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Money Can social media play matchmaker between artists and buyers?

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The #Takeoff series is about crowdsourcing issues important to Canadian small businesses. They tell us about their defining moments and we write about their stories, the issues, and strategies for success or how to overcome obstacles.

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It's a far cry from moving vans, but when artist friends approached Susan Philips to represent and sell their artwork, she agreed because she's always loved the field and figured she had the experience in sales and management from her previous role as vice-president of a moving company and van line.

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"I love working with artists. I'm a bit of a wannabe artist, so I get a lot of satisfaction thinking that I'm helping them in some small way," said Ms. Philips, who now works with artists full-time.

She bought some easels and rented a room, and that was the first event organized by her company, Simply Serendipity. Since then, she has expanded her roster of artists to about 20 – a number she keeps low on purpose – along with her company services, including working with interior designers and their clients to find the best art to complement finished renovations. She has also built partnerships with about 15 different venues, ranging from the Faculty Club at the University of Toronto to the Oshawa Golf and Curling Club. She now regularly runs one or two artist events a month and always has an exhibit in at least one of the venues.

Susan Phillips, founder of Simply Serendipity, a Toronto-based company that represents artists, sits in front of art work that is part of the Oh Canada show at Mangia and Bevi restaurant in Toronto. The work on the wall is by Andy Donato. for The Globe and Mail Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail

Susan Philips, founder of Simply Serendipity, a Toronto-based company that represents artists, sits in front of art work that is part of the Oh Canada show at Mangia and Bevi restaurant in Toronto. The work on the wall is by Andy Donato. (Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail)

As with all small businesses, it took a lot of commitment. "It was a process, there were a lot of referrals and using my personal network and the artists' networks and eventually the venues' networks," said Ms. Philips. "I contacted places, called around, handed out flyers. I took the art to clients and consulted with them on their preferences … the main cost was time rather than financial commitment."

In a way, that's a good thing, because while the business is self-sustaining, it's definitely not a "moneymaker," said Ms. Philips. "I do it because it's a passion, not for the income." The passion, at least, has paid off in terms of garnering the local awareness and reputation she needed to get the business where it is now. She has no shortage of talented artists who are happy to sign on and referrals to both venues and clients keep her busy. The problem has been to turn growing interest into actual sales – to get the artists paid and, through commissions as a percentage of sales, herself.

Currently, aside from co-promotion through venues hosting a show, Ms. Philips mainly reaches prospective buyers via an e-mail distribution list and handing out flyers to local businesses. She hopes to leverage social media but has questions about how to go about doing that.

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"I'm not sure if people who buy or collect art are on social media, or if they are, how to find them," Ms. Philips acknowledged. She uses Twitter and Facebook, primarily for updates on coming events, but that is the extent of her interactions online. "To be honest, I'm not very good at social media, it's definitely a challenge."

For many small-business owners, social media is a wild card. Though there is a cost advantage to using social media rather than spending money to advertise or hire new staff, it is a huge time commitment most aren't able to assume.

And yet, many acknowledge they can't afford not to be on social media.

"Social media is important for businesses because if you have a website, you are making your customers come to you, but with social media, you are going to them," said Randall Craig, president of digital consulting firm 108ideaspace.

Mr. Craig talks about a social media hierarchy, "from passive, to broadcast, to engagement."

"Too often there's a lot of effort spent on social media but no results are achieved, and that's because no plan has been thought out," he said.

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From being passive, which is simply having complete social media profiles, businesses can move on to broadcasting themselves via newsletters or blogs so that they can turn up in searches, to eventually building engagement with audiences and developing relationships through social media. "Engagement is really about participating in other conversations, and spending time in online spaces where potential clients spend their time," Mr. Craig said.

And to do this, a business needs to be constantly creating fresh materials with which to engage audiences. "To be successful on social, it's a matter of content creation," said Jessica Green, founder of CursivePR, a Toronto-based social media consulting company. "Figure out where your customers are, what kind of things they search for, and then create your content strategy in answer to that."

Susan Phillips, founder of Simply Serendipity, a Toronto-based company that represents artists, sits in front of art work that is part of the Oh Canada show at Mangia and Bevi restaurant in Toronto. The work on the wall is by Sally Heit. for The Globe and Mail Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail

The work on the wall at Mangia and Bevi restaurant in Toronto is by Sally Heit. (Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail)

While there are a variety of social media platforms to choose from, Ms. Green says Facebook and Twitter are must-haves, in addition to picking another platform that makes sense for the product of the company.

"In Susan's case, because her product is so visual, image-based platforms like Instagram or Pinterest would work well," she suggested. "Pinterest is a dream. If Susan pins her artists' works, and it gets repinned by someone else, there's someone that's definitely interested in your product."

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Both consultants suggest running a blog on the company website as a basic way to reach audiences and get them to come to the business.

"Having and consistently updating a blog is so important," Ms. Green said. "If you are creating new content, it will improve your website and your social media presence. You are also making it easier for people to find you."

And it doesn't have to be a post a day. Mr. Craig says just three targeted paragraphs a week could do the trick in terms of showing up on Google.

In the end, managing social media is ultimately about keying in on what potential customers want to see or read, offering that to them, and getting them to amplify your voice through sharing on their own networks.

"Embed social media links on your website so people can take your content and share it themselves. When you have live events, get your audience to tweet or check in on Facebook," Mr. Craig said. "Use social media to support real-world activity and vice versa, and let your audience help you do it."

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