Lacking dark skies

Kickstarter, Social Media, and lessons learned

Richard Charpentier National Monuments of the Southwest, Notes from Rich Leave a Comment

45 days ago I went ahead and did something very different.  I sat down and created a Kickstarter project, and started on a journey to “Crowdfund” a book I’ve always wanted to put together.  Since my first trip to the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument a guidebook kept coming to mind, but there was never enough time or funds to do it.  With the advent of crowdfunding, awareness at an all time high, I figured, “Why the heck not?”

Being new to crowdfunding I can say for a fact that mistakes were made.  How our project was initially presented wasn’t clear, but in time we fixed that.  My lack of knowledge about reaching people on social media was an impediment for the first two weeks, but then I really started learning.  And in the end, I probably should have posted the project after we returned to the west, and with only a 30 day timer, not 45.  Finally, I shouldn’t have offered a print version of the guidebook or the photo book, that forced me to up our goal a lot, and if I had stuck with E-Book we could have posted a much less intimidating goal.

In the end, I’ve learned a good deal about crowdfunding, the different services out there, and how this whole phenomena works.  I’m no expert, but I could claim to be.  And I’ll explain that in depth later.

I've been looking at the Kickstarter Homepage Management area for over a month now.....

I’ve been looking at the Kickstarter Homepage Management area for over a month now…..

Our Project – The RV’ers Guide to the National Monuments of the Southwest

Unlike the National Parks which are so very well known to anyone visiting the Southwest, the National Monuments often don’t come up as a blip on any visitor’s radar screen.  It’s not just tourists who pass these amazing places by.  National Geographic’s Guide to the National Parks lists some, but not all of the National Monuments.  Many are given a pass.  Looking through National Geographic’s 2014 guide I could not find the Vermillion Cliffs, The Grand Staircase, Agua Fria, Grand Canyon Parashant, and many more.  And even if I had found them, the write ups don’t address things many travelers might be interested in.  Like where to stay.

After doing a ton of research over this past summer I decided that I should attempt to put something together.  So I researched even further.  I started investigating crowdfunding, the platforms that are available, and what I should do to get our own crowdfunding going.  Many things I covered in my own research are often overlooked by folks starting a campaign, and several things slipped through the cracks.

What pushed me to act too quickly was the “Potato Salad” phenomena this summer ($55,000 raised for a $10 joke).  I should have paced myself a little more, and waited just a little longer to discover a few things I didn’t know.  But after seeing that a joke on Kickstarter turned into a huge deal I thought to myself, “Well, we have a serious project here, so we should have no trouble.”

Picking the right partner

There are so many crowdfunding platforms out there now.  And while they perform the same final function (getting funding for projects) they do it in different ways.

  • Kickstarter:  They’re the platform I chose.  Kickstarter has been around for a while now, and they’ve hosted many successful campaigns.  They’re model is “all or nothing.”  Set your goal, and if you don’t reach the goal you get nothing and your donors are charged nothing.  So the risk to donors is only if you have a successful campaign.  That was actually a selling point to me at the beginning.
  • Indiegogo:  Similar to Kickstarter, many people start their campaigns here.  Unlike Kickstarter though you can do partial funding on this site.  That means if you set your goal at $20,000 and you raise $5,000 you get the $5,000.  While that looks good on the surface, if you set up backer rewards the wrong way you could be in a heap of trouble.
  • Gofundme:  Where Kickstarter and Indiegogo have users setup incentives and benefits for backers, Gofundme is a platform where you don’t need to offer any incentives.  You can just put a request for funds out there and let the cards fall where they may.  This site is the home of many fundraisers for people with cancer, folks who just lost a spouse / child / parent / pet, and folks who just want you to send money along for a new car or an RV Repair.

There are many more crowdfunding sites, so you can be sure that this isn’t a flash in the pan.  It’s an industry.  And used the right way many really cool products are being brought to market.  That’s cool!  If you’d like to see the top 10 Crowdfunding sites just click this link.

So who do you go with?  Out of all the crowdfunding sites I decided to go with Kickstarter, and here’s why.  Kickstarter required me to have some goals and an actual project where I create something.  It’s not a “personal fundraising site,” instead it’s a site where people go to get funding for projects, inventions, business startups, etc.  There’s a level of accountability with it, especially if you choose to offer incentives to would be investors.  I like all of that, and in the case of our project we do have goals and are looking to bring something new to market.  Sure the potato salad gag got by them, but overall they’re a very legitimate website for those looking to bring new products to market.

As I learned later, Indiegogo does not do the all or nothing approach.  Folks raising funds there can actually collect the percentage they raised even if they don’t meet their goal.  I found that interesting last week, but as I think about it more it could cause a project creator problems which I’ll talk about a little later.

Of all the Crowdfunding sites, GoFundme made me the most uncomfortable.  Going to their main page and seeing the most popular fundraisers made me feel like I was in an ER watching tragedy after tragedy roll by.  After one quick read through today I can summarize it as the “I’ve got brain cancer, lung cancer, lost my mom, lost my dad, lost my spouse, lost my child, lost my dog, give me money site.  Back in 2006 when I was extremely ill I think I could have done very well on that site.  One thing with the site, you can’t really verify that funds are going to what folks say they’re going toward.  Backers have to have faith and nothing more that the cause they’re backing is in fact legitimate.  And yes, horrible things happen every day, so hopefully the site is used right.

Blog your brains out if you're going to do this!

Blog your brains out if you’re going to do this!

Planning your project offering – Incentives can destroy you

As our project launch was researched I paid attention to how other folks had planned their incentives to backers (or investors if you like).  The incentives on Kickstarter and Indiegogo give people something tangible to look forward to if the project gets backed.  And many folks running projects forget this, and really mess up when it’s time to deliver.

Creating our incentives I paid close attention to what it would cost us to produce hard cover & soft cover books for our backers.  What it costs to send out prints (the print cost, shipping and handling, etc).  And finally, how much we needed to make the project work, and provide our backers with the incentives.  In the end I set a goal of $40,000, with $12,000 allocated to the fees associated with Kickstarter and Amazon, and the cost of fulfilling the orders for books that backers got as incentives.  In the end we were really trying to raise $28,000 to do the project, and the rest was product generation and project fees.

Many project creators start giving away the farm.  By that I mean they start offering their books, products, etc, at their cost.  If your $2 donors get a sticker that costs you $2 to produce and ship you’re going to be in trouble, big trouble.  And I’ve read the stories of many folks who did just that.

So in the end I put together an Excel spreadsheet, crunched the numbers, and came up with our incentives.  There was a lot of planning behind our initial incentives, but I knew if we did get fully funded we could provide our backers with the products promised and still be able to afford to complete the project.

Thinking about the Indiegogo flexible funding leads me to worry a little for project creators.  Okay, let’s say you set your goal at $20,000 for some project.  And let’s say you do the “flex funding” and get $10,000.  Do you have enough money to complete the project?  If you set your goal higher I’m thinking no.  Can you now deliver your incentives to your investors?  Once again, I’m feeling a no coming on.

In our case, had we done flex funding we would have come away with over $7,000.  Several backers signed up for hard cover photo books.  Several for soft cover guide books.  Others for e-books.  But with only $7,000 we couldn’t even complete a 6 month project to bring those books to market.  We’d owe our investors what they were promised, but have no way to complete the project.  Talk about a scary space to be in.

So, I’d suggest if you’re planning one of these projects be sure to sit down and calculate the true expenses, and true funding received.  Otherwise you might find yourself digging deep into your own pocket to fulfill the obligations you’ve created.

Notice all the tabs on the top of my bar?  Twitter, the blog, Buffer, HASHOFF, the Kickstarter page, and more...Every day straight for the last 2 weeks.

Notice all the tabs on the top of my bar? Twitter, the blog, Buffer, HASHOFF, the Kickstarter page, and more…Every day straight for the last 2 weeks.

Social Media and Crowdfunding

Just popping up a new Kickstarter or GoFundme project doesn’t mean people are going to flock to your page.  You’ve got to get out there and get the word out.  You’ve got to “go viral” on the net.  And getting in front of tens of thousands of potential backers isn’t as easy as you think it is.

In our case, this project has finally made me comfortable with Twitter.  The “sound bite” king of the net, Twitter can really help when crowdfunding.  But in the end you might feel like the biggest spammer on the planet.  Don’t though, you’re not alone, that’s how everyone uses twitter.  Because of the number of tweets per hour, you’ve got to keep updating if you want people to see your stuff.  There are apps and websites that will help you get the message out.  Automated posting, using other people’s posts.  Whatever it takes to get in front of 100,000 potential backers in a 30 second window!

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and all the rest of the social media outlets are where you try to get the word out.  With apps and websites you can auto post all day long.  Some of the most popular figures on Twitter use auto posting services.  They don’t write their own content, but pull from the latest trends on the web.  In the end, you’re not really following a person who has 100K followers, you’re following a bot that posts for them constantly.  It’s interesting that somehow people actually do get usable information out of the process.

Write all your posts in the morning and let Buffer send them for you while you're away!

Write all your posts in the morning and let Buffer send them for you while you’re away!

Enlisting Social Media and Crowdfunding Experts

About 2.5 minutes after posting the Kickstarter project I gained several new followers.  The crowdfunding experts.  I received a ton of e-mails from services all over the globe that promised to help get our project in front of more people.  $20, $100, $200, a percentage of our final goal…..they were all over the place.  And all of them claimed to have the secret formula to getting us backed.

What was super interesting to me about many of these experts?  Many of them have very new Twitter accounts.  A few weeks old, a few months old, etc.  And yet they’re experts, you can tell because they have 14K followers, 100K followers, or more.  How did a new account get so many followers?

Well, quite simple, you can “buy” followers.  They’re not real, they’re just accounts.  But that sure makes you look like you’re legitimate.

Be cautious when dealing with the experts.  As crowdfunding has become an industry more and more social media crowdfunding experts are showing up on the playing field, and they know about as much as you do about getting the word out.  Seriously, some of these services bring nothing to the table but thousands of fake followers who can’t back your project because they’re not real people.

Do your homework.  There are a few groups out there that can really help you.  The rest?  Just more background noise in a sea of background noise.

What we did right

While it’s looking pretty bleak for our project at the moment (43 hours remain and we’re only 18% funded), I think a lot of positives were done.

  • Researched how other crowfunding projects were setup.  We didn’t go in totally blind.
  • Realistic incentives were offered so we wouldn’t get into trouble and find ourselves unable to fulfill our obligations.
  • Watched successful campaigns on all the social media outlets.  Learned a great deal from what they did.
  • Kept it positive the whole time.
  • Followed the advice of several successful campaign creators.
  • Learned how to use automatic posting services to keep us visible to potential backers.  We probably should have quadrupled the amount of posts going out…..

What we did wrong

Ah yes, several mis-steps to be sure.

  • Launched the campaign too early.  I should have waited until we weren’t traveling cross country.  A few weeks of social media spamming were lost.
  • Set the goal too high due to trying to do too many things.  This should have been an E-Book and only an E-Book.  The additional incentives caused us to set the goal higher.
  • Hesitated on really aggressively using the Social Media early on.  The last 2 weeks we’ve corrected that, but it cost us in visibility to be sure.
  • Failed to reach out to all the people I’ve helped in business in the past.  I have an e-mail address list that goes on all day, and I didn’t send out private e-mails to those folks.
  • Depended too much on our blog readership.  Knowing how many readers we have here per month I thought this would be a slam dunk.  What I forgot to factor was the fact that the readership here likes to follow along, but rarely purchases anything or supports the site.
This project event sure thinned out the herd on Facebook.

This project event sure thinned out the herd on Facebook.

A total learning experience

They always say you learn more from failure than success.  With that in mind I’m more brilliant then when I started this.

I’m now extremely savvy in the ways of Twitter.  If I want to grow my core group of followers into the thousands I can do it in a short amount of time.  But I sincerely don’t think that’s in my future.  I need more then sound bites in my life, I’m all about informative content (guess that’s why I wanted to write a guidebook).  Still, if I ever want to try this again I know what I’m doing now.

Over the course of this project I’ve also met a few folks plugging away at their own projects.  Several of them have great ideas, and I have a firm feeling we’ll all be in touch for some time to come.  So I made a few new friends, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Also, after initially mentioning the project on Facebook I found a bunch of “Friends” dropped off.  They were all people who friended me in order to plug their services and products, and the moment I asked for a little support with my own project they bailed.  Sweet, no more invites to lame bands playing in dive bars!  And no more messages from dive bars.  It’s a Prescott thing, the bars really like to message everyone on Facebook, even if the people they’re messaging don’t go to bars (like me).  But given that Prescott’s social scene focuses heavily on bars…..we all get friended at some point or other.

Finally, the last learning experience.  I now know how to layout both Fixed Layout EPubs and Flowable EPubs.  I understand how to format for Apple, and for the good folks over at Amazon.  So I’m armed with a whole new skill set in regards to digital publishing.  Gotta love!

Hopefully this post is helpful

For anyone else out there trying their hand at a crowdfunding campaign, I hope there are a few little jewels in this post for you.  I’d say do your homework first, really get to know the process, and then put yourself out there.  And remember, you really are PUTTING YOURSELF OUT THERE.  When you’re doing one of these projects a big part is who is behind it.

And if you’re reading this before September 15th of 2014…..we’ve still got 42 hours left.  Pop on by our project page and send along a buck or two just for grins!

You never know, lightening could strike!  And if you can’t tell, that’s my last lesson.  You’ve got to be persistent and believe in what you’re doing no matter what!

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