positive note.

Solidify Your Position

Get a teacher or coach of your own.

It took me a long time to realize how valuable a coach could be for me. (Duh! says the Art Biz Coach.) Some areas of my business wouldn’t have been such a struggle if I had worked with a coach much sooner.

I wish I could have a do-over because working with coaches has made me a better teacher and a better coach. My clients benefit because of my investment in guidance.

Finally, be consistent.

I said it above (#4) and it’s worth repeating: Students have to know they can depend on you. The best way to demonstrate your reliability is to be consistent with your offerings, your message, and your marketing.

Now, tell me, what do you look for in a teacher?

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27 thoughts on “How to Build a Student Following – Online and Off”

  1. A good teacher is patient and recognizes that we all learn differently. A good teacher is one that knows her/his particular area of expertise well enough to be able to help students understand the problems and the delights of a process. Personally, I like a teacher who can unpack things in a way that make the steps/process seem easy. This last one is a bit of a trick, I know. I believe this is what separates great teachers from good/fairly good teachers.

  2. Alyson, I love this article because it underscores what I’ve been preaching to my own followers about the importance of developing expertise.

    Your readers might appreciate a free tool I share with my Publicity Hounds. It’s a White Paper published more than a decade ago by a group of top speakers in the National Speakers association. It delves into the issue of expertise: What it is, who has it, and what you need to do to develop and hone it. The association has members from a wide variety of backgrounds, including the art world.

    The big “aha” is that expertise isn’t only about what you know. It’s also about what you do. Here’s the link to The Expertise Imperative White Paper:


  3. As someone who loves teaching art online and offline, what I expect my students to look for in me is that,I am passionate about my subject, enthusiastic in delivery, sensitive to their needs and fears, am never afraid to reveal that I don’t have all the answers, and above all, that I am fun to be around. 🙂
    What we learn with pleasure we neve forget.The world is littered with far too many ‘experts’ and far too few ‘encourager’s’ in the root meaning of that word, which is to instill bravery and self belief. The capacity to make great art is within us all. We just need to get out of our own way. Good teachers like my great fellow countryman poet WB Yeats wrote, don’t ‘fill the pail. They light the fire’.

    1. Pauline…you and I think alike when it comes to teaching. Aside from demonstrating techniques it is very important to instill confidence and inspiration so that students ignite their own fire…and when their faces light up with the accomplishment of self-discovery…well, it is the best feeling I have as a teacher.
      “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” ~William A. Ward

    2. I’m with both of you, Pauline and Jan. I want to encourage my students stretch their wings and take flight with joy!

      What I look for in a teacher is – as you say Alyson – that they speak with their own voice rather than just repeating someone else’s ideas. Of course we’re all inspired by others and that’s fine but it’s so different when your teacher speaks from their own experience rather than repeating a learned formula.

  4. In my opinion, if a person decides to go down the teaching route, they need to invest in themselves to learn to teach. In other words, acquire at least some amount of “expertise” in the teaching/training discipline as well.

    I’ve attended a couple of watercolor workshops and a drawing class that were absolutely horrific experiences. Maybe you have too? The teachers were all excellent artists, but awful at instructing.

    Also, knowing how to teach children does not translate well into teaching adults. Adults learn differently. This is another aspect of learning about the teaching discipline that can pay dividends to your students.

    My two cents!

    For me personally, I became a certified trainer prior to taking up art. It has reaped tremendous rewards in the art arena. Great satisfaction for me knowing I inspire others, and the students are jazzed as well.

  5. To me, there are two characteristics that make for the best teachers: First is the expertise to recognize how to improve art work, no matter what the style and materials may be. Second is a heart generous enough to care more about what the student wants to accomplish than how you would treat the subject.

  6. A teacher needs to be enthusiastic about what s/he is teaching and project that enthusiasm over to their students. I am much more of a teacher than someone who sells my art (I don’t sell it!). My skills are conveying information to students and patiently helping them to develop their own skill set. I am looking forward to answers to this post, and finding out how teachers market themselves especially with social media.

  7. I am interested in how to use social media for advertising to a fairly local audience at this point, and also how to market to reach for potential teaching opportunities in a wider area. Other than a blog I do not have a social media presence, and I am not sure how helpful one is in meeting my goals.

  8. Debbie Eckmier

    Hi Susan!
    You were interested in ideas for how to use social media locally. First, you have to connect with your local market – Join any local art groups you can find. Meet people there. Offer to help out and make yourself a contributor to their efforts. Friend them on FB and other platforms. Offer to speak at meetings as Alyson suggested.

    The other thing I have done in the past is to go to craft and art shows – buy your space – collect names of prospective students. Ask them if they’ve ever thought of learning how to paint…or whatever your craft/artform is. Get their names – sign them up for your newsletter. Have a snail mail list and try to get phone numbers also. I found the best results when I called them after the show and told them again about my upcoming beginner classes.

    Now with Facebook, blogs, Pinterest etc. it is SO much easier to find an audience and keep connected. Start with your friends. Run contests to enlarge your reach. I find that just posting my finished pieces on my FB personal page without even a price – I’m getting more and more interest in what I do. I’m getting more well known for my art. I also have a business page which I admit I haven’t used as well as I could – I share my art there and then share it to my personal page to get the best reach. I can have upwards of 70 people like my art on my personal page which means some of their friends still DO get to see it even with FB algorithms changing.

    I’m starting to see click throughs to my business page because of sharing my finished art on my personal page. I also have a blog which does draw interest that is further afield. Don’t limit yourself to local though – start putting “how to” videos up on your blog, FB and Pinterest – also your website and watch how many people start to look at your online spaces! Consider teaching by video – create online courses. There’s more than one place to find students. The more you reach…the more you teach! Buy FB ads and try just a small amount of $ to see if it works to connect you with people in your area. As you see results you can expand your ad to reach other areas close – or target areas further away. I have see people who have had great results with all this!

    I can tell you I am BLESSING whoever thought up all these internet sharing vehicles. It was SO much harder and costlier to find students way back in the “dark ages” !

    Hope this helps!

  9. Debbie Eckmier

    I forgot something I used to do with great effect – as long as you follow up!
    I used to put up posters with tear off phone numbers in grocery stores, art stores and any place you can find a bulletin board. Include photos on your poster – Tell the date of your next beginner class and so on.
    I didn’t have a website or a blog or FB back then but it was really effective! I had more ladies call me – I just needed to call them back and invite them to the class in person on the phone. There are some areas of town that are better than others – think disposable income.

  10. Deb–_Thank you for your suggestions. So far I do not have any FB presence–in fact I discontinued my account because the only people who contacted me were those I didn’t want to deal with! I like the idea of doing a video tutorial and putting up notices in local coffee houses and possibly the indie art supply store. I am in fiber arts and quilting.

  11. Alyson,
    As usual, your tips are excellent and the comments are helpful too. Thank you for blessing all of us with your expertise. I meet potential students 100% offline.

    I agree that providing volunteer help to any art organizations/museums/galleries will generate interest in you and your art…I have been friendly and outgoing to everyone I meet by asking more about them and their interests first. Usually, people are more interested in you when you first allow them to express themselves. My teaching is limited to three private students per year and I am always booked far ahead. Helping art groups has led to opportunities to do demos for groups, judging art shows and organizing painting events. Expanding your circle of art associates by helping others is a key. Give to receive…a basic tenet of most religions. Thinking more about what others want and helping them reach their goals is a key.

    My practical tip for attracting students is this: At painting events/excursions, if an artist asks about my techniques, materials, etc….I thank them for showing an interest and ask them to explain to me first what they do about those (showing an interest in them)…I want to know why they want my info…are their current choices not satisfactory? Here again, I try to get to know them first…their goals, experiences, etc. Then I tell them that I feel I could offer them some helpful advice on the questions they’ve asked me, but since I’m in the middle of a project/event, could they please call me for a complimentary one hour visit to my studio where I can give them some unhurried answers and tips…at this point I have asked to see some of their art (doesn’t everyone have a sample on their cell phone?) I’ve determined if this is someone I could help with private lessons…if they are advanced in their career, I quickly tell them the answer to their questions because I can see they don’t need me for lessons. Not everyone calls, but the ones who do are highly motivated and that’s the type of artist I want to help.

    I’ve been invited to give group lessons; however, I have enough events going on that, to date, I’ve not wanted to commit to class dates. I require potential students to be willing to commit to enough 3 hour lessons to complete one masterpiece painting. I also explain the value of their teacher being honest about technique and what an ‘art journey’ can be for them and their circumstances. I compare my private mentoring to a three year ‘Art School in a Box’ experience. Teaching is a joy and love of mine and my students make amazing progress…I’m very proud of their efforts and work.

    I hope this wan’t too long for a ‘comment’ Alyson!

  12. I like the idea of having the newsletter just for students. Would you recommend having a blog for teaching separate from the blog for your art as well? If not how can we integrate the two without turning off those who are non-artists?

    1. Jean: I don’t recommend separate blogs. It will drive you batty. Just write good stuff. If it’s of interest, people will read it. Like on this site… Lots of readers don’t teach, so this post wouldn’t have interested them. They just ignore and move on.

      I can’t think of a single blog where I don’t pick and choose what’s of interest to me.

  13. Hi Alyson, love your website and informative news and lessons – thank you!!
    in your article you mention that teachers should use a blog on their own site. I have seriously fallen off the blog wagon. I had a blog site that was doing really well until it was bought out by google so i changed to WordPress but i have not been able to gather the momentum i had. What platform would you recommend for a blog? thanks!

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Your Artist Mailing List: Rethinking + Assessing

Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

Where can we send it? 

To ensure delivery, please triple check your email address.

You’ll also receive my regular news for your art business.

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