Some colleagues and I recently ran a Kickstarter to launch a fairly ambitious music publication from scratch. Our idea — a focus on longform, advertising-free work and a big budget to pay writers — got a lot of attention and press, but not enough backers to make it happen. What can we do better next time? —David Greenwald
New year, new funding model! Or… not. For all the hype about crowdfunding, I think it’s basically a fancy new name for “selling subscriptions.” After all, subscribers pay up front for a product they haven’t seen, based solely on their faith in the institution and editors creating it. That said, I think there are a few things journo-entrepreneurs can do to make crowdfunding work for them.
Have a good narrative. Luckily, journalists know how to tell stories. When it comes to Kickstarter, it’s crucial to have a compelling story behind your project to convince people to open their wallets. When GOOD magazine fired me and all of my colleagues in June, we got together to make a new magazine called Tomorrow. The story about all of us coming together in the wake of a professional setback made for a great Kickstarter video and gave media outlets covering our project a compelling narrative.
Or tap a niche. Not everyone has the good fortune to be fired with seven of their friends! Another Kickstarter success, Howler, a magazine about the world of soccer, succeeded largely due to its ability to appeal to a small group of really dedicated potential readers.
Estimate your budget, then triple it. Journalism is expensive. My colleagues and I set our goal way too low. Luckily, we exceeded that goal, sold some additional copies, and got some sponsors on board, but it still wasn’t enough to compensate ourselves fairly for the time we put into the magazine. (Check out an overview of our budget here.) Plus, Kickstarter takes 5 percent, and Amazon Payments takes another 3-5 percent.
Look beyond Kickstarter. Find companies to sponsor you, sell direct subscriptions even after your Kickstarter campaign has ended, and in general prepare to come up with sources of revenue beyond crowdfunding. Chances are that even a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign isn’t enough.
Print is still the best incentive. Looking at the backers of Tomorrow magazine, the vast majority invested $15, the amount required to receive a print issue in the mail. I’m fairly confident that if we were digital-only, which is certainly something we considered, we would have attracted fewer backers. People like the idea of getting something physical for their money, even if most of them probably read the magazine online.
Tap your network, then tap it again. I hope you like asking your friends for cash and teaching your grandma to use PayPal, because your success depends on you calling in just about every personal favor and relationship you’ve got.
Main takeaway? Kickstarter works best for labors of love and journalistic projects that are proof-of-concept—examples of what’s possible, not long-term endeavors. And it’s also not going to be enough as a lone source of funding. Prepare to hustle, and keep hustling.