The Realities of Crowd-Funding, part 2

Cover 1Last time: we looked at some of the factors that might have affected the recent Indiegogo campaign from Star Trek Continues (which just wrapped up last week).

Now it’s time to continue our discussion of crowd-funding with two crowd-funding experts: ALEC PETERS, show-runner of Axanar, and MIKE BAWDEN, director of public relations for Axanar, who has also worked on the Kickstarter for Space Command, an early campaign that raised $242,000. Mike has been involved in over a dozen crowd-funding campaigns, and the two men together have helped to raise nearly two million dollars of donations from fans for various projects, including $1.3 million for Axanar.

If you’re thinking of doing a crowd-funding campaign of any kind, then get out your pen and start taking notes! The following discussion is a crowd-funding “how to” guide that you’re not likely to get anywhere else…

Alec Peters and Mike Bawden

JONATHAN: Okay, the 800-pound mugato in the cave right now is the Star Trek Continues Indiegogo campaign, which wound up with approximately $200,000 of the $350,000 goal that they had set. They missed their goal by 43%. Was their campaign a failure?

ALEC: Absolutely not. I think the campaign was a success! They raised almost exactly what they raised the last time [the previous campaign ended with $214.5K –Jonathan]. They went fromKickstarter to Indiegogo, which has  smaller audience, and they raised almost exactly the same amount of money.

JONATHAN: But let me ask, in your opinion, are there things they could have done to have raised more money and gotten closer to their goal?

ALEC: That’s difficult to answer because I think they set an unrealistic goal with no realistic expectation of meeting that goal.

JONATHAN: They probably didn’t think it was unrealistic when they set it. But we can come back to that. Right now, I’d like to ask if there was something they could have done to raise more money.

ALEC: Better marketing.

JONATHAN: And what would “better marketing” for a crowd-funding campaign look like?

MIKE: The first thing you need to do is address the market you know is going to be most receptive to your pitch, and that is—in the case of many productions and creators who have multiple projects under their belts—going back to your established fan base or your established donor pool. In the case of Axanar Productions, when we ran our third crowd-funding campaign, there was a significant amount of planning into how we were going to communicate with and appeal to people who had supported Prelude and the first two Axanar crowd-funding campaigns to see if we could encourage them to participate in the third campaign. And that was very effective.

The second thing is you need is to find people who are like the people who support your program. I’ve been involved in other campaigns where the people who are running the programs reach out to their colleagues—they contact other producers or other artists or other key individuals who have access to key groups of fans. These fans might not know about the project, and they may be intrigued and interested in participating. I know for a fact that Alec did that on the third campaign, and we were very successful.

ALEC: Yeah, a really good example is when we reached out to George Takei and his team to write us up on George’s Facebook page, just like he did with our second Kickstarter. That time, he did it all on his own (and probably netted us close to $200,000 in 24 hours!). But for our third campaign, we set up things with him beforehand, and even his husband Brad helped out with a couple of posts on his Facebook page, too. So many of their fans became our donors, but they’d likely never have found out about us at all had we not asked George and Brad for help.

JONATHAN: Of course, not every fan filmmaker knows George Takei or has big-name Star Trek actors in their cast.

ALEC: That’s just one example.  If you’re a smaller production without the big names, then just reach out to bloggers or podcasters who are Trek or sci-fi-themed and have followers.  Or contact some of the Star Trek fan clubs out there.  Axanar had partnerships with STARFLEET International and the 1701st Fleet.  And there’s lots more out there.  Heck, you can just try to contact your local comic book store.  The most important thing is to find new potential donors anywhere you can.

MIKE: And that’s leads us to the third ring: advertising.

JONATHAN: Did you say “ring?”

MIKE: These three things are concentric circles. So you start with the people who already know you and your project and then you reach out to people who are similar to that, meaning they’re either fans of projects that are similar to yours or they are fans of actors or artists who are participating or contributing to your work. The third concentric ring, then, is you need to advertise. You need to reach out with a commercial message to social media. Facebook advertising is a great way to do it; you can totally target your market. You can say, “Hey, I’m interested in putting this ad in front of Star Trek fans,” or “I’m interested in putting this ad in front of people who like science fiction,” or whatever. And you need to reach out with a concerted PR push. As an example, our Axanar PR list has over 2,200 names on it, and we were contacting those people on a regular basis throughout our last crowd-funding campaign, making sure they knew where we stood, making sure they knew there were opportunities to talk to the executive producer, to talk to the director, to talk to stars, etc.

ALEC: And getting media coverage is a huge part of it. When we did the last Axanar campaign, I had Mike Bawden and Morey Altman, two professional PR directors, working to contact media for us. For this latest Star Trek Continues effort, I don’t know if they tried to reach out to the media at all, but I don’t recall seeing any articles about it. I didn’t see an article in io9 or Rotten Tomatoes or in any geek publication. You can’t just launch a campaign and not promote it all over the place. When we did our third campaign, our second one had already been the most successful Kickstarter for any Trek fan film by far…and yet we still busted our asses to promote it.

There was an enormous amount of work—by myself, by Diana, by Terry, by Morey, by Mike, by Indiegogo. We had a Facebook ad campaign that we were paying for. We were on all the Star Trek message boards. Plus we had thousands of donors that we were constantly messaging. A campaign—whether it’s Kickstarter or Indiegogo—is a full-time job. You have to spend all your time for those 30 or 60 days promoting it and getting people to donate. It doesn’t just happen.

MIKE: Yeah, it’s hard work. It’s heavy lifting; you have to constantly pitch new ideas and new opportunities to journalists because people don’t want to just cover the same thing everyone else is covering. It’s full-time work, it’s hard, and it requires a lot of planning…and almost constant communication with those who give and to thank them and to remind them there are more opportunities to get involved or get their friends involved.

JONATHAN: In fairness to Star Trek Continues—because I’m a backer—I know that they did reach out to their donors with many update e-mails, new perks and special offers, and they always thanked us and invited donors to give just a little bit more. I probably received two or three e-mail updates from them each week.

MIKE: Oh, I’m not talking about Star Trek Continues specifically right now. I’ve supported probably two-dozen crowd-funding campaigns, from cartoons to photographers to inventors to filmmakers to all kinds of people. In general, creators and producers are not communicating enough.

One of things that is important for people to remember is that this is a fundraising campaign that’s very similar to what you might see from major charity organizations when they do their regular fundraising campaigns. There are lots of opportunities to say thank you, and there are constant reminders that you are invited to, and given the opportunity to, contribute. And that’s why Alec says this is a full-time job. During the course of a campaign, you cannot ask people for money enough. You need to be bold, and you need to be consistent in how you ask for money.

One of the failings that I see in a variety of different crowd-funding campaigns that I participated in—both as a funder and as a PR person—is that the creators who are behind the campaign, the people producing the campaign, the people running the campaign are concerned they’re going to burn people out if they ask for money too often. And that may be a risk in some cases, but it’s a risk you have to take. You have to keep reminding people that there are opportunities to fund, there are opportunities to get involved. If you’ve already given, then you might want to take a look at what we’re doing now because we’re within reach of a stretch goal, and if you add a little bit more, we can get there. These are all things you need to keep coming back to time and again in order to hit the numbers that you want to hit.

One of the things that I’ve seen happen over and over again is that the creators and producers who are running crowd-funding campaigns try to go for the whole nut in one sit-down. What you really have to do, though, is break things down and figure out how low can we get that bar because people want to achieve. Contributors want to make sure that they feel a sense of accomplishment, like they’re actually helping you achieve a goal that’s within reach. And the more frequently you can set those smaller hurdles out there, the farther down the road you’re going to get.

JONATHAN: Are you talking about setting smaller goals all within a single campaign or splitting a big campaign into multiple campaigns?

MIKE: You can do that in a single campaign and set several hurdles. But make that first bar, the one that will qualify the campaign so you can get the money, low enough that you are almost positive you’re going to be able to hit it. Because people want to give to something they know is gonna work.

ALEC: Absolutely! That is so important! Mike hit it right on the head. People laughed at our first goal for our first Kickstarter for Prelude because it was just ten grand. At that point, we didn’t even know if we’d make ten grand, and we made a hundred. In our next Kickstarter for Axanar, our goal was a hundred grand…since we had made a hundred grand, we knew we could do it again. And in our Indiegogo campaign, I think it was a quarter million, so it was less than half of what our previous take was [their second Kickstarter generated a jaw-dropping $638,000 –Jonathan].   We knew we would hit that $250,000 goal because it was less than we had raised previously.

Star Trek Continues set a goal for this latest campaign that was 65% higher than what they raised with their previous one. Of course they weren’t going to make it. It was a reckless decision to make based on their history.

JONATHAN: “Reckless” seems like a strong word, and I don’t want this discussion to turn into an excuse to bash Star Trek Continues.

ALEC: I don’t mean to bash them. I fully support that fan series. I love STC! I don’t get along with Vic Mignogna, and I think the public is well aware of that. But I have a great respect for the series, and I think I can separate my personal feelings about Vic from my experience as a businessman. And simply from a business perspective, Continues made a very poor decision…two, in fact. Vic decided to switch from Kickstarter to Indiegogo and he set their goal too high.

Now, I know that some people out there are gonna call me a hypocrite because Axanar made the same decision to switch from Kickstarter. But in our case, Indiegogo recruited us to their platform and really supported us, and they put us on their front page. So the move to Indiegogo by Star Trek Continues was a mistake for them…at least in my opinion. They didn’t have the reasons we did for switching from Kickstarter to Indiegogo.  You could make the argument that we should have stayed on Kickstarter—since we did make less on our third campaign than we did on our second. But Indiegogo just made a compelling case for us.

But the fact that Axanar made LESS with Indiegogo should have been a huge red flag for Star Trek Continues. If I were them, and I say, “Let’s see, Axanar moved to Indiegogo, they were on the front page of Indiegogo, they had two PR pros and all this media attention, and then they got a hundred thousand dollars less than they got on Kickstarter???” Why are you then moving from Kickstarter to Indiegogo? That’s my first question. Then, you know you’re not going to bring to bear all the marketing efforts that Axanar brought to bear, so why are you asking for 65% more than you made in your last Kickstarter? There’s no evidence that you can make more money on Indiegogo than you did on Kickstarter.

JONATHAN: So which is the right platform for a crowd-funding campaign to choose: Kickstarter or Indiegogo?

Next week: our discussion continues as Alec and Mike give out some of the best crowd-funding advice you’re likely to find…starting with the answer to that fateful question: Kickstarter or Indiegogo?