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It’s a common part of business to copy what your competitors are doing if you feel that it is helping them in being more successful. In the art community, this can lead to positive change, such as artists pushing each other to raise their prices or normalising the usage of commission terms of service. In other cases, choices may be a little bit more questionable, or detrimental. One popular trend on social media involves censoring words that are related to selling in an attempt to “trick” the algorithm.

But the question is: How effective is it to censor keywords? What are the upsides and downsides in doing so? Let’s take a closer look at this online behaviour in the artist community today.

The devil in the room.

If you are either an artist or simply a person who enjoys artwork on platforms such as Twitter, you might have seen a variation of these:

  • c0mm1ss10n
  • c*mm1ssion
  • c*mm
  • c0mm
  • c*mmish
  • etc…

All of which, naturally, stand for the word “commission”, referring to a custom piece of art made to the client’s wishes and specifications. In this day and age and for many artists in the community, social media is one of the most important tools to sell their commissions and do business. So they will do whatever they can to reach as many people as possible when advertising their services.

Similar self-censorship can be seen for other keywords such as Patreon, shop, PayPal, payment, sale.

The social media algorithm, painted as the enemy.

Explaining what an algorithm is could take up a whole post in itself, and I am no IT specialist, though I have an interest in the field.

A social media algorithm serves to keep the end user interested and scrolling. An algorithm is a system that promotes content relevant to the user in front of the screen. No algorithm is perfect, and it requires to be fed data. This can be seen when creating a new account on Twitter or TikTok: These platforms will ask your interests and recommend accounts or topics to follow, starting their learning process in what interests you, the user.

While it is designed to keep the user active on the platform (so they see more ads and generate more income), it also helps businesses by taking the content where it will be met with a positive response.

Every follow, like, retweet and interaction tells the algorithm something about the user. With more data, social media algorithms can make predictions that are often so accurate, we think our phones must be spying on us. Such predictions can include a willingness to spend money.

There is an uncomfortable fact related to algorithms which leads to many creators believing they are being silenced, shadowbanned or hidden: Not all of your followers would be interested in everything you post. The algorithm will try to serve the content to those who are most lilkely to interact with it. Your numbers might dip as a result.

It matters: Your target audience.

Within your following, there will be sub-groups.

  1. Followers who just want to see pretty pictures while they mindlessly scroll Twitter to kill time.
  2. Those who are interested in your work and will interact with it, but not have the budget to spend money. If they like something you drew, they will RT it.
  3. People who support what you do, even without money, by sharing not just your art but also your promo posts.
  4. People who do most of the above, but with disposable income on their hands, who want to commission a piece or support you by purchasing merch or becoming a patron.

But wouldn’t it be effective to serve content to 1 and 2, even if they aren’t interested, since 3 and 4 belong to the same group of people?

– pondering artist

This doesn’t sound so bad, does it? By casting a wider net, you should be able to reach more people, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Take Person A, for example. Person A is a role player who likes getting art of their character. They go on Twitter and use the search function to find artists who offer commissions. They interact with commission posts by liking, retweeting or bookmarking them.

This person will not search for c0mms in the search bar. If you censor the word, somebody interested in spending money will have a harder time finding you. Should they follow you, and you censor the word commission, the algorithm will not recognize it. Person A, still interested in buying art, might not see your post as it got pushed down further the priority list for them.

Make it easy for people to find your work and offers.

Personally, I have never censored the word commission. Over the last couple of years and by putting a ton of effort into it, my account has grown to a following of over 16k. My commissions have always been met with plenty of interest by people enthusiastic about getting art from me, who respect my ToS and prices. There is, of course, more to doing commissions than advertising them smartly. But that is a topic for another post.

My commission posts ‘violate’ many the popular strategies of artists on social media: I spell out the word commission & include a link to my form and info in the same tweet.

The commission tweet is not intended to go viral. It is tailored for a specific part of my audience that wants to commission me.

Comparison of two recent tweets that shows a commission tweet doing “better” in terms of impressions, compared to a tweet of a fully uncensored NSFW piece of art and no outgoing links. Despite its low engagement rate, my slots filled up, keeping my bills paid for the month.

Consider the negative effects of self-censorship.

Let’s take a sponsored tweet as an example. Some company peddling a product as they think you fall within their target audience – or Twitter does, depending on how the campaign was set up.

How often have you seen them spell it S4LE, SH*P or PR1CE?

Successfully offering commissions requires the artist to look legitimate and professional. This doesn’t mean you have to lean into full corporate speak. You can let your personality shine while making sure people know you are reputable and responsible.

IMO: Censoring words disturbs reading flow. It may look unprofessional. Additionally, for people who rely on screen readers, your tweet will be hard or impossible to read.

These are some of the points to consider when making a choice about censoring keywords.

Use analytics to gauge how effective your strategies are.

Try analyzing your posts neutrally if their performance or impact does not meet your expectations.

For NSFW artists, this can be in cases like posting a crop with a Patreon link. The mere fact that it is a crop will lead to lower numbers as people are unlikely to share a censored or cropped piece of art. However, the post may have an invisible impact as it will show up for followers who have an interest in Patreon. It may contribute to them finally following the link and signing up.

A screenshot of my Twitter interests, based on my behaviour and interactions – yours can be found here (on Desktop).

For commission posts, how clear were they? Did people see all the info they need in one place? Is it clear to them what to expect of you and when? Did you specify payment currency and method? (Please, there are so many different types of dollars – mention if you charge in USD, CAD, AUD, or a different currency.)

There is no harm in experimenting – yes, even with the popular strategies! Censoring, leaving out words, leaving out links.

Compare, analyze, adapt.

Comparing the performance of an uncensored, full NSFW artwork and a cropped NSFW piece with the mention of Patreon, but no link. Numbers L to R: Impressions, engagements, engagement rate.

But you cannot stop there. After trying a method for a while, analyze if it was effective. Did your tweets get more impressions without a link? Was that tied to the content in any way (a crop vs a full pic)? Did the important metric – the engagement rate – vary at all? Did you have trouble filling your commission slots, or were you fine? How was the quality of requests you received, were your clients pleasant to work with or nitpicky?

Not to mention time of day, current political climate, other world and entertainment events that can all contribute to a tweet not doing well.

There are so, so many variables to success on social media and with commissions. It is impossible to make a blanket statement on what works and what doesn’t. However, following popular methods without questioning or analyzing them may lead to artists sabotaging their own business.