Adolphe Bitard - Téléphone via Wikimedia Commons
Imagine you are nine months pregnant. You're in the delivery room, legs in stirrups, pushing as hard as you can. You're in pain. You feel vulnerable and tired.
You look up and a thousand people are in the room with you. They actually spent their own money to be in here. In fact, their cash helped pay for the room. Now they're watching the most intimate parts of the birthing process and giving you real time feedback of how they think you are doing. ("Just push harder!" "You're doing great!" "What's taking so long???")
You're thankful, obviously. Eternally grateful. You wouldn't be in this room if it wasn't for their generosity. These amazing people gave you the support you needed to help bring your baby into the world. If you could, you would give them all a big hug. At the same time... It would be really nice to just get some peace and quiet so you could just focus on popping this kid out.
That's kind of how it feels to work with Backers when you're crowdfunding a project.
Design has traditionally been a quiet exercise. A small team of people get together and make something in relative solitude. You go through your iterations, successes and failures in private. Eventually your work is released and then rest of the world gets to weigh in on what you did.
Crowdfunding projects are the opposite of that. Design turns into a performance art. Once you launch your project, everyone (at least it feels like everyone) has an opinion. You are being judged. Your successes and failures are magnified. One moment someone will call you a genius and the next, someone will claim you're running a Ponzi scheme.
Dealing with this, while simultaneously getting a new-to-the-world product off the ground can be...challenging. This is new stuff for designers to think about: How do you talk about your progress with a big, public audience that has a small, yet personal stake in your success?
In this part of the crowdfunding series, we will talk about how to effectively communicate with Backers.
There are a few key things you will want to think about: Kickstarter's Methods of Communication, Backer Psychology, Tips on how to communicate effectively, and Dealing with "Special" people.
Kickstarter's Methods of Communication
There are three ways you and your Backers can communicate with each other on Kickstarter:
These are essentially blog posts that Project Creators put out to detail the progress being made on the project and keep Backers in the loop of whats going on. When you send an Update, they immediately get emailed to all of your Backers as well as posted on your Kickstarter page under the Updates tab.
Creators have the option to make updates public so anyone on the Internet can read them, or private so only project Backers can read them. A lot of projects kept their updates private, but I opted to make mine public. When I was researching how to set up and deal with certain aspects of my own project, I would look to see how others went about it. Without fail, the private updates were the ones I needed to see the most to learn from. I say, keep your updates public to help out fellow Project Creators.
Comments works like most other blog commenting systems. Backers and Project Creators publicly respond to one another by posting questions, giving feedback, etc. There is a comment board for the entire project as well as for each Update post. Only Backers and Project Creators can post comments. No outsiders can post.
I dislike comment boards because they amplify the Internet's lack of perspective and patience. The traditional comment board format just seems to encourage complaining rather than having actual conversation.
However, I realize that Backers deserve a way to hold Project Creators accountable for keeping them in the loop. Comments seem to hold that purpose on Kickstarter, they just do a bad job of it. (The traditional comment board format, not the Backers.)
For the most part, I tended to avoid the comment board all together. I read every comment, but tried not to respond on the board itself. Every time I would publicly respond to an issue, it tended just to make it last longer rather than die out. Instead, I would strive for one-on-one communication via...
Kickstarter has its own messaging system that essentially works like email, allowing Backers and Project Creators to communicate with each other individually and privately.
Even though it takes a little more effort, I found it much more effective and rewarding to communicate directly with a Backer this way. Its more personal, you can have an actual conversation, and it stays civil.
Like any form of communication, understanding your audience and adapting your message for what they want and need to know will give you a higher chance for success.
Why exactly do people back projects on Kickstarter? Well for starters, they like your project and are expecting to see their Project Rewards at the end of it. Beyond that I think Backers can be broken into two camps: Those that see Kickstarter as an e-commerce site like Amazon and those who see it as a funding platform for creative projects.
A Project Creator will tell you that its the latter, a funding platform for creative projects. For Backers, its less clear cut. E-commerce or funding platform? It really depends on their familiarity with Kickstarter and how they found your project.
The funding Backer goes into funding a project with the understanding that their money is being used to bring your idea to life. They tend to be more patient than those who think its a simple e-commerce transaction. These Backers either come from a "making things" background and understand how hard it is to make stuff or have backed other projects before.
The e-commerce Backer will be less patient. They saw your project on a blog, thought it was cool and backed it, expecting to see it end up on their doorstep as soon as funding is over. Most will realize after a bit what exactly Kickstarter is and go with the flow. Some will be annoyed until you ship.
Most of your Backers have never lived through the gut wrenching ups and downs of manufacturing something brand new. Up until now, they haven't thought a whole lot about how the stuff they buy comes into the world, so it's up to you help them understand whats going on. Teaching about design to non-designers can be really rewarding and for me it was my favorite part of the crowdfunding process.
There is emotion component of Kickstarter as well. If all of your Backers like your idea, most of them are actually big fans of you as well. Your idea may have attracted them, but you closed the deal with your killer video and presentation. In general, as long as you stay attentive to keeping them in the loop and try to deliver their rewards in a timely manner, your Backers will be great cheerleaders for you.
Tips on how to Communicate with your Backers
These things all worked for me. Some of it is somewhat boring and obvious, and some is more specific to Kickstarter. Lets start with the boring and obvious.
Be unfailingly polite and humble.
This is the most important thing you can do. Even when you're frustrated, just be nice. Backers are really happy to receive acknowledgement that you are listening to them and that alone can help solve most issues.
Never, and I mean never, be unpolite.
I've seen Project Creators get testy with Backers. It doesn't end well. Believe me, I get it. You're frustrated, the project is hitting some bumps, and Backers are jumping down your throat. You just have to suck it up and be nice. It really doesn't matter how wrong a Backer is. The second you respond back with an angry remark, you're done. The next thing you know, a well-known blogger, who happens to be a Backer of yours, blogs it and then reddit picks it up. I get agita just thinking about it.
Be as responsive as you can.
I try to respond back to Backers within 24 hours. This is not always possible when you're head down trying to work on the actual project, but whenever I have a free moment, I get back to them. This reinforces on a individual basis how committed you are to your project.
Be as honest and informative as you can.
The more information you can clearly and concisely deliver to your Backers, the better. Take videos of parts being made. Explain processes. Talk about where you are in your timeline. Be the Neil deGrasse Tyson of your project. Explain your universe in an accessible way.
(And now a picture of Neil deGrasse Tyson, because a picture helps break up all this monotonous text and because he's awesome. Ladies.)
In many ways, crowdfunding is the exact opposite of crowdsourcing. With crowdsourcing, companies or individuals hire the crowd to make decisions for them. With crowdfunding, the crowd hires a company or individual to make decisions for them. When things get tough and you start to question yourself remember this: You were hired by your Backers to carry out your vision. In fact, they're here because of your vision. Take feedback into consideration, but in the end trust your instincts. You know how to do this best because you're the expert.
When all else fails, be polite and humble.
This really is the most important thing you can do.
Like I said, somewhat boring and obvious advice. I even started and ended with the same tip, and the second tip was really just a build on the first tip. How lame is that?
OK, that's the obvious stuff. Here are the less obvious things to keep in mind when running a Kickstarter project.
Keep it one-on-one.
I always preferred to communicate 1-on-1 with Backers, which meant using Kickstarter's message system. Even when responding to public posts on the comment boards, I would try to answer directly to that Backer in private. Just seemed to work better for me.
Only update when you have progress to report.
This is a common mistake I see Project Creators make. They feel like they have to update everyone because they haven't done so in awhile, but they have nothing new to report. Having nothing new to report just pisses Backers off. In the time before you ship your product, try not to go more than a month and a half between updates, but don't feel like you need to update every day either.
Don't share everything.
It's really tempting to want to share as much as you can because of the nature of Kickstarter. It can sometimes backfire. Think of it this way: you wouldn't tell your client about the epic Nerf dart war you had in the office before a deliverable, because it makes it sound like you aren't as focused as you should be. Same thing with Kickstarter. If you stray too far from talking about the task at hand, people will start to question what exactly it is you're doing with your time.
Another thing to keep in mind: You may have signed up for a crowdfunding project, but your manufacturing partners did not. You face a bit of a paradox when you hit a snag in manufacturing. On the one hand it can be a really good learning experience to share with Backers. On the other hand, it may paint your vendors in an unflattering light, complicating your relationship with them.
Even if you end up leaving a vendor, you never know if you may end up working with them again. The bottom line is not to throw them under the bus, even if they are the ones screwing up. Your goal is to finish the project. You can still do that with a few pissed off Backers. You can't do that with a vendor who leaves you because you disparaged them online. Just suck it up, say that you're working through some production issues, take the heat for it, and move on.
When things go wrong
I was terrible with giving accurate deadlines for my project. First, I was overly optimistic, then ran into unexpected problems. Pretty much everything took longer than I anticipated. The truth is most of the product design projects I have seen on Kickstarter have delays. This is standard stuff on normal first run programs, but for crowdfunding projects, it can be really unnerving for Backers.
How you talk about delays with Backers is important. Explain what the issues are, but also what your plans are to fix them. I made it a point to never post an update about an issue I was encountering until I had a plan I could share of how I was going to fix it. This keeps you in control of the situation and helps your Backers see that there is a way forward.
"Internet angry" vs. actually angry
Whenever I got a complaint, I always tried to step back and determine if the Backer was "Internet Angry" or actually angry. Because it's so easy to share your thoughts online, it makes it really easy to express things in a more intense way than you ever would in real life. I call this Internet angry. Being upset that the new iPad may run 10º F hotter in certain situations, is a prime example of Internet anger.
You will occasionally get a comment or a message that seems out of line with reality and you just have to chalk it up to someone being Internet angry. The important thing is to try not to take it personally and follow up with them to see if there is anything you can do.
If a complaint escalates, offer to have a phone call.
In a few instances, I had an individual Backer who was really ticked off about something and I could sense it wasn't going to get resolved online. In those cases I would offer to have a phone call with them to see if we could fix what was bugging them. It shows that your serious about trying to help and I found it tends to defuse the situation. Well, not every situation...
...and then there are the "Special" people.
For every 500 great backers, you will have one crazy person. By crazy I mean: they accuse you of running a Ponzi scheme, promise to get the FBI involved, publicly call the project a fiasco, post your private email conversation you were having with them trying to solve their problems in the comments. I was updating too much, then I was updating too little. This wasn't directed just at me, these people were jackasses to everyone else on the comment board as well.
These people are very different from normal Backers who have a question or complaint. No matter what you do they won't be satisfied. Every project that gets overfunded has a few of these people. It makes you wonder why they backed the project in the first place.
I had a couple Backers that were like this. It got so bad that I wanted to fire them, meaning refund them and completely block them from any aspect of the project. No updates. No being able to comment. Unfortunately there's no way I found to do that on Kickstarter.
I have talked to several other Project Creators and they all faced similar Backers on their own projects. It was difficult for them to deal with it, and I will be honest, it became one of the most difficult parts of the project for me. As designers we deal with criticism all the time in the form of design crits and client reviews, but those are at least somewhat logical, with the end goal of improving the work. This was the opposite of that. This was middle school type stuff, but from adults.
I ended up just ignoring them. There was no point in trying to reason anymore because it was impossible. Continuing to engage them just fed their need for attention and that's really all it was, a weird need for attention. After awhile, I actually got to a point where I looked forward to the next time they would post a comment, because it would invariably be so off the wall that it was comical.
When the special people come out of the woodwork on your own project (and they will) try to remember this: The most liberating thing you can do is to start out with the realization that no matter what you do, it's impossible to have 100% positive public approval. Once you accept that, its a lot easier to deal with anything thrown your way. Do the best you can and move on.
When you have one or two nut jobs, it's easy to forget that the vast majority of your Backers will be amazing to work with. Most of mine were content just to stay in the background to get project updates and rewards when they shipped, but I got to interact with many of them. One did a fantastic illustration for the package that shipped to all of the Backers. Another did some audio remixing for me out of the blue, not expecting anything in return, but was just being nice. A bunch sent me sketches and drawings they made with their Stylus Caps. These were the best parts of the project and one of the major reasons why I would look into crowdfunding again.
Next time: Running your Project.
About Don Lehman
Don Lehman is an designer based in Chicago. In 2011, he founded More/Real and developed it's first product, Stylus Caps, which turn pens and markers into touchscreen styluses that work with the iPad. Stylus Caps launched on Kickstarter, reached 488% of its funding goal in just 30 days, and are now in production. Don has a BFA in Industrial Design from the Rochester Institute of Technology.