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Cross posted from my blog at Zakelro.com
There's been a lot of scrutiny of Kickstarter's success rategoing around. They've been accused of withholding data relating to failed projects, we've seen attempts by third parties to scrape the real data, etc.
This has been accompanied by no small amount of general suspicion because, frankly, Kickstarter is a truly disruptive funding platform that potentially allows (hundreds of) thousands of people to lose relatively small amounts of money on projects that are funded but don't deliver as promised, rather than having one-to-several financial entities (hundreds of) millions. Of course, millions of people end up paying the price for those failures too, but when we lose money on something we decided to pony up for, it feels more personally egregious.
Meanwhile, everyone - well, everyone in the US - with an idea to pitch is rushing to Kickstart their project in hopes they'll get funding "before the bubble bursts." As someone who's run 2 successful Kickstarter projects to date, I'm not so sure there's a bubble to burst, but then I know Kickstarter's big secret.
And once you know the secret - every single Kickstarter project you launch will be successful.
So here it is: Kickstarter is not a fundraising platform. Wait! Don't click away yet - I'm not a complete lunatic. Of course it's a platform for raising money, but that's just a relatively small part of what makes it such a compelling platform for small creators. The fundraising is - and I speak from personal experience here - of secondary importance. So what is Kickstarter really, if not a way to raise money?
Simply put - Kickstarter is the most affordable and brutally efficient marketing tool I've ever used. It provides an opportunity to run the full branding/marketing gamut from early market research to final product merchandising. Of course, to use Kickstarter this way takes a considerable amount of honesty, time, energy, and dedication.
And here's my proof.
On September 17th, 2011 I launched a Kickstarter project for a tabletop storytelling platform called Bhaloidam. Bhaloidam is a concept that appeals to a relatively small subset of tabletop role players. It's more story-focused and mathematically simpler than the crunchy D20 rulesets, but more complex than the notable story-focused indie-darling RPGs on the market. To further complicate matters, Bhaloidam is a universal ruleset - meaning it's not focused on a particular genre - and uses individual game boards and token sets consisting purely of colorful iconography. Essentially, it both requires you to accept and learn a new visual language and provide your own storyworld for play. The final hurdle we faced was that the cost of manufacturing the game boards necessitated a much higher financial goal than other RPG projects on Kickstarter. The role playing community can be very suspicious if they think they're being fleeced, so we knew we'd have to prove to a skeptical audience that we really were providing value in exchange for the finances we were expecting. Additionally, we were primarily a studio that sought design and narrative videogame-contracts before we launched this project. So we had very few connections with the RPG development and consumer communities across the web.
Despite these considerable challenges we managed to exceed our goal, obtaining 113% funding when all was said and done. And we did this, not because Kickstarter is a money machine with a magic formula for success, but because we worked hard and focused on the true power of the platform. I will spare you the day-to-day details of the emotional rollercoaster, but running our Kickstarter project became my full-time position for 45 days. I'm going to focus on high level strategies for this post and start with the more obvious external tasks you'll need to perform.
- Rally Your Base. Ping your social networks every single day. Seriously. If you're as self-conscious about being spammy as I am, there are ways to mitigate the impact of this.
- Don't Beg. Rather than ask for new backers, update people on the project's status (4 more backers at the $45 level will put us at 13%!), let them know when new updates are available, reveal new information about the product, etc.
- Give 'Em a Break. Skip one network on any given day. For example, skip Twitter on Tuesday, Facebook on Friday, LinkedIn on Larsday, Google+ on Goobday, etc. Another tactic is to write a slightly different update for each network (and time them differently as well) rather than simply broadcasting the same text to all of them at the same time.
- Contribute Meaningfully. If you're using your personal accounts for promotion, continue to post non-Kickstarter links and updates, as well as engaging with your friends/followers/circles about the topics they're talking about.
- Use Multiple Accounts. Drive people to a Twitter account, FB, or G+ page, where all you do is post Kickstarter updates. Then reshare every 3rd update or so from your personal account (particularly if, like me, your personal account is your primary "brand" and has a larger following).
- Expand Your Community. Once or twice a week, find a new message board, a new circle, a new LinkedIn group and figure out how to respectfully introduce your project. If there is enough interest, stay in touch with this group and provide weekly updates. Make sure you're linking to your other information channels as well, not just your Kickstarter project so members of those communities can elect to stay in better touch.
- Engage Your Backers. This is critical. Your backers are the most important community you have. At any point they can either cancel, reduce, or increase their pledge. If you're staying truly engaged with them - on any and every social network they choose - you will find them to be your greatest fundraising allies. Here's a few specific tips:
- Post Regular Backer-Only Kickstarter Updates. Keep them informed as to the financial status of the project, new content from your blog, articles and interviews across the web, etc. Do not be afraid to make direct, honest, appeals for them to give you more visibility via social network updates, blog posts, etc. Towards the end of the project - if you still need funding - ask them to directly recruit people they think would be interested.
- Keep an Open Door. Make sure your backers know that you are engaged and interested in their thoughts on the project. Answer their questions, highlight their contributions, and validate them every time they provide feedback, especially for negative feedback.
- Don't Limit Yourself to Kickstarter. I had the best in-depth public conversations about Bhaloidam with my backers on Google+ and this proved to be one of our strongest methods of expanding our backer community.
- Say Goodbye. You will probably lose backers. Don't be mad or upset. Do send them a friendly Kickstarter message saying you're sorry to see them go and ask if there's anything they learned about the project that caused them to leave. 9 times out of 10, it's a financial concern that has nothing to do with the project. 1 time out of 10 you'll learn something invaluable about your pitch.
And here's the critical internal work that I see a lot of projects ignore (to their peril):
- Be Unflinchingly Honest. This should underlie everything you do. You need to be honest with yourself about every single aspect of your project or - even if you get your funding - you may not be prepared to deliver what you promised, or what people heard you promise, which isn't always the same thing.
- Understand Your Audience. You may think you know who your audience is and what they want. You may even be correct. But never, ever, stop listening to what people are saying about your project. And if they aren't talking directly to you, it's especially important to go and find where they are talking about it. You may find that whole new audiences are excited by your project and for reasons other than you anticipated.
- Listen Without Judgement. This one can be really difficult. People will tell you your idea is dumb, that you're asking for too much money, that they don't believe you can deliver, that your art style is amateurish, that your messaging is wrong, or that there's no market for what you're offering. The more difficult the feedback is to hear, the more important it is to seriously consider it. You need to listen to this feedback and then decide what action, if any, to take on it:
- Stay on Course. If the criticism is about an intended feature/impact of your project and the person isn't your core audience, don't worry about it. People criticized Bhaloidam for being too open to interpretation. Since that was part of our core design, we realized we were effectively communicating our intent and that people who didn't like it, weren't our core audience (even if some of them thought they should be).
- Change Your Message. If the criticism is completely off base, then you haven't communicated clearly enough to that person. It's possible their own bias will prevent them from hearing you, but chances are you simply haven't found the right messaging to reach them. If they seem to represent a significant portion of your ideal audience, you'd better give some thought as to how you can reach them.
- Change Your Project. It's possible that your most enthusiastic supporters will want something you haven't included in your project. It might delay delivery, it might cut into your bottom line, it might even go against the grain of what you wanted to offer. But if enough people want it, you should do everything you can to include it. As a recent example of this, Ouya has decided to include an ethernet port on their console as a result of backer feedback. Of course, the missing component might not be something obvious that people can easily point to. It might be something missing that's holding back the project from greatness. If you're not getting the traction you hoped for with all the previous tactics, consider this strongly and assess whether it's a change you can make within a reasonable time frame and with your current financial goal. We made two significant changes to Bhaloidam during the Kickstarter project. The first was to include a rule I'd been testing on my own, but hadn't planned on making part of the core ruleset. As it turned out, it was critical to simplying the platform, improving our messaging, and was exactly what the ideal audience wanted. If we hadn't continued to examine every aspect of the project, we wouldn't have taken such a risk. The second change was equally impactful and partially responsible for delays in delivery. We changed the language in the handbook to even further reduce the reliance on a central storyteller/organizer. Bhaloidam was very conducive to peer storytelling, but had retained some of the RPG language and conceits. We made this change when it became clear that our audience was more interested in exploring new ideas than they were comforted by the presence of the traditional.
- Embrace Failure. The final strategy is the biggest emotional obstacle you'll need to overcome. Be prepared, even eager if you can mange it, to hit your deadline without being funded. Do not be discouraged, do not be ashamed at your failure, do not be angry with your audience, and do not be disillusioned with your project. If you really believed in what you were offering, keep believing in it. Take 4-6 weeks off to focus on something else and then go back to the drawing board to improve your idea. Use everything you learned to better prepare and relaunch a Kickstarter project again in 12 months.
You may be thinking to yourself that I did a bit of an end-run around the notion of a successful Kickstarter project. But if you made it this far into the article, then you're probably ready to hear what I have to say next.
If all you care about is rasing the funds, is making the money, then Kickstarter is not your platform and you should consider more traditional funding methods. From the data I've seen - particularly for games - you stand an equal - or even marginally better - chance of raising the funds from angel investors anyway. Kickstarter is not for making money. Kickstarter is for breathing life into projects that traditional investment money won't take a risk on. Any other use of the platform is, in my opinion, an abuse of the platform.
*ahem* Back on point.
Corporations spend millions on testing products, testing marketing campaigns, testing incremental changes to existing products. Hollywood edits and re-edits films based on feedback from test audiences (arguably to the film's detriment at times, but not always). The point being - the type of audience intereaction that Kickstarter makes possible is enormously valuable and the fact that the only finanical risk you take is not getting funding for a project that likely doesn't have an existing market to sustain it anyway, there's simply no reason every Kickstarter project shouldn't be considered an overwhelming success - providing you simply do the hard work.