Kickstarter Face-Off #3: Early-Bird Reward Levels

19 January 2014 | 24 Comments

One of the ongoing debates about Kickstarter is the use of early-bird reward levels to get some forward momentum on a project right after it launches. I wanted to see what the average Kickstarter backer thinks about this subject, so that’s the topic for this week’s Kickstarter Face-Off.

JuliaPro: Julia Ziobro

I’m Julia Ziobro. I live in Bellevue, WA, where my husband and I have built a 900+ board game collection over the past eight years. Between our three KS accounts, we’ve backed over 350 projects in two years, with about 225 games or game accessories so far. My image has also been incorporated into four games’ art… it’s a weird form of vanity, but I get a kick out of it. I make my living as a Documentation Manager and I love to edit/proofread rules and game materials. @JewelyaZ

This week I’ve backed twelve projects, half at an early-bird level, and half from the tabletop games category.

1. The discount. Ah, the controversial part. I do love early bird levels that offer a few dollars off… it’s a little tip of the hat from the project creator to those folks who take the biggest risk, backing a project when its value has not been fully examined and the community buzz has yet to be built. I often grab an early-bird spot as soon as I realize I’m interested in a new project, BEFORE I’ve even read the description (chances are great I’ll never watch the video). Correctly-planned early-bird discount levels are all taken in one to twenty-four hours and get the project to between 33 and 50% of the required funding, and I consider a project “at risk” if the early-bird spots are not all gone within 48 hours. For what it’s worth, I think project creators earn the early-bird level’s discount money back from me in the promotion that I do for them and their project throughout the campaign on Kickstarter itself and in my personal contacts at the FLGS, at our weekly game nights, and sometimes on Twitter.

2. The activist cred. The credibility that comes from finding a project early and talking it up in the community can’t be underestimated. I was an early bird for Euphoria, but that really was a zero-risk thing. :-) [Editor’s note: There were no early-bird pledge levels for Euphoria, so I think Julia was just there from day one (maybe even hour one).] A better example was my early-bird pledge for the 3Doodler, an unproven but very cool looking 3-D printer in the form of a handheld pen about as big as a soldering iron. I backed immediately, talked it up in my circle, and along with the other early-bird backers, we fanned the flames of a project that turned into a roaring success (over 7800% funded with a $30,000 goal). Similarly, I really enjoyed being in very early on Ground Floor; I made a PnP of the game, we played it, and I wrote a review all in the first days of the campaign, and I know TMG appreciated that additional boost. My review remains one of my most-thumbed contributions on BoardGameGeek probably because many backers checked it out from the campaign home page, and it’s led to other designers asking me to do reviews of their new games.

3. Getting rewards first. This doesn’t always happen, but I’ll admit, I’m a full-on member of the Cult of the New, and not just in the tabletop games category (see 3Doodler; I got mine in October, and also, Nock pen cases, where I got my reward almost immediately). I love it when rewards are shipped in backer order (more or less); many campaigns that involve customization like Dave Howell’s PennyGems and Ultimate Gamer’s Storage Bags, Bibelot Games’ Reliquary Collection, and Charlie Brumfield’s Artisan Dice do this. I like it. I love getting my stuff fast, though I am also among the most patient backers when it comes to projects that suffer through a lot of delays. I feel it’s my responsibility to give the project creator great feedback and positive buzz about the rewards when I get mine early and they’re outstanding; when I get mine early and they are not great (it’s happened a few times), I offer constructive feedback in hopes of improving the rewards for later backers, or I don’t cause too much trouble. Praise in public, criticize in private, mostly, just like at work. :-)

In short, I love early bird rewards. Project creators that don’t offer them risk losing me if I notice their campaign early on; I usually think “oh, that’s interesting, I’ll come back to it later”… or I even star the 48-hour reminder… and then I don’t remember in time. If they have an early bird level and I snap one up, I sometimes forget to come back and revisit that pledge, so they get to keep my backing.

Rebuttal from Jason

Concerning the “discount” argument, I don’t I agree that backers who pledge early are taking the biggest risk. Perhaps if pledges were written in stone, then yes, that statement would be accurate. But the truth is that a backer can cancel their pledge at any time. Both Julia and I admit to having grabbed an Early Bird (EB) tier rewards prior to really examining the project closely. I’m pretty sure, though, that if cancelling our pledges were not an option, we’d be more careful about the projects we back due to them offering an EB level.

Concerning the “activist cred” argument, again, I don’t agree that backers are more likely to promote a project or expand their promotion activity based on snagging an EB tier. Perhaps that would apply to a small percentage of backers, but I don’t believe it would apply to most. I will admit, though, that an EB tier can lead to a higher surge of pledges early within a campaign. That, in return, could lead to increased promotional activity simply due to their being an increased number of backers. This is the one “pro” that I will advocate in regards to EB tiers.

Lastly, concerning the “getting rewards first” argument, I don’t agree that allowing a certain percentage of backers to receive the game earlier than the rest is really advantageous for the creator. Unless those backers are receiving a prototype and the finished product will be based on their feedback, any feedback given after the product has been produced and ready for shipment is a little too late to be immediately valuable. I’m not stating that the feedback would not be beneficial moving forward, but I’m not sure that the feedback of backers who receive their product one or two months earlier than the rest will be more helpful than the feedback of those other backers.

Jason WrightCon: Jason Wright

My name is Jason Wright and I reside in Harrisburg, PA. I’ve been married to my wife, Carrie, for close to seven years now, and my son, Grayson, just turned a year old this past week. My first Kickstarter was for a sequel to my favorite tower defense game, Defense Grid. Since then, I’ve backed a number of projects, with my most recent backing being the Double-Six Dice campaign. Now, I will admit that the number of projects that I’ve backed may not be as numerous as others, but the main aspect of Kickstarter that enthralls me is studying the social dynamics of crowdfunding.

One area that particularly grabbed my attention was the impact of EB pledge levels on a Kickstarter. Personally, I do not feel that EB pledge levels are “evil”, “sadistic” and “just plain wrong” (I’m not sure who I’m quoting there, but I’m sure somebody has said these things of EB pledges at some point or another… if not, my bad, that’s why I’m not a real journalist). However, I do feel that EB pledges cause more harm to a Kickstarter than they do good. The main reason I’m negative on EB pledges is due to my opinion that they just seem to tick everybody off. I will highlight, what I believe, are three reasons why they put backers on edge.

1. “It’s not fair!!!!!!” – While that quote may seem childish, it is somewhat true. Depending on where a backer lives or the type of occupation they have, they may be at a huge disadvantage for “grabbing” EB spots. For instance, if a US Kickstarter launches at 4PM Eastern and has a limited amount of EB tiers available, those backers on the other side of the world who are currently sleeping are not likely to be able to grab those spots. Or, if you have two types of backers, those who work a desk job where they are allowed to surf the internet all day, and the other who work in a factory, the former is at a huge advantage to grab those lower-cost pledge levels. Recently, I’ve seen EB tiers limited by time instead of by pledge numbers. I believe these are the lesser evil, however, it still could slight someone who has limited access to the internet.

2. Misleads Backers and Creator – I’m sure we’ve all seen it. A game seems ready to fund at 2000%! Or, at least it does until all of the EB tiers fill up. One example of this is the Mega Man Board Game which is currently running. Within 48 hours, this campaign had raised over $200,000 and seemed to possibly be another “Cthulhu Wars”. But, once the early bird tiers dried up, so did the pledges. Since the initial 48 hours, the campaign has been creeping along at an average of $3,500.00 per day.

Why do I believe that misleads backers? Because, as a backer, one of the first things I look at are the stretch goals. I then ask myself whether I feel the game in itself warrants the monetary value of the pledge. If my answer to that question is “No”, I then ask myself the question again, but this time I include stretch goals that I believe will be achieved based on how the project is trending. EB tiers skew me from being able to do that.

I also believe that EB pledges mislead their creators. Why? Because it also skews their ability to project how successful the campaign will be. Also, I know personally, I will grab an EB tier even if I’m on the fence about the game, because I want to have that spot in case I decide to follow through with backing the project. That may make me a horrible backer, but I’m sure there are plenty more like me. So again, EB pledges may throw the creator off in projections due to a higher amount of bailout prior to the project funding.

3. “I’d rather the creator make the game $1 less for everybody than allow a few people to receive the game at a $10 discount” – While in reality it is a rare case that the amount of money saved by not providing an EB tier could warrant a substantial discount to everyone else, many backers just don’t seem to get that. That’s why you see it flooded in comment streams. A recent example of negative comments about EB tiers was Cthulhu Wars, where interestingly, providing less of the lower priced EB tiers could have provided a substantial savings to others. This campaign had a silly amount of EB tiers, so much so, that even though the project scored over a $1.4 million, the EB pledge levels never filled up. As a result, there were just as many backers paying $110 for the base game as there were backers paying $140. So, for that campaign, realistically they could have offered the game to everyone at $125. However, even in the bulk of scenarios where a substantial discount could not be offered if EB pledges were removed, it relies on a backer’s intelligence to discern that fact. If a backer truly believes that they are paying a higher price for an item so as to allow for another backer to receive the item at a lower price, there is a good chance that it will leave a sour taste in their mouth. While they may still back the project, you will see the negativity in comments, which can be damaging to the campaign.

Early Bird pledges do have their advantages. But because they have the ability to turn-off potential backers, increase negativity in the comments section, and skew a project’s reality, I feel they should be avoided.

Rebuttal from Julia

I really agree with the “Con” side’s point number one… I have felt grumpy about this myself sometimes, but I actually consider this a service. If I am irritated enough about $5 or $10 to consider not backing a game or other project, do I REALLY want the project’s rewards, or am I just looking for a little hit of backer-happiness? Also, when I discover a great project that’s burned through all the early-bird rewards, I can look through the backer names and if I find folks I recognize from other projects, trust that this one is probably good — those people earned the discount by giving the project credibility and thereby recruiting me.

I spoke directly to point two in my comments; I think the wise project creator and backer aren’t misled at all by early-bird levels but can in fact gather very useful information about overall demand by how fast those first rewards are claimed.

As for the third one… this just doesn’t make any sense to me. As with airplane seats, chances are good that many people backing a project will get the same reward having paid different amounts… shipping costs vary, adding extra copies, early-bird or retailer discounts, and so on… if this bugs you, Kickstarter’s probably not a good fit for you because it’s not a pre-order system or a store (behavior of some companies (Queen) notwithstanding). And on the flip side, sometimes I’m HAPPY to OVERpledge for a reward because I have such a good feeling about the project, the creator, and the goals of the whole effort that I want to throw in a little extra… this feeling is why the “pay what you want” projects are often so successful, appealing to people’s sense of fairness and generosity. If a project has a problem with lots of people griping about this sort of thing, the project creator has let it wobble off the rails and should make an effort to bring their campaign on track with a surge of positive energy and updates that show ALL backers how awesome the rewards are, and why they are worth the full price and maybe even more.

My Take

Julia and Jason presented some great points here, taking a different approach than I did in my previous entry about early-bird reward levels.

I agree with Julia that being an early-bird backer somehow increases your loyalty to the project and those increases the chances you’ll promote it elsewhere. And it’s certainly a good way to get people in the door on day 1, especially for a new creator.

That said, I think you can do everything that early-bird rewards do in different (and better) ways. If you want to increase loyalty, do it by building trust, engaging backers in multiple formats, and offering something so amazing that they’ll want to share it with their friends. If you want to get people to pledge on day 1, offer a great price to all backers and create an exciting campaign that will make people want to jump on your Kickstarter train right away.

Here’s what I think it all really comes down to: early bird reviews are the easy way out. They might lead to a short-term bump, but if you really want to sustain your project’s success, it’s going to take a lot of work. Case in point: I recently met with two game designers who are preparing for a May launch for their game. They asked me, “How should we price our early-bird reward level?” The phrasing of that question indicates to me that new creators assume that early-bird reward levels are a necessity.

Those two game designers had spent the last 20 minutes talking to me about all of the playtesting they’ve done for their game at conventions, local game stores, and their large game group. They have a website and a Facebook page, and they’ve been engaging a growing number of fans for many months. They’ve engaged a ton of people well before their Kickstarter project.

So I told them the truth: They don’t need an early-bird reward level. All of those people are going to be there on day 1. They’ve put in all the legwork without even realizing the impact it would have on the first day of their project. And those people aren’t going to spread the word about the project because they got a $5 discount or priority shipping–no, they’re going to spread the word about the project because they believe in the game and the designers. Many of them are actively involved in the creation of the game, even if it’s just a random playtest at their FLGS. And I can tell from those designers that they’re going to continue to engage a lot more people all the way through the last day of their campaign and beyond.

Make something unique, make something beautiful, price it fairly, and engage tons of people along the way. That’s my alternative to early-bird reward levels.


What do you think?

Leave a Comment

24 Comments on “Kickstarter Face-Off #3: Early-Bird Reward Levels

  1. Hi all, interesting blog as always.
    Firstly, I think its interesting how many of the Pro side arguments state something like “wise backers won’t be put off” or “their annoyance is childish” or “true fans won’t be put off” as if creators don’t want money from backers who are childish, or not true fans. If I launch a project I want the true fans, sure, but I want casual people who aren’t really paying attention too. Heck, if I launch some lightweight party game I might only want casual people who aren’t paying much attention.
    Also, Kickstarter is largely about gaining information on demand that exists for a new project, around half of all projects fail, good well planned well researched projects do fail so the idea that only badly researched or planned projects have EB levels left after day one is not really. Personally, EB levels being left after day one is a major warning sign for me and really likely to stop me backing. So we’re all familiar with the day one boost it can give, but how many projects has it ended up being a millstone around the neck of that dragged them down? Worse, how many projects have had people grab those EB rewards then, through no fault of their own have them cancel part way through. Because if something is five days in and has more than one or two EB levels left, I’m backing off.
    Lastly, while its true that on a plane different people will pay different prices on a plane lots of people book through different providers and, importantly, everyone doesn’t wear their ticket price on a badge. On KS one person picks the price for all backers, and all backers know what all other backers paid. Yes some people pay more or less for shipping, which everyone at least understands can be out of the creators hands, but still creates a ton of bad feeling. In the end, if a Creator chooses to give an EB what they’re giving Average Backers for less money those Average Backers will not feel well inclined towards them, and while the Creator might get their money back from the EBs promoting them more, but I can promise you the Average Backers will be less inclined to give an extra penny in promotion, and there are more of them.

  2. Oh yes, I was just referring to #2 on Julia’s list of reasons why early bird incentives can be good – getting people involved early who may proceed to “fan the flames”.

    And it’s great to hear your experience and insight on the ‘incentivised social media sharing’ idea. I realize now how it could damper the mood of sharing for real reasons.

    Thanks for this trove of valuable insights -and games- you’ve got together here.

    1. Ah yes, I see. I think Julia makes a good point, but I think there are many other (better) ways to get backers involved early on and to make them excited to share and talk about the project. Namely, just have an awesome project for which you’ve built up excitement over several months.

      Thanks! Happy reading. :) My book goes into even more detail (and lots of examples) about this.

  3. Jamey, Julia, Jason, It seems consensual that the “activist cred” is really what we’re after, eh?
    I’m curious for your take on the idea of a reward tier that gives a little off the price to ANYONE who posts your KS link to one or more of their social mediums?
    I’m wondering about this for our imminent KS launch — just thought of it, though I doubt it is entirely original.. What do you think?
    Ex. reg ‘get a game’ tier = $39. Post a link/pic (send us a link to confirm) = $34

    1. Robert: I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “activist cred.” Could you elaborate?

      I’ve experimented with social media incentives like what you mentioned, but I’ve found that social media is a much more powerful tool when people share stuff because they love it, not because they’re getting a discount for doing so.

  4. Was having a big chat about EB on a FB group. Here’s my contribution to the discussion:

    1) Yes, if the discount is too big, I can totally see it skewing towards annoyance. Although…

    2) If the regular price is fair, and at some kind of discount vs MSRP or even what people will expect to pay, then that annoyance is childish.

    3) Which means that your actual purchase tier must clearly be a discount versus MSRP. If you plan to sell your item at MSRP on your KS, then I think EB makes no sense. At that point, a lot of folks will just wait for the item to come out in stores having seen that they missed the EB. Which means if you do try it, then you should have enough EB spots to reach your goal.

    4) Which brings up the point: if you run at a discount until you know you’re going to fund, and then have any other backers pay more, you aren’t necessarily losing, if you’ve done all your planning correctly.

    5) And, if you aren’t prepared to figure all of this out, then you probably shouldn’t do an EB, because as was stated in the article, it’s a form of marketing, it has a cost, and so it requires planning.

    6) Finally, in my experience, true fans don’t make arbitrary choices. People who back off because of something like an EB aren’t true fans who want to support your project, and those sorts of people tend also to be more likely to return something or need customer support. Which is fine if they pay retail, so let them!

  5. […] Early Bird: I wish I could give you a definitive answer on early bird reward levels, but there isn’t a right answer. They can be a great way to jumpstart a project, and if you price them correctly in comparison to your product’s anchor price, no one is going to complain (I literally received 0 complaints for having a $4 early bird discount). However, if you’re worried about turning off backers who arrive to your project after the early bird level is filled up, don’t do it. Use the following strategy instead. [Update from future Jamey: I'm now much more against early-bird rewards than I used to be. See the debate here.] […]

  6. Hey Jamey,

    Absolutely loving the amount of info I have been able to absorb from your blog.
    Been reading for about two weeks now, and have to give you my thanks. I will definitely be delaying my plans for a kickstarter campaign until I am properly prepared.

      1. I’m very excited to get my hands on it! After going over the KS page for it, I would have been a supporter had I know about it at the time. It should fit in beautifully with my board game collection.

  7. I tend to agree with Jason here. While I don’t hate EB levels, I have actually been turned off a project by missing out on one. If we are talking about a couple of dollars, I don’t really care about that. But in the case where we are talking a substantial savings, that just seems unfair to miss out because I didn’t happy to be at my computer at the time. Case in point, I wanted to back Cthulhu Wars, but missed out on many of the early bird levels. By the time I found the project, I would have had to play an extra $30 for the game, just because I was late. Forget that, I’ll just get it online later for cheaper anyway.

    Too add a bit more from a marketing perspective. As soon as you set an EB pledge level, you’ve set the market price for your game. People who miss out on it won’t see that they missed a $20 discount, they’ll see that they are paying $20 more than they should be. Why would you risk turning away potential backers by making them feel overcharged in the hopes of luring a few early backers. As Jamey said, if you’ve done your proper leg work then they are unnecessary.

    My thoughts, if you have to have an EB level, make it a minor one. If people miss out on a $3 discount they probably aren’t going to care as much as missing out on a $30 one.

    1. Agreeing with Tony, except that I HATE EB’s. :D They’re not going to affect my decision for something I want, but for something that I’m “on the fence”, it’s an easy excuse to not buy the product, or just click on the “48 hours” notification to see what I’m getting because I’m paying more money.

  8. I’m not ‘against’ early-bird tiers per-say, but they certainly reduce my feeling of attachment to a project, and do little but make me feel bitter if I didn’t get one.

    The thing is, no matter how much you might argue that they have the potential to give an early boost and get earlier backers for faster funding, they are straight-up terrible in a customer-creator sense. When you have an early bird tier, you are saying to everyone that looks at your project that you value some people more than others, and I think that is pretty damn awful when you’re vying for peoples money.

    I could say more, but other comments have covered everything I have to say I think. Just one message to creators..don’t make them more than 10% of the normal pledge level, your backers don’t deserve a bigger slap than that.

  9. Another topic that has not been said against EB is the fact that it clutters the pledge levels. If I am interested in a game and I see two pledge levels (say, “Game” and “Game + International shipping”) it is very easy to know where and how should I pledge.

    If I see a huge list of pledges including “Early bird”, “Not so early bird”, “early bird and choose the name of a card”, “not early bird but game nonetheless”, “early bird with special red ribbon”, etc I will be discouraged from reading all pledge levels carefully. This will end up with me not backing the game at all.

    This can be easily “fixed” if KS would adapt the list of pledges as a function of your regular shipping address, or remove a pledge level if there are no slots available, etc…but for now it is not an option.

  10. I think that if the normal pledge level is priced fairly, then people aren’t going to complain much about the early birds (if there are any), especially if the difference is small (like $5 or less). When it starts getting big, and/or if there are multiple levels, then it kind of starts getting ridiculous. If you really need an early bird, I would make it first 24 hours (or something) and make the difference small (like $5). Otherwise, I’m more likely to grumble. Still, I know it does build good momentum.

    But with EBs you really don’t know where you stand until they run out. I’ve seen a few stagnate once the EBs were gone, which is really a sign that it’s not worth it at the price point given. I almost think it’s better to fail at that point and relaunch after doing more leg work to bring the price down to something more reasonable. Almost.

  11. I’m on vacatIon so I am on my Kindle, please excuse my typos.
    Jason, I agree with a lot of what you said and think creators can make financial arguments either way. I can actually see both sides and it’s not a deal breaker for me when deciding whether or not to back a project; bad spelling or poor grammar can send me away, though!
    Jamey, for Euphoria, I meant that I snagged one of the 48 recruit card rewards, which were taken almost immediately, making them SEEM like an early bird even if that wasn’t what they were called. :-)

  12. In my personal experience, early-bird levels reduce my loyalty to a campaign. If I see an early-bird tier on something I might be interested in, I’ll snap it up, with the explicit intent to drop my pledge later if I decide I am not interested in the project. On the other hand, normally if I back a project I have decided to invest my money and energy into the campaign.

  13. Thanks Julia… a worthy foe! :) Honestly, I do think that early bird pledges give a huge initial boost to a project and it’s hard to argue against that alone being worth it. Quick exposure is great. Interestingly, though, I believe my biggest gripe with Early Bird pledges is in point #2. Because there is such an initial momentum that can quickly taper off, it’s almost impossible to gauge how successful a project will be. I have yet to be on the creator side, but I have to assume that would be very frustrating for trying to figure out demand and how to move forward. Sure, a product sells great at $30, but how will it do when that price jumps $10? I do agree, though,my point #3 was the shakiest. I’ve seen negative comments… but they are probably not quite as disastrous as what I stated in my argument.

  14. The “Early Bird discount makes the game more expensive for others” argument is one that I’ve never agreed with. I look at it as a form of advertising. The company sets their price, then decides how much money they’re willing to put into creating (the illusion of) momentum for their campaign, then work out a discount and come up with how many people that will serve as early bird backers. It’s looked at as an expense by anyone that is even halfway competent in business and has no bearing in pricing.

    I was part of the discussion in Cthulhu Wars and I never once got the impression that it would have sold for less for everyone if they didn’t have those tiers. In fact, now that I’ve had months to look at it and think about it, I still don’t believe it’s true. I think they came up with their pricing, then figured out how much they were willing to discount in order to get people talking about it. I think in Green Eyed Games case they didn’t really think that those Early Bird levels would fill up. They ended up creating pledge tiers that were ultimately LESS expensive than even the Early Bird levels once they were secure in the knowledge that they weren’t going to cut their own throats with going crazy with stretch goals.

    1. I agree. The EB tiers on that kickstarter were a gimmick to bring in backers (there is no way they thought all those EB tiers would fill up)… and it worked great! It was a solid campaign. But, if you have 150 backers at $110 and 150 backers at $140, then one could reason that the game could have been sold at $125 to all backers. Or, at least, I think. Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing though.

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