Kickstarter is an exciting, powerful crowd-sourcing tool that is quickly becoming a must-use for independent artists. I recently completed a successful (though modest) Kickstarter fundraising campaign for a documentary film I’m producing. This blog post is a summary of principles learned about Kickstarter, gained both through my own experience and through studying other campaigns (both successful and unsuccessful).
They tell me that a magician shouldn’t reveal his secrets. Thankfully, I’m not a magician.
Before you go any further, consider reading some of the following in-depth analyses of successful Kickstarter campaigns:
- Kickstarter’s statistics on timing and levels of rewards ($5-75 “impulse buy” levels are the most profitable; most donations come at the very beginning and very end of campaigns, regardless of total campaign duration)
- Craigmod’s success principles
- Kickstarter milestones (roughly half of all Kickstarter campaigns fail)
- Miao Wang’s success principles
- Olga Nunes discusses her Kickstarter success
Read all of that. I mean it. I don’t endeavor to supplant any of that information, but I do expect that my readers will be familiar with that material before going into some specific types of funding that I have experience with.
How Much Funding Do You Want?
There are four types of Kickstarter campaigns, in terms of their level of success:
- Successful campaigns that greatly surpass their goal
- Successful campaigns that reach their goal
- Unsuccessful campaigns that almost reach their goal
- Unsuccessful campaigns that are epic failures.
Most people want category 1 (greatly surpassing their goal), but the evidence suggests that only a certain type of project (pre-orders) is likely to fall into that category (more on that below).
An extremely important question is: How much do I think I can raise? How many fans do I have who might be willing to chip in $15-20? Do I have any absurdly wealthy friends or family members? Do I have access to an uncommonly-large channel of communication? Answer those questions with brutal honesty and set your goals accordingly.
Consider two different fundamental models of Kickstarter projects that seem to prevail: The Altruism Model and The Pre-Order Model.
Kickstarter as a Web Shop (The Pre-Order Model)
Olga Nunes wrote an excellent article about Kickstarter campaigns, in which she stresses the importance of rewards (products or services delivered at certain donation thresholds), and concludes that Kickstarter is most effective as a pre-order model.
Perusing the Kickstarter hall of fame will quickly show you that many of the most-successful campaigns used product pre-orders to surpass their funding goals. Here are some key case examples to carefully study, all of which both overfunded and pre-sold products:
Kickstarter as a Tip Jar (The Altruism Model)
Some projects are successfully funded despite very weak or unappealing rewards. Often, the only thing they have going for them is a strong ability to inspire the altruistic motives of donors.
If your project doesn’t generate deliverables (t-shirts, books, CDs, stickers) to offer donors, you’ll need to have an amazing video. Persuasive speaking is the most crucial aspect of your video, and you must communicate your noble cause clearly. When someone watches your video, she must finish it with a clear understanding of what the problem is and why your project is the best solution.
You really need people to finish watching your video, then click “donate now.” The more time passes after they watch the video, the less likely they are to donate.
I highly recommend including a demonstration of the Kickstarter/Amazon payments process in the video (especially if you don’t have a clear tangible reward to offer that will compel people to problem-solve until they find how to pledge/buy the product). Explain all-or-nothing funding and how Kickstarter collects money (for example, tell them that nobody is charged until the goal is met and the campaign has ended). Make sure that they understand how the process works. I had a surprisingly large number of people demonstrate that they sincerely wanted to donate, but either didn’t understand the process or didn’t understand why it was important to do it through Kickstarter. I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with people where they would say, “let me just write you a check when it’s over if you don’t get quite enough funding and I’ll help make the difference.” All-or-nothing funding isn’t the traditional fundraising model that many are used to – education is important with certain demographics.
Marketing a Kickstarter Campaign
Success requires knowing your audience. Like Groupon, Kickstarter is supported largely by a community of relatively upscale, tech-savvy users. It’s very Web 2.0/social media-friendly, but the real challenge will be getting donations from people who aren’t as technologically cutting-edge.
Kickstarter has made it exceedingly easy to market your campaign through social media sites. Below any project video is a little Facebook “like” button. If someone clicks that, it will automatically post a link and an embedded video player (with your campaign video) to that person’s Facebook wall.
Also, if someone copies the URL of your Kickstarter campaign and shares it on Facebook, it will do the same thing, embedded video player and all. Their friends can view your video right in Facebook (in a very nice, Vimeo-style player), then click through to your project if they want to donate or learn more.
Thankfully, Kickstarter also has an ever-growing community of donors who will be able to find your project through Kickstarter’s blog, curated recommendations, featured projects, or even by browsing projects by category or city.
The title of your project is of surmounting importance. It should reflect a clear objective or call to action that your potential donors will be able to quickly recognize. Don’t call it “Nowhereville’s Bi-Annual Film Festival.” Instead, use “Help us get a venue for Nowhereville’s Bi-Annual Film Festival.”
If you feel that your project might appeal to a niche market that isn’t easily accessibly on the internet, consider augmenting your marketing efforts with printed advertisements. This comic book project grossly overfunded (they raised $36,000 after attempting to reach only $2,500), and part of their success was due to hanging small posters in local stores, explaining the campaign and asking donors to visit their Kickstarter page.
Kickstarter for Films
My interest in Kickstarter is primarily to fund my own films, so this has been a very relevant topic for me. The short story is this: very few films surpass their funding goals, so set your initial funding goal high enough to cover your needs.
Jon Heder asked for $27,000 to make an animated short film and got just a bit more than that. Christopher Salmon asked for $150,000 to make a film based on a Neil Gaiman story and got just a bit more than that. I am a relative nobody and asked for $1,500 and got just a bit more than that.
It doesn’t seem to matter what the funding level is or who is involved: once a film is funded the urgency disappears. My suspicion is that people look at it and say, “oh, this one’s already funded. Next!” When a pre-order campaign reaches funding, nobody seems to notice or care. They just want their product at the introductory price.
“Finding Vivian Maier” is an interesting example of a film that overfunded (they asked for $20,000 and raised $105,000). Their secret? They pre-sold a beautiful art book to donors who pledged more than $125.
“The Return,” a dramatic film about Costa Rica, found moderate overfunding success by pre-selling the film. The key factor involved seems to be the exceedingly large social network support that the filmmaker had found through a previous film. His niche audience was large enough, social enough, and tech-savvy enough to carry the project forward.
One of the strongest incentive for funding a film seems to be IMDB credit. This film doesn’t look particularly compelling, but the creators have raised a lot of money by offering Producer, Executive Producer, and other types of film credit. This is a common incentive for films, and helped make my Gibraltar film successful.
Kickstarter for Musicians
Browse the Ending Soon category on Kickstarter and you’ll likely see a few dozen miserably unfunded music projects. Study a few of those and you’ll see common problems, including:
- Small fan bases
- Poorly-made videos
- Poorly-written project descriptions
- Unclear reasons for needing the funds (as if “I’m a broke indie artist, I need money” weren’t enough)
- Poorly-tiered donation levels
- Music pre-sales that are either too expensive to sell to their audience or too cheap to raise enough money
It’s noteworthy to see the success of Blue Scholars’ campaign to fund their album, Cinemetropolis. They raised $62,391 of their $25,000 goal, a level of overfunding that is rare for music or film campaigns. Here are some aspects of their project that contributed to their success:
- Blue Scholars has a very large social network (email list, Facebook fans, Twitter followers, etc…)
- They sold exclusive/VIP concert tickets at very high premiums (strong rewards)
- They pre-sold their album (the pre-order model)
- They incorporated their blue-collar proletariate image into the campaign: “Blue Scholars Signs To The People” (the altruism model)
- They had a strong narrative to the campaign (eschewing corporate record labels and going straight to the fans)
- Kickstarter and Amazon Payments percentages – Kickstarter’s cut is 5% and Amazon Payments will charge you an additional 3-5% of your total donations. If you need exactly $3000, ask for $3250 to cover the associated fees.
- Provide a Budget for Donor Incentives – Make sure to plan on shipping and packaging costs. If you need $4000 to press your album, and you are offering to send a CD to anyone who pledges $10 or more, you may end up promising more than 300 people a copy of that album. Think about it: 300 padded shipping envelopes and 300 parcel post stamps (including some likely international postage) could easily cost you $1000-1500. Here’s my math: (300 envelopes x $1/ea) + (200 domestic stamps x $3/ea) + (100 international stamps x $5/ea) = $1400.
- Avoid physical incentives if possible – If you’re using Kickstarter to raise money to make prints of your Nintendo-based Ukiyo artwork, you’re going to need to ship a product out. But you could also provide high-quality digital images at a slightly lower donor level, padding your budget with digital files that are free and easy to distribute. Successful music campaigns often include a digital download of the album at $10, then a CD at $20 and perhaps a vinyl LP at $25. Many people just want the digital copy so don’t automatically make them buy the CD and rip it to MP3s if you’re going to have to pay more to have those CDs pressed and shipped. If you are a neo-luddite or otherwise feel strongly about delivering tangible, physical goods, respectfully disregard this paragraph.
- Kickstarter video costs – Increasingly, artists are hiring filmmakers and videographers to make high-quality videos for their Kickstarter projects. If you feel that you need to bring someone in to help with that part of the process then make sure to get a bid from them beforehand and work it in to your total budget so you’re reimbursed for that up-front cost.
My Own Campaigns
“People of The Rock” has cost me around $12,000 to date, mostly in to travel costs to film on location in Gibraltar. I hoped to use Kickstarter to fund the travel costs for an upcoming production visit, so I set the campaign goal at $1,500 (roughly what the flights, food and lodging would cost). I hoped that I’d overfund the project through pre-sales of the film, but would still have the safe, supposedly-easy $1,500 level to fall back on in case it wasn’t super successful.
I barely funded the project in the final 24 hours of the campaign, and was learned that pre-orders were less effective than selling Executive Producer credit. Here are some of the mistakes I made:
- The Kickstarter project video was just a trailer for the film. It didn’t feature any explanation of the topic, any introduction to my work, nor did it explain how Kickstarter works (I had a lot of people asking how to donate, many of whom didn’t seem to understand the all-or-nothing funding model)
- I changed videos partway through the campaign. This made it so that the handy video-embed that Kickstarter sends to Facebook just showed a broken link. (This seemed to have to do with Facebook’s method of caching information and the fact that the new video had an independent URL, but the old video’s URL became inactive.) This is a bug that Kickstarter may address in the future, but for now I highly recommend finalizing your video before you launch the campaign.
- I didn’t ask for enough money. I hoped that I could set the bid amount low ($1,500) and it would overfund to around $4,000-5,000. I should have just asked for $5,000.
- The pricing of my reward levels wasn’t good. I set the DVD pre-sale level too high ($35). I also set the digital download pre-sale level too low ($5 for SD, $10 for HD). I thought that everyone would want the DVD, but I sold too few DVDs and sold too many digital downloads for my pricing structure. If I were to do it again I would offer the digital download at $20 and the DVD at $25.
- I didn’t promote very well at first. Most of my marketing was in the last 10 days or so, after seeing that my project didn’t market itself very well (I was about 10% funded as I entered the final week of the campaign). Start early and with purpose.
Despite many mistakes, I somehow was ultimately able to raise $1,553, barely scraping past my funding goal. The good news is: even if your project has flaws, it can still be successful.
Later, I funded “Time Withers” in an intense 7-day campaign. I learned from some of my mistakes with “People of The Rock” and made what seems to have been a more effective video. My focus was to educate potential donors on the nature of the project and why we needed funding. The production team and I pressed the marketing hard from day 1 and somehow had the money raised by day 6. The film was made, it got some festival recognitions, and the donors were all thrilled to be involved.
I highly recommend careful study of many Kickstarter campaigns that are similar to your intended project. The notably successful and the notably unsuccessful campaigns are equally informative to learning how to use this system to fund your artistic endeavors.