There are SO many options out there when it comes to building an artist’s website: some are user-friendly, some have a robust toolset out of the box, and some give you more flexibility and choices. How do you navigate what’s right for you and your art business? We interviewed CHF’s Marketing, Technology, and Education Director Daniel DiGriz to find out.
Should artists have websites custom-built, or should they build on a platform?
DDG: I think the question now is if artists want to build a site themselves, or have it done. Most artists I know don’t have the hard-core software design experience to design a sustainable website from scratch—and most of the shops doing web development now use a platform, because it’s faster, most sustainable, and doesn’t require re-inventing the wheel. The shops that don’t, I frequently find dubious, because they often don’t tell their clients that every time they want something changed, they’re locked into the original developer at often exorbitant rates, on a proprietary platform, and it’s really hard to migrate to a different system later. Sometimes, the “web guy” even controls the domain name—which crosses the line into intellectual property, in my opinion, and puts the brand at some unnecessary risk. I’ll put it like this: even Boeing uses Mercedes-Benz engines on its planes. Ford uses Goodyear tires. They don’t build the whole thing from scratch because Benz and Goodyear are best-in-class, a known quantity, well-regarded, interchangeable, and easy to upgrade.
What platforms are the most commonly used?
DDG: This is a hard question to answer accurately. The standard answer would be something like WordPress, Shopify, Squarespace, FASO, and maybe Wix. But when we compare those platforms, we’re not truly comparing the same thing. Each of those does some of the things the other does, but it’s a bit like your desktop computer. Your monitor might be Dell, your speakers Creative or Logitech, your camera HP, and the box might be a Mac. Yet you can buy a Dell where ALL those parts are just branded Dell (even if Creative made their speakers), but that Dell won’t run the Mac OS. You can buy a Mac, where all those parts are Mac, but Mac doesn’t make an external camera, so now if you want one of those, you’re going to get that from Dell or HP or Logitech.
A website is an ecosystem just like a computer system is. Your phone might be an Apple iPhone that runs Amazon Alexa; an Amazon Fire phone that runs Apple iTunes and Google apps; or a Google phone that runs Amazon apps. Google and Amazon each also run a cellular network for phones; Apple doesn’t. We call such a sandwich of choices a “stack.” Think of it like deciding what goes on your burger or sandwich. In reality, most websites aren’t built on a single platform at all. They’re built on a stack of things. They’re wordpress-based or Shopify-based, etc.
Ok, so in that example, there’s the phone itself, an operating system (or OS), the apps that run on it, and a carrier you pay every month for service…so what goes into the “stack” of a website?
DDG: Well, ok:
- There’s a hosting server (and those come in a variety of formats).
- There’s a CMS (content management system) which is basically how content gets onto a page, and a theme that fits into that (which creates a baseline of the site’s style).
- There’s frequently a page builder toolset, which is a variety of tools for laying out pages by customizing a grid. The grid is composed of rows and columns that often contain “modules,” “widgets,” or “blocks” of content.
- There are often plugins or 3rd party add-ons which add functionalities like contact forms or email list forms.
- Frequently, if a developer touched it, there’s also a body of custom code that further tweaks the look and feel, functionality, or layout (often overriding the limitations of the parts of the stack we just mentioned).
The stack probably sounds complex, but most sites are put together that way, like the layers of a sandwich, even if the site owner doesn’t realize that’s what they’re looking at.
It’s kind of funny: you can see a WordPress site living on wordpress.com, maybe you’d see one that’s based over on WPengine, or one that lives on Amazon, or even on my hard drive in some folder. If you could log into any of those, you’d find that despite them each involving WordPress, building a page is an entirely different process on each of them! One might use Elementor for a page builder, another uses Beaver Builder, another could use something else like Visual Composer, and another doesn’t use anything but out-of-the-box WordPress. All of them could be using the Astra theme, or one might throw a different theme at you, like OceanWp.
Isn’t the stack simplified by all-in-one solutions like Shopify, Squarespace, Wix, or FASO?
DDG: Not really, no. They’re often marketed that way, though.
Speaking of themes, Shopify sites each use different themes, most of which are 3rd party. That’s why the sites look different. You’re always making choices. Each of those platforms provides varying amounts of in-house “modules’ or modular solutions for various tasks, like ecommerce transactions, or email marketing. Shopify has a whole marketplace precisely because there are a ton of things like pop ups or drag and drop page builders you might want to use that aren’t built by Shopify or aren’t included out of the box.
Most platforms provide add-on integrations with popular third party tools like Google Analytics, Mailchimp, or Hubspot. FASO might include robust email marketing, for instance—where some other platforms don’t and you’re likely to need to integrate with Mailchimp, Constant Contact or something else—but it may not provide as robust an SEO toolset as you might want and be used to having available if you’ve worked with WordPress-based websites. In any of these cases, there is no truly all-in-one. You’re always picking your mix. It’s a bit like making a smoothie. I welcome avocado, but I don’t want spirulina in mine.
Do you have preferences for a stack? Or recommend a particular stack for artists?
DDG: Sure, I have preferences. If I’m the guy building it, I want to use my go-to toolset. If I’m maintaining and supporting it, even more so. And partly because, yeah, I think those tools work the best out of what I’ve used.
But there’s no one-size-fits-all for artists. Any mix of those layers of the stack will produce an admirable website that looks how the artist prefers it looks. However, artists have different sales and marketing strategies, and different business models, and THOSE things should be part of the decision.
For example, I recently consulted with an artist that wanted to set up on either Shopify, or build a WordPress-based site. 1) Those decisions aren’t mutually exclusive; 2) There’s more than one kind of WordPress site; and 3) Both toolsets excel at some things and are weaker on others. Shopify has superb ecommerce. WordPress is supremely flexible and supported by a wide community. In the end, we learned this artist does, and anticipates continuing to do, 98% of her business NOT through ecommerce. But it was supremely important for this artist to have maximum flexibility to build any look and feel that entered her mind, as though it were just a big canvas. She primarily does bespoke commission work, not gallery-based selling, so her site required telling an effective story and selling her art as a service rather than “see this, buy this” layout, which is how a lot of artist website templates are set up. Those kinds of decisions helped narrow the field. Start with the business model and sales strategy, and pick your stack from there.
But could you also think of a platform as the starting place? What are the strong points of various platforms?
DDG: I’m not an expert on every platform, but here’s what I’ve got. WordPress is open source and supremely flexible. You can do anything with a site that starts with WordPress as the engine. Shopify‘s ecommerce feels like a breath of fresh air; I love it. Easiest checkout experience I’ve ever seen. With a 3rd party page builder like Shogun you can get some good design going, too. Squarespace is supposed to be good, but I don’t know much about it. I’m hearing good things, and excited about their stock growth. FASO‘s claim to fame is a suite of marketing tools that is more than a website platform, specifically tools focused on email marketing. Artspan has an impressive marketplace. I haven’t built a site on Wix, which has evolved a lot in recent years. There are others, of course.
If not many practical differences of look and feel, there’s still a bit of personal style in the choice, no?
DDG: Yes. It’s like choosing how you get your TV. Someone might love the Apple ecosystem and want their Netflix rockin’ on an APPLE TV. I go in for Roku, which is less posh but it’s like a big post-apocalyptic warehouse that even includes CHF’s Thriving ArtistTM podcast as a channel. Plus I like the earphone jack on the remote.
We could also check out the analogy of guitar players and how their instruments and gear support their sound. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) wants a Les Paul, which feels a bit like an orchestral instrument and puts out the massive atmospheric sounds of prog rock. Bruce Springsteen prefers a working man’s Telecaster that bolts together like an old Chevy truck you drive with the windows down—and it takes good old Regular gas. And Brian Setzer (Stray Cats) wants a punk-rockabilly Gretsch hollow body guitar that screams like a 1950s hotrod driven by a greaser with his hair on fire. If you like a lot of the decisions built-in and already made, FASO might be your thing. If you live and breathe ecommerce, not knocking FASO’s options, but Shopify is the 10,000lb gorilla in that room. If you need the central, searchable marketplace more than your own store, Artspan might be your thing. If you’re like me and demand an open-source canvas you can 100% control, a mercenary army of possible helpers, and the world’s biggest toolbox, you go WordPress.
What about speed, security, and SEO?
DDG: Any platform we mentioned can be fast, secure, and well optimized. The most fraught for speed and security could be WordPress, simply because it’s THE open source tool of the bunch. It can be the engine in anything, so it can be incredibly secure (and I do mean incredibly) or it can be really vulnerable. Lightening fast, or slow as a dog waking up. It’s what you plug into it and where you host it that matters.
Most of the other platforms I’ve mentioned are more proprietary—which gives the providers more control over the experience. That necessarily brings more limitations to the end user, but the provider can focus on delivering more predictable speed and security with less work to get it there. On the plus side, WordPress, which accounts for 40% or more of websites, leaves the door open for more search engine optimization tools and choices. If search is a major channel or THE major channel for acquiring sales leads, that might be more relevant and worth the extra effort to get the site fast and secure (and keep it that way). Many of those platforms consistently generate top search results, so you can do a lot with them. All of them have had at least one person say SEO is built-in. I’d be willing to say that’s never the entire story.
All of them have differing focuses, for sure. Artspan with its marketplace, FASO with its suite of marketing tools, Shopify with its ecommerce on steroids, and WordPress is as ubiquitous as Chevy’s 350 engine—more cars on American roads were built around that thing than probably any machine of any type anywhere. It was the AK-47 of engines. Cheap, reliable, and as common as water.
You’re a fan of WordPress.
DDG: I am. CHF’s site is built on it. And because of that, we’ve at varying times built everything on it from our first learning portal, to the Thriving ArtistTM podcast, to the syllabus for our Accelerator program. And it keeps evolving. But I cheer on great aspects of other platforms too.
Wow, so should people hire a Developer for whatever platform they choose?
DDG: They may not need one. Depending on how simple or complex one’s needs, YouTube has most of the answers. What YouTube can’t provide is a lot of the context and experience a reliable Developer can bring. There are simple, obvious choices that have long-term consequences you might not want—and steps that seem harder but which really pay off in the long-run. This is one reason I like platforms that have good training. One reason I like Shogun for Shopify is they’ve got better training than any of their competitors, at least that I’ve seen. It’s a quality product for building nice Shopify pages, but as a trainer, I’m floored by how good their training is, and how bad some of the competitions’ is.
That said, if you want a Developer, look for a shared focus, not a guru who knows what to do but doesn’t speak your language or share your outlook. People spend all their time looking at design portfolios. Most people can produce a decent design. Not everyone is good at figuring out what you want to achieve and getting you there. It’s rare for a Developer to be good at both. Word of mouth helps. I know a Developer who is FAR better than me in some ways, and I’m better than him in others. Par for the course.
Most of all, and I can’t emphasize this enough, get a Developer who: a) focuses on what’s possible—if it’s clear, we can do it, now let’s get to a shared definition of what do/done is; b) is honorable, meaning they don’t try to keep control of all your infrastructure and lock you into their service—you’ve got to be able to pivot if they get busy, go dark, or are hit by the milk truck; and c) focuses on your sales model and sales strategy. A website is a sales tool: part sales collateral, part sales fulfillment engine. If your Developer doesn’t get what you’re doing, doesn’t even ask, doesn’t make your priorities drive the process, I’d run!
I’d add one more caution, just because this is a (thankfully) unregulated industry and kind of the wild West—caveat emptor—don’t build a website or overhaul a website as a means of advancing your business if you haven’t first done the work of building or overhauling your Career Blueprint, Brand Story, Sales Strategy, and Action Plan. Without those, the website is just self-comfort—feels like you’re doing something, especially because you’re spending money. But you’ll have no idea what that website should be, do, or how it should operate if you’re not clear about the other stuff.
Aren’t there common elements to all artist websites?
DDG: No. I know that might sound like heresy, but no. I’ve seen artists put together a not-great “portfolio” when their sales model doesn’t even require a portfolio. In fact, it’s just confusing. I’ve seen sites where it’s nothing but a pile of images of paintings on a page with some contact info and what looks like a journal entry about one’s feelings about making art and I wonder if they’ve ever sold a single work of art that way. A person selling bespoke furniture-sculptures on Etsy needs a different website than someone who paints landscapes and drops everything off at a gallery, than a person who is trying to build up a reputation for doing niche art about a social cause. This is why the “we know what you need” pitch by some people that specialize in “artists” is suspect. Wait, do you REALLY know what I need? Do you know what my largest revenue source is? Which type of my work sells the best? What do my most enthusiastic clients have in common? If they don’t know that, what you’re getting is a template—a dress that fits anyone, and therefore no one. And if even I as the artist don’t know the answers to those questions, then I’m buying clothes in the dark without even knowing what side of the store I’m on.
To continue Daniel’s closing metaphor: don’t buy clothes in the dark! Get your Blueprint, Sales Strategy, Brand Story, and Action Plan together and then do a deeper dive with Daniel into the specific how-tos of all things websites and SEO in the CHF Digital Campus.