August 15, 2014
One of the most, if not the most important factor in crowdfunding is to know your audience and where to find them. But many people who have crowdfunded will tell you that a good chunk of your money will come from friends and family, the people who watch and support your work no matter what, especially if it’s your first campaign. As someone who had successfully crowdfunded twice before, relying mainly on friends and family, I knew that heavily targeting my audience was going to be the only way I wouldn’t have to lean on them again for my third campaign.
When Kelsey Rauber and I decided not to continue our web series “Kelsey” and crowdfund for two new short films instead (CongestedCat Shorts), we knew we had a bit of a challenge on our hands. The audience we had accumulated was not necessarily the target audience for these shorts. The shorts are companion pieces about siblings dealing with loss and letting go— one about two brothers, the other two sisters. Going from “Kelsey,” a10 episode comedic web series about the romantic life of a lesbian and her best friends, to two intimate dramas about siblings (one of which featured two heterosexual brothers) was a bit of a stretch. We knew it would be a tough sell to our “Kelsey” fan base, which was quite vocal about just wanting more of our web series.
But Kelsey and I were not creatively satisfied just giving them more of the same. We plan to collaborate on a feature in about two years, so in the meantime we wanted to flex our creative muscles on a smaller scale with a genre and style of storytelling we had not yet explored.
We also wanted to see how many fans of something we had already done we could get to follow us to our next creative endeavor. So we set out to make $20,000 for these two shorts, in spite of this challenge.
Our first plan of action was to release a video for the fans of the series explaining that the campaign was coming and why they should be part of it. We then reached out to the press we got for the series with the same video. Despite receiving generally positive responses from them, I suppose here is where we should have seen a flaw in our plan: the press sites did not share our fan video the way they had shared our episodes. At least two-thirds of our fans that were watching exclusively on those sites were not aware of our coming campaign. However, we did reach some of our fans— we estimated around 1,000 of the series fans had seen the video through our social media and were anticipating the campaign. For this reason, we tailored our campaign to fans that already knew our series and us (though we of course made sure our pitch would grab newcomers as well).
I’m not going to go through every step of our campaign, don’t worry, but I will say that we had prepared the usual stuff that you should have prepared before your campaign: email lists, phone numbers, press releases, etc. We set weekly milestone goals and had contingency plans should some of our marketing ideas not work. Little did we know that we’d lose our Plan A almost right out of the gate.
I wrote about this in a recent update to our Seed&Spark supporters and followers, but the basic idea is this: Kelsey and I were denied coverage on all the sites where we had gotten the majority of our 250,000+ “Kelsey” episode hits because our shorts were “not gay enough.” It was a disappointing thing to hear from sites that had spent months raving about our work, but we had to let it go and figure out how we would make this campaign successful without the press we were anticipating. Accepting this reality, we changed the language of our logline and focused a little more on us as a creative team worth supporting outside of the context of our series. We used “Kelsey” as a tool to pull in new supporters of us as collaborators, rather than targeting existing series fans. We still reached out to the 1,000 series fans we had access to via Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, but were surprised and ultimately disappointed to find that despite getting encouraging replies from many, only 4 actual fans (no relation to me or Kelsey prior to watching the series) contributed money. This halted our plans to release enticing “Kelsey” content, such as excerpts from our originally intended series finale script or a contest in the last week that involved Kelsey’s love interest on the series and one of the sisters of CongestedCat Shorts, Lauren A Kennedy. We switched over to highlighting our mission statement as a company and team overall, and did more grassroots outreach, like attending the NYC Pride Parade and convincing our location owner to loan our location in exchange for the credit and prestige of being a producer (he’s also just a really generous guy).
So if our supporters were not pre-existing fans of our series, who were they?
With, Summit, my feature film that I crowdfunded for $12,000 on Kickstarter two years ago, I relied quite heavily on the genre. It’s a horror film, and when horror fans hear horror, they’re in. That’s all it takes. They’re like, “Sign me up, I want to see this get made because I want to watch it.” Don’t get me wrong, that campaign was incredibly hard to make successful and is still one of the most stressful but rewarding experiences of my life (only really beaten by the experience of actually making the film). But it was easy targeting the film’s audience, getting press on the many horror blogs and sites, and just generally attracting strangers to the campaign. The CongestedCat Shorts campaign required a little more finesse in getting people’s attention and standing out from the crowd of character-driven dramas that make up indie film. We managed to reach some historical indie film supporters via twitter to the tune of $10-$50, but only a handful.
With this Summit experience and having crowdfunded once more before my CongestedCat Shorts campaign, I knew damn well that you must reach out to everyone who is currently or has ever been in your life. As I stated earlier though, I wanted to avoid reaching out again to many of them precisely because I had done it before. But, when I got over the series fans not contributing (and my bruised ego), I set out, personally reaching out and messaging people. And that’s where the campaign really hit its stride, sparking an epiphany.
I haven’t talked about Kelsey Rauber’s involvement too much because I’m trying to focus on my experience crowdfunding again, but having Kelsey as a partner as committed and passionate as I was, and who had an untapped network— having never crowdfunded before— heavily benefited the CongestedCat campaign. Over a fourth of the money we raised came from her family and friends. That said, an overwhelming amount came from past Summit supporters, most of whom were not related to me in any way. This was the biggest surprise.
During the Summit campaign, about one-fourth of our backers were total strangers. Some were frequent crowdfunding supporters from Twitter or Kickstarter and some were genre fans. What I remembered finding interesting about these people was that almost all of them went on to follow my progress with the series (“Kelsey”). They were taking an interest in my other work, not just Summit. Because of this observation, I made the incorrect assumption that people who were following “Kelsey” would also follow my future work. This was the case for a few, sure, but as our 4 out of 1,000 experience shows, it wasn’t true for most.
When I finally gave in and started sending messages about CongestedCat Shorts to people who had backed Summit, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many were happy to give again; it’s very telling that the majority of people who funded this last campaign were the same as those who funded the first. And most gave even more! Those who gave $10-$25 to Summit were giving $50-$100 to CongestedCat Shorts. I didn’t understand it. They were people who supported Summit because they liked my pitch for that film or were intrigued by my spin on the genre. Why were they immediately onboard for these shorts, and why were their contributions bigger? They hadn’t even received Summit yet. It’s still in post; and while I have been blogging about every step of post-production with visual content included, I have not yet delivered on the product they initially funded. This is part of why I was hesitant to reach out to them specifically, friends and family included. However, I learned that they were exactly who I should have been reaching out to in the first place. They had been watching my progress with that film very closely for two years, and it was clear to them that the product is going to be finished and that my team and I had been working hard to complete it to get it out in the world. That was enough to assure them that I’d deliver not just on that promise, but on this new one as well. The general consensus I got from many was that it didn’t really matter what I was making. They were supporting me and my work because they had enjoyed watching my progress since crowdfunding Summit, or even since my short three years ago, and wanted to continue being part of my progress and success. This was overwhelmingly humbling and encouraging, and definitely not something I expected.
The biggest surprise that came from a Summit supporter was a guy who had given $250 to that campaign without any relation to me or anyone I knew. He didn’t even leave an email address on Kickstarter, but I knew he had been receiving and reading my updates on the film. During crowdfunding for CongestedCat Shorts, I tracked him down on Facebook, sent him a personalized message not expecting much, and was shocked that he proceeded to give $1,000 toward Crew & Cast payments without blinking an eye.
What I realized, when comparing the couple hundred Summit supporters to the thousand “Kelsey” fans we reached, is this: when you engage and build a following before you make the content, that audience is connected to you as a creator, as opposed to the content itself. We had a huge amount of success with “Kelsey,” and although we made efforts to build a following while we were in production, almost all our viewers connected with the series after we had already released the pilot and received critical acclaim. We knew that the majority was watching exclusively on Lesbian-oriented sites that had embedded the episodes. Therefore, most of those fans were not engaging with us, our brand, or our social media presence. The realization I had during this campaign was that our audience was connected with the series itself; so when it finished, they were finished with us because they never felt connected to us as a creative team. I believe this is what makes crowdfunding so much more important than just securing funding. The people who become part of making your project are the people who will follow you to your next one. I intuitively felt this before but had not had the opportunity to really witness what it meant, nor had I experienced the stark difference between a following gained in pre-production versus one gained post-release until this campaign. We self-funded “Kelsey” and did not have an avenue to build a following around the series early on. This early following is an inherent aspect of crowdfunding, as is that following’s attachment to the creative team rather than just the end product.
I don’t mean to discredit the idea that your existing work benefits your ability to raise future funding; I’d be lying if I said our success with “Kelsey” didn’t play a role in our successful campaign. Our two biggest surprises of this campaign were largely due to “Kelsey.” One was when one of those 4 contributing “Kelsey” fans, arguably our biggest fan, gave over $1,500 and became an Associate Producer. The other was when a total stranger came along in our final two hours and decided to give us $5,000 (taking us to 120% of our goal) because our pitch and past content (“Kelsey”) won him over, probably making the Executive Producer credit more enticing as well. That one still blows my mind. They both do. To have someone enjoy our content so much and feel dedicated to us as a creative team enough to fund our new work is just the best feeling an artist could hope for.
However, I think that this conclusion is valid and, moreover, an argument for crowdfunding to be a sustainable aspect of indie film. If not clearly valuable for the creative strings-free funding, it should be prized simply for its audience building potential. This is why I’m very happy I made the switch from Kickstarter to Seed&Spark. Despite success on that platform, I felt like something was missing. On Kickstarter for Summit, I had 207 Backers and 1,253 people had “Liked” the campaign page. But those likes did nothing for me because “Likers” are not Followers on that platform. They may have taken an interest in the campaign but after they liked it, it disappeared from their lives. They’re not receiving updates from the project, nor am I, as the campaign owner, able to see their names. Seeing that number and not being able to reach them in any way was worse than not knowing how many people had gone to our campaign page and taken an interest at all. On CongestedCat Shorts, however, we have 141 Supporters & 174 Followers, with the latter number increasing everyday since our campaign ended. While the quantity of people that took an interest is not comparable, the quality blows Kickstarter out of the water —those Followers are actually receiving my updates and are becoming part of the making of the film(s), even if they didn’t make a monetary contribution. It’s wonderful being on a platform that emphasizes community building in the crowdfunding process and enhances this ability to engage an audience early on, allowing them to follow you to your new work. I’m now really looking forward to this opportunity to bring old and new followers along to my next big project and beyond.