In February of 2015, my film production team reached our goal of raising $30,000 on Kickstarter to help us complete our feature documentary, Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus. The process was time consuming, exhausting, thrilling, and tedious at times, but it was well worth the energy.
I’d like to share some of what we have learned from the process with the hope that it will help you plan your own successful crowdfunding project. It is not meant to be a tutorial, but one of many articles you can use as a primer while you plan your campaign. Some of my suggestions may only be specific to funding a documentary film, but many of these ideas can be universally applied or translated to fit your goals and circumstances.
Before diving into my recommendations, I should first give a quick background about our project so that some of the strategies we used will make more sense.
Refugee: The Eritrean Exodusis a 60 minute documentary that follows two American travelers, as they follow a common migration path of Eritrean refugees through Ethiopia and into Israel. In the film,(you can watch it from the link above) they speak to dozens of refugees, NGOs and legal experts who tell of the harrowing stories of oppression, torture, and survival.
In 2013, we met with The America Team for Displaced Eritreans, an organization that provides assistance to Eritrean refugees seeking asylum in the US. After learning several stories of Eritreans, we raised some small funds from private donors to fly Chris and Scott to Ethiopia and Israel in 2014. They returned with more than 50 hours of footage of interviews, which would ultimately make up about ninety percent of the film. Over the next two years, as we continued researching and shaping the project, we felt that there were still a few major elements we would need to make a watchable documentary. Mainly, we would need a musical score, original reenactment footage, audio mastering, and a lot more editing.
We decided to launch a thirty day Kickstarter campaign, (you can still see the campaign here) from which we raised just over $33,000. With that, we were able to finish the film and distribute it throughout the US and internationally, theatrically and digitally.
Before You Launch
A crowdfunding campaign is a marketing campaign. Before launching it, you should first come up with a game plan outlining who you are going to make contact with, how and when you will contact them, and what content you will use for communicating with them. There is nothing worse than coming up with a bunch of great marketing ideas the day before your campaign ends. Figure it out now before you start running the clock.
One of the most important elements to our marketing was video. Video is the most engaging type of content and also has a lot of extra SEO power to reach wider audiences. I will give specific examples of the types of videos we used later in this article.
Choosing a Crowdfunding Platform
There are now dozens of online crowdfunding platforms available today. Each one has its own rules and processes, so it is important to do some research and find the site that will best suit your project. We chose Kickstarter because we felt that it was the most recognizable platform. To us, Kickstarter was synonymous with “fundraising”, so we thought it would save us some time having to explain what we were up to when we would reach out to our friends and family. Also we figured people would be more comfortable pledging money through a site that they had heard of. Something like “TedsCrowdfundingWebsite.net” might not inspire as much confidence.
Finally, we preferred the all-or-nothing style of Kickstarter, which means that unless we reached our self-made goal, we would not receive any of the money. From a pledger’s perspective, this insures that his or her money will be used for the project in the way it was intended. For example, at the time, Indiegogo would allow a campaign to receive all the donations even if it didn’t reach its goal. So if the project received only half the money it needed, it is likely the project creator would have to rethink how they were going to allocate the money to finish it (or not finish it at all). Today, some of these platforms, including Indiegogo, offer both funding options.
Choosing a Campaign Length
Once we had decided on Kickstarter, we had to choose the duration of our campaign. Kickstarter allows you to select any number of days between 1 and 60 for your total funding period, but they recommend a thirty day campaign. According to them, this is the most successful length. (But keep in mind, your project might not be like most of the others, and there may be reasons for creating a longer or shorter stretch.)
We felt like 30 days was a good length of time for a few reasons. First, we knew we would need to contact thousands of people. Not only does that take a lot of time to physically do, but we also knew that a lot of people may not want to donate right away. We found that people would often pledge weeks after our initial contact. Maybe your friend, Andrea, was in the middle of moving to Australia when she saw your Facebook message and didn’t have time to read about your board game right away. That’s understandable. So remember, people are busy (in my opinion we’re too damn busy) and need some time to think, budget, make dinner, get out of the hospital, finish their own project, whatever, before they might find some time to let your idea sink in.
At the same time, a time limit can give you a motivational advantage. Injecting the sense of urgency into the project makes it more exciting for your past and potential supporters, and for the team running the campaign. It also encourages people to pledge sooner. Seeing your campaign clock that reads, “Only 57 Days Left!” might not be all that motivating.
Making Video Content
One of the major challenges during our campaign was maintaining our activity on social media channels without repeatedly bombarding people with the same information. We wanted to make sure that people didn’t forget about the campaign after our initial contact, but we didn’t want to annoy people with a crusade through their Facebook feeds. During our campaign, we regularly published new video content and photos that added some variety to the drive. Below is a list of videos we created and how we implemented them into our campaign strategy:
The Kickstarter Video
Creating a video is encouraged by Kickstarter since projects without them are typically much less successful. 80% of projects on Kickstarter use a video. We think that a video is a much more transparent way of presenting yourself and your project. This was one of our most-viewed videos during the campaign.
The trailer of our film was our most watched video. Because we had already filmed a majority of our footage, we were able to make a dramatic trailer that captured the story and moved people to learn more about the project.
What the Heck is Eritrea?
An interesting aspect of our subject, and one of the reasons for focusing on it, was the fact that it was underreported. Not many people know about the Eritrean refugee crisis, especially here in the U.S. But one major challenge for us was that the subject matter can be very depressing and at times, disturbing. When telling people about it human suffering, a common response is for them to shut down because the issue is so bleak. Sometimes problems like the refugee crisis are presented in such a way that makes it seem impossible to fix. We wanted people to feel inspired to donate or to learn more about the topic, rather than feeling de-motivated and blocking it out of their minds.
Here we decided to try a lighter comedic approach by doing a “man-on-the-street” type interview segment. We went right outside our building in West Chester, PA with a map, and asked passersby if they knew what Eritrea was and if they could locate it. The results were telling and the video got people curious to learn more instead of turning them off with more sad stories.
Once someone pledged to our project, we felt they had joined our team. We wanted them to know how thankful we were and so we would regularly send them updates through Kickstarter. One of our updates included a video to say thank you and to inform our supporters how they had helped to create momentum for the project.
Clips from the Film
Throughout the campaign, we regularly released a series of clips from the film, which were still in their rough form. These videos showed more promise that we were serious about making the film and also allowed people to get a deeper look into some of the content. It also allowed us to highlight some of the valuable interviews we were able to get, like Anne Richards, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State. This video below is of an interesting character we met early on in our trip to Israel.
My favorite video we created was also the simplest one to make. During the campaign, we received a lot of heartfelt messages from Eritreans who felt grateful that their story, which is was widely underreported at the time, was finally being told. We wanted our supporters to know how the project was already having a positive impact on people, and so we decided compile those messages into a short video. The video was very effective and took very little time to create.
Our first round of contacts consisted of our family and friends. Each of our group members (there were five of us) contacted the people closest to us first. We emailed, called, or sent personal messages through Facebook to get in touch on an individual basis. Asking for money can be awkward, but we made sure to make contact people one-on-one instead of sending out blanket emails. If you’re going to ask your great uncle Edward for money, the least you can do is give him a call or email him directly without blind-copying in your softball team. You probably haven’t seen him since Christmas of 2014 for heaven’s sake! In addition to lining up with your innate human morality, we also found it to be more successful from a fundraising perspective.
The next ring on your contact circle after friends and family are your fake friends on Facebook. Let’s be real – there are a lot of people on your friends list that aren’t really your “friends,” but you have both decided to leave open the option of being able to communicate with each other at some point in the future. Well, that point has arrived. And again, I’m not talking about a blanket message to everyone. I’m saying send a custom message to Nancy, who you haven’t talked to since chemistry in 11th grade. Trust me, she remembers you, and if you feel confident with your project enough to launch a crowdfunding campaign for it, she will probably admire you for doing something in life, and not just dissolving into a memory of off-yellow colored walls in school. All of our team members can attest that some of the last people we least expected to donate surprised us with pledges.
Finally, think of people that you don’t know, but who are tied to your project in some way. We had a tremendous outpouring of support from people directly affected by the subject of our film. Refugees and immigrants from Eritrea who have settled in the United States and around the world and organizations that are dedicated to helping them were highly motivated and became the most important asset in our campaign. Even those who were unable to pledge were eager to help spread the message to others. Some projects might have powerful supporters that are more obvious than others, but if you like your project, you’re not the only one. Find out who those passionate people are and find a way to contact them.
Kickstarter encourages you to have a video and requires a text description that introduces your project. The more detailed you are with your plan, you more you can avoid anyone doubting your endeavor. On our Kickstarter page, we explained every step of the production process and how the money would be allocated for each step. With Kickstarter, it is possible to overfund your project, so it is a good idea to explain what your plan is in case you get more than you thought you would need. We outlined second and third tier budgets that clarified how we would use the extra money if we were lucky enough to exceed our goal. For example, part of our overfunding plan was to allocate money to the distribution costs that we would incur for releasing the film after it was done. (We eventually did this independently using the proceeds we received from screenings and DVD sales).
Social Media Tools
By far, the most valuable communication tool we used was social media and Facebook, specifically. I don’t think it’s necessary to highlight the obvious benefits of social media, but I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with how each social media outlet works before you launch. Even though all of our team members were familiar with most of the platforms, there were some techniques and tools we learned along the way that we never knew existed.
One example of a tool that helped us was Facebook’s video analytics, which allows you to see the video viewing statistics of your audience. At one point in the middle of the campaign, we could see that a lot of people were not watching one particular series of videos for longer than the first 5-10 seconds, while our other videos had a much longer audience viewing time. We knew that the beginning of the less-viewed videos had a 5-10 second title intro that faded up and out before any of the action in the video started. Our more popular videos started with live action, which is more eye-catching than boring old text. (Facebook videos will play automatically when you upload them directly into your feed, whereas if you embed a video from YouTube or somewhere else, the viewer has to click on the link before watching. This makes direct uploads a much more advantageous method of publishing video content to Facebook.) We guessed that people were scrolling past these videos because they were bored with watching 5 seconds of text. As soon as we took out the intros and republished the videos, we had thousands of more views. This is just one of many features at your disposal – read up on them so that you can hit the ground running instead of learning too late in your campaign.
A popular aspect of the Kickstarter platform is its reward system. If their goal is met, project creators are encouraged to provide rewards for their backers to thank them for pledging. This idea provides a greater incentive for people to donate to your project and requires some additional, but worthwhile, work on your end. Usually, rewards are tier-based, so a certain pledge amount will get a certain reward, and the higher the amount, the more valuable the reward. We had several rewards, including a copy of the dvd, t-shirts and posters, etc. My only advice for this process is to be realistic. It is easy to get carried away thinking of all the thank-you gifts you want to give out as you daydream about reaching your big goal. But think it through. For example, what if one of your backers lives on a remote ranch in Australia and you’re based in West Chester, Pennsylvania? That cool mug you’re sending out might cost more to ship than the amount of money your backer donated. Kickstarter has a pretty good system of managing these rewards, but just make sure not to underestimate the time and money it will cost to send your gifts.
As you can see, there are a lot of considerations to make prior to running an effective crowdfunding campaign. Putting in the effort and thought ahead of time can save you a lot of headaches in the long-run. Throughout your campaign, remember to maintain a variety of media content and a social media presence in order to draw as many backers as possible. Planning your marketing strategy, choosing the right platform, and reaching out to potential supporters will also be the key to your success. I can assure you that reaching whatever goal you set for project will be a thrilling victory that will further inspire you to complete it to the best of your ability. Best of luck.