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.
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.
* 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.
* 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).
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