18 January 2015 | 75 Comments
I run a small game publishing company called Stonemaier Games. I write this blog with the sole purpose of making crowdfunding better for creators and backers.
The vast majority of content I’ve written is geared towards creators. I share my mistakes, my shortcomings, my ideas, my observations, and my insights as both a creator of 6 projects and a backer of over 125 projects to help my fellow creators do a better job of serving you, the backers (which I believe will translate into success for those creators).
However, it isn’t only creators who determine a project’s success. The vast majority of that power is solely in your hands–you, the backer. You have the power to bring a project to life through your funds and social media. You have the power to make a project better through your opinions, input, and expertise. And you have the power to help the creator build community during and after a campaign through engaging, passionate, and empathetic conversation.
With all that great power comes great responsibility. So today I’d like to address you, the backer, to talk about the impact you have on creators and projects. The way you engage with creators has a direct impact on how that creator treats you and other backers, and I’d like for you to realize the full extent of that power.
I should say that I can’t speak for all creators–I can only speak for myself. I’ve had the honor and privilege of serving over 10,000 backers, and I’ve learned so much from them. Below I’ve compiled a list of 20 recommendations I have for backers like you to be aware of how your actions can impact a creator, the project, and your fellow backers.
- Give creators the benefit of the doubt until they no longer deserve it. Skepticism on Kickstarter is perfectly natural. We’ve all been burned by creators who simply dropped off the map for months at a time, never reply to messages, or deliver something subpar. But some creators genuinely want to try their best to create something awesome for you, and you won’t know who those creators are until you give them a chance. This is especially important for first-time creators.
- Just as a creator’s greatest tool is empathy towards backers, a backer who has empathy for other backers will create a better experience for everyone. Some of the best crowdfunding projects give backers the chance to contribute in some way to the product itself, whether it’s through a poll or a comment thread or some other way. These tools of engagement only work if backers understand that the majority may not want the same thing they want. This is called empathy. It’s the art of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (not literally. That would be a logistical nightmare). The opposite is “backer entitlement”–the idea that you want the thing you want, and no one else matters. Projects are better for everyone when backers have empathy towards one another.
- If you don’t like a project, don’t back it. Crowdfunding is a capitalistic endeavor, and that’s what makes it great. If people don’t want a thing to exist, they simply don’t pledge money to it. The thing is, sometimes other people are different than you, and they want the thing to exist. Despite that truth, sometimes I see people go way out of their way to really bash a project. Why would you spend your time and energy on something you don’t like? Why not funnel all that energy into something you love, and leave the people alone who love the thing you don’t care for?
- If you don’t like a final decision a creator makes in the middle of a project, it’s okay to simply cancel your pledge. This concept came up on a recent big-deal project on Kickstarter. There was a vote sometime in the middle of the project regarding a piece of art, and like with any vote, some people’s choice didn’t get selected. A small percentage of those people made a huge stink on social media. However, a more graceful approach to not getting your way would be to simply cancel your pledge. That’s another part of the beauty of Kickstarter–no one is holding a knife to your throat to keep your pledge during the project. You can simply take your money and go back something else. Or buy 20 Slurpees. Or decide that there’s a lot of other things that originally drew you to the project beyond a single piece of art, and you can keep your pledge.
- You have a direct impact on the success of a Kickstarter project. Two stories: One, when we were approaching the $450,000 stretch goal on Tuscany, a few backers begged me to lower the stretch goal so it would be easier to reach. My stretch goals are calibrated based on specific calculations and economies of scale, so that wasn’t possible. Instead, I tried to remind those backers that they had the power to push the project closer to the goal by sharing the project with other people who might like it. Similarly, I saw on a recent project that was on a failing trajectory a comment that said, “I reduced my pledge to $1 to make this comment, then I’m canceling my pledge because there’s no way we’re going to reach the funding goal.” The logic behind this statement baffled me (and even the fact that the backer took the time to reduce his pledge, leave one final defeatist comment, then cancel his pledge). Share projects you love with people who will love them. That’s how projects succeed. The power is in your hands.
- Your emotions are a powerful tool–use them sparingly and responsibly. Consider these two statements: “I’m missing a card–can you help?” vs. “I’m incredibly hurt and sad that I’m missing a card–can you help?” Both say the same thing, but the second has a different impact on a creator than the first. It digs deep–it says that a mistake we made had a profound impact on you. However, is that true? Did a missing card truly make you feel “incredibly hurt and sad?” Those are the words I’d use if my cat died, not if I’m missing a tiny piece of cardboard.
- Keep public matters public and private matters private. During active campaigns, I often get private messages from people with general questions about the campaign. I answer them, but I also encourage them to post the questions publicly–they’re probably not the only people with those questions. Conversely, I also have backers who post in the public comments about their specific shipment. For your sake, I’d prefer not to post your personal details (tracking number, address, etc) on a public forum, so those questions are more effectively directed to a creator via private message.
- Please fill out the Kickstarter survey when you receive it. Every creator works differently, but I can say this universal truth: When a creator sends you a project survey, it’s because they need you to fill it out. Need, not want. For example, I send out my project surveys soon after the project ends because I need to figure out exactly how many units of each SKU to make–particularly the limited print runs–and I need to know how many of each SKU go to various fulfillment centers around the world. Sometimes I can figure out what someone pledged to receive, but for larger pledge amounts it’s almost impossible to break down the pledge. To this day I have a backer on Tuscany who pledged $320, and he hasn’t filled out the survey, so I have absolutely no idea what his reward is. I just hope I still have it in stock when he fills out the survey. Also: On Kickstarter, questions on the survey mandatory by design (we can’t choose to make a question optional or mandatory). Every now and then I get the nastiest notes you’ll ever read from people who don’t want to answer a question that doesn’t apply to them. Just write “N/A” and move on.
- You catch more flies with honey. The other day I saw that my cable bill went up unexpectedly. I called the cable company and cheerfully explained the situation–I was just a curious customer trying to learn more. The rep ended up finding a special discount for me. Now, I could have called the cable company and laid it into the rep, demanding recompense. Maybe I would have even gotten the same result. But I would have made another human being feel bad for simply doing their job, and in turn that might affect the next customer they deal with. All of this applies to Kickstarter–creators are human, and as hard as we try to treat all backers exactly the same, it’s human nature for us to respond better to the nice notes than the nasty ones.
- Before accusing a creator of not updating backers, check the date and content of the latest project update (or your e-mails spam folder). I don’t know if other creators experience this. I update my backers on a regular basis–generally every 2 weeks after the project or whenever something important needs to be said or asked. But without fail, every now and then I get a furious e-mail from a backer accusing me of not updating him or her on the project’s progress. Usually this happens 1-2 days after I post a project update clearly describing the project’s progress. Granted, I don’t expect every backer to subscribe to project updates. It’s my job to keep them interesting enough so people don’t unsubscribe. But if you’re going to accuse a creator for not updating you, perhaps consider actually checking the most recent project update (or your spam folder) beforehand. Also: If the creator gives you their e-mail address, save it in your contacts list so it doesn’t go to spam when you get a really important e-newsletter asking for your address updates.
- Don’t ask a creator to make an exception just for you. During the Viticulture campaign, a backer in Europe contacted me about a $79 reward level. I can’t remember which country he was from, but he said that he was going to get hit with a high customs fee if he paid any more than $65. So he asked if he could pay $65 instead of $79. I was young and naive then, so I agreed to it. But I’ve never forgotten about that request, because in hindsight it strikes me as to how unfair and inappropriate that request was to other backers and to me. Kickstarter isn’t charity. These things cost money, and the reward prices aren’t arbitrary for the vast majority of projects. It’s not just about the money, though. I get requests for exceptions all the time–add this, sign this, send this to two different people even though only one shipping fee was paid, etc. I try to treat all of my backers as individuals, not numbers, but that doesn’t mean I can customize rewards for each individual backer. The harsh reality is that almost every mistake I make–particularly in shipping–leads back to an exception I made at some point. Exceptions are really hard to keep track of, and they lead to mistakes. The point is, out of respect for your fellow backers and the creator, don’t ask for special exceptions.
- Estimated delivery dates are estimates, not hard dates. It’s the creator’s job to accurately estimate the delivery date to the best of their ability and then keep backers updated on the progress. However, I think we could all help each other by removing the concept of a project being “late” from our crowdfunding vocabulary. The word “late” has a strong element of shame to it, and there’s nothing shameful about taking your time to make something well instead of rushing it and delivery something subpar. The very essence of funding something on Kickstarter is that the thing doesn’t exist yet. There’s so much that happens between then and the moment that it arrives on someone’s front door, and the best we can do is ESTIMATE when that moment will be. If it’s delivered after that date, it means the estimate was incorrect, not that the project was late. I think this is tough for a lot of people because sometimes we count on something showing up at a particular time or a project is delivered way after the estimated date. For example, I pledged to receive a special camera to give to my sister and her husband to catalog the first few months of my niece’s life. However, the camera didn’t arrive until my niece was 1 year old. It’s unfortunate, but I still didn’t consider the project late. It just wasn’t ready until it was ready, and then I received it.
- Stick up for projects you believe in–you are a more powerful advocate than the creator. Sometimes a backer will post negative or constructive criticism about a project, whether it’s on the project page, Facebook, or some other form of social media. The creator can chime in to respond, and often they should do so. But a creator is also inherently biased. So if you disagree with the other person’s assessment of the project, speak up! Do it respectfully, of course. In many scenarios, your words speak much louder than the creator’s.
- It’s okay when a project only has some finished art–that’s often why a project is seeking funding. I recently saw someone criticizing a Kickstarter project because it didn’t have completed art. It had some completed art, but a lot of it was in progress because, well, they needed to raise the money to afford it! Yes, there are many projects on Kickstarter that are printer-ready, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that for crowdfunding to really work, we need to be open to projects that need every cent to get it off the ground in the first place.
- Specific affirmation is just as important as constructive criticism. My perception is that 99% of my backers are happy. But the backers I hear from the most are the other 1%, the ones who want to take a dump in their Viticulture box and light it on fire on my doorstep. All feedback is important, even if sometimes I have to translate the really nasty comments into helpful lessons. Nor do I really want to hear from every one of the 99%. But I can honestly say that it’s super helpful to get specific positive feedback every now and then. That type of feedback–which I most often hear after going out of my way to solve a problem for a backer–affirms that it’s worth going above and beyond for backers. It makes me want to be a better creator. I’m not asking for backers to pamper us creators. But every now and then, when you see a backer doing something you want them to do again in the future–for you or for others–reinforce that behavior with a specific affirmation.
- When you ask a creator to look up something inconsequential for you, ask yourself, “What if every backer asked the creator to do the same thing for them?” This goes back to empathy again–particularly empathy with the creator. Here’s an example: The other day I sent out a notice to Tuscany backers saying that stickers some of them requested were being shipped out on Thursday and Friday. I got a few e-mails afterwards from backers asking if I could look on my spreadsheet to see if they had requested the stickers. Now, I understand–they were curious, and they didn’t mean any harm. But they could also just wait a few days to see if the stickers arrived in the mail or not. It’s one of those scenarios where I think a backer should stop for a second and think, “What if every backer asked Jamey to do this for them?” If all 4,333 backers on Tuscany asked me to look on my spreadsheet and write to them about whether or not they requested stickers, that would be all that I would ever do. I wouldn’t have time to make more games or reply to more immediate questions or write blog entries like this. The little things add up, so ask the questions that really need to be answered.
- Instead of ending e-mails with, “Reply to this immediately,” give the creator a chance to reply immediately. The ones who are going to reply quickly are going to do so whether or not you request a prompt reply (and they’ll wish you had given them a chance to offer great customer service without such aggressive demands), and the ones who aren’t going to reply quickly aren’t going to do so whether or not you say that. An exception to this would be if it truly is an urgent matter–in that case, put “urgent” in the subject line of the e-mail.
- When you send a creator a question, send it to him/her once, not twice back-to-back in different mediums. If I’m at my computer when I get a question via e-mail, Kickstarter’s message system, or our “Tell Us Anything” form, I often reply within minutes–sometimes even seconds. Every now and then I reply to a message right away, and as I click “Send,” I get the exact same message sent directly to me through a different platform. When that happens, I feel like the person didn’t even give me a chance. It goes back to the first item on this list: Give creators the benefit of the doubt until they no longer deserve it.
- When comparing Kickstarter prices to the future discounted retail price, remember that a shipping subsidy is almost always included on the KS pledge price. This is kind of a general PSA that I think backers should be aware of. Say you see a reward–a board game–for $39 on Kickstarter, $50 MSRP. You might think, “Oh, I can wait until I see this online in a few months discounted down to $35. I’ll wait until then.” But keep in mind that about $10 of shipping subsidy is built into that $39 pledge. So if you buy the game for $35 on an online store later, you may have to pay for shipping on top of that. Regardless, it’s important to consider that creators determine the MSRP of their products, but they have no control over what retailers will actually charge. Creators do their best to create appealing price points for backers, and it’s great when backers can put themselves in the creator’s shoes when looking at the price less the shipping subsidy. It’s often quite low! Also, keep in mind that your pledge makes a difference for things like stretch goals–by backing the project now instead of waiting until later, you have the power to make it better for yourself and everyone else.
- The use of threats is not an effective tool for getting what you want. Sometimes I’m afraid of backers. When a backer demands or threatens me, my response is based on trying to prevent them from trolling Stonemaier Games rather than trying to deliver something awesome to backers. Please don’t make creators fear you. Nothing good comes out of fear. There has to be a better way to approach a creator than to threaten them.
My goal in this post was to keep it positive and constructive, and I hope I stayed true to that goal. I’d love to hear from other creators in the comments who can relate to these concepts, and most of all I’d love to hear from backers. Do these ideas ring true to you as ways to elevate crowdfunding for everyone?
Other open letters: