Today’s entry is a bit beyond the usual topics here at Catasterist, and certainly not everyone will be interested in what advice I can give on running a Kickstarter campaign, but I had a hard time finding much advice before I launched my project (and some of what I did find turned out to be misleading at least in my case), so I thought I’d set down what I could. I hope it will inspire more designers, architects, urbanists, and other creative types to launch their own projects.
Most importantly, Kickstarter is an amazing tool. With Kickstarter you can not just get funding, but also build your audience and focus your project. There are some complications, though.
Poking around on Kickstarter, you will likely see a lot of projects that exceeded their goals quickly and went on to raise way more than they aimed for. Look closer, though, and you’ll see these aren’t the majority. One fault of the Kickstarter website, I think, is that browsing projects isn’t as easy or intuitive as it should be. You need to click the very small “Discover Great Projects” link at the top to really get beyond the Kickstarter-curated front page or the guest-curated lists below. The front page is a great place to find new projects—and I was lucky enough to have my project listed there—but projects are only on the page for a day or two, so if you’re trying to get the word out about your project, you can’t rely on that.
In general, Kickstarter favors featuring a few great projects rather than a big mixed bag of all kinds of stuff. Even once you get to a category (I put my project into the Photography category—technology could have worked, too, but I decided that photography is really the core of Project Neon) you still have to click teeny tiny “See More…” links to get to anything beyond the few projects featured on that page. So even if they Kickstarter staff loves your project (and they were very positive and supportive of mine), that’s not going to guarantee you a lot of pledges.
So what will guarantee that the money rolls in? Here are the things I’d suggest. Keep in mind, though, that your mileage may vary. What kind of project you have, what category it falls in, what kind of fan base already exists for it, when exactly you launch—all of these things will affect your Kickstarter campaign.
BEFORE YOU LAUNCH
Back a few other Kickstarter projects.
This will give you invaluable information about how things look from a backer’s perspective. Plus it’s fun! It will help you understand how people navigate the site, what kind of things are convincing (or unconvincing), and give you a better idea of how to communicate within the Kickstarter framework. Most projects have very low minimum pledge requirements (usually between $1 & $5), so pick a few. Choose something in your own category, choose something from the “Ending Soon” list, choose something silly, choose something important—choose whatever you like! If you are planning on offering tangible rewards, definitely pick at least one other project that does so you can see how that process works.
Apply to Kickstarter
This involves a filling out a short info form about your project. Don’t worry—you can change the wording of all of this before you launch, but you need to clearly explain your project and show the Kickstarter staff that you have a legitimate, creative project. This is also the point where they are going to decide to keep an eye on your project and possibly feature it on the front page or the blog, so put some thought into it.
It can take a while for your project to get approved (I think it took a few days in my case), so leave plenty of time between this and when you’d like to launch. Plus you still have to:
Set Up Your Project
Once you’re approved, you’ll be able to start working on the project itself. You’ll need a title, short description, long description, bio, video, etc. Get creative! Get friends to help if you can, and read through the descriptions of a bunch of other projects.
The two things you must be absolutely sure of before you launch (because you won’t be able to change them) are the deadline and funding goal. And if you don’t make the funding goal by the deadline, your backers won’t get charged and your project won’t get funded, so consider these carefully. Make a budget. What will you need to actually do your project? How much will you need to fulfill all your rewards? Don’t forget packing materials, postage (including for international shipments!), printing costs, etc. Can you trim down your budget at all? Subtract any amount you yourself will contribute toward expenses as you can’t donate to your own Kickstarter project.
Now take a look at the deadline. Many things I read suggested a 30 day deadline as the best, but I have to say I wish I’d made it longer. It’s difficult to do any PR before you’ve launched, and many blogs and print publications have a significant backlog on posting things. I spent the last week of my project writing back to places that had responded to my original submission but hadn’t yet published anything asking if they could manage to squeeze it in as soon as possible. Plus I had the added disadvantage of running my campaign during May, which is a very busy month for design bloggers.
Of course you probably don’t want to drag your campaign out too long—people do tend to make up their minds relatively quickly, and running a Kickstarter campaign is a lot of work. If you already have a large fan base, an extensive mailing list, an active Twitter account with loads of followers, and myriad Facebook fans, you may not need longer than 30 days. I, however, did not have those advantages, so I wish I’d set my campaign for 45 days or so.
One thing you may also want to do is set up a web page that explains your rewards. The Kickstarter format doesn’t allow a lot of space or formatting for the reward descriptions, and this is key for many people. Plus you can’t put any images into those descriptions (though both formatting and images can go into the main project description, of course). I had a hard time describing both my project and the rewards clearly and succinctly, and I wish I’d set up a web page with more extensive project descriptions before I started.
Keep in mind that as soon as anybody pledges to a particular level you won’t be able to edit that level, so make sure it’s clear and there are no typos.
Think about who your potential audience is and what questions they’ll want answered. What exactly will the money be used for? How did you get started on this project? and How do I know you’re going to do a good job with this project and the rewards? are all standard. Think about what specific to you.
Prepare to Spread the Word
You’ll save a lot of time later if you get a few emailing lists together before you start. What friends can you send it to? Which blogs would be most interested? What about print? Most especially consider who among your contacts could further disseminate your project—someone who writes “I have backed this cool project—you should, too!” can be a *huge* help.
If you have a blog for the project, don’t neglect it at this point. Likewise for Twitter & Facebook, and if you don’t have all those things, maybe you should. Now’s the time! The best time, actually, is before you launch, so you have time to build an audience and
Now’s also the time to start talking to your friends about the project (if you haven’t already!) and asking advice for contacts, approaches, and ideas. Have at least one person look over your Kickstarter page before you launch if you can. Your friends are really the key to a successful project—not necessarily because they’re going to be the majority of backers (though great if they are), but because they are going to be key for helping you get the word out. Thank them copiously at every step. (Thanks again to all my wonderful friends who helped me!)
Start Spreading the News
OK, you did it—your project is live. Congrats! First look it over one last time to see if there are any typos or broken links. Now get tweeting, facebooking, and emailing. As much as you can send individual emails rather than group emails—they make a huge difference. And don’t forget to tell people that you need their help not just with pledges, but also with spreading the word.
I’m bad about keeping emails short and to the point—I always worry about leaving too much out—but keep in mind that no one reads long emails. A brief explanation, a link to your Kickstarter and to your actual project blog, maybe a small image, and a thank you. That’s all you need.
Don’t forget to change your website link to your Kickstarter page or project page (which now should feature a prominent post about the Kickstarter campaign, and include the widget that shows the current pledge progress). If you comment or contribute on other topics, people may follow that link to see what else you are up to.
Don’t forget to track who you’ve sent things too—I did a bad job of this and had to keep rechecking sent mails to make sure I wasn’t resending people the same thing.
Keep Track of Who is Saying What
In the beginning (before I got overwhelmed with other work) I asked each backer where they had heard about my project. It was interesting to see—design blogs, for example, didn’t net me nearly as many pledges as photography blogs. Synergy helped a bit (people seeing my project on the front page of Kickstarter after seeing it mentioned elsewhere, for example) also helped. Friends of friends were a huge boost, as were internet forum friends (or imaginary friends, as I like to call them). Many blog mentions of the project were pretty inaccurate, but I didn’t sweat that—close enough!
Keep Spreading The Word
I hate pestering people repeatedly, but it’s necessary. People put things off, people forget—keep posting updates to Kickstarter, to Twitter, to your blog. And continue to add non-Kickstarter content to your blog if you can. In my project, for example, I made sure to go out and photograph what I knew would be popular signs even though I was busy with Kickstarter, since I knew I could post the link in the photo’s descriptions on Flickr. My blog posts during the month always mentioned Kickstarter, but I also tried to keep as much interesting content going as I could.
Don’t Give Up
Near the end of my project I had started to really worry I wasn’t going to make it. A couple of big PR things fell through, a couple of others didn’t generate the interest I thought they would, and the deadline was fast approaching. Everyone, especially friends, really pitched in. A lot of people really worked to help spread the word, and several people increased their pledges, which really saved the day. When someone tweeted that Project Neon was a cool project, though it probably wouldn’t get funding I replied that I hadn’t given up yet, which reminded me that I shouldn’t give up. And I’m glad I didn’t.
AFTER IT’S OVER
If you weren’t successful, consider whether it’s worth relaunching later on Kickstarter—you’d be surprised how many unsuccessful projects are successful the second time around. There are also other similar crowd-funding platforms to consider like IndieGoGo (which doesn’t have an all-or-nothing rule like Kickstarter), and you can always add a PayPal “Donate Now” button to your project’s web page.
If you were successful—congratulations! Now you need to work on fulfilling your backers’ rewards and on the project itself (if they are two separate things, as they were in my project). Set yourself some deadlines, keep your backers updated, and get to work. This is the stage I’m in now—it’s fun, but a lot to keep track of, especially for physical rewards that must be mailed.
To gather information from backers, you set up surveys (one for each reward level), which Kickstarter automatically emails to backers (and reminds them if they don’t return). The surveys are a little limited (you can’t add too many questions), so be sure to make sure they’re clear and will get you the information you need. You can always contact backers directly if you have specific questions (their email addresses are included automatically in the backer survey), but that can end up being a lot of work if you have to talk to more than a couple of backers that way.
Kickstarter allows you to download Excel-compatible spreadsheets with backer info, but not everyone fills out the backer form right away, so keeping track can be tricky. Basically being organized is key. I’m still working on packaging and mailing right now, but I’ll let you know if I get any insights during that step!
So there you have it. Kickstarter is an amazing tool, but unless you have a big fan base, an army of interns, or a very simple project, it’s probably going to involve a lot of work. It’s totally worth it though—what project will you launch?