6 October 2013
Perhaps even more controversial on Kickstarter than exclusive content are early bird pledge levels. As you can see on the example from Viticulture on the right, an early-bird reward is a limited pledge level that is strictly better (usually in terms of price) than a comparable level.
Forward momentum is incredibly important when you’re running a Kickstarter campaign, particularly on the first few days. However, I think many project creators (myself included) assume that early bird pledge levels are the best way to get the project off the ground at the beginning.
Now, I’ll agree that early-bird rewards are compelling, especially for first-time creators. Most likely you don’t have much of an established audience, so any attention you do get the first few days can be translated into pledges if you have an urgent reason for them to back now instead of later.
So let’s just be clear about that: The sole purpose of early-bird pledge levels is to give potential backers a reason to pledge now instead of later on the first few days of a creator’s first Kickstarter project.
Given that goal, before I get into the nitty-gritty of early-bird pledge levels, here are 4 ways that are strictly better–and less offputting–than early bird rewards:
- Other limited reward levels: Give backers a chance to be a part of your product. Early bird reward levels don’t increase engagement, involvement, or loyalty, but other limited reward levels do. If you price them correctly, they’re more compelling than early-bird levels (see here for more info).
- Great product on a great project page: You know what’s more compelling than a gimmick like an early bird level at getting backer support? Create a great product and display it on a great project page. If you make something that people get excited about from day one, they’re not going to hit the “remind me” button. They’re going to back it right away so they won’t miss out on something amazing.
- Offer a fair price: It’s not complicated. Offer a fair price for your product and you eliminate the need for hijacking backers at an early bird price.
- Friends and family: For a first-time project creator, friends and family can be an incredible asset over the first few days. Spend the first 2 days of your project writing individual emails to everyone you know. You can read more about my philosophy on how to do this on this Kickstarter Lesson.
Just in case you can’t tell, I do not support the use of early-bird pledge levels for non-first-timer project creators. If you have an established audience, there is no reason that you need a gimmick like that to draw in backers (unless you wronged your previous backers somehow, in which case you have a bigger problem to address). Instead, use methods 1 -3 above to compel your previous backers to support your new project early on.
The Downsides of Early Bird Levels
There are a few very specific downsides to early bird pledge levels. I experienced all of them firsthand through Viticulture, and those I chose not to repeat them with Euphoria (with Euphoria, I calculated what my early bird price would have been and just made that the unlimited base reward level for everyone).
- You create winners and losers: On your Kickstarter project, you want everyone to feel like a winner. You do that by making something awesome, offering reasonably priced pledge levels, and running an engaging campaign. You don’t want any backers to feel like they “lost.” But that’s exactly what early bird pledge levels do. 100 people might “win” the better price, but you’ve created a situation where everyone else feels like they lost. It might just be a little twinge–“aw shucks, I wish I had known about the project on the first day”–but you don’t want any backer to feel that way. Some backers are so turned off even just by the idea that you have an early bird level that they won’t back your project (that’s a bit extreme, but it’s more common than you might expect).
- You create confusion later in the project: Say you have a $25 early bird level for your gourmet marshmallow project, with a standard reward level price of $30. Two weeks into the project you add a pledge level based on backer feedback for $35 that upgrades the standard marshmallows to chocolate-dipped marshmallows…but you know that you can only make 100 of those marshmallows based on the production process. It’s easy to add a new reward level limited to 100 people, and just as easy for your standard level backers to upgrade to that level. But what about the early bird backers? They’re the ones who were there from the beginning–they formed the foundation of your project. Now you’re telling them that the only way they can get the special chocolate-dipped marshmallows is to spend what everyone else has to spend? You can’t just let them add on $5 because of your production limitations. So now even the early-bird backers feel like they lost. There is a very good chance that you will add pledge levels during the project–this example provides just a tiny taste of the conundrums you will create by starting out with an early-bird pledge level.
- Cancellations are quite visible: I’ve talked about cancellations before (see here). Even the best project in the world will have cancellations. Imagine how people’s impressions of your project would change over time if all backers got an e-mail notification every time someone cancelled. Not good, right? Well, in a way that’s what early bird cancellations do. It’s incredibly visible when some cancels from an early bird level, and it doesn’t inspire confidence in your existing backers. It’s also not good for new backers. Have you ever stumbled upon a project on Day 20 and seen a few unfilled early bird slots? It suddenly makes you wonder if there’s something wrong with the project that you overlooked the first time.
- You dilute your brand when you open up more early bird pledge levels: I’ll admit it–recently I grabbed the last early bird reward level for a Kickstarter project, and it felt good. Yay me for saving $8. I felt like one of the “winners” I described in #1. Then, two days later, I got an update from the project creator saying that due to the “unexpected success” of the early bird level, he was going to add a new early bird level, splitting the difference between the original level and the standard level. I’ve even seen project creators do this at the exact same price. A little part of my Kickstarter soul dies every time a project creator does this. Instead of manipulating backers in this way, just offer all backers a fair and reasonable price from the start.
Okay, you’ve heard my perspective on all the reasons why you shouldn’t do an early-bird pledge level. However, if you still feel the need to do so and you’re a first-time creator, here are a few methods to consider:
- single early bird: This is the standard version of the early-bird pledge level. Set the limit at a certain number of backers, and when all slots are filled, new backers get the same thing at a slightly higher price. This might apply to more than one pledge level–several of your unlimited rewards might be paired with early bird specials. Just make sure that the difference in price between the early bird and the standard levels is minimal–no more than $5.
- tiered early bird: Offer multiple early bird tiers all in a row. For example, if your standard unlimited price is $50, you might have an early bird for 50 backers at $35, 100 backers at $40, and 150 backers at $45. The big problem with this level is that you often end up with a huge price difference between the lowest early bird and the standard price, which is offputting for many people.
- timed early bird: Rather than base an early bird level on a certain number of backers, base it on a certain amount of time. You can close reward levels at any time, so you might tell backers that the early bird level is open for the first 48 hours of the project.
- early bird until you fund: Alert reader Robin L. spotted this method on the Snowdonia project (I reached out to Travis at Indie Boards and Cards to see how he thought it worked for him, but I haven’t heard back). You can see how it worked on the image to the right. The early bird level was open until the project funded, and then Travis closed it and opened a slightly higher level.
What do you think? Please share your perspective on early-bird pledge levels on the poll below and in the comments.