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8 Things I Learned From My (Failed) Kickstarter Campaign

Indiewire By Mark Tapio Kines | Indiewire May 1, 2014 at 1:44PM

Even if your Kickstarter campaign doesn't succeed, you can learn a few useful lessons along the way. Here's what filmmaker Mark Tapio Kines learned from his failed Kickstarter campaign.
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Mark Tapio Kines

Mark Tapio Kines was the first person to employ online crowdfunding to finance a film; in 1998, he raised $150,000 in finishing funds for his debut feature "Foreign Correspondents." More than 15 years later, he ran a Kickstarter campaign for his third feature "Dial 9 to Get Out," but failed to reach his $120,000 goal. Below he details what he learned through his failed campaign:

I was the first filmmaker to crowdfund a feature online (way back in 1998), but that was no guarantee for repeat success: last month I attempted to raise $120,000 on Kickstarter for my third feature "Dial 9 to Get Out," and only scraped up about $42,000. A fair amount, but obviously not enough.

Regardless, I learned some useful information that doesn't usually pop up in the various crowdfunding articles you see on the Internet. If you're planning to crowdfund your next film, I hope these tips will save you time and money, or at least give you food for thought. 

Here are the 8 things I learned from my (failed) Kickstarter campaign:

1. Give your project a short, simple name, then change it right after launch.

Kickstarter freezes your project's URL the moment you launch. (Indiegogo does not.) You can change your campaign name as often as you wish, but your URL stays the same. Does this matter? Well, a disconnect between your project name and your URL does show the world that you're changing your message mid-campaign, which can look desperate. And if you make a typo, you're stuck with it!

Indiegogo lets you choose a short vanity URL for your project. Kickstarter does not. They do let you choose a vanity URL for your user name, but I suggest you launch your project with a short, simple title, without spaces. For instance, I should have named my project "dial9" at launch, so that my URL would have remained "kickstarter.com/projects/marktapiokines/dial9" instead of "kickstarter.com/projects/marktapiokines/dial-9-to-get-out-a-horror-tinged-suspense-film." It would have been easier to share and remember, too.

2. Create a Tiny URL for your project.

You see those handy "kck.st" URLs everywhere on Twitter. There are a number of ways to give your project a tiny URL, but Kickstarter's official way is a little hard to find. After you launch, click on the "< > Embed" button below your intro video. In the pop-up window, you'll see your Project short link at bottom right.

Indiegogo’s "igg.me" short link is easier to access: just click the "Link" button under the intro video.

3. Keep site commissions in mind.

If you use Kickstarter, they keep 5% of your total amount raised – provided you've met your goal. (If your campaign fails, you pay nothing.) Amazon keeps an additional 3-5%, but only from your U.S.-based pledges.

"Schmoozing with Kickstarter staff on Twitter or elsewhere won't help your cause."

On Indiegogo, a "fixed funding" campaign – the same "all or nothing" route that Kickstarter employs – offers you a slightly better deal: they take 4% and PayPal takes 3%. Indiegogo's "flexible funding"  route, where you keep whatever money you raise, is more popular – but you still incur the same 3% payment processing fee for credit cards or PayPal. And if you don't reach your intended goal, Indiegogo ups their own take to 9%. So commissions on an under-funded Indiegogo campaign can add up. (This is why some Indiegogo campaigners set a very low goal, even when they're trying to raise much more.)

Your mileage may vary – after a friend's recent campaign, his Kickstarter/Amazon commissions amounted to only 9% of his total haul – but I say err on the side of caution and add 10% on top of your film's budget to cover commissions. For instance, if your film's budget is $10,000, then your campaign goal should be $11,000.

4. Some tips on how to become popular on Kickstarter.

You won't get the majority of your backers through Kickstarter searches, but you will get some -- especially if you show up at the top when people search by popularity.

So how do you become "popular?" At one point in my campaign, I'd raised $30,000 – 25% of my goal – from around 200 backers. And yet my project was considered far less popular than one that had raised only $2,000 – 10% of its goal – from some 50 backers. Huh?

Someone on the Internet determined that Kickstarter popularity is primarily based on the number of backers a project gets per day. But I looked at the 40 most popular film campaigns last week, and there's clearly more to it than that.

For instance, the #6 film, which I'll call "Movie A," had 87 backers, an average of 8 backers a day, and had raised $2,469 – 123% of its funding. Yet the #34 film, "Movie B" – which you had to scroll down then click "Load more" to find – had 360 backers, an average of 13 backers per day, and had raised $81,712 – 141% of its funding.

"Your film might end up being financed mostly by your friends."

By every single measure, Movie B was far more popular than Movie A. So why was it so much further down the list? Here's the only difference I could find: Movie A had, amongst its 87 backers, a Kickstarter staff member.

There is a possibility that employee love for a project might give it a boost on the popularity charts, but only Kickstarter knows for sure. In any event, I can assure you that schmoozing with Kickstarter staff on Twitter or elsewhere won't help your cause. People suck up to them every day, and since staff members have to approve your project in the first place, they are already aware of it, and they've probably also decided whether they want to back it, promote it as a Staff Pick, etc.

5. "Data mine" on social media.

Many people tell you to build up a large social network well before you launch your campaign, but I know a filmmaker who amassed an impressive 20,000 Twitter followers. When he tried to raise a mere $8,000 through his Indiegogo campaign, he barely squeaked by with $4,000. It's like an anti-numbers game: the more impersonal your online relationship is with someone, the less likely they will support your cause.

That said, one experiment of mine worked out much better than expected: I looked at the backer lists for Kickstarter projects similar to mine. Then I got on Twitter and searched for those people who had backed at least 20 campaigns – "serial backers," I call them – and followed about 200 of them. Only about 40 of them followed me back. But when someone follows you back, it means you can Direct Message them. So I DM'ed those 40 serial backers, asked them to consider my project… and more than half of them wound up pledging. Some even became the film's biggest cheerleaders.

That's over 20 backers out of 200 attempted contacts. A 10-11% success rate is actually quite high for what amounts to direct marketing to strangers. Of course, this data mining is a time-consuming process – good luck finding exactly the right "Jeff Williams" or "Brian Carter" on Twitter – but if you're hoping to expand beyond your circle of friends, it can work out, and it's not really a controversial practice.

6. Count on your friends.

"Friendfunding:" That's the term I use for the money you will raise from your personal contacts. I suspect that it's the secret behind a lot of film campaigns that don't have celebrity names or built-in audiences (e.g., role-playing gamers, H.P. Lovecraft fans, or other dependable "geek niches"). Nobody likes to talk about how much money they got from their buddies (or from mom and dad), because it undermines the myth of crowdfunding.

I will tell you this: of my 249 Kickstarter backers, only about 20 were not friends, friends of friends, or Twitter followers. In comparison, a friend with a successful campaign said that he personally knew only a third of his 320-odd backers. However, that friend's campaign did appeal directly to one of those aforementioned geek niches, and was showcased on a number of popular websites.

In any event, it's worth acknowledging that, unless it has something truly buzzworthy about it, your film might end up being financed mostly by your friends. First, you need to gauge your comfort level with that. Then come up with a funding goal that could realistically be met solely through your contacts. (This is another good reason why you should have a team: the more people working on the campaign, the more social circles that can be tapped.) Keep on trying to alert strangers to your cause, but if any come on board, consider that to be gravy.

My Kickstarter campaign had a goal of $120,000 – not only because my film couldn't be made for less than $100,000, but also because I knew this amount was beyond what my friends could raise. In other words, if I failed (which I did), it wouldn't be because I didn't harass my contacts enough. I took comfort in this, as I don't like begging friends for money. In order to succeed, I had to connect with the outside world. And I believe that success on that front is, to a large extent, arbitrary.

7. Don't forget final parting words.

Remember, you can't change anything on your Kickstarter page after your campaign is over.

When you have just an hour left, take that time to add a final message to your campaign's main page – "Go to my website to follow this project" is a typical one. Because if you still have text or an image that says "LAST DAY OF THE CAMPAIGN!" up there, it will remain there forever. Whether your project's successful or not, you should have a useful "goodbye message" for anybody who visits your campaign after it’s done.

8. It takes time to get the money -- if your campaign is successful.

It takes about 2 weeks after the end of your campaign for the funds – minus commissions – to be transferred into your Amazon Payments account. Note that you'll still have to transfer those funds from Amazon into your own bank account; this doesn't happen automatically. Consider this a good problem, because it means you’ve succeeded. Congratulations!

Mark Tapio Kines is the author of Screenwriting Fundamentals on Lynda.com. He has written and directed two features, and is the first filmmaker to ever use crowdfunding to finance his work. Visit his site.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Crowdfunding, Kickstarter , Crowdfunding