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Why (some) Kickstarter campaigns fail

June 20, 2012
by seth godin

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Kickstarter campaigns fail when the tribe of people who believe in the idea is too small

It’s worth taking a moment to parse that out–it will help you understand how the whole thing works and where some campaigns fail. You either need more belief or a bigger/louder/more influential tribe.

Kickstarter appears to be a great way to find fans for your work. You put up a great video clip and a story and wait for people who will love it to find you.

But that’s not what happens. What happens is that people who ALREADY have a tribe, like Amanda Palmer, use Kickstarter to organize and activate that tribe. Kickstarter is the last step, not the first one.

There are some outliers that are clever and lucky enough to go viral among strangers, but out of the huge number of projects posted (increasing all the time) this is as likely as writing a blog post that gets you on the front page of Hacker News.

Kevin Kelly has a loyal following of true fans, so when he launches a Kickstarter on a topic that’s outside of his known sweet spot, it still gets off to a good start.

The second part of the sentence is the word “believe.” In Kevin’s case, the abundant free samples dramatically increase the chances that people will not be skeptical about what’s on offer. But even more important is the sense that it’s going to work… The now obvious fact about Kickstarter campaigns is that if you get to 60% of the goal, it’s almost certainly going to get to 100% and probably beyond. People don’t want to back a campaign that’s not going to work, even if it costs them nothing to do so.

Stop for a second and consider that. Kickstarter was founded to make it possible for artists of every kind to find people who would take a chance on something that might not work. It has quickly become a site where fans of the arts and innovative items can buy things that will work.

This is irrational, because you get just as much joy in the moment from backing a project that ultimately doesn’t work, plus you get to keep your money and do it again for a different project tomorrow. But humans aren’t rational creatures.

In the case of the jellyfish tank and the Pebble watch (and to a lesser extent, Amanda’s record) we see that Kickstarter actually hits its sweet spot AFTER the minimum is met and success is assured. In those cases, people aren’t using Kickstarter to fund a project, they’re using it to shop for products that are certain to ship and that are already popular.

One way to think about this: some rewards are clearly worth less than what they cost, making up the difference with the psychic satisfaction of being a backer. But the popular rewards in most kickstarters are worth more than what they cost, giving the backer the discount that comes from having a direct and inexpensive marketing vehicle at work.

This isn’t what the founders set out to do, but it’s what the market has clearly said they want. If you give your tribe something to believe in as well as a reward that’s easy to talk about, you’ve done two things right.

To summarize this part of this short series: Build your tribe before you need it, give the tribe something that they want, and make it easy for them to believe it’s actually going to work. Kickstarter looks like a shortcut. It’s not. It’s a maximizer.

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