10 THUNDERS of Crowdfunding…NOT…for the faint-hearted
Having just run a successful (technically overfunded!) crowdfunding campaign with a $100,000 goal on the hip Seed&Spark, I’ve been receiving requests for advice and congratulations etc. However, right now all I want to do is withdraw into my shell and NOT be on social media for a month. But in the spirit of NOT BEING an expert and just sharing, I thought I should write all this before it fizzles out of the gray matter. So read on, at your own peril.
First off, when you run a crowdfunding campaign, it is akin to standing naked in the town square with a hat, asking EVERYONE who passes by to give some change. If you’re uncomfortable asking for money and in being shameless in your ask, this is not a path for you. It might be for a more extrovert teammate, but not you. I pulled my co-producer into this and it was highly uncomfortable for her, but she did it for the film and I’m so grateful to her. But going in, I knew I would be doing all the heavy lifting and asking because it was more my skill to shamelessly ask. We had managed expectations. The important thing to remember is that crowdfunding is not just about the money, it is about the PR for the project and the community you build as well. It is also about the months after the fund when you can hopefully leverage investors and press to actually fund your film and make it happen.
So here are a few tips and warnings to you if you want to crowdfund. Take it all with a shiny, coarse, grain of kosher salt!
1) 30% FUNDS IN 25% TIME:
You will have to know where 30% of the money is coming ahead of the campaign and it better trickle in the first 25% of the time of your campaign. This means you start at least a month ahead of your campaign and ask your contributors to check their “giving” temperature and see if they are willing to do it on your timeline, that is, on day 1–7 if you are doing a 4 week campaign. The faster your hit 30 or even 50%, the softer your neck muscles will be during the campaign.
2) GET A CROWDFUNDING MANAGER:
Try and get a crowdfunding manager who complements your skill set. In our case, I’m already a hyper, producerly person so I didn’t need anyone to tell me to keep posting or communicate. In fact I have the opposite problem. I sometimes over-communicate. I needed someone to slow me down and help strategize on ways to widen the audience I already had. It was about reaching those who I couldn’t reach. It is also about having a sounding board in what can be a very lonely and nerve-wracking process. Also I’d recommend having the manager on board one month ahead of launch date so you aren’t scrambling. Week one is important. Both manager and head crowdfunder should have constant contact. You are learning to navigate each other and the project and week one is full of nerves. Once you hit one cycle of updates and communication, it becomes a bit of a repetition and you can let go a bit. So first 4 weeks of prep and first week of campaign are your most busy times. Also important, it isn’t like you hire a manager and then sit back and relax. They are their to “manage” you, not run your campaign. THIS IS IMPORTANT! The burden is on you. They are just an ally.
3) CHOOSING THE RIGHT PLATFORM:
This is a moment to give Seed&Spark a shout out at their film curated audience and following. Seed&Spark was great for us — in building a community for all crowdfunders via programs like the #FilmCurious chat on Twitter. I will say this, to me: all crowdfunding platforms are more or less the same in terms of people being able to click and give to your project, just do your own research, what makes them different and more suitable to your project is what should matter. In our case, the big thing I liked about S&S was their “loan” program which was able to cater our corporate matching as well as in-kind commitments. We also chose to use them because they proactively wanted us during their #100DaysOfDiversity initiative. So we knew that our project would get support and timely feedback and attention when we needed it. This might not apply to all at all times but that was our truth for this project. Also, just because Kickstarter has a lot of members, doesn’t mean your project will be seen by more because that also means they have a lot of noise that you need to break through AND they aren’t just film, unlike S&S, so you aren’t catering to your target audience. That has its costs and benefits. Does Seed&Spark membership comprise of a lot of other filmmakers who are also fundraising? Sure. But I feel you are still part of the tribe that is going to support. At the end of the day, it is different for every project. Do your research and choose wisely.
4) DEVELOP SMART INCENTIVES:
What I learnt from my first crowdfund was to NOT offer incentives that took a lot of money in terms of shipping and delivery and thankfully our manager reminded us to do the same this time. What we came up with were online deliverable services, like classes. Something I’m very proud of was the idea of giving away props because that is an expense that will be incurred for the production anyway and comes with the delay of delivering till post production. Think fast, cheap and easy but still with a LOT of value and try and align your incentives with the themes and experience of your film. For instance, we had classes on Islamic theology right next to Bollywood dance classes and South Asian shopping spree certificates. We had foreign language classes right next to Pakistani food coupons. Proud to say a lot of our incentives sold out. Check them out!
5) BE SHAMELESS:
How do you know if you are persistent vs annoying?
To be honest, this is perhaps THE hardest one. From various people who have raised a ton of money, the general consensus is to apologize AFTER the campaign but to kind of do a bit of a carpet-bombing strategy while asking. It sounds horrible. It is abrasive. But that’s the only way this campaign worked for me. I literally would see the needle nudge after a specific amount of reach and follow ups and messages on Facebook, texts and emails. It was stressful because it was literally directly linked to my outreach, almost within the hour. Meaning if I stopped, the needle would stop. There were only 2 moments in the campaign where I felt when I let go, it was creeping up. Even if it was, the creep rate wasn’t fast enough for us to hit our goal in the time we had and I wasn’t willing to take the risk of sitting back and just watching the needle. I knew my audience and my community. If we build it, they don’t necessarily come! For our campaign, press never happened like we hoped to, so the circle never reached outsiders as much as we would have liked to. It was all a matter of leveraging our communities and their communities to the best. Ask ALL you know for something. Depending on your relationship, you can even ask for a specific amount. I literally picked up the phone and demanded $500 from my high school buddy who is a neurosurgeon and when he committed, I asked him to find a match in his doctor circle. Did I mention it is embarrassing? GET OVER IT. You have to go with your gut and be ok with a few people getting upset with you. If you risk having 10 people who you never expected to give, give at the cost of 2 getting upset with you…I’m sorry but you have to take the risk. Your goal is to get your goal and hopefully your true friends understand that you are only asking them for the film and will forgive you. The intention is not bad. It is hard because most people are shy about money and rather than saying no, they choose not to respond. This was my hardest challenge because a lack of response meant I had them listed for a follow up. In retrospect, it maybe a good idea to indicate that you will continue to follow up just out of strategy and if they can just tell you “no” rather than be quiet, it would be much appreciated on both ends eventually. Still you will get people who will get upset with you. Some people also feel shy to give a tiny bit. This is another hurdle because $5 is better than $0. How do you convince them that you won’t judge them for that? Then there’s the added facet of those you expect to give a lot based on relationship and finance, but they give little or those who you expect nothing from but turn around and give a lot. The expectation part does balance out in the end because the shocks are met with pleasant surprises as well. This is not for those with thin skin. I had to stay quiet for 48 hours post the campaign as I was hurting and exhausted from comments from a few people. It’s the nature of the game. You have to get into beast mode and then learn to retract and lick your bruises AND those you might have caused to others.
6) KNOW YOUR COMMUNITY — THEN DECIDE YOUR GOAL:
My manager and I often differed in our strategy for asking. I told her I came from a community where you literally had to corner and hound people to give and they wouldn’t mind…well mostly. That’s because I’ve seen how fundraising happens in my community. I knew how much I had to follow up. The average follow up? 5–6 times. Literally, sometimes I had to hold people’s fingers and be on the phone with them as they navigated the website. You have to CLOSE THE DEAL.
Regarding the goal: You need to do a proper reality check on your community. In our case, I had been pitching the project to private investors for a year and a half so I knew there were certain big fish I could go to for a tenth of what I had previously asked for investment and just close them in for an opportunity for a tax write off via our non profit partner. S&S had advised us to keep a lower goal but I disagreed because I knew my community. Had we kept a $50K goal, we would have raised $51K. We kept our goal at $100K, we raised $101K. The South Asian community is very goal oriented. Once you reach your goal, they are done funding you. The scenario of overfunding like 150% etc, is just not realistic with them.
7) GIVE TO OTHER CAMPAIGNS:
I know this sounds counterintuitive. I mean we are trying to raise $$, why should we be giving money? Well, the truth is what goes around, comes around. Be compassionate, and support others if you want to be supported. It sounds like common sense but somehow it isn’t common. Learn to GIVE back, in $$ and in shout outs. Whilst running this campaign, I supported around 10 other campaigns during my crowdfunding campaign. You just can’t expect people to support you while not supporting others. It’s hypocritical and will catch up to you sooner rather than later. You can give money or shoutouts as well. I’d like to acknowledge that S&S guided and reminded me on that aspect and I took to Twitter to support other fundraisers. It worked. The energy, $ and karma only multiplied.
8) RILING THE CROWD:
I realized soon that the idea of matching funds and unlocking funds (a bit borrowed from NPR’s pledge drives) really help. People want to get you to the next turn and it helps spike the contribution rate, so when someone, for instance, would agree to $5K, I would announce that we would “unlock” $5K when we hit $20K. You have to learn to guide and rile the crowd. Not be dishonest but guide their momentum and keep CLOSING deals. Another really amazing trick is to get a fiscal sponsor that corporations will match. In our case that was the amazing THE FILM COLLABORATIVE (shameless plug: you can still contribute to our film and get a tax write off on their site in case you missed our campaign!), which happens to be listed on the giving sites of GOOGLE, MICROSOFT, EBAY etc. So whoever worked there and gave, their contribution instantly doubled. With S&S, unlike other crowdfunding sites, you can show matches as “loans” which get fulfilled at the end of the quarter. There is a limit to how much of your total goal’s percentage can be loans, though. Just talk to them. They’re great.
9) DON’T EXPECT PRESS. If it comes, that’s great. But don’t’ expect it.
If there was a campaign that I would have thought would be picked up given the current political climate, I would have thought it would be ours. We hit 30% in 3/30 days. We hit 50% in 2 weeks. Nothing. No response. Press doesn’t like to write about crowdfunding campaigns. You need an angle, a spin. Maybe I wasn’t the spin or image of the Muslim female filmmaker in the Trump era they cared to support and maybe we didn’t fit the narrative and image they needed to tell at this moment. Who knows? It’s all a crap shoot BUT you keep trying. We even had amazing community building events like the Muslim Writer’s Collective Open Mic, but nothing from the press. At least nothing from the LA press. Where we did find love was in the blogosphere. AltMuslimah, Medium and S&S were our publicity outreaches.
10) THE ASKING NEVER STOPS: When you think you’re done asking, you ask for more. $, tweets, clicks…
I didn’t factor the amount of asks I’d have to do. I mean I factored the asks for money but I didn’t factor those for social media. Write a blog, then ask people to like it. Launch a Thunderclap campaign, then ask people to join it. Ask people to contribute to the campaign, then ask them to follow the page. Everything in social media and social campaigns is tied to metrics. Press may pay attention if your blog is shared a certain number of times. People are more likely to give if there are more clicks. It is all a spiral of asking and asking more. So remember to make lists of your absolute go-tos before the campaign. You will need to ask them for multiple asks. For money, for shares, for follows, for highlights.
In the end, sure you have money in the bank — after the fees and the cuts. But more importantly, you have so much more public awareness of your campaign and solid followers and potential collaborators that will actually help you make the film. That’s the actual pitch for crowdfunding in my opinion. Not the money! Because gaining the money is like pulling teeth…unless of course, you go viral. But DON’T count on that. That’s just novice in my opinion.
Will I be doing a crowd-funding campaign anytime soon again? Probably not.
Does that mean I will NEVER do it again? Probably not.