Our niche feminist website made history last weekend.
We raised $20,000 in just 39 hours for pretty unexciting infrastructure reasons, without even a sneak peek of our perks, at the most expensive time of year – in our first ever crowdfunding campaign.
AniFem’s first ever campaign. Not mine.
In my last job, I cut my teeth on equity crowdfunding, a tightly regulated industry with professional campaign quality standards.
Many of your potential backers there are professional investors supplementing their personal portfolios with campaigns they find interesting. Standards are high, and the stakes are even higher – putting a foot wrong in your copywriting could see your company smacked down by a hefty fine from regulators.
However, as I demonstrated through this campaign, the fundamentals remain the same.
Crowdfunding has a playbook. When I applied lessons from the equity world to a rewards platform, the results were as successful as I would expect.
So now I want to publicise that playbook so other independent creators can be confident in their own success too.
I believe strongly in sharing knowledge – especially commercial knowledge in a largely creative sphere. Independent creators often struggle to raise money for their work, not helped at all by the stigma that creative projects are a passion that “shouldn’t need money”.
I hope our story helps challenge that stigma, and that this post gives you some more tools to smash it yourself.
1. Wait until you have a purpose for crowdfunding that you can’t fund any other way, and strong enough community support to justify it
AniFem has needed money since day one, and we’ve had people willing to pay us one-off lump sums through our entire existence, but crowdfunding never made sense until now.
We need recurring income on a monthly basis. I resisted offering any way to support us through one-off payments for a long time out of fear it would cannibalise our Patreon, the far more important source of income.
We only slogged our way to breakeven on Patreon earlier this year. To crowdfund a lump sum before that would have felt counter-productive.
After we hit that point, we needed to consider what we should use crowdfunding to achieve. For what purpose could we raise a large sum for that could a) be an investment that would improve everything, and b) garner the necessary support from our community?
Our accessibility-focused goals were perfect: expensive, aligned with our values, and an obvious blocker to our future success.
2. Select the platform that’s best for your specific circumstances
Kickstarter is the obvious choice for rewards-based crowdfunding. It has name recognition, a beautiful layout, high PR value.
What it doesn’t have is a) a way to assess people’s interest in your campaign before you launch, or b) to keep the money you make even if you don’t meet your goal.
The pre-launch period of a campaign is essential. I cannot overstate this. If you don’t launch feeling confident that you can raise 30% of your goal on day one, delay your launch and keep promoting (or change your goal) until you do.
Crowdfunding conventional wisdom (which is informed by data from crowdfunding platforms) is that campaigns that don’t hit this target are likely to struggle more to meet 100% of their goal. People prefer to pay for things that already look like they’ll be successful, and 30% is the tipping point where it feels to the average potential backer that a campaign has the momentum to succeed.
Knowing this, and knowing how challenging the circumstances of our campaign were, our campaign felt like it could go either way. Our community is engaged, but many already pay us monthly and December is expensive. I needed a data-driven way to measure how likely we were to hit that target on day one.
The way Indiegogo’s pre-launch page offered was the number of email addresses we gained through sign-ups. And it proved invaluable.
With tiers planned for $1-100, I assumed a $50 average contribution. With this estimate, we’d need 398 backers to reach our goal. (In the end, it was 393 – not far off!) As such, we needed 120 backers to meet our 30% day one target. I aimed for 200.
I updated the team every day with how much “pretend money” we’d “made” through sign-ups, which by the time we launched was $8,850 from 177 email addresses. It was reassuring to see our number of sign-ups increase, and for our campaign to move up the trending rankings in the “launching soon” category on Indiegogo.
This is impossible on Kickstarter, which only offers a “campaign preview”. With no way to measure our pre-launching campaigning success, launch day would have been significantly more stressful.
Kickstarter also doesn’t offer a “flexible funding” option like Indiegogo does. Either you make your goal or you don’t, and falling $1 short means you take nothing home. Given we could accomplish a great deal far below our total goal, this was an unacceptable outcome for us.
This isn’t to say Kickstarter is a bad platform or that Indiegogo has no downsides. The flexible funding option of Indiegogo makes it a platform full of failed campaigns, a terrible first impression. The overall quality of campaigns on Kickstarter (which reviews and rejects campaigns that don’t meet their standards – don’t forget to build review time into your launch schedule!) is significantly higher, and its brand recognition alone gives campaigns on the platform more credibility.
There is no blanket answer. You need to take the time to analyse multiple platforms and decide the right choice for you in your specific circumstances.
Bonus tip: Once you’ve made your choice, look at high-performing campaigns and the platform’s own knowledge base to understand everything the platform offers. Indiegogo contains features like referral schemes and secret perks, which could be useful for breaking out of a plateau or encouraging a final surge of attention before the campaign closes.
3. Identify the reasons people would pay you, and craft content that reinforces them
My first pre-launch editorial shows you the reasons I identified for why people might give us money:
- Belief in our vision and desire to see it become a reality
- Support for our feminist values: paying fairly, becoming accessible, being transparent
- Rejection of an alternative future for Anime Feminist, where our potential goes unfulfilled and we never offer our community more than we have so far
I knew “Desire to own AniFem merchandise” would also become a buying motivation once we announced we would be offering this, and made use of this later on. However, in the earliest stages I wanted to appeal to people’s intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic, focusing on the wish to achieve something positive rather than the physical rewards that might bring.
Once identified, I structured all our messaging and considerable content around these points, from our pre-launch video to our crowdfunding editorials, campaign copy, and social media, following the Marketing 101 rule to focus on benefits (what it does for you) rather than features (what it is).
During the research stage I saw a number of campaigns listing what the money would pay for, without explaining what would be in it for the customer. That’s an easy mistake to fall into – and to fix, if you’ve put the time into figuring out why someone is likely to give you money in the first place.
Another Marketing 101 rule to follow: stick to a single, consistent call to action. In other words, at the close of each piece of messaging you send out, keep asking your potential backers to do one very simple thing and nothing else.
During the pre-launch period I only wanted people to visit our campaign page and give us our email addresses (even though there were times it was tempting to also ask people to become a patron, or follow us on social media for updates). I used “Register your support now”.
Since launch I have used largely “Contribute now” – in part because it takes fewer letters in tweets. The “now” instead of, say, “here”, just adds an urgency which may persuade people to click. Feels pushy, but I don’t want to risk losing out on money because I was worried about coming on too strong with a single word!
On that note though, use language for your call to action that makes sense for your campaign.
I used words like “support” and “contribute” because that fit best with our community-targeting, values-led campaign. Indiegogo itself uses “Back it”. I tried to use Indiegogo’s vocabulary where possible (e.g. “perks” instead of my preferred “rewards”) so that people would have a consistent experience and a smooth journey from reading our editorials to becoming a backer, but “Back it” felt better suited to young businesses creating new products. I used it only when referencing the button on Indiegogo’s page, and stuck to the more AniFem-appropriate terms everywhere else.
4. Create compelling perks and stretch goals, and promote both persuasively
It was an easy decision to make our perks AniFem branded goods, available for the first time ever and exclusive to backers of this campaign.
However, I knew we wouldn’t have photos, or even sketches to share, so it was vital that the merchandise itself not be too much of a selling point. We needed people to feel pleased they gave us money even if they weren’t keen on the shade of green on the T-shirt they ended up with.
As a result, I marketed it by tying it into the buying motivations I identified first of all: we would be paying an independent creator a fair rate for their design work, and this would be a test run for the online shop we want to build in 2019.
There are also certain objective psychological ‘principles of persuasion’ – one of which is scarcity. Announcing the designs would be exclusive to AniFem and limited edition for this campaign only made them an inevitably rare item, even more so when I said that we may never do this again (which was true, in the bleak scenario where our raise was a dismal failure and we spent the next year or two paying for our website overhaul and podcast transcripts).
Using the principles of persuasion to decide on and promote perks you know your community will love is a winning combination.
It’s also a good combination for stretch goals. Stretch goals accomplish a few things:
- It makes it clear you’ve thought past your goal, which increases your credibility
- It makes your raise sound smaller and more achievable – $19,900 sounds downright manageable compared to $25,000
- If selected and promoted well, it gives people something they badly want to see come to life, which gives them an extra incentive to contribute to and promote your campaign
We reached our first stretch goal after 40 hours. I found out afterwards that we reached it so quickly thanks to a large payment from a long-time patron and reader, someone who was keen to see us develop a centralised, searchable, and automatically updated review database – our second stretch goal.
They recognised that helping us clear our first stretch goal quickly would give us a boost that could help us reach our second stretch goal, so spent more money than they otherwise might have to help get us there. This is the power of a stretch goal calculated to appeal to your potential backers.
5. Calculate costs to the penny and use them to structure your goals and perks
This was hands down the most painful part of the process. I needed some help from more numbers-minded people, who helped me prepare a comprehensive spreadsheet.
First, I knew how much I’d need for the website and transcriptions. I added up the cost of outsourced labour (illustration and video editing), and knew that I would want a 10% commission for campaign management. I also knew the platform and payment processing fees would come to roughly 10% too.
With those basic numbers in place, I needed to figure out what perks I could offer to most quickly meet our goal without losing money. I did this by calculating the COGS (Cost of Goods Sold) for my first draft of each tier, and adjusting from there.
COGS is the total amount an item costs to make (including materials, labour, and shipping), and the COGS rate is the percentage of the item’s price that makes up the COGS: COGS divided by the item’s sale price.
In our case, for example, for the lowest tier we added the cost of printing a single postcard (based on a print run of 100) to the cost of posting it, and ended up with the COGS for a postcard. (No labour costs at this point, as my 10% was a set commission.) When we divided that by $10, the cost of the tier (i.e. the price of that postcard), we got the COGS rate: the percentage of that $10 that was going to the postcard rather than the AniFem bank account.
At the top tier, we had to add the printing costs of a single T-shirt, tote bag, zine, sticker sheet, and postcard (all based on a print run of 100) to the cost of shipping one parcel containing all of this. This gave us a COGS that we divided by $100, the cost of the tier, to get our COGS rate.
(We based production cost estimates on quantities of 100 because printing costs more the fewer items you print. We knew we might not need to print 100 T-shirts, so their printing costs could be higher, while postcards definitely would need several times that, making their print runs cheaper. Averaging it out in this way made sense for the number of backers we expected, but we would have adjusted it had we been expecting, say, 100 or 1,000 backers.)
Through this campaign, I learned to aim for a rule of thumb COGS rate of under 20%. The knock-on effect of a healthy COGS rate for each tier is that your overall raise is lower, which makes your ultimate job easier.
The first time we ran our numbers we calculated that we would need to raise close to £30,000 to cover the total cost of our campaign. I closed my laptop, walked away, and immersed myself in Netflix until I could block that terrifying prospect from my head.
We brought our raise down to $19,900 through a range of actions: replacing items, shuffling items to tiers that could better support them, looking at other suppliers, seeking shipping alternatives, and reducing the complexity of our designs.
This was all in an attempt to bring down our COGS for each tier as far as possible in order to improve our COGS rate, which in turn reduced our raise to a number I felt more confident about.
6. Outsource the things it makes sense to outsource
I’m a content marketer at heart, and (though you might disagree after reading the previous section!) writing compelling, persuasive copy is something I do well. There was no need to ask someone else to help write the campaign copy, video scripts, or updates.
Editing video though? No chance.
Designing attractive merchandise? Not a hope.
A polished video makes a huge difference to the success of a campaign, and professional-looking merchandise is essential to keep the goodwill and trust of backers. I knew early on these were services I needed to outsource to make my campaign as effective as possible.
I happened to know people in my network who had these skills, so I asked if they’d like to work on the campaign – and if they’d be open to more flexible payment terms, giving me time to complete our raise and receive the funds before paying them. If I hadn’t known anyone with these skills, I would have asked my network for referrals.
As well as outsourcing, I plugged my own skills gaps in a couple of ways:
- Accepting volunteer help from people I know well enough that they could insist on repayment in beer rather than cash
- Researching free tools for absolute novices, such as Lumen5 (which I used for our pre-launch video) and Canva (which made every single image you see on the campaign)
Identify where your weaknesses are, decide what to prioritise paying for, and seek out ways to do anything else yourself – in that order. Don’t start with the assumption that you can do everything yourself, because – even if it turns out to be true – you don’t want to wonder if you could have made more money with the help of professionals willing to accept flexible payment terms.
7. Prioritise transparency by explaining as much as possible in advance and responding to concerns in detail
Transparency comes naturally to me, and AniFem makes it easy to lean into that – the more honest and open we are, the more our community thanks us for it.
However, even if we did want to keep a little more information back, there are several things it made sense to talk openly about – because they tied directly into our target backers’ buying motivations and it gave us credibility to prove that we’d considered them.
So I wrote a series of four pre-launch editorials covering each of those points:
- Why we’re crowdfunding
- What happens if we don’t meet our goal
- Who will get the money we raise
- How much money are we aiming to raise
In the first couple of posts, comments included some thoughtful questions from our community, which I made sure to answer quickly and in as much detail as I possibly could.
In my previous life, equity crowdfunding and responding to hardened investors, I saw that potential backers judge you on the speed, detail, and tone of your response. A quick, thorough answer that comes across as lacking in social skills will be as ill-received as a comprehensive, diplomatic response three days too late. I applied those lessons here, and in the final week of pre-launch received multiple compliments on the transparency of our campaign.
Transparency doesn’t necessarily mean having all the answers, or baring your soul in every circumstance. There are some things there are no right answers for, and some things it’s just counterproductive to say. For example, I avoided mentioning how many email sign-ups we had gathered, out of fear that people might think any urgency was over the minute we hit 120 (the number estimated to get us to our day one target of 30% of our goal, but significantly short of my personal goal of 200).
I take transparency to mean offering information generously and in good faith. Of course withhold information where it is in your business’s best interests and does no harm to potential backers to do so. Otherwise, give potential backers as much as you can, to encourage their trust and emotional investment in you, your organisation, and your purpose for fundraising.
8. Develop clear targets and use them to promote your campaign, both in advance and as you near each one
It took time to calculate how much I needed to raise, but as soon as I had the final amount I started setting targets and milestones within goals.
One of the pressures of promoting a campaign is that you constantly need new things to talk about while still repeating the same call to action: “Contribute now”.
Stretch goals and smaller milestones leading up to your goal give you more to talk about than just a single number. Also, your backers feel a sense of achievement every time you smash through a new number, and will promote each success for you with their own expressions of pride and support.
And when I say “number” I do mean “any number you can find”. We used number of backers, number of minutes, percentage of our goal, even internet memes. (Nice.) The point is just to always have some new achievement within reach both to aim for and to celebrate.
9. Make the first 24 hours an event
In a risky transparency move, I decided to make it very, very public that we were seeking to meet 30% of our goal on day one. On the one hand, telling our community that’s what we needed made it more likely it would happen. On the other hand, if it didn’t happen, everyone would know that our campaign was statistically in a bad place.
December is an expensive month, and I was concerned that people would avoid contributing until after Christmas – only to forget, leaving us with no money and regretful supporters. I needed to frontload as much of the raise as possible.
While calculating the COGS rate of our perk tiers, I had learned that art prints weren’t as expensive to print as I had thought. Moreover, an A4 art print would be relatively easy to ship. I decided to offer the print as a perk for the first 24 hours, shuffling some other things around to ensure our COGS rate stayed healthy across the board.
The moment we launched, I published a post for live updates, which I made a point of updating as soon as we hit any kind of numbers that sounded good. 10% in the first hour! 50 backers in 100 minutes! Two months of Patreon income earned! Halfway to Milestone 1! One-third of our goal reached!
I restricted updates of this kind to that post and, to a lesser extent, Twitter, where such frequent updates don’t feel spammy. Those who followed the post enjoyed seeing our progress, but those who weren’t following it didn’t get notifications. The result is a really useful for record for us of what happened, and when. Even when we hit milestones and I couldn’t update the post immediately, I took note of the time and exact numbers so I could update it accurately later.
Every six hours (or so…) I created a graphic in Canva to explain where we were. These were more suitable for sharing on Facebook, where its algorithm tends to punish you for putting up more than one post a day and there’s no guarantee that the people who see the updates (which is a fraction of your followers) will see them in order. These updates were designed to tell a complete story in isolation, while also being consistently formatted and branded enough to look fine embedded in a post.
The result was that we didn’t need to craft a lot of updates ourselves on the first day… because our community was engaged enough to do it for us.
In the campaign copy we asked people to share our campaign with a personal endorsement rather than just sharing the link, explaining that it makes a difference. Our community did this, and we retweeted almost every one of those messages.
It meant our campaign and good wishes for us were filling the timelines of everyone who followed us on Twitter that day. A large number of people tuned in the following day too, supporting us through the final surge…
10. Push hard once you’re close to the line, and make crossing it a community event
After 24 hours, things did slow down. That was natural, but still something we wanted to reverse. Behind the scenes, we rallied our networks to continue sharing the campaign, and we looked for more new content to share to get us back in timelines. Ideas included writing a new editorial or using Lumen5 to create a trailer for stretch goals, which were now on the horizon.
However, by the time those in the PST timezone were awake, momentum had picked up and we didn’t need to do anything so drastic. Instead, as we saw the final $1,000 looming, we prepared a series of gifs for a thread to live-tweet the final countdown.
Some moments of this thread were so quiet it was worrying, but we found ways to keep it moving. We looked for new mini-milestones which might make our goal seem a little closer, and started to appeal to the buying motivations we’d identified by leaning on the promise of the stretch goals. A live stream could also have worked well, but we managed to reach our goal simply with gifs on Twitter at a time our biggest user bases were active and cheering us on.
The moment we crossed the line was far more intense, overwhelming, and emotional than I was expecting.
You pour all this time and effort into analytical research, precise calculations, high stakes copywriting, and constant, constant hustling, without realising how much of your heart and soul this campaign has been taking up for at least weeks, probably months. The moment you finally reach the goal you’ve been calmly and logically working towards this entire time, the feeling is indescribable.
…And then it all begins again, as you start working towards your stretch goals.
Our campaign is running until 29 December and working towards stretch goals is exactly where we are. If this post taught you something you think independent creators could find useful in fundraising for their own projects, please contribute now!