So you have an awesome idea for a project. Maybe it’s a web series, a short film, or an indie feature. Maybe it’s a whole YouTube channel worth of original content. But you don’t have the money to get your project off the ground. Never fear—that’s why there’s crowdfunding! However, while crowdfunding can be an extremely helpful resource, there are some important things to keep in mind should you choose to use it. Today we’ll take a look at some crowdfunding successes and blunders to get to the bottom of just what makes a great crowdfunding campaign… and what makes a bad one.
First, let’s take a second to define what crowdfunding is—the practice of financing a project by raising many small contributions from a large number of people via the internet. Instead of holding a bake sale or carwash to raise funds like we used to do in grade school, creators can now turn to services like Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Patreon to support their ventures. However, even in this digital age, modern crowdfunding must share something in common with those bake sales and carwashes of the old days. Your contributors must get something in return. More on that later.
While crowdfunding is something anyone can do, that doesn’t necessarily mean that just anyone should. At least not without being prepared or building some credibility. For instance, if you already have a following, you are automatically more likely to garner support for your project than if you’re Joe Schmoe. But that’s not to discourage you! With the right campaign, even Mr. Schmoe can rally crowdfunding support, as evidenced in 2014 when Zack ‘Danger’ Brown’s Kickstarter raised $55,492 from 6,911 backers to make a potato salad. You heard that right. Brown, forever immortalized as the ‘Potato Salad Guy,’ followed through on his promises, throwing a massive potato party and even publishing a potato salad recipe book to send to his backers.
So, speaking of following through on promises, here are some dos and don’ts of running a successful crowdfunding campaign:
Do: Make a Video
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a million. If you have a dream or vision for a project, don’t just describe it to your potential backers—show them! Shoot a pilot if your vision is for a web series. Share storyboards or even shoot a scene if your goal is to produce a feature. At the very least, make a video introducing yourself and your project to give the internet a taste of what they’re getting into should they choose to support you. It will go a long way to make the campaign feel more personal. It’ll also show your passion for your ideas and give backers a flavor of what’s to come. Think of it as your business card.
Don’t: Have No Online Presence
Gathering support for your venture involves putting yourself out there. Unfortunately, you can’t just set up a Kickstarter, sit back, and hope the contributions will flow in. Hop on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread the word. By not taking the time to market your project, it shows that you don’t have enough (or perhaps too much) faith in your ideas. To not use social media to your advantage is to do yourself a disservice. Be bold, be confident, and tell the world why they ought to invest in your ideas. Why should people invest in something they’ve never heard of?
Do: Engage with your Supporters
Crowdfunding should always be a two-way relationship. While you are benefitting from the funds raised by your backers, they should feel they are receiving something as well. From experience, I can attest that Patreon is especially great for this. As a huge Star Wars nerd—I mean fan, I support a YouTube channel called Star Wars Explained, which deals with all things related to the galaxy far, far away. But the channel’s Patreon page, where I pledge my monthly support, is more than just a source of crowdfunding. It’s an active community where fans can interact and ask questions to have Star Wars… well, explained. It features different tiers like Padawan, Jedi Knight, and Jedi Master, each with different rewards. It’s a fun and engaging way for this creator to interact with his contributors.
Don’t: Break Your Promises
If you have vowed to deliver something to your supporters, you had better deliver. Not keeping your word is a surefire way to not only lose supporters, but to lose credibility for future crowdfunding attempts. Take the case of FND Films. In 2014, this trio of filmmakers launched an Indiegogo campaign to finance their feature comedy, It’s All Good. The campaign garnered 604 backers and exceeded its $75,000 goal, but after that, the creators seemed to vanish mysteriously, along with all the money. Two years go by with a suspicious lack of updates, until FND Films regretfully announced in 2016 that the project had fallen through and the funds were lost. Supporters were furious at being kept in the dark and suspected they were scammed. That was when FND revealed it was all a ploy—they in fact had made a film, a comedy about three friends who steal 75 grand through a bogus crowdfunding campaign and use the money for traveling and partying. So meta. Whether you call it twisted or brilliant, the trio did ultimately end up making a film, just not the one their backers were expecting. This led to many supporters feeling deceived and—understandably—angry.
While you could It’s All Good technically define as a success, it was a very unconventional one. Its goal was met and the funds did go toward producing a film. However, as its backers learned, there is always risk involved when crowdfunding. On most crowdfunding sites, a project that does not reach its goal will result in the funds being returned. But if the venture falls through after the funds have been raised, there is a very real chance the contributors will not receive their money back. Backing crowdfunding is an investment—and investments do not always pay off. That’s why it is critical to follow through on your promises, engage with your supporters, and make your backers feel confident that investing in you is worth their while.
Do: Build a Following
Needless to say, it will be easier to market your idea if you have already built a following around the content you create. While you don’t always need one, as demonstrated by Zack ‘Potato Salad Guy’ Brown, it certainly helps. Look at Video Game High School. In 2011, YouTuber and gamer Freddie Wong launched a Kickstarter to crowdfund his action comedy web series Video Game High School, which met its $75,000 goal within 24 hours. It ultimately raised $273,725 from over 5,000 backers. VGHS went on to win multiple Streamy Awards and obtain a massive cult following. While you don’t need to have your own production company like Wong’s own RocketJump, it wouldn’t hurt to build your brand before undertaking an ambitious crowdfunding project. If you have a proven track record, you are more likely to find people to support your idea than if you’re no one. In essence—be somebody.
I was fortunate enough to attend a panel on low-budget filmmaking at the 2018 Atlanta Film Festival, and the panelists—all directors of indie features—had a few things to say about crowdfunding. The experts suggest always reaching out to friends and family first when beginning your crowdfunding campaign. The first 20 percent of money raised might come from family and friends, which will look more appealing to potential backers when they see your project has already gained support. This will make them more inclined to contribute as well. They also encourage you to look at other campaigns for inspiration to use as models for what to do and what not to do, which is why I have included links to every Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Patreon I’ve mentioned.
Remember—you only have one chance at crowdfunding. Make sure you follow the steps to do it right the first time, because if you blow it, you might not get a second shot. Your credibility will have taken a hit and people will be more reluctant to invest in you in the future. That said, sometimes projects fall through due to circumstances beyond your control. This is something contributors understand when they pledge their support—and a risk they are taking. Just do your best and avoid making promises you can’t deliver. Set realistic expectations. And remember… if one man can raise $55,492 to make a potato salad, you can fund your project too.