On Twitter, Gareth M. Skarka (@GMSkarka) asked me for some advice about a Kickstarter project he’s planning, so I shared these lessons I learned from the e20 System project. This advice is largely oriented toward game design projects (since that’s my experience), but most of this should apply to any Kickstarter project:
Phase I: Preparation
(1) Create a detailed outline for the final product; you won’t necessarily be sharing all these details at the beginning, but it will give you enough information that you will be able to answer questions and give potential backers a firm idea of where the project is headed. More importantly, this will help you decide what parts of the project (if any) are negotiable and open to input and feedback from backers.
Insider access and input are the most important things you’re selling to your backers, so give this very careful thought. You absolutely have to be up front and clear about which decisions have already been made and which are open to negotiation. The more input backers get, the more interest you’ll be able to drum up for the project — but don’t promise more than you’re willing to deliver.
(2) Figure out a reasonable production schedule, complete with benchmarks for starting and ending major phases of the project. Be warned that the more access and input your backers have, the more drawn out the schedule will become; a good rule of thumb is that any stage where they have input will take approximately twice as long as it normally would. (Seriously, my single biggest mistake was underestimating how much this could stretch out the process; the phrase “herding cats” comes to mind, especially at the earliest stages.)
Ideally, you’ll set your schedule with enough padding that you can consistently stay ahead of deadlines; if you under-promise and over-deliver, you keep your backers happy.
(3) Calculate a comprehensive budget, including fair payment for freelancers (yourself included!), printing and shipping costs, overhead for your website, etc. Once complete, figure out how much of that budget you can afford to put up yourself and how much you’ll need to raise on Kickstarter.
In a recent post, Daniel Solis (@DanielSolis) suggested that you should plan to put up approximately half of the total costs yourself with a Kickstarter project; I agree, but I would add the caveat that “half the total costs” might include your own unpaid labor in addition to or instead of actual up-front capital.
The reason you should plan to put up half the costs yourself is that you want the fundraising goal to be as low as possible; Kickstarter’s statistics show that 90% of projects that reach 30% of their goal are successful (i.e. reaching 100% or more by the deadline). Given this, you want to do everything possible to hit that 30% “tipping point” as early as possible, and the lower you can set the final fundraising goal, the better your odds of doing so. (Obviously, there is a trade-off here: You absolutely cannot set your fundraising goal even one cent less than you really need to complete the project as promised and on schedule.)
There is one critical component of your budget that you can’t plan with 100% accuracy ahead of time: the cost of rewards for your backers. Hypothetically, let’s say you have a goal of $5,000 and four reward levels: $10 for a PDF of a rulebook, $25 for a printed softcover copy of the rulebook, $50 for an autographed, limited-edition hardcover along with special insider access (i.e. more input into the process, such as voting on items), and $100 for “senior patron” status (i.e. as $50 but with even more access, such as getting to join in exclusive chats with you on Skype, having the right to nominate items for voting, “naming rights” for characters and such, etc.).
- If you get 500 patrons at the $10 (PDF) level, you have no real cost to deliver your rewards.
- If you instead have 200 patrons at the $25 (softcover) level, you’re going to have to pay to print and ship 200 copies of the rulebook. CreateSpace is one of the most affordable options for print-on-demand books, making it ideal for a short run like this; even with them, a softcover rulebook might cost you $4.50 to $6.00 each (depending on length), and when you add shipping (both from the printers to you and from you to your backers), you could be spending up to $10 (or more!) for each copy of the rulebook. So, for this scenario, you’re out $2,000 just to give rewards to your backers.
- If you instead have 50 “senior patrons” (autographed hardcover + mega-insider access), you’re printing and shipping hardcover books but only 50 of them. CreateSpace actually has a hardcover option; it’s not available for print-on-demand orders, but you can have them printed and sold directly to you. In this case, your cost per book (including shipping) is probably around $15 or so, so your total expense is $750 to fulfill your backers’ rewards.
See how that works? Depending on what reward levels people choose, your ultimate costs can fluctuate dramatically. Plan and budget for the worst-case scenario (just to be on the safe side); realistically, you’ll probably find that a very high percentage of your backers will choose the higher reward levels (whose rewards are abstract and free for you to provide), but it’s hard to predict exact ratios and you shouldn’t try to count on it.
This, by the way, is one reason why a project needs to be as focused as possible. If you try to bundle multiple projects together — a rulebook, web tools, and a novel — and then give backers the option to pick individual pieces a la carte, you might end up with a very lopsided set of rewards that you have to provide. For example, if you have just one person opt for the novel, you have to write the whole thing for a single customer.
It’s usually best to do these as separate Kickstarter projects; if nothing else, it lets you gauge interest in a given project (and be sure that there are enough customers wiling to buy it) before you commit to starting it.
(4) Figure out your marketing campaign to sell the idea. This needs to be every bit as developed as you would do for a finished product:
- Think of what you would write on the back cover (basically a one-sentence hook that leads into a 75- to 100-word elevator pitch).
- Use the opening pitch to lead into a 500- to 1000-word detailed description of the project, its goals, and what a backer gets in exchange for their early pledge. Find a good place (near the top) to sell yourself as well; potential backers need to have confidence in your abilities, and highlighting your experience can help make this happen.
- You’ll need a good logo and artwork to really sell the professionalism of the project. (This is one place you have to sink in some significant time and/or money ahead of time.)
- On your website, you’ll also need more detailed information, a FAQ, and (ideally) message boards. Elsewhere, get all your social media stuff (Facebook fan page, Twitter, etc.) set up. You want everything in place to allow for you to actively engage with potential backers from the very beginning; early and consistent engagement is the single most important thing you can do.
- Finally — and I can’t emphasize this enough — you need an introductory video. It needs to be short and to the point, and it should establish a personal connection that helps potential backers get to know you. Look at the video I made for the e20 System Project or Daniel Solis’s video for Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple to see some good examples; you should also look at some successful or high-profile projects on Kickstarter to see what has worked for others.
Phase II: Determine Kickstarter Project Details
(5) Decide on the start and end dates for the fundraising drive. Last year, I recall reading on the Kickstarter blog that projects with a duration of around 30 days seem to have the highest success rate. If you go too short, some potential backers might not be able to pledge because they don’t happen to have enough free money (and they don’t have enough time to save up for it). If you go too long, you risk the project losing momentum; discussions might fade out, people might put it off for next month and then forget about it, and so forth. A length between 30 and 45 days is probably best.
When you pick your ending date, give some thought to how much people have available at a given time of the month or day of the week. Personally, I would recommend having the project end in the second half of the month, preferably on a Friday or Saturday night. Lots of people get paid twice a month (e.g. the 1st and 15th), and the first paycheck is often earmarked for major bills such as paying the mortgage or rent. People who get paid every week or every two weeks very commonly get paid on a Friday (not all the time, but often), so you want to have the deadline come at a time when they’re more likely to have a little extra money.
I recommend setting the deadline on a Friday or Saturday night for another reason as well: You will get a lot of last-minute pledges, so you want to make sure the deadline is at a time when the majority of potential backers have the opportunity to do so (i.e. awake and not working) just before the project ends. Some don’t want to get emotionally invested in the project until they know it’s going to be successful, and some might just want to sit on the idea until the last minute. (This comes largely from my experience running an online store and auctions; on eBay, auctions that end on a Friday or Saturday night usually have the highest final bids, and in my store I always get more business on weekend nights than on other days.)
(6) Decide on your reward levels for backers. This is a critical phase, and it’s probably the easiest to mess up; take your time to consider things as holistically as possible.
(a) Your lowest-level rewards should require a pledge of no more than $20 (and preferably no more than $10). For example, a PDF copy of a large rulebook will usually fall into this range.
(b) The lowest tiers should have minimum pledges equivalent to the purchase price of pre-ordering the finished product. For example, you might have a $10 pledge for the PDF and a $25 pledge for a softcover rulebook (via print-on-demand). In addition, they should get some basic insider information during the project, such as frequent updates, sneak peeks, and the opportunity to do playtesting. Finally, it’s nice for these early backers to get their copies before the product goes on sale to the general public; it doesn’t have to be much earlier (e.g. maybe a week), but a little bit goes a long way toward making backers feel that they’re getting special treatment and that their early support is appreciated.
(c) The mid-level tiers should begin to focus on exclusives (e.g. a hardcover edition only for backers, autographed copies, etc.) and greater degrees of access. As you go up to higher minimum pledges, try to think of intangible rewards that are relatively easy for you to provide but that give the backers special treatment that makes it worth the extra money. For example, autographing the book is free and it’s a nice touch. Similarly, rewarding these backers with a vote on major items doesn’t cost any extra money on your part (but it does take time, so plan your schedule accordingly).
(d) The higher-level tiers should offer particularly special exclusives such as the right to name or design iconic characters, pitch whole sections of the book (possibly even getting to write them for normal freelancer pay), and nominate ideas that they’d like to put up for a general vote. These tiers should usually be limited in number; first, you don’t want to end up with a “too many chefs in the kitchen” situation, and second, the fact that they are exclusive and limited will encourage people to make these higher pledges early.
High-level rewards also have a secondary function: They provide contrast that shows how good a bargain you get at the lower- and mid-level tiers. Sometimes, all someone needs to talk themselves into making a purchase is to see a more expensive option that they can reject, allowing them to feel like they’re being frugal and not wasting money on unnecessary extravagance.
Of course, a lot of people want to feel like they’re buying the best of the best, and they don’t mind putting up a little extra in exchange for special treatment. For them, the lower-level tiers provide a nice contrast that shows how special the higher-level tiers are.
(e) Consider including at least a few ultra-high-level reward levels that are very limited in number. For example, in the e20 System project I had a single $1,500 VIP level; it had everything that was in the $200 level plus a trip to Gen Con (including a badge, travel, and sharing a hotel with me and my booth staff). I honestly didn’t expect anyone to take me up on it, but someone did! It turned out to be a fun experience, and even after paying for his trip I still netted several hundred extra dollars in exchange for hosting him during the convention.
There are lots of variations you can play with here. For example, one idea I saw was to have the designer personally deliver the product to the VIP backer and even run a complete adventure for the backer’s gaming group. Obviously, you have to set this pledge high enough to pay for your travel and lodging plus enough extra for it to be worth the extra time on your part, but I’m sure that this idea could sell.
(f) Finally, give lower-level backers the option of pledging above the minimum to buy extra copies of the final product. On Kickstarter, anyone can pledge higher than the minimum for the reward level they choose, so all you need to do to implement this option is to write it into the description. For example, the $25 pledge (softcover rulebook) might include the option to buy an additional copy for every extra $25 you pledge; if you want to really encourage this and you’re able to afford it, you might even give a discount for extra copies (e.g. $20 for each extra copy).
Phase III: Soft Launch
(7) Do a soft launch for the project on your website and via social media at least 30 days before you start the actual Kickstarter project. You want to get the word out and get people interested and talking before you start the fundraising drive itself. At this stage, you’ll need to be able to tell people firm dates for the start and end of the Kickstarter drive, reward levels for backers, and so forth; use your own website as the central location for this because you won’t have a Kickstarter page to send people to until later.
Go to any message boards you frequent to post about the project (but don’t be spammy — if you don’t regularly post somewhere, don’t announce in that forum). Include links to the project in your message board profile and signature.
There are plenty of other websites and blogs that might be interested, so don’t be shy about getting in touch with them to tell them about the project (perhaps as a formal press release). For example, if doing a roleplaying game project, you might submit a short press release to ENWorld to see if they’ll include it in their news feed for the day.
Get all your friends and colleagues on board; the more voices you can get talking about the project, the better your odds will be.
(8) Do frequent Google searches (or set up a Google alert) to find people talking about the project; you’d be surprised how many different places you’ll find. When you find blogs or forums discussing your project, always post a reply. Be exceedingly polite and patient in answering questions, addressing concerns, and — most importantly — being understanding and complementary toward people who don’t like the project or aren’t interested.
A little graciousness goes a long way; I managed to turn several people who were initially openly critical of my project into actual backers. Sometimes, a person’s natural reaction is one of disdain (“Who the hell is this guy?”), especially if they don’t immediately recognize you and your work. Once they get to know you and they see how polite, patient, and professional you are in answering questions, the majority of these early critics will either become neutral (i.e. no longer loudly criticizing the idea), well-wishers (i.e. they’re not interested in being backers, but they’ll mention it to friends who might be interested and perhaps even buy it when it is published), supporters (i.e. they make a pledge on Kickstarter), or — in a few cases — “evangelists” who go out of their way to spread the word about your project and actively promote it among friends.
Bookmark every message board thread, blog, or other location where you find your project being discussed; you’ll need this later on.
(9) When using social media, make sure you don’t ever come across as spammy. Facebook fan page updates shouldn’t be more than 1-2 times per day at the very most; similarly, make sure no more than 20-30% of your Twitter activity is devoted to promoting or discussing the project.
Make sure you have something new to say each time; don’t just remind people over and over again about the project. As you engage with potential backers, you’ll get some good discussions going; when this happens, use social media to get other people in on the conversation. This keeps it fresh and gets more people engaged.
The only times you should risk posting more frequently are just as the Kickstarter phase is starting and in the last 2-3 days before it ends. At this point, a few extra reminders about the project are understandable and expected, so your fans and followers will forgive you for the extra posts at these critical points.
(10) Based on feedback you receive during the soft launch, be prepared to tweak your sales pitch; you’ll find a lot of things that don’t quite get the idea across, and this is a good chance to make adjustments and find good material for your FAQ.
In addition, you might want to add some additional reward levels, shorten or extend your fundraising period, and so forth. A lot of these details can’t be changed once you launch the Kickstarter project, so this might be your last chance to make any final adjustments.
IV: Kickstarter Launch
(11) Stay engaged. Continue everything you were doing during the soft launch, but make sure you direct people to the Kickstarter project page directly instead of sending them only to your website. The fewer clicks someone has to do to make a pledge, the higher your conversion rate will be.
Remember how I said to bookmark every place the project was being discussed during the soft launch? Go back to every single one of them and make a post pointing out that the Kickstarter project has started and is now taking pledges.
Be careful with stale message board threads and comment threads, though. If there have been no posts at all for weeks, you don’t want to be perceived as “necro-posting” to a long-dead thread. In these cases, it’s better to start a new thread; link to the old thread and point out that you didn’t want to annoy anyone by bumping such an old topic. That forum’s patrons (and moderators) will appreciate this.
(12) Add a Kickstarter widget to your website and any message board posts where you have announced the project. Once the project is live, this widget can be used to provide a direct link to the project along with its current status (number of pledges, funding level, % of goal achieved, and number of days remaining).
This is a very useful tool — don’t overlook it.
(13) Post frequent updates on Kickstarter itself, following all the same rules as for social media (i.e. make sure you have something new to say, preferably a topic or question that will get people more engaged). An update 1-2 times a week usually seems about right.
You also have the option to post updates that are visible only to people that have already made a pledge; use it when needed (especially when you’re making the final push as the deadline approaches), but don’t overdo it.
Keep a close watch on comments and questions posted by potential and current backers on the Kickstarter project; I don’t think you automatically receive notifications of these, so you need to stay on top of it yourself.
(14) DON’T PANIC.
Seriously, don’t worry too much about the pledges (or the lack thereof) on any given day. In my experience, the fundraising breaks down into four distinct phases:
(a) During the first quarter of the fundraising period, you’ll see a nice initial burst of activity (especially in the first few days). These earliest backers will often be your most important supporters, and many of them will actively promote your project to others. Show them your gratitude in as many ways as you can.
Ideally, you’ll reach that 30% tipping point (making you 90% likely to be successful ultimately) during this stage, but don’t worry too much if you don’t.
(b) During the second and third quarters of the fundraising period, things will slow down. The early adopters have already made pledges, and during this long middle you should get a slow but steady trickle of new pledges. Your biggest challenge during this period is keeping people excited and engaged; stay active, pitch ideas, and get them talking as much as you can.
(c) During the final quarter of the fundraising period, things will pick up again. A lot of people get their last paycheck before the deadline within this last week, so this is their first chance to make a pledge (and to be certain that they won’t have to back out of it). As the number of pledges increases in the final quarter, the activity will begin snowballing as people become more and more sure that the project is going to make it to its goal.
(d) Somewhere along the way — maybe early, maybe late — you will be right on the threshold of reaching your goal. When this happens, be prepared for another surge of new pledges; it’s something of a bandwagon effect. I suspect that many people don’t want to get their hopes up for the project, and once it crosses this line (or gets very close), they’re willing to emotionally invest in it and make a pledge.
In fact, many of your earlier backers will even increase their original pledge as you get close to the goal; once it’s that close, they decide to help push it over the top because they really want to see it succeed.
(15) Once the deadline hits, you’ll be busy for a few days doing stuff like sending out information requests via Kickstarter (e.g. so you know where to send the final product), but make sure you take the time to thank everyone for their support. They deserve the credit for making it happen, so be humble, gracious, and thankful to them for all their hard work.
As the project goes forward, obviously, you’ll need to keep them engaged as the real work begins; try to update Kickstarter with the latest news every now and then. This ensures that all of your backers receive the update because not everyone will check your website regularly.
Don’t be surprised if a large number of your backers turn out to be relatively quiet during the post-fundraising period; a fairly small portion of them (maybe 20%) will turn out to be the most active and vocal, but don’t misinterpret the relative quietness of the other 80% as an indication of disinterest or disapproval. They’ll speak up when they need to, so make sure they always know how to get in touch with you when necessary (e.g. using the messaging feature on Kickstarter if nothing else).
There you go — 15 tips to get you on your way to a successful Kickstarter project. As you can see, there are a few of these I didn’t know when I did the e20 System project, and I’m sure things would have turned out even better if I did. Here’s hoping that these lessons, learned the hard way, can save you a little grief.
Questions? Suggestions? Something really simple and obvious I forgot to mention? Leave a comment below!