Andrew Thaler

CEO at Blackbeard Biologic

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Setting Up Your Crowdfunding Campaign

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Image: Crowd of people in Times Square on V-J Day / World-Telegram photo by Dick DeMarsico

So you’ve decided to crowdfund your next great research project. You’ve thought critically about why crowdfunding is the most effective route for this particular scientific question. You’ve looked into — and ruled out — other funding models. It’s time to head over to Kickstarter (or Indiegogo or Experiment) and get started!

Stop.

There’s a common misconception that crowdfunding projects begin when you launch your campaign on any of a few dozen platforms. Certainly, from the outside, it looks like these projects just appear out of nowhere, but the most effective ones are the result of significant planning. Once you’ve decided to start a crowdfunding campaign, expect to spend at least a month or two of preparation and community building before it officially begins. In the second of a three part series on crowdfunding science, we’re talking about everything you should consider on the lead-up to launch day.

Don’t launch on a whim. The single most important day of your campaign is launch day. Press coverage, social-media impact, and a surge of donors on that first day will build the momentum that can propel your project past its goal. Missing out on the first day surge will leave you with a huge uphill struggle to get noticed and attract funders. Consider: When OpenROV Trident launched, it hit its $50,000 funding goal in six minutes. That didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the result of months of groundwork and mobilization. By launch day, core supporters were already primed to pounce on the project.

Find your core community. Crowdfunding is a powerful tool for building a community, but in order to do that, you need to identify your core audience. If you’re designing a new tool or piece of software, your core audience might be other researchers. If you’re launching a program to tag and track leatherback turtles, your core community may be turtle lovers (a dedicated and very active collection of stakeholders). If you’re funding microbial studies, you may need to find a way to connect with members of the public interested in the medical implications of your research.

The important thing is that you have that core group ready to contribute to the project on launch day — and, equally important, to spread the word.

Pick the best platform for your campaign. There’s a ton of crowdfunding options out there, from the broad, general platforms like Kickstarter to specific ones that focus exclusively on science, like Experiment. While the idea of a science-tailored platform might seem tempting, I’m going to break with the general consensus — and possibly annoy my colleagues who run programs like the #SciFund Challenge — by arguing that, 98 percent of the time, Kickstarter is the right platform to use. It has one of the largest audiences, raises the most money, and has the best brand recognition. That means more people recognize and trust Kickstarter and are more willing to make a contribution there than they would be with a platform they’ve never heard of.

There are really only two reasons why you wouldn’t want to go through Kickstarter. First, if your project or rewards don’t meet the Kickstarter terms of service, you may have to look at other platforms. Experiment has a reward structure that is much easier for researchers to work with. Second, if you’re looking for continuous funding rather than a one-time influx, Patreon is designed for subscription-style crowdfunding.

Make sure the rewards you offer for contributions won’t become a full-time job. A lot of science crowdfunding campaigns get bogged down in the rewards, with dozens of tiers that are indistinct and overlapping. While something like “a postcard from our fieldwork site” may not seem like much at launch, consider what happens to your precious time in the field when you have to address and mail 2,000 postcards in addition to your research. Generally, when people fund science projects, they’re less interested in the rewards than in feeling that they contributed. Thank-you notes or acknowledgments in publications are much more meaningful.

Consider this: When graduate student David Shiffman raised more than $8,000 to finance his shark-feeding ecology study, the $400 reward was a trip on a shark-tagging boat. Of those who contributed at that level, a third never claimed the reward.

As a general rule, a good reward structure should include no more than six tiers:

  • The first tier should be a very low-value “show your support” option for donations between $1 and $3.
  • Next should be a $10-to-$15 option that includes a thank you and acknowledgement wherever that is appropriate (this should also be included in the reward at higher tiers).
  • Now things get more specific. The next series of tiers should offer rewards unique to the project. You will have to decide what that means. For one campaign we sent 3D-printed shark teeth to midlevel donors (3D printed objects are handy as rewards, because they’re unique, customizable, and cheap to make — if you have the skills). You want rewards in the $20-to$50 range, the $50-to-$100 range, and one big ticket reward for donations between $150 and $200.
  • Finally, if you’re really optimistic, you can include a four-digit tier that includes some unique reward (like a lab tour).

The main philosophy for setting up reward tiers is to make it as easy as possible for your contributors to give at whatever price point they feel comfortable, without overwhelming them with options. A confusing rewards system is where you’ll lose donors who are otherwise excited about your project.

Make a budget. Once you’ve decided how the project will look, including rewards, it’s time to put a budget together. That should include the minimum cost to actually do the research. Don’t underestimate it — or intentionally lowball — in order to attract funders. That approach can easily backfire and leave you with commitments to complete the research and not nearly enough money to actually do it. In the same vein, while it’s tempting to use a funding model that pays out whether or not you hit your goal, don’t do it. That’s a recipe for failure.

The budget should also include the fees that the crowdfunding site will draw and any taxes you’ll have to pay. Many successfully funded projects have failed because the leaders didn’t account for fees and taxes and found themselves with 40 percent less than they thought they were getting. Finally, budget for the cost of fulfilling the rewards, including your time.

You should now be almost ready to launch a crowdfunding campaign, but there’s still a few more things to do before launch day. In the next column, I will discuss the days leading up to launch and how to manage the campaign once it’s running.

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