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7 Things to Consider BEFORE you Launch your Kickstarter Project
I get A LOT of requests to help with kickstarter campaigns. Through trial and error on over a dozen kickstarter projects, hours of lectures at Emerson College, and countless meet ups, phone calls and emails with artists and innovators, I’ve refined a “best practices” list that I share when I decide to get involved with a project. I’ve been fortunate to run my own successful campaigns, but also have helped out on over a dozen innovative artistic endeavors all of which have been successful in some way. What you’ll read here, and hopefully in the future, is what I’ve found to work (to the tune of almost $350k and counting). But at the end of the day, two things are really all that’s required: a good idea and A LOT OF HARD WORK. Ok, maybe three – a decent network that supports what you do.
This list is not definitive. In fact, it barely scratches the surface, but it’s a start. I don’t claim to be an expert. The word guru makes me throw up in my mouth a little and every project is different and strategy and tweaking are critical depending on audience, budget, content, fanbase, etc. These sections are just a snippet to get you rolling – I could talk for an hour on each – but who’d listen
1. Story: What’s your story? Craft and tell the story of your story.
Story is everything. Let me back up. Your story is everything. People aren’t so much getting behind the idea as they are getting behind your passion to produce it – be it a book, film, album, live event, business, it makes no difference. I’ve been lucky enough (or dumb enough?) to have smart people with means give me money for various projects over the years. I used to think it was all based on the merits of my “great” ideas – but what these folks quickly chastened was that they were investing in me, my spirit and passion, and my drive to make something happen. Of course they were investing in the project, but they’re won over by YOU! In my experience, and my opinion, this is the very heart and soul of an effective kickstarter campaign (or any crowdfunding campaign). It HAS to have heart. Kickstarter isn’t a place people come to make an investment expecting a financial return. They come to engage with other interesting people and to help along artistic projects they believe add value to the world in which we live. I’ll stop there for now (I have an hour long lecture about the role story plays in our lives), but for the record: Story is everything.
So, what does that mean? Well, you must first write a treatment for your project and develop a strong pitch. The treatment is an overview of what you’re trying to do. Feature Film treatments that get shopped around Hollywood might be 60 pages long and include scenes, storyboards, budget figures, and a distribution strategy. Does your pitch need to be this complex? That depends on your personality and what you’re trying to accomplish, but you cannot proceed with your project successfully until you’ve gone through the process of developing your pitch through a treatment. The treatment essentially becomes the “written” portion of your project from which you can cannibalize to write everything down the road.
This also leads into one of the most important visual components of your story, in that you ABSOLUTELY MUST HAVE A PITCH VIDEO (and a trailer of your film doesn’t count). The pitch video is your chance to “sell” yourself and your ability to produce what you’re pitching. Does it have to be slick? No, but it shouldn’t be painful to watch either. I really believe that a direct to camera approach is the most effective. Put a bit of your previous work in there, or a clip of your trailer, and sit down and talk to the camera. It works, and it’s your chance to get people to catch the vision and spread the word.
a. The pitch video should be compelling, honest, humble, and decently produced. It can also be funny, clever, and tongue in cheek, just don’t be arrogant. Be you, but remember a little humility goes a long way, and, you NEED as much support as possible so try your best to make it “shareable.” As an aside, I’ve seen some projects that I was willing to back but not willing to share the video as it was so poorly put together (it’s almost a reflection of your ability to deliver). Imagine sauntering in to a hard-to-get investor pitch meeting 20 minutes late, without apology, totally disheveled (not as a style choice), and with an air of expecting them to give you money. That’s what a shoddy pitch video reminds me of. Harsh, but it sends a message that you don’t really care.
b. Ideally the pitch should be direct to camera combined with some trailer/footage/images
c. Keep it brief – attention spans are waning these days! I’d try and keep them under 5 minutes. Here’s one of mine, and some others that I like (embedding them wasn’t working consistently – these are direct links to the videos on kickstarter.com):
2. Fans: We all have them.
We really do. You might not think you do, but you have teachers, colleagues, relatives, co-workers and other associates that actually do care about what you’re up to. This step takes some time and thought (and some research!), so plan for it, but start to assemble a list of these people in excel or google docs. I should clarify: I’m not talking about facebook friends here, I’m talking people that are actually looking forward to your holiday greeting card, or news from you that you were promoted at work etc. We’ll talk about facebook later.
This list should include the names and emails of those in your circle that care about you. These are people that would buy your bestselling book, or a ticket to see you perform at symphony hall, or come to your funeral. Make sense? If you are young (right out of highschool/college), this list might be mostly your parents network and that’s ok because guess what? The AVERAGE donor age is a ripe old 42. Zing!
List building is like brainstorming and you can make many associations based off one name that leads to others. Again, plan for this as it will take some time (but it’s worth it!).
a. Compile an exhaustive professional/personal/family/friends email contact list
b. Edit this list and maybe ask for some objective help (mom/dad/partner) to weed out people that might be annoyed or are put off by these things. When I compiled my first list, I had over 500 names and emails. I cut out 20 or so just based on what I know about those people and how they would respond. Relationships are everything, so take care of them.
c. Plan to email this list a total of 4 times during the ENTIRE fundraise (we’ll get to this in a bit).
3. Evangelists: We all know some.
You’ve likely met someone, or are friends with someone, who is especially talented at sharing the latest thing. To evangelize is the act of converting someone to a cause, traditionally through “preaching.” In the case of social media – we’re all evangelists to some degree. We craft pithy status updates and 140-character tweets that annotate our lives for those that “follow” us, and we appreciate the RT’s and “Liking” that goes on in support of our micro cause. For a successful kickstarter (or any crowdfunding campaign) to really catch fire, you need a handful of committed evangelists.
Take that list you compiled in step 2, and identify several people in your professional network who could aggressively promote and evangelize your project. What you’re attempting to do in this step is identify a few evangelist types that have a circle of influence outside your own, ideally to a group that you’d have no hope of reaching otherwise. Your networks should be quite different. They won’t be of much help if you have too much overlap or identical professional/social networks. For example, assume you find a willing evangelist that has a nearly identical network (family, school, and work) as you do. This type of project promotion will have little chance of going viral because of the overlap – and you run the risk of alienating and annoying friends and family besieged by different people about the same project. They can certainly help promote the project, but they wouldn’t make an ideal crowdfunding evangelist.
The key here is to think carefully about those individuals who can help reach out to those beyond your own network. When I was helping Christopher Salmon raise funds for The Price, we knew we wouldn’t raise $150k or anywhere near that on Christopher’s network alone. Before we launched we reached out to Neil Gaiman through his assistant and they graciously agreed to help spread the word. We weren’t sure exactly what that meant, but because Christopher had spent nearly 5 years nurturing that relationship through occasional correspondence, we knew it was genuine and, well, Neil is a consummate gentleman with an enormous aortic pump.
We reached out to others like Jim Lee, Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, and writers at Io9, Wired, Aint it Cool, etc, in order to maximize our reach via social media. Without their help by reaching out to their expansive networks, we would have never raised the funds for Christopher’s project.
This is a dramatic, celebrity-packed example, but the template applies for even the smallest fundraise. It’s also a testament to how important it is to 1) never burn a bridge and 2) do everything you can to nurture and feed your diverse network of relationships.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t “pull the weeds in your relationship garden” from time to time, but do what you can to keep your relationships fresh and up to date.
Find those individuals who are wiling to get on board your project but who don’t have the same friends and relatives as you.
4. Write: And write…and write…and write.
If you don’t like writing, you’d better start. Start liking it or walk away while you still can! If you’re uncomfortable reaching out to friends, family and strangers about your project and about asking them for their financial and social media support, then crowdfunding isn’t for you.
Actually, what this becomes is a great litmus test for how committed you are to your project. You may feel reservations about reaching out regarding your needs – but your passion for completing your work will overcome any intimidation to network.
There are several things you need to write. For starters, you need to reach out to a few groups of people, particularly the two groups I mentioned above: Fans and Evangelists.
a. Draft an “I need your help” email for fans that outlines the project
Here you outline the project and what you’re trying to do. You need to educate your fan base on kickstarter and social media and crowdfunding. They’re not dumb, but don’t expect them to have any idea what you’re talking about and be careful with the vernacular. If you use a buzzword – define it. Be gracious, be humble, and remember you’re nothing without an audience and this email IS your only audience for now.
Also tell them that you’ll be contacting them with updates during the project and that you would be happy to remove anyone from the list. Also BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) your list. It makes the “ask” more personal and keeps people from jamming inboxes with “reply all” responses.
b. Draft another email for Evangelists
This is a version of the above email, but also outlines how you think they could help (via blogs, twitter, email, etc). Take the email you just wrote. Copy it, and paste it into a new email for Evangelists. Double check that your evangelists aren’t on your fan email list – you don’t want to email them the same email twice – it’ll make you look unorganized.
c. Draft your press release
Yes, you need to have a press release for your project no matter how small. Getting your project out beyond your network is critical to getting it funded and to generating buzz about what you’re doing. Remember, you’re building a fan-base through crowdfunding and the more people you can attract the better.
Media outlets, publications and news sites NEED content. A good press release is a way to provide these places with content that they can then redistribute. You want to make it easy to read (8th grade level) and it should contain quotes from those involved. It’s written like a news story and in the third person. There are a lot of examples of press releases online. I’ll attach two examples here:
In the next section we’ll discuss where to send the press release, but you should have already spent some time crafting your project narrative during the pitch/treatment phase. You’ll come back to it again, and again throughout the project.
d. Blog> tweet >(bleet?)> facebook. Rinse and repeat.
If you don’t have social media accounts in place already, get on it. You also should make sure you have a place to distribute and disseminate information about your project. Set up a facebook page, a twitter account (or do it through your personal account), and a blog/website for the project. This helps show fans you’re serious, and gives you a place to archive everything that happens during your fundraise. Think of it as a transmedia diary, where your project narrative has multiple entry points: link on facebook, a retweet, a published article, etc.
I promise this works, but this becomes the ongoing challenge for most crowdfunders as it takes SO MUCH TIME. One project I consulted on (10,000 Trees by Sarah Ginsburg & Sarah Berkovich) did this expertly. They set up a site on wordpress and started funneling people to kickstarter but also documented what was happening on their site for people to learn more. They took their press release and blasted it out – and it was picked up on blogs nationwide including the prestigious Sundance blog.
As this is a Pre-Launch article, I’ll merely state that at this point your job is to “get the barn up” so to speak, and you’ll start filling it soon enough. Also: DON’T SEND ANYTHING OUT UNTIL YOU’VE LAUNCHED YOUR KICKSTARTER PROJECT!
5. Research: It’s mission critical, and ongoing
Hopefully if you’re thinking of crowdfunding, you’re pretty internet savvy. Why? Well, one of the most critical and never-ending components to crowdfunding is research, as you’re constantly needing people and places to distribute information about your work. You’ll encounter a lot of rejection, and a lot of “no thanks.” But don’t let that get you down. Use research as a time to explore where and to whom your press release can be sent and where your story/blog/tweets can be shared. I have a zillion ideas for this section, but here are a few:
a. Identify active bloggers and twitter-ers, facebookers, who can help spread the word (should be germane to your project topic)
b. Identify where the press release could be sent, and to whom at that magazine, blog, program (Wired, NPR, university radio, etc).
c. Create list of minor celebs using social media who might take an interest in the project
d. Draft email/tweet with link to the project, asking for help
e. Identify all possible forums, blogs, and news site to send press release to and could post in comments – or get people to post blogs about
f. Think local and home grown. Identify places who care about you who might release the news (high school paper, college/university alma mater, town newspapers, you get the idea).
You should be doing this every day before and during the launch with the goal of attracting as many potential readers/fans as possible. It’s exhausting, but so rewarding when a link pays off. I remember how giddy I was when my first press release for The Elders was picked up over on DVinfo.net – a filmmaker’s news site and forum I’ve been frequenting for years. It was blasted out to dozens of sites, picked up by a handful, and eventually noticed by a NGO that came on board to match what I had raised on kickstarter. Can you imagine if I had not sent out a press release?
Similarly, I’ll never forget when the press release I wrote for The Price was picked up by Gawker’s io9, then by Wired magazine and a thousand sites in between. You can imagine how giddy we were when Christopher’s interview and parts of that carefully crafted narrative were ultimately featured on CNN.
As fun as the ride was with The Price, I’m grateful I wasn’t the face of that project. Christopher had the arduous task of implementing many of these more mundane tasks to ensure it was personal. Emails, giving interviews, blogging, writing articles, etc. If you have a large project with potential to go internationally viral, be sure you have a support structure in place to help you with the very hard work you’ll have ahead.
6. Reward: It’s better to give than to receive.
A lot has been said about rewards, and I’ll echo some of those things here. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites are set up to provide a small reward in return for someone’s financial pledge. Figuring out what rewards you should give for your project will take some time so plan for it. Browse the site and see what other successful projects have done, especially projects that are like yours.
a. Rewards should be easy and affordable to deliver. On average, rewards will cost you 5-7% to deliver (production, time, postage, etc) – try not to have any rewards that will require intense “production” under the $25 range, and I try not to put anything in the mail for rewards under $50. Not a hard and fast rule, but a good guide.
b. Get Creative! T-shirts and stickers are cheap, digital downloads are appreciated and EASY, postcards from location or a phone call to bigger donors is fun, etc.
c. Have a strategy to get out of “the trough” (the inevitable slump/flatline in your project’s fundraising timeline). But be careful about postage and production costs. You could launch a new reward, or have a giveaway or an auction. It doesn’t matter and the only limit is your imagination, but be sure to have something to jumpstart the project when it flatlines.
d. $25, $50 and $100 are statistically the biggest sellers but under $10 will help it go viral and provides a way for anyone (read ‘starving student’) to get involved. I generally think less is more on the rewards, but there are differing opinions. Get creative, and try and offer something valuable at each price point.
7. Schedule: The first marathon runner died once he had delivered his message
Everyone, without exception, underestimates how much work goes in to running a successful campaign. On average, during my campaign for The Elders (in which I raised $12,519 and then got a match from a non profit that was following the project online), I spent on average 4 hours a day curating the campaign. On The Price, with Christopher Salmon, I was spending 3-4 hours a day easily, as was Christopher, strategizing and tweaking the campaign as things panned out day to day. Every day feels like a month, especially when the stakes are high or you are impassioned about your work.
I really believe that projects should be less than 35 days. Longer might kill you – figuratively speaking of course. But you’ll feel completely worked over at the end of a campaign no matter how much you try and raise. Having just stated that 35 days or less should be the rule, there is a caveat, which is to say that this time-table is contingent on what kind of project you have. Do you have an artistic project and you just need to get cash in hand to get going? 30-35 days. Conversely, if you have product that you hope to sell (Tik/Tok, etc) or want to use kickstarter as a short term store front, then opt for a longer time frame (90 days) to maximize (pre) sales.
To reiterate, this is just a jumping off point. There is MUCH more that could be said about each of these points, and there’s no one size fits all answer to crowdfunding. I can tell you confidently that this list will ensure your project is built on a solid foundation, set up for success. I have a list of 10 tips for Post Launch that I’m not sure what I’ll do with just yet – but they’re equally important to ensuring your project accomplishes your goals and helps you maintain sanity.
Two parting tips:
a. Launch and THEN send out press releases and emails – NOT BEFORE!
b. Be ready to curate, tweet, facebook, and lose sleep. This better be a project you’re passionate about.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for a follow up article.