The Etiquette of E-Mail Promotions

E-Mail Etiquette for Artists

Robert Pizzo spring promo

Robert Pizzo occasionally sends promo pieces like this one to clients and prospects.

Most artists know that email is a good way to reach potential customers, but do you know how to send promos that won’t annoy your e-mail list recipients? Illustrator Robert Pizzo’s article “The Etiquette of E-Mail Promotions” offers email etiquette tips for artists. Read the complete article below, and learn how to make sure your e-mail promos help your recipients rather than ending up in their spam folders. You can find more great tips for marketing and selling your art in the 2014 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market—check it out!

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The Etiquette of E-Mail Promotions by Robert Pizzo

Robert Pizzo promo piece

Robert Pizzo created this Ready Set Shop! promo to mail out during the holiday season. “I wanted to do some sort of Christmas theme but sending it out too close to the holiday was bad timing,” he says. The shopping angle allowed me to e-mail this at the beginning of December.

Are you looking for cheap “enhancement” meds in your inbox? Maybe a phony degree from a prestigious college? How about a can’t-miss scheme to collect millions from the government of Nigeria? I didn’t think so.

If you’re anything like me, you find this common e-mail spam a daily annoyance. It’s something we dismiss out of hand like the latest Britney news while we sort out the more important correspondence. As artists with something to promote to art buyers, we never want to end up in that irritating category. But what are the rules governing e-mail promotions? What’s the etiquette here? I’m reasonably sure Amy Vanderbilt never wrote a book on the subject so I think we have to tread carefully lest we wind up annoying the very people we want to work with.

Why am I taking a crack at what the proper manners are regarding e-mail promos—a guy who still doesn’t know (or care) what side of his dinner plate the fork should reside on? Well, I’ve been dabbling in what is relatively new territory for all of us with success. I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. And other artists ask me about my e-mail promos quite frequently.

I had always been pretty good about promoting my illustration work at regular intervals throughout the year, but sometime ago, I was faced with the reality that some of the traditional methods were yielding diminishing returns. Ads in the big directories were still costing big money but it seemed like art directors were recruiting mostly from their computers. Plus, in this instant electronic age, it felt like a lifetime waiting up to a year for a directory to be published. By the time it came out, the pieces I had chosen to represent my current work weren’t even my favorites anymore.

I started making what I call “Instant Custom Promos.” These were simple 8.5 x 11 directory style pages, cleanly designed, with my name, phone number, e-mail and Web site, along with space for 3 to 5 images. They were “Instant” because I could drag and drop any one of thousands of my digital images into the promos at any time and “custom” because I could tailor them to specific prospects or clients. If I saw a great looking magazine about finance I could grab a few financial themed illustrations and drop them into the promo, print out one copy on a nice glossy stock and mail it off to the art director. I even live across the road from our town’s post office, so it couldn’t be easier. Or could it?

What if instead of printing and mailing I simply fired the promo off to an art director’s e-mail address? Easy—but would that be OK? And what if I sent it out to a few art directors or a few dozen, or a few hundred? Did that make me a dreaded spammer? Technology made it simple to mass broadcast via e-mail but was it polite to?

I’ll never forget a Pre-E-mail Era day way back in the late 1980s. I was in the offices of Business Week magazine frantically working on a stretch that would soon have to be approved by editors on the spot while the art director ran to take care of some business in another room. This was right around the time that consumer fax machines were first becoming available to the public. (I would soon get mine own down on the lower east side of Manhattan for the “bargain” price of $1,000 and be able to fax in ideas instead of commuting to the magazine to personally deliver sketches—an amazing breakthrough.) As I was penciling, the art director stormed back into the office looking really ticked off. I asked her what was wrong. She replied, “I am trying to send a letter out but the line is tied up by some illustrator faxing us his unsolicited 30-page portfolio.”

Ouch. I didn’t want to ever be that guy.

E-mailing current clients

For my first foray into e-mailers, I assembled a custom promo that was generic enough for anyone and sent it to a handful of good steady clients. Since these were all people I had a long, great history with, there was no spam factor to worry about. I took my Illustrator document and “saved a copy” as a PDF—which made for a really small file size, around 100k. A JPEG or GIF would’ve been fine for screen viewing, but I was gambling that some people might actually want to print the piece so I wanted better quality if that was the case. In the subject line I simply put “Pizzo Promo” and I was attached the PDF with a short list of instructions:

Instructions for “Pizzo Promo”:

1. Click tiny attachment to view

2. Print

3. Staple to forehead

Finally, I made sure to include my website link in the signature.

The reaction I got was pretty good. Most people sent back a simple reply like, “Nice piece” or made some other positive comment. Some said, “It’s now hanging above my desk.” I immediately learned a little etiquette when one art director said he loved the promo but asked to blind copied in the future so that others wouldn’t see his e-mail address. A few started longer conversations that volleyed back and forth for a couple of days and then even led to assignments.

Naturally, the whole point of the promotion is to get some work, but there’s more to it than that. In a business that can be very isolating for an individual toiling away in a remote home studio, e-mail promos are a great way to keep in touch with the good clients you’ve worked with over the years. It’s just a way of strolling down the virtual hallway, gently tapping on their virtual office window and holding up a little virtual example of what you’re working on—a “Hey, look at this!” Otherwise, clients tend to only see the art that you’re working on for them. “But don’t they see all the new pieces you regularly post to your Web site to keep it right up to date?” you ask. Um . . . well, I’m sure they’ve been meaning to.

These days a lot of people like Roger J. Greiner, art director at Shostak Studios in New York City, prefer getting e-mail to regular mail. “If I like the style I see in the e-mail promo, I will click on the link in the e-mail, and go to the artists’ Web site, and at that point, if I really like what I see, I will bookmark their site in the appropriate folder,” he says.

I’ve found that events on the calendar such as “Spring Ahead” or “Fall Behind” are a good excuse to whip up a timely promo. This way they feel fresh and current, like little public service announcements. Mary Zisk, design director of Strategic Finance magazine & IMA Marketing in New Jersey told me: “I like your promos because they celebrate a season and have something clever to say.”

So the e-mail verdict for good regular clients is: no problem. I believe this holds true for anyone who’s ever given you an assignment more than once. Generally speaking, if they keep coming back to you, it’s reasonable to assume they like your work and chances are they’ll eagerly look at the promos you send them, even if they’re not particularly fans of e-mail promos.

That said, even with good steady clients I wouldn’t push it. The art directors I talked to seemed to agree that, like the cable bill, once a month is enough. Roger Greiner adds, “Once a week/fortnight (is) really annoying!!!”

Jane Firor, principal of Jane Firor & Associates, a Washington, D.C. firm specializing in strategic and creative services for magazines, had some unique insight regarding e-mail vs. snail mail. “I prefer the e-mail, perhaps because they come from some of my very favorites, plus a B list and new folks come in every so often. I print the images and stick them on my wall. When the one piece of white tape gives out, they fall down and make room for others. Super selects get two pieces of white tape and stay up longer. Sometimes I print them out and put them in a plastic holder in our co-op’s elevator; if they are winners they stay until I replace them and if they are losers they get turned upside down or backwards usually within 12 hours. I don’t know what to think about the ones that disappear,” she says. Talk about letting the marketplace decide!

E-mailing potential clients

Now, when it comes to people you’d like to work with, the etiquette shifts a bit. What’s the rule for prospects?

I cringe when I think of how, when I first started out, I tried cold calling.

The conversation usually went something like this:

Me: Hi, this is (I’m withholding my own name to protect my dignity. No fair peeking at my credit.)

Art director: Uh, yeah. Who can I transfer you to?

Me: um, I was wondering if you had any assignments for me?

Art director: (click)

Me: Hello? . . . hello? . . . I’m gonna take that as a “no.”

There’s no way I’m going down that path again with e-mail, so I came up with a very simple strategy. If there is only one rule to follow this would be it: Be extremely discriminating when collecting e-mails addresses in the first place. Yes, you heard me.

Strict adherence to this guideline will save you embarrassment while ensuring that the target of your promotions can forgo that restraining order on you. All of the art directors I spoke with said it was OK to approach them for the first time via e-mail but you have to be careful not to pester. Remember, these are busy professionals who are subject to a daily bombardment of Inbox inundation. Mary Zisk summed it up: “To be fair, if an illustrator is being too persistent, I ask to be taken off their list.”

When it comes to people I’d like to work for, I’ll start by checking their Web sites. If I see that they’ve listed e-mail addresses along with their names then I’m guessing they’d have to know that someone might get in touch with them via e-mail. That’s the reason I’ve got my e-mail address on my site. Still, the prime directive is always in effect: Never Intentionally Annoy.

I’ll very carefully approach an art director I’ve never worked with this way: First off, for initial contacts, I only send to one at a time so I’m literally never spamming. In the subject line I’ll write something like “Got Illos?” to at least let them know this is not junk mail about increasing their, um . . . girth. Then I’ll introduce myself as a freelance illustrator in two sentences or less and invite them to see my work by clicking a Web site link or an attached PDF. The PDF will be a one-page custom promo or a mini PDF portfolio (about 20 pages in one document) but in either case the file size will be small, under 1MB. Many art directors echo Jane Firor’s wish that things are kept simple. “I don’t like it when the attachments open to something huge or something tiny and I have to fiddle with the image,” she says.

I hate to break it to you, but after that initial introduction, it’s in the hands of the universe. If art directors contact you to say they love your work and would like to use you in the future, that’s great. Drop their e-mails into your address book and e-mail them a promo every once in a while. But if they don’t contact you to say they’d love to hear from you again, it is of my opinion that you walk away—electronically anyway. Without permission it’s (Soup Nazi voice:) No e-mail for you! Back to snail mail for that prospect, my friend.

Have I put forth The Gospel of E-mail Etiquette? Probably not. But I hope that by sharing what I’ve learned as I’ve refined the process of e-mail self promotion, I can help you to, via e-mail, successfully reach out to—and never annoy—art directors who are potential clients. If you have any ideas don’t hesitate to let me know, especially if you’re an art director who’d like to see what it’s like to get a few of my promos now and then. I sincerely hope they’ll be worthy of two pieces of white tape.


Robert Pizzo is an award-winning illustrator. He has worked with hundreds of top ad agencies, design firms, publications, and corporations all over the nation. His clients have included Citibank, Verizon, Coca-Cola, Mastercard, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal. See his work at because he’s “fast, friendly, and reliable without a speck of that flaky-artist stuff.” He lives and works from his home studio in the Connecticut countryside.


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