Gar’s Tips on Sucks-Less Crowdfunding

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In mid-July of 2013, I launched a successful 30-day Kickstarter campaign to fund my latest book, Borg Like Me. My project goal was $15,000. I raised $20,776.

As a successful author who’s written seven books before, I had access to traditional publishing channels. But I wanted Borg Like Me to be an experiment. I wanted to know: Is it advantageous for a commercially-successful author to crowd-fund and self-publish? What state are these services and technologies in? How difficult is it? Is it all really ready for prime time? Also, self-publishing would give me the freedom to publish the book I really wanted to write, a book that might be a bit too indulgent, and too much of a genre-buster, for traditional publishing. It’s still too early to tell if the experiment was a success (the books just arrived on my doorstep a few hours ago). I can tell you at this point that it’s been one hell of an exhilarating ride. Crowd-funding and self-publishing are definitely not for the timid, the weak of heart. Or the labor-averse.

As I was doing the campaign, I started taking notes on some of what I was learning. When the dust cleared, I jotted down more. Here are some of my most useful take-aways.

Top-Level Thoughts:

Launching a crowdfunding campaign is a little like grabbing onto the tail of a comet. The moment your campaign launches, and your phone starts happily chiming away with each new pledge, you fall into a dizzying vortex that pulls at you 24/7, for 30 days (or whatever the length of your campaign). To work yet a different analogy, it feels like the whole thing is a giant, hungry coal-fired boiler that needs to be stoked around the clock, and as soon as you stop stoking, your pledges stop. You have to really be paying attention, constantly thinking of ways of getting your word out, pressing your family and friends into service, engaging in discussions on your KS page, answering backers’ questions, doing interviews or pursuing potential media leads. It’s a whirlwind of market, market, market, market, pitch, pitch, pitch, sell, sell, sell. I swear that but the end of my campaign, I would have kissed babies like an opportunistic politicians if I’d thought it would’ve gotten me more last-minute pledges.

That may sound like a lot of exhausting work, and it was, but the thrills at least equaled, if nor surpassed, the spills and chills. I had so many people step up to help me, so many colleagues who said the kindest, most supportive things in promoting the project. So many friends selflessly helped keep my campaign in the public eye. And, I must admit, having that pledge-o-meter cha-ching-ing on my phone on a regular basis was a cheap Vegas-worthy thrill. Besides the unequaled rush of my first few pledges, I specifically remember one morning where I was lying in bed (having gone to sleep particularly late ’cause I was working on the campaign) when my phoned chimed. I picked it up to see that someone had pledged $500 (my first of three such pledges). I was so excited, I leaped out of bed, did my happy dance, and off I went, suitably inspired, ready to kiss virtual babies.

One thing I’ve concluded from the crowdfunding part of my crowd-fund/self-publish experiment is that, to do a successful campaign, you have to wear A LOT of hats. You’re a fundraiser, a marketing person, a copy writer, a web designer, a video producer, likely on-air “talent,” a merchandiser (putting together tempting reward bundles), a fulfillment house (mailing out all of those bundles), an accountant, the list goes on. Now, this makes it sound more intimidating than it needs to be. You do have to take all of these things seriously, and be mindful of them all during the campaign, but there’s a lot of good help out there. If nothing else, a crowdfunding campaign is a great boot camp for understanding and engaging in the entire process of conceiving of a project/product and following it all the way through to market (and getting your hands dirty at every stage of the process). If that sounds more creatively challenging and fun than daunting and scary, then crowdfunding may be for you.

Some Specifics of What I Learned:

* Plagiarism Saves Time! — OK, I don’t really suggest you stealing from anyone, but it doesn’t hurt to emulate the success of others. Right when I was beginning to plan my KS campaign, I happened upon a project that was just about to launch their campaign (actually, I “happened” upon it because they were doing the first tactic I boosted from them — generating pre-campaign excitement and buzz). The campaign was for a very cool-looking tabletop sci-fi game called All Quiet on the Martian Front. They really looked like they had a great approach to launching their Kickstarter, so I just began to follow their lead: They did pre-launch teasing and content-sharing, so did I; they had a very well-designed page, with stretch goals and stretch goal banners that charted success, so did I; they had substantive Updates, with content, so did I. What’s funny is that, they seemed so together, I was shocked when they blew their Christmas delivery (so did I). And we ended up both coming to market about 6 months late. I guess I followed them TOO closely. But basically, the point is: Find a campaign whose vibe you like, pledge to it, follow it through and learn what you can from them. And feel free to talk to them, too. During my Kickstarter, several people were obviously doing this with me — they liked the way I was executing my campaign and asked me questions about it. They asked where I went to educate myself to run such a cool, well-orchestrated campaign. I told them I was just basically copying what others had done.

* Include a Video — Projects that have videos perform much better. Your video is really just an ad (not the next Sundance candidate). You don’t have to tell your whole back story, or be tempted to get super clever or high-concept. Just tell people as powerfully and personally as possible, ideally in under 3 minutes, why they should back your project (and what’s in it for them). If you want, you can do additional videos on your page that delve deeper into various aspects of the project, tell your back story, etc. It’s also a good idea to have the most important details of your campaign go up front in your main video. Lots of people bail after the first minute or so.

* Put the Good Stuff On Top of Your Page: — Like the project video, your KS webpage should have the high-impact, need-to-know content at the top. For those who come to your project page directly, and do not play the video firsthand, you want to make sure and grab their attention right off the bat so that they DO watch your vid and stay on your page.

* Create a High-Impact Project Page — Make sure your KS page is well-designed, well-thought-out in terms of information organization, and is visually appealing. Not only do you want to make it easy for people to find the info they need, you want them to gain a certain degree of confidence in your project and your team by how your campaign is being conducted. So, for instance, for the pledge levels, it’s great to show, in the main content area of your page, a nice product layout with what your backers will get for each pledge level. These don’t even have to be the final product components. I saw, in doing research for my book campaign, that every successful book project showed a dummy cover mock-up, so I had one made up and pointed out that it wasn’t necessarily the final design.

Having banners and gold stars might seem silly, but people do enjoy visually seeing goals being reached.

Having banners and gold stars might seem silly, but people do enjoy visually seeing goals being reached.

* Do Frequent Updates — Your KS webpage should be a living document that’s growing and being added to throughout your campaign. You want to give people a reason to come back. You want people to keep your project and campaign on their radars so that they’ll be reminded to forward it to friends, tweet it, and otherwise engage with it.

Make your project updates entertaining, offer value in them. For Halloween, I included a holiday-themed excerpt.

Make your project updates entertaining, offer value in them. For Halloween, I included a holiday-themed excerpt.

* Soft Launch and Early Bird — A lot of people do soft launches of their campaign where they won’t do the big announcement for the first 24/48 hours but only announce to their core audience. And they’ll have some early bird special rewards (sometimes just x-number of rewards at a certain level at an enticingly reduced rate). The idea here is to already have some decent pledge numbers on the board before the majority of people show up, and to have all/most of the early bird deals already gone. Sneaky marketing mojo.

* Easy on the Rewards, There, Santa Claus — This was my biggest blunder. I had a lot of fun putting together the reward packages for my different pledge levels. I got carried away. And then, when I thought my campaign was lagging (see DON’T PANIC IN THE “U”), I added some new pledge levels to try and entice people to up-convert to a higher pledge amount. By the time my campaign was over, I had a lot of rewards and numerous items within each reward. Getting all of that stuff together and doing the mailing was, frankly, a nightmare. You need to have juicy rewards in your campaign to get decent pledges in return, but really try and be disciplined in them. The fewer actual items you’re offering, the better. I had a bunch of special bundles of rare magazines, art, and books, where I had 5 bundles of this, 10 bundles of that, etc. Way too much special handling on the back end. And the more rewards you can dream up with that are easy to fulfill but have high value, the better. E.g. you offering a Skype consult of some sort to a high backer, or you’ll read their manuscript and offer feedback, or whatever). And digital rewards are great because all you have to do is send them in an email. This is the one aspect of my campaign where I feel like I cost myself a lot of unnecessary time and money (e.g. I underestimated some of the shipping costs for this stuff).


* Have Fun with Your Update Newsletters — Update Newsletters (which get posted and mailed to your backers) are very important to promoting your campaign. I had so many people tell me how much they enjoyed my updates (and that they usually ignore them because they don’t say anything). Updates are a perfect opportunity to delve deeper into the development of your project, to offer samples of content, a look behind the scenes, etc. I tried to offer some kind of actual content (e.g. excerpts from the book that I’d worked on that day or content I wasn’t going to be including, but was still worth sharing).

* Anticipate People’s Questions — Save yourself some time on the back end answering questions by doing a good FAQ on the front end.

* Have a Post-Campaign KS Page Ready Before Your Campaign Ends — Here’s an IMPORTANT end-of-campaign lesson I learned (the hard way). Your KS page can be updated during the entire campaign (except pledge levels which get locked after anyone pledges at that reward level), but your entire KS content (except for the Updates area) gets locked the second your campaign ends. I was in the middle of updating my page (summarizing the campaign, removing junk I didn’t need to persist on the page post-campaign, telling people about my new webpage where they could continue to order the book, etc) when the campaign ended and I got locked out. Have a plan in place for how you want the page to end up and make sure to implement those changes before the clock runs out.

* Work Your Verticals — For the success of the media campaign part of the KS, it’s important to target each of the vertical markets who might be interested in your project. You should have a target list for each of these. And you want to be expanding your circles of exposure and creating new ones throughout the campaign.

* Create a Hit List of Influencers — For my campaign, I made a list of about 50 people who have significant cachet in the tech and alternative media worlds, large socmedia and blog followings, etc. I messaged a few of them every day so as to stagger their FBing, tweeting, and other mentions. Some of them, I pinged again towards the end of the campaign. Almost every one of them did socmedia posts, some did several follow-ups without me asking, and some really took up the torch. This was one of my favorite parts of the campaign. I was really touched by people’s kindness and generosity.

* Identify Your Ad Hoc “Street Team” — Early on, I noticed a number of people really picked up my campaign and ran with it. I realized I had an ad hoc street team and began treating them as such. I was extra sweet on them, gave them shout-outs, and asked them to help out where appropriate. I started emailing them directly and they loved that direct contact and acknowledgment. I gave them special credit in my book, and when I sent out my rewards, I included something special for them as a thank you. Don’t be afraid to use these folks, if they show interest in helping.

* Be Prepared to Answer Questions –- I didn’t have a lot of this, but depending on the nature of the project, you may get a lot of questions asked on your KS pages during the campaign. You can ameliorate this to a great degree by having the decent FAQ discussed above. But even with this, you’re going to need to set aside some time to answer messages/questions left on your page. And you’ll want to answer these questions as quickly as possible.

* DON’T PANIC IN THE “U” – EVERY crowdfunded project experiences something called “the Kickstarter U.” This is the dramatic dip in pledges which happens in the middle of a campaign. It almost seems like there’s nothing whatsoever you can do to prevent the U. I’ve had friends who’ve been in that part of their campaign, been on major media outlets, and still not gotten significant bumps in pledges. You don’t want to become complacent – you want to continue to sling that spaghetti to see what sticks — but just know that the lion’s share of your pledges are likely going to come on the first few days and the last few.

* Where My Money Came From – Here is a breakdown of where most of my pledges came from:

Kickstarter 32% (all KS mentions, including being their Pick of the Day, a Publishing Staff Pick, and getting chosen for the Projects We Love newsletter)
Facebook 20.5%
Direct search 16%
Twitter 9.8%
Posts on the Boing Boing blog 7%

This shows that I ended up having to rely too heavily on KS love and my FB network. The only media promo effort that had a DIRECT impact on pledges was Boing Boing (and I was on there four times!). I think this shows one of the things I did wrong, which was to rely too heavily on KS internal promotions and my own personal network(s). If I had it to do over again, I’d have media lined up BEFORE the campaign with the intent of having it constantly exposing my project to new and different audiences over the span of the 30 days.

These projects really have to be approached like a military campaign (So. Many. Moving. Parts.). You have to be thinking strategically, tactically, staying on top of your operations and supply lines, and remain nimble enough to make changes quickly if conditions suddenly change. I think I did really well with all of this, except I made that critical error of not thinking in terms of constantly expanding the reach of my campaign. I ended up having to rely too heavily on my core audience (and using pledge up-converting as a way of squeezing out more dollars). If I did it over, I’d have way more media exposure lined up and other tactics for exposure beyond my family and friends network that I would reel out over the course of the campaign.


frontCover200pxIf you want to order a copy of the book I crowdfunded, Borg Like Me, you can get it from Amazon, here.

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2 Responses to Gar’s Tips on Sucks-Less Crowdfunding

  1. Mike Misantakis

    This is one of the most depressing things I have ever read. Not that I disagree with any of it; I think you’re 100% correct. But my takeaway from this is that “To he that has, much shall be given” — if you don’t already have a virtual army, if you’re not already really, really, really well connected, you might as well not even try.

    I mean, you were on Boing Boing four times in one month. How is the average joe going to get that kind of exposure?

    • Gareth Branwyn

      Sorry to burst your bubble, Mike. I don’t think you HAVE to be super well-connected to do a successful campaign, but it sure helps. I think the campaigns that do best are with orgs and individuals who already have networks of people whom they can easily reach. One of the things I have definitely learned from this experience is that crowdfunding is definitely not for everyone or for every type of project/funding situation. For instance, I would likely never crowdfund another book. Even with all of my connections, I was only able to raise $21K and I worked my ass off for that. I asked for $15K but I really needed at least $30K. So, after a month of nearly full-time promo work, I ended up barely having enough to cover the book’s expenses (and the expense of fulfilling the KS rewards) and I covered my personal expenses for about a month. The book ended up taking 9 months.

      And, BTW (to further depress you), I was not only on BB 4 times, I hit the trifecta of Kickstarter internal promotions. I was a section choice, was the featured project of the day on the KS front page, and was chosen for their weekly Projects We Love e-newsletter. And even with all that I wasn’t able to hit my desired $30K goal (but again, I think a best-of writing collection just isn’t all that sexy).