I don't know about you, but I regularly get email invites to join art sites. It can be daunting working out if they're worth your time and energy. I can't make those decisions for you but I've written this general guide to help you assess this sort of opportunity.
1) Do You Like The Other Art?
People judge your work by the company it keeps. If you'd be embarrassed to be shown on the same gallery wall, then don't place your art in the same online space. The exception to this is when it's an enormous site like Saatchi Online, where there's a huge selection of work in a wide range of styles.
Submitting your work to a curated site can be more work but that 'gatekeeper' aspect often results in a site with a higher quality of art. That exclusivity can also appeal to visitors who may take your work more seriously because it's been vetted.
2) Does It Match Your Values?
Do you like the aesthetics of the site? Does the site have an ethos with which you strongly agree or disagree? How much control do you have over what appears on your page? Are there adverts? In short, does the site chime with your values, both moral and aesthetic?
One important point you must always check is whether the site retains any rights over your images. I know it's a nuisance but you need to read the Terms Of Service (often abbreviated to TOS). These are always available when you sign up to a site - you'll probably have to check a box to say that you've read them - or you can also usually find a link to them at the bottom of the site or in the FAQ.
3) Do They Charge?
Ooh, the big one!
I have no objection to spending money online but I do think that a lot of art sites prey on the desperate and inexperienced. There are many excellent free art sites that offer just as much exposure.
There definitely are good subscription sites out there. Even though I've still not got round to applying, I've long considered AXIS to be worthwhile, especially for UK artists. They're a long-established site with a solid reputation and they provide a lot of 'added value' such as job opportunities, forums, high Google ranking and access to curators. Personally, I'd be incredibly wary of newer sites who want payment without having that sort of proven track record.
However, different rules apply if the site is specifically for artists in your area. These can be very worthwhile. I'm a member of Bristol Creatives and Textile Forum South West. Both charge a small annual membership but they're worth it because they connect me to other local artists, give me access to pertinent news & exhibition opportunities and organise regular offline events that are close enough for me to actually attend. Consequently both sites have a far greater practical value to me than many free national or international sites. Similarly, as a UK artist I wouldn't dream of letting my annual subscription to a-n lapse. An artist at a recent networking event I attended described it as "like Equity for artists". There are masses of benefits but frankly, it's worth it for the free public liability insurance alone.
There's also usually at least one professional organisation specifically for artists using your particular material and many of these now have websites where you can add a profile. Even if their website doesn't give you space for a profile of your own, you'll get access to high quality information that is specific to your field.
So I'm not saying that you shouldn't join websites that charge but you need to research them thoroughly, find out if they're as effective at promoting artists as they claim and and know exactly what you're getting for your money. In my opinion, you should definitely spend your money on your relevant professional organisations and local networks first.
4) How Effective Is It?
Randomly pick a few of their artists (not the ones that show up on the main page) and type their names into Google. How highly do those site profiles rank? If their site profile doesn't come up on the first couple of pages, it may not be worth your time.
Do be aware that if that particular artist already has a broad and effective internet presence that will skew the results. I'm all over the net like a cheap rash, so any site I'm on has to compete with all the other places where I'm active online. But if you check several of their artists and none of their profile pages rank highly, then that site probably isn't promoting its artists very effectively.
The second way to judge whether a site is worth your time is by checking their stats. Diane Gilliland has put together an excellent short video demonstrating how to do this. Her video is specifically about judging other blogs but most of the information still applies.
5) How Much Work Is It?
Is participation necessary or is it a 'set it and forget it' kind of place?
A lot of sites strongly encourage artists to maintain blogs on their sites. In my experience, there's a limit to how much blogging a single artist can do well. Remember that Google punishes duplicate content - it regards it as spam - so simply writing one blog post and plastering it over loads of art sites is counter-productive. I do allow occasional republishing of relevant blog posts from this blog on a few select sites but I would never republish every single post because that would definitely hurt my Google ranking. Many sites also contain forums where regular participation can gain you valuable contacts and further exposure on the site. However, be aware that forums are a notorious time suck.
If you're spending a lot of time on an art site but not getting many visitors to your site, you should question whether it's a good use of your time and energy. Marketing bods call this ROI - 'return on investment'. There's a wealth of information about your visitor numbers and behaviour in Google Analytics. If you've not already got Google Analytics on your website, you absolutely must because you need to know that information.
Now there could be strategic reasons to spend time on a site that's not bringing many visitors to your main site - perhaps it contains lots of people you're trying to get to know or it may just be fun - however, if it doesn't fulfil the criteria you've set, reconsider your participation.
6) Will You Be Seen?
Will your work be lost in the crowd? The smaller, more intimate sites can often be a more effective way of promoting your work than the huge sites. However, if a site has sufficiently huge traffic, you may garner significant eyeballs just by chance.
Are there opportunities to feature in newsletters, on the front page of the site or otherwise be brought to people's attention? I enjoy Central Station, partly because it's a fun place with interesting people but also because they regularly showcase my work. Because it's not a huge site, it's quite easy to stand out there with very little actual effort. In places that showcase new work, it's smart not to upload all your photos at once but to stagger them over a couple of weeks - you're more likely to get featured that way.
7) Who Are Their Audience?
Will your work be seen by the people who matter to you? If you're selling work, are new customers likely to find that site? If you're more interested in coming to the attention of curators, is there any indication that they browse the site? Does the site contain a lot of artists who you'd like to get to know?
If you're marketing your work to a specific niche, consider participating in non-art sites where your customers are likely to congregate. For example, if you paint racehorses, being active on a respected racing forum might be beneficial. Obviously you don't want to spam people but many forums allow you to have a short signature when you post, so you can subtly let people know what you do. Plus, you're presumably painting racehorses because you're interested in them.
If the site is free, matches your values and joining it won't take too much time, then you might as well go ahead and whack up a couple of images and a profile. After all, you don't know exactly who their audience are and you've got nothing to lose. However, if a site charges or requires far greater time participation such as using forums or blogging then you need to carefully weigh up the costs against the benefits.
Get more help
If you'd like more information about building your online presence, check out the free resources section.
I am also available for online consulting if you need one-on-one help.
I'd love to hear how you decided which sites to join. I'm planning on a follow-up post detailing some of the sites individual artists use, if you'd like to be included with a link to your site, please comment below or get in touch on Twitter.