TLDR; Postcards are the single most effective tool in an illustrator’s self-promotion arsenal in terms of an outlay-of-effort to return-on-investment ratio.
Hot off the presses, It's postcard season again! Postcard season is that special time of year which, ideally, rolls around four times per calendar. What I like best about postcards is the sense anticipation with which the whole affair is charged — the suspense of waiting for the postcards to arrive in the mail, the excited unpacking of shipping material, the ritual placing of stamps and mailing addresses labels which heightens the anticipation, and best of all, once they're in the mail, the expectation of the work to come.
It has been my experience that postcards are the single most effective tool in an illustrator’s self-promotion arsenal in regards to an outlay-of-effort to return-on-investment ratio. Quite the mouthful when I put it that way, but what I mean is that given how cheap and easy online printing has become, justifying postcards as a promotional vehicle has become a no brainer — it only takes one job to more than cover the expense (when I started out, not that long ago, you had to lay out hundreds of dollars for minimum print runs of a thousand cards, where as now, I managed to pool together a couple promo codes and split my thousand into three different designs — all for under a hundred bucks). One might argue that social media provides a myriad of ‘free' promotional tools, but if you'll notice, I also included effort in the equation — it may just be me, but social media takes a constant tedium of updating and following effort to have even a marginal result, where as putting together a postcard design is a one time effort. And I enjoy designing it!
If you're new to making illustration promotion postcards, I've put together some tips from what I've learned both through my own process and mistakes I've made in the past (learning opportunities), as well as from what I've seen other illustrators do:
Great artwork can be ruined by bad design. Great design can make even bad artwork look good. If you're a great painter but graphic design isn't really your thing, then find someone who's thing it is. A postcard is likely your first chance to make a good impression and if it looks professional, you look professional, likewise, the opposite holds true as well. If you're not computer design savvy, find someone who is, perhaps you could work out a trade in favor.
All the online mass printing places are really pretty much the same, the quality is okay but not great, they will mis-cut a small percentage, and through various promos, offers, specials, and possibly the inclusion hidden file handling fees or shipping fees, all their prices are pretty much the same. I haven't used one yet that would get my glowing endorsement, nor would I warn you of steering clear of any one in particular.
Before you do any designing find out the exact size specifications of the company you're dealing with's postcards. A ‘standard' postcard is 4″x6″, but very few are standard. Lots of companies print slightly irregular sizes such as 3.75″x5″, 4″x5.5″, or some other such close approximation. It's amazing how such small variant in proportions can have such a huge effect on design, but I can guarantee that if you do your design ahead of time, without working to final print size, you'll be very disappointed in the results after you've had to shuffle things around to accommodate new dimensions.
Know your printing company's printing specifications — each printer has their own specifics in terms of dpi and layout. If they provide a template it should include bleed sizes as well as safe print margins. If they don't provide a template, or if it doesn't have all the specifications, a general rule of thumb is an extra 1/16th of an inch bleed on all sides and to not place type up to 1/8th of an inch from the trim edges. Postcards don't always get cut straight, having the extra bleed prevents there from being white lines along an edge, and having the type inset makes sure that even if it's mis-cut, your important information isn't cut off.
You should also find out your country's post office's printing specifications. Here in the US the post office doesn't allow printing darker than 7% grayscale on the right side or along the bottom (excluding the mailing address of course). As well, if your postcard turns out to be slightly larger than standard size it could result in a much larger postage rate (learned through experience).
The whole point of promotion is to get people to contact you, it should go without saying that you want your contact information included on the card. Having your name and webpage on the front of the card is, at the bare, minimum required. On the back, I would recommend having as much contact info as possible (within reason). Including an email address and a phone number on either the front or the back of the card should also be a given (although email is more common, rush jobs still give me a phone call sometimes).
If you want people to contact you, they have to be able to read your information. That means no 6pt fonts in grey on grey — make it big, make it bold. That being said, as noted previously, the post office will impose restrictions as to what and where you can print on the back of the card so make sure you look into that before you design the backside — otherwise you just might have all your postcards shipped back to you (again, from experience).
You are your brand, your branding is the artwork you put out there, and it should appeal to your target market, the people you want to work with. If it doesn't, either change your branding, or change your market. As inexpensive as postcards are, there's no point wasting money on promoting to markets to which you are not a good fit.
Usually, a good mail-out will result in at least some very immediate response. That means your card made its way across the desk of an Art Director just as they were considering whom to place for a job which your style was appropriate for. If you don't hear anything though do not be disheartened. Time and time again I've heard it expressed by art directors that this only means you weren't the right person for that job at that moment. The great thing about postcards is that if they like your work they will hold on to it. I have literally gotten a call from an art director that was the result of a card I had sent out three years prior. She had liked my work, and wanted to work with me, but I just had to wait for that right project to come along for which I was a perfect fit.
There's a fine line between being persistent and being annoying, but there's no line between being timid and not getting any work. Following a three to four-month mailing schedule won't annoy anyone but it will make you recognized and viewed as a professional.
When it comes to self-promotion, by no means should a postcard be your only vehicle (obviously, nowadays, internet presence is a must), but I could not imagine my self-promotion strategy being effective without including them. Postcards offer the most bang for your time and for your buck.
Below: Some action shots from my latest round of making postcards, plus some high-drama-angled-close-up-shots of the final product