Pay or Participate: The Appeal of Kickstarter

What makes a Kickstarter successful? What is the magic formulae of A plus B plus C that turns a thousand dollar project into a multi-million dollar venture? Why do some ideas return back to the dusty box that spawned them? How do you define “successful”?

(For the purpose of this article, I will specifically address Kickstarters from the gaming community perspective and the gamers themselves.)

Analysts would have you believe that there is a specific combination of business, economic, and credibility factors which directly define the viability and monetary return of a Kickstarter idea–as with any business idea going to market. This comes from years of traditional thinking. There should be careful studies about a project’s profitability, expenses, fulfillment ability, business plan, etc. If you were to look for investors at a traditional institution–or on a reality television show–this is what investors and lenders would be looking at. I will loosely categorize this as the “pay”–to exchange money for a proportional product or service–side of my comments today.

A Kickstarter that follows this line of thinking needs to appeal to the intellectual side of a backer. An intellectual investor–and the more sophisticated gamer would generally include themselves in this category–looks at the overall project on its merits. Will it fund, will it fulfill, is it reasonable, is there a plan, does the Kickstarter page look good, etc.? An intellectual decision may even convince the backer that this decision is good for them. This is intelligent thinking and analysis–something most gamers would pride themselves in. All that the Kickstarter requires is careful planning, to prove their worth, and a marketing strategy to reach intellectual investors. I also believe that this is the minority of backers, gamers included. Hold your nose as high as you want, but your money counts the least.

Intelligence will only get you so far.

wildly successful Kickstarter has two additional elements at play, which appeals to more than the intellect–and therefore has more avenues for success.

Everyone has the words “MAKE ME FEEL SPECIAL” stamped in giant lettering on their forehead. Any leader–not boss–in any position of leadership or authority knows this. People are changing jobs, starting new social hobbies, dying to feel special, to be acknowledged, to be recognized. Good Kickstarters realize this and give people a chance to contribute, be part of an exclusive team, or even special perks to meet the creators. There is no logical reason to pay $1,000 for some game and knick-knacks, when a release can have it on shelves for a fraction of the cost later on. But give someone a beta test because they have a special decoder ring, they will treasure that experience. Why are people so desperate to write “FIRST” on a blog comment or social media?  They want to feel special. More people will spend money because of this emotional wave than any intellectual will. Emotional spending and emotional choices.

So a successful Kickstarter needs to appeal intellectually AND emotionally.

Finally, in two parts, Kickstarters require existential appeal. One part of this is that people want to be part of something bigger or greater than themselves. This can be described as the “herd” mentality, lemmings, etc. The other part of this existential appeal is the want of a legacy or to leave something behind. I am not saying that having children or leaving an inheritance is equivalent to having your name in book credits, but the idea comes from the same place, whether you believe in a soul or not. Gamers tend to talk big but think small–most people do–but a Kickstarter with vision can capture the hearts of people who need more than they can currently experience–again, most people do.

Popularity begets popularity. Celebrities have thousands of followers because that person wants to share in the fame or community that is build up around the celebrity. The more money a Kickstarter makes, the more money it will make compounded exponentially. A Kickstarter that becomes a runaway success has everything to do with the existential appeal of people feeling they had a part in something larger than themselves–and in the case of some projects–larger than life. To say, “I was there,” means so much to people that they willingly and gleefully “participate”–overpay without thought of the proportional product or service being provided–in a Kickstarter for the privilege of being part of the creative process. Everyone wants in on the act of procreation, right?

Now, is there a formulae for intellectualemotional, and existential appeal for a Kickstarter? No. All I can say for certain that the worthy Kickstarters that did not get funding probably had no problems appealing to the intellectual backers, but like the DOTCOM crash of the early 2000s, their failure did not come from the product. What they lacked was the ability to properly identify and market to their audience emotionally and existentially.

Perhaps the next time you are on Kickstarter, you will analyze as I did. Am I paying to purchase and produce a product… or am I participating in something grand?

You decide.

(I would like to thank Chris Sniezak, Shawn Merwin, and Phil Vecchione of Down with D&D and Misdirected Mark, and Jim McClure of Talking TableTop for inspiring this analysis and their direct or indirect contributions to its thoughts.)

But… what do I know…?

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