Crowdfunding Guide

Part 1 10 Crowdfunding Lessons from the Radiotopia Kickstarter Campaign

Radiotopia image that says "I'm a backer!"Radiotopia’s second Kickstarter campaign raised more than $600,000 from nearly 22,000 fans.

The success of a campaign like this is a complex alchemy of passion, mission, timing, and tenacity. There are many things you can’t control, and good and bad surprises abound. And yet, the Radiotopia team has run a superb and engaging campaign. Anyone thinking about crowdfunding a project — regardless of the platform you choose  —  should study what the team at PRX and Radiotopia did.

Here are 10 lessons from Radiotopia’s Kickstarter Campaign:

1) Sell the Values, Not the Thing

The Radiotopia campaign was never about just supporting some podcasts; it was about “remaking public media.” The Radiotopia team always led with their values and vision. This is especially important for mission-driven crowdfunding efforts like journalism and documentary projects, but even with gadgets or other products, crowdfunding tends to be about selling a story not a thing. “It’s not just an amazing group of podcasts, it’s an amazing group of people,” writes Roman Mars on the campaign’s homepage. “Radiotopia is bringing a listener-first, creator-driven ethos to public radio.” The team was explicit about tapping into their audience’s values — a love of storytelling and public media — and made it clear that a donation wouldn’t just fund a podcast, it would help you feed your passion.

2) This Isn’t Just a Fundraiser, It Is a Friend Raiser

Kickstarter campaigns are about raising money, but that’s not all they accomplish. The best campaigns become a locus of attention and activity for a passionate group of people to come together and support a shared vision. The Radiotopia crew understood this, and they made their campaign as much about making friends as it was about making money. Early in the campaign, Roman Mars introduced one of the campaign’s key goals: To reach 20,000 donors.

Yes, that goal included a financial challenge from a corporate sponsor. But what was more important for the long-term sustainability of the collective was that it presented an opportunity to introduce Radiotopia to legions of new people (and to turn current fans into donors, even if only at $1 each). One campaign reward was a chance to be connected with other fans as pen pals. The best Kickstarter campaigns are not only financial investments, but also investments in relationships between creators and their community.

3) Create Unique Rewards for Different Stakeholders

Looking down the right rail of the Radiotopia Kickstarter page is actually a bit daunting. There are 33 tiers of rewards, depending on how much you give, and sometimes there are different reward packages for the same amount. For example, at the $300 level you could get a DIY radio handbook and a pair of pro-headphones or a one-hour podcast mentoring session and a one-year membership to PRX. The number and diversity of rewards reflected the fact that Radiotopia is a collection of different shows with their own look, feel, and audience. But the Radiotopia team also explicitly designed each tier for different kinds of stakeholders, from the lone fan to the potential corporate underwriter. Individuals could donate and get shirts and ringtones; small teams could donate a larger amount and get a storytelling workshop for their organization; and businesses could donate and receive sponsorship and underwriting opportunities.

4) Think Beyond the T-Shirt: Digital, Physical, and Personal Rewards

This point is related to, but separate from, the one above. There were cool t-shirts as part of the Radiotopia rewards, but the team was smart to offer an array of digital, physical, and personal rewards. Reward fulfillment — mailing out those t-shirts, stickers, and posters  —  is a significant process that cuts into the money you make on a crowdfunding campaign. Come up with clever, fun, and engaging digital rewards for the lower tiers — Radiotopia offered ringtones, digital albums, and more. Anything under $35–$40 should probably be digital to make it worthwhile to mail out the rewards. But the Radiotopia team also understood that some fans want more than a coffee mug, they want an experience. Many rewards, and the campaign itself, were about making the Radiotopia producers accessible to their community. In the middle tiers, Radiotopia offered professional development opportunities, Q&A sessions, and chances to be on the air for aspiring podcasters and journalists. At the upper donation levels, the team offered special events, parties, and elite dinners with radio personalities and producers.

5) Build Your Team from the Start

Crowdfunding campaigns are an enormous amount of work. You need a team of people to do them well. Radiotopia had the benefit of being a collaboration of several shows and having the PRX team’s help to drive the campaign forward. You may not have the staff, but figure out who your team is and then recruit your fans. The first message I got after donating to the campaign was, “You are now a part of our growing storytelling revolution!” A few weeks later, the team wrote, “This is not going to be easy and we’re going to need your help to do it.” A subsequent message was, “You are a part of something really special and the world is taking notice.”

Radiotopia benefited, of course, from the huge fan base for many of its shows. But the work they did to grow and engage that base of support provides lessons for anyone. Throughout the campaign, there was an intentional, ongoing recruitment effort to keep people engaged — not just as donors but as part of the team.

6) Provide a Multitude of Ways to Contribute and Participate

By emphasizing the number of people engaged over the number of dollars raised, the Radiotopia team was able to think creatively about how they ask people to participate in the campaign. Turning fans into donors and donors into evangelists is no small feat, and Radiotopia did it well. The team amplified the best efforts on social media, celebrating not just people who gave but people who helped mobilize others to give.

“If you believe in this mission, kick in another buck or two, or just spread the word,” they wrote in one email. “You can make your investment in Radiotopia go further if you let people know you are a backer and encourage your friends to join our campaign,” said another. And throughout the process, via Kickstarter’s commenting feature and on social channels, the team answered questions, talked shop, and encouraged conversation.

7) Let Yourself Get Emotional

The Radiotopia campaign was suffused with emotion, and it was contagious. Through the public messaging of the campaign (which vacillated between carefully orchestrated and freewheeling), we saw the team celebrate, cringe, worry, laugh, and love. They weren’t afraid to talk about how much they cared about this work or about the love, trust, and admiration they have for their community. “These shows make you laugh, cry, cringe, remember, reflect, strive, despair, relax… everything,” they wrote on the campaign homepage. Those emotions drew us in. They gave the campaign intimacy, and made us feel like we were all good friends. In the end, the crowdfunding campaign itself had a narrative arc and an emotional force not unlike the stories on Radiotopia’s podcasts.

8) The Art of the Stretch Goal: Be Visionary, Not Greedy

Every time the Radiotopia team announced a new stretch goal, I was tempted to donate again. That’s remarkable. It is worth remembering that Radiotopia itself emerged out of a stretch goal, established after Roman Mars blew through the initial funding goals for his show 99% Invisible last year. The stretch goals for this campaign focused on its core value: “remaking public media.” Many of these goals emphasized bringing more diverse voices and stories into public media and podcasting. When announcing the first stretch goal, the Radiotopia team wrote: “As of February 2013, only 20% of the top 100 podcasts are hosted by women. That percentage is abysmal and we need give more opportunities for female-fronted podcasts to find their audience. Therefore, when we get over $400,000, we’d like to invite three new shows — all hosted by women — into Radiotopia.” At $600,000, the team promised to “create a pilot development fund to find new, talented producers and hosts. We will specifically seek out new voices to pilot programs that tackle subjects not well covered in traditional public media.” Again and again, Radiotopia presented compelling visions of what was possible in a way that increased the perceived value of donations and made people want to give more.

9) Make Big Promises

For donors, investing in a crowdfunding campaign means that you are putting money down now in hopes of creating something remarkable in the future. Those running campaigns need to cultivate a vision of that future and get people excited about what is to come. It is one thing to layout deliverables hooked to stretch goals, as described above. It is another thing entirely to get people to buy into a vision of the future and their role in helping create it. “I’m so excited about the direction we’re going,” wrote Roman Mars in one of his updates to supporters. “You’re going to love what we have in store.” This gives people a sense that they are on the road to somewhere really exciting. I saw one tweet that said, in effect, “When Roman Mars promises, ‘We’ll make you proud,’ I have no doubt in my mind that he will.”

10) Cultivate Faith and Express Gratitude

Over the course of a four- to six-week campaign, you need to inspire a deep sense of faith from your supporters. They need to believe in you and your promises. Kickstarter now makes all campaigns discuss the risks and challenges of their project on the project page. There are, however, ways to establish your credibility and engender the trust of your network.

For example, Radiotopia has a great story to tell about the growth of its network and the impact of past crowdfunding campaigns. You need to build faith, but you also need to express humility and gratitude. On November 11, when Radiotopia hit 20,000 donors, Roman Mars wrote, “We did it! Thank you so much for being one of the 20,000 and helping us get the extra $25,000 from Hover. Look what we did together!” Another time, he wrote “Thanks again for being there for us. We’re going to make you proud.” Throughout the campaign, there was genuine and deep gratitude for donors.

There are several how-to guides for crowdfunding that can tell you how to edit your pitch video or how many emails to send. What impressed me about the Radiotopia campaign was less the technical expertise or tactics it used and more the tone and tenor of the conversation it sparked. The lessons outlined above focus on how Radiotopia cultivated that feel for the campaign — its focus on community, passion, and excellence.

In the end, the campaign was less like a pitch and more like a story, told not to us, but with us.

Thanks to Rekha Murthy of PRX for talking me through some of the big ideas that shaped this campaign and to my colleague Molly de Aguiar for feedback on an earlier draft of this article.

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