A Warts-and-All Guide to Kickstarter: What Works and What Doesn’t (Plus Where We Royally Screwed Up)

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You have your big idea, and now you need funding.

Your idea is awesome — the kind everyone will immediately understand and get excited about.

The world will see how amazing the idea is, and funding will rain down upon you.

But guess what? It won’t.

These are the lessons we’ve learned so far while promoting our own in-progress Kickstarter campaign. It’s been very successful … but that’s happened in spite of some serious blunders on our part.

So, warts and all, here’s what has worked well versus where we’ve screwed up.

Lesson #1: Your idea won’t sell itself

A few months ago, after releasing a rather popular self-publishing guide called Write. Publish. Repeat., we were flooded with reader requests.

They understood that self-publishing success came from producing multiple quality titles and arranging them in product funnels linked by smart calls to action. But they didn’t get exactly how we wrote as much and as fast as we did.

We’d published 1.5 million words in 2013. For us, that was simply a matter of going to work every day … but thanks to the undying myth of the muse, it seemed closer to magic for many.

We love telling stories, and we want to write as many as we can. Fans of Write. Publish. Repeat. wanted a follow-up that distilled our process, but we weren’t in a hurry to write another nonfiction book.

So we came up with what we thought was an amazing idea: why not show them our process instead?

The resulting project — Fiction Unboxed, in which we vowed to write a novel totally exposed, showing every tiny step of the process — was unlike anything we’d ever seen.

We planned to post raw words each day as they were written, before so much as a glancing edit. We would share our story meetings and emails. We’d hold nothing back. 

It felt daring. Revolutionary.

But we had plenty on our plate, and only wanted to conduct our “writing performance art” if the world wanted to see it. If the project funded, we’d do it. If not, we wouldn’t.

To us, that last bit was trivial. Once we told the world about the project, they’d see our idea, be blinded by its brilliance, and not care how we launched it.

We were half-right.

Which brings us to lesson #2.

Lesson #2: Count on your tribe

If you want to see something that’s equally amusing and sad, go to Kickstarter and sort the projects by “End date.”

Scroll down and you’ll see a handful with only a few days or hours left in the campaign, with virtually no funding. Some without a dollar pledged.

These are projects launched without a tribe.

One thing we did right with Fiction Unboxed was to count on our tribe: listeners to our Self-Publishing Podcast, readers of Write. Publish. Repeat., fans of our fiction, and audiences gathered before our move into full-time publishing.

We spent weeks before launch discussing our plans, teasing the project, crafting bonuses for our earliest backers, and building anticipation. We spent a month writing helpful, shareable posts on our blog, running contests, and building a dedicated list.

By launch day, our tribe was almost as enthusiastic as we were, and fully funded the project in 11 hours.

Relying on our tribe’s interest and their enthusiasm to share it is the single smartest thing we’ve done so far. It’s where those “hours to go with no funding” projects failed.

There’s a myth that Kickstarter is a magic place where if you build it, they will come … but it’s not true.

Statistics say that less than a quarter — and probably closer to 10 percent — of your total funding will come from the Kickstarter community. You can increase your exposure within Kickstarter if your project has a lot of momentum (ours has an unusually high percentage of in-Kickstarter funding), but in general traffic’s up to you (good thing you read Copyblogger).

Kickstarter is a marketplace, not a mystical land of free venture capital.

If you don’t already have an audience interested in buying what you’re selling, you have work to do before considering any kind of crowdfunding.

Lesson #3: Don’t pay for promotion unless you’re certain it’s worth it

It’s easy to put a finger on the promotional avenues that haven’t worked for us.

Here’s the metric: if we paid, it failed.

  • We spent hundreds of dollars on a split-test Facebook ad campaign. It brought us nothing.
  • We laid out $500 for a single press release through legitimate recommended channels. It totally flopped.
  • We paid for a “Thunderclap” — a service that concentrates Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr messages from supporters and broadcasts them all at once in a critical-mass burst. Despite having a supposed social reach of almost 1.1 million people, it only spammed those who already knew about our project.

All of those services were recommended by people we trust. Every day, we’re also pitched by predators who say they’d love the opportunity to get our campaign in front of millions of eyes.

We could have — and should have — saved all that money. Our loyal tribe and those they’ve told have done all the work that actually matters.

Lesson #4: Lead with the big idea, not the funding model

We were so excited about the idea behind Fiction Unboxed in the beginning that we overlooked a surprising stigma about the platform we’d used to launch it.

To us, “our Kickstarter project” was a handy way to describe what we were doing. When we told people — knowing for sure that they’d be as giddy about the idea of live-writing a novel as we were — that’s how we opened the conversation: “We’re doing a Kickstarter project called Fiction Unboxed.”

BIG mistake.

“Our Kickstarter project” comes with serious baggage.

No matter how cool your project or how value-packed it might be, many people will hear “Kickstarter” and see you standing with your hand out. It looks like begging … and for much of the funding duration, we’ve felt like beggars despite knowing better.

It seems like everyone is crowdfunding something these days. Many people didn’t want to share our project with their tribes because if they did, they’d have to talk about everyone else’s, too.

What we learned — too late, in many cases — is that we should have led with the big idea instead of its funding model.

Rather than saying, “We’re doing a Kickstarter project,” we should have said, “We’re going to write a book in a month and let the world watch! … And oh, by the way, it happens to be funded through Kickstarter.”

Doing so could have given the project a lot more juice and kept us from feeling like panhandlers. It would have allowed influencers to see the idea for what it is, rather than getting instantly turned off by the platform.

Lesson #5: Be careful how you spend your social capital

Much to our embarrassment, we failed on this one for half of the funding period. It wasn’t until we went to Authority Intensive in Denver when we finally caught on and started doing it right.

We both have a highly unscientific method for determining whether we’re promoting something correctly: if we feel slimy, we’re probably doing it wrong; conversely, if we feel enthusiastic and excited, we’re probably doing it right.

We felt kind of slimy for the first two weeks of this promotion.

Marketing, done right, shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. It shouldn’t involve favors or obligations. Your prospects should be as happy to hear about your product or service as you are to tell them about it, and people asked to promote you should be thrilled to tell the world.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

You only have so much social capital. If people like and respect you, congratulations. You have a valuable commodity, and you should treat it with care.

But every time you ask for something unbalanced — something where the other person is doing you a favor rather than joyously participating alongside you — you’re spending social capital.

Because of our failure to understand that many people view crowdfunding as charity rather than commerce, we spent social capital like running water. Without realizing it, we were asking our networks to promote something they didn’t want to promote because we’d failed to provide an angle to excite them.

By contrast, promotion was warm in Denver, stemming from natural dialogue. We talked about what we were doing. Some people got excited about Fiction Unboxed and became eager to share or participate.

It wasn’t an “ask.” It was a discussion. Networking done right.

To everyone we nagged about “promoting our Kickstarter” (as funding rather than big idea) or joining our worthless Thunderclap, we’re sorry. We promise to discuss and give more in the future, and obey our guts when it feels like we’re asking instead.

Lesson #6: Add massive value. Then, add more

You can’t treat a crowdfunding campaign like a Ronco rotisserie, setting it and forgetting it. You have to keep interacting with your backers, fuel their enthusiasm, and keep adding things to the project for them to get excited about.

This, I’m happy to say, is one of the things we’ve done well.

We’ve maintained so much enthusiasm among our backers, in fact, that many act as if this were their campaign rather than ours. There’s even one guy, Mgon, who we can count on leaving a Kickstarter comment, Tweeting, and Facebooking within seconds of a large pledge. This is fantastic.

There’s a danger that crowdfunding can look like charity (despite Kickstarter’s prohibiting charitable projects), but the very best way to combat that impression is to give as much as you possibly can.

Backers should always get much, much more than they’re paying for.

We’ve found two ways of adding value to be highly effective:

Way #1 to add value: stretch goals

Once you hit your project’s funding goal, you can and should add some higher “stretch goals.” Hit those stretch goals, and everyone wins even more.

Our first (after hitting the $19,000 project goal) was at $25,000. When we hit it, we promised to create a video on how we use Scrivener writing software to plan our books — something our audience had been asking us incessantly about — and to add that video to all backer rewards at $39 and up. Those backers didn’t need to pledge more to get it; they just received it for free.

Then, thanks to a partnership with Literature & Latte, hitting our $35,000 stretch goal gave a free copy of Scrivener software (to keep or give away) to everyone at $89 and up.

Way #2 to add value: surprise gifts

These are bonuses you simply announce and add to backer rewards without requiring stretch goals to be hit. It’s a way to both reward backers for being awesome and to sweeten the pot.

So far, we’ve added a small book to the $1 level and up, a big book to the $39 level and up, plus a writing critique to our “full participation” level at $297 and up.

Lesson #7: Be flexible

We didn’t screw this up — but we almost did, and definitely had to find a way to work around it.

Our first snag had to do with the structure of backer rewards.

Once someone has claimed a reward, you can’t change that reward level within Kickstarter. This meant we couldn’t add any of the new rewards mentioned above to the sidebar, which is where people look when deciding whether to support your project.

We asked our podcast co-host and artist Dave to create a vivid, colorful infographic to slot into the page’s main copy, where we could make changes. We added a starburst to the project image to draw the eye to new and changed rewards, and made the existence of new rewards and stretch goals obvious at the top of the column of text.

Our second snag had to do with the structure of our stretch goals.

We’d originally set two: a bundle of Self-Publishing Podcast transcripts at $25,000 and the “How We Use Scrivener to Plan Stories” video at $35,000. Our backers were very excited about the latter but didn’t care at all about the former, and the project started to stall.

So we apologized for being obtuse, responded to their requests, and gave them both rewards at $25,000 instead of making them wait. As long as we gave more than we’d promised rather than less, everyone stayed happy.

The last adjustment we had to make was the largest and most challenging.

We’d planned an “in-person weekend story workshop” for backers at $5,000 and up, but we hadn’t described it. As the project evolved, we needed to fully explain the idea, flesh it out and detail its value, and offer a less expensive option for those who were interested but unable to handle the price tag.

It was too much for the Kickstarter page copy, so our solution was to create a Premise sales page, then link to it prominently in Dave’s rewards infographic.

For every one of these changes, the most important thing we did was to communicate, communicate, communicate. Backers needed to know what we were doing to keep up with the rapidly shuffling cards, so we posted regular Kickstarter updates to keep them informed.

Lesson #8: Be patient

After a meteoric first day, progress slowed.

We’d reached our funding goal and that was fantastic, but we’re ambitious guys and had plenty of other things we wanted to create for backers if the project funded highly enough to justify our time.

At first, to address the slowdown, we began hatching a bevy of guerrilla ideas to throw gasoline on the project’s reach. Then we realized that running a Kickstarter campaign is a marathon, not a sprint.

We’re no strangers to product launches and knew a three-day launch to be absolutely exhausting. But this isn’t a three-day launch. This is a 30-day launch. And in its middle we’ve already had time to breathe, attend a conference, and write this blog post — all while the clock continues to tick.

Most Kickstarter projects follow a predictable pattern. You’ll get a burst of activity at the beginning (especially if you have a tribe and can send initial traffic) and a burst again at the end. In between, however, your progress will be much slower because it’s human nature to wait until the last minute.

Plant seeds, then give them time to flower. You can and should spread the word throughout the project, but you’ll wear out your fingers refreshing the page if you don’t learn to chill out and let time pass.

We have.

Lesson #9: Understand that everyone will be counting your money for you

There is, in our opinion, a significant (albeit understandable) flaw in the Kickstarter funding model. Not only will everyone who visits the page know how much money you’ve made … but they will see it displayed as the metric that appears to matter most.

In other words, a Kickstarter page has a way of yelling, “Look how much we have! Give us more!”

As a message, that sucks.

You’re not asking for a handout. You’re selling a product that, if you follow our advice, is fat with value. You want a customer’s focus to be on what they will get, not what you have made. Yet all crowdfunding platforms stamp that big number front and center, telling your backers that it’s the most important thing on the page.

It’s not what matters most. But if you run a campaign, understand that you will encounter some people who have a problem nonetheless … and that only increases once you meet your goal and the question changes from “Help make this happen” to “Help us get more than we asked for.”

There’s nothing you can do about this, and the skew in perception has given us serious doubts about whether we’ll use crowdfunding in the future. When you sell a product, it should only matter whether a buyer is getting what he or she paid for — or, ideally, much more.

There are really only two ways to deal with any criticism you may get or that you may feel in the air around you:

  1. Communicate with and give to your backers, keeping in mind the hundreds or thousands of people who are delighted by what you’re offering.
  2. Make your stretch goals astounding, thus making it clear that if you’re getting more, you’re going to give more, too.

So at Fiction Unboxed’s $50,000 mark, we promised to create a comprehensive set of research documents that describe the “world” of the novel we write during the project, thus giving every backer (even at the $1 level) a way to write in the shared story — and, if their work is good, to gain the extra momentum that comes with playing to a pre-existing fan base.

The idea of meeting that one as a worthy goal had our backers clamoring from the start… and caring more about what they got than what we made.

Lesson #10: Do your homework and get good advice

We’re smart guys, but we’re not smart enough to wing it on a project of this size.

We love systems (they’re how we can write as fast as we do), but systems aren’t born out of nothing. Our systems have always been refined by the simple addition of work + improvement … and in many cases, a lot of that improvement comes from talking to people who know more than we do.

We were fortunate to have a lot of great advice on this campaign, from several accomplished and knowledgeable crowdfunding experts. If you want your campaign to fund (or ideally, to overfund) and have access to experts, take their advice.

Failing that, you’ll at least need to do some research. Look at other Kickstarter projects in your space (publishing, film, music, etc.) and study the highest and lowest performers, see what they did wrong, and what they did right. Look through your network and find someone who launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, or helped to guide one. Ask questions.

Even if you are amazing at what you do, you can always learn from others who’ve done good work in the same area.

Which, by the way, is how we hope aspiring writers continue to feel about Fiction Unboxed until the end of the funding period on May 21.

Have a question or comment? Join the discussion over at Google-Plus.

Flickr Creative Commons Image via Gregory Gill.

About the Author: Johnny B. Truant and Sean Platt are the creators of Fiction Unboxed, in which they’ll demystify storytelling by writing a novel in front of the world. You can find them on their Self Publishing Podcast with David Wright or at their publishing imprint Realm & Sands.

The post A Warts-and-All Guide to Kickstarter: What Works and What Doesn’t (Plus Where We Royally Screwed Up) appeared first on Copyblogger.

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