Kickstarter Reflections

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From mid-May to mid-June, Esmeralda_paint_webCheeky Parrot ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for Hoard, a card game we will publish in Q4 2016. We raised nearly $25,000 NZ, representing 155% of our target. Before the campaign gets too far removed in time, I wanted to reflect on our success and share some lessons learned. I hope some of this will be of practical help to others thinking of running a Kickstarter, though Cheeky Parrot was in perhaps an unusual position of being an established company with three games on the market, albeit in New Zealand, a country of just 4.5 million. I’m sure a track record of actually designing, publishing, and distributing other games is a good feather to have in your cap before attempting to attract a larger market via Kickstarter.

The Importance of Preparation

I think this is the most important phase. Others, most namely Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games, have published comprehensive advice that will guide you through the time when your project is but an apple in your eye through to reward fulfillment and beyond. This advice is well worth reading and taking on board.

Number-Crunching

1008 copies of Cat Capers arrive at Cheeky HQ
Cat Capers (1008 copies) arrives at Cheeky HQ Nov 2015

I got a quote from our manufacturer for the basic game, as well as the costs of upgrading and adding components, so I was prepared to offer a variety of stretch goals. I assumed a print run of 2000 copies, figuring leftovers could be sold through my existing retailer network in New Zealand and via distributors I’d be working with in other markets. I got an estimate from our logistics company for shipping part of the print run to New Zealand. I took a stab and assumed it would cost a few hundred dollars to truck the rest of the run to the Send from China warehouse, where all of the non-Australasian pledges will get fulfilled. This enabled me to generate a “landed cost” for each game, both for New Zealand- and for China-based pledge fulfillment.

Then, I created a monster spreadsheet. It included a cell where I could pop in the exchange rate, since the campaign was in Kiwi dollars, as were some expenses, but we’d be paying the manufacturer in US dollars. The line items on the spread sheet are the various pledges by zone. For example, a pledge for one copy of the game from New Zealand was $30 but from that you must subtract Kickstarter fees and GST. Then you subtract the landed cost to get the item to New Zealand. From that you subtract what it will cost to mail that copy to a backer. What is left is profit. And so forth for every other type of pledge.
If you include a column for the number of pledges of each type:

  • You can populate a second spreadsheet during the campaign, copying and pasting from the Backer Report, which will pop in the number of say, $30 pledges, so that you can keep a running total of the profit. Of course, this means you’ll need to assign different dollar amounts to each type of pledge. It will be an inexact science, because there will be a kind soul or two who might make a $30 pledge without expecting a reward, but it’s close enough.
  • During the preparation phase, you can plug in different numbers from different zones to get an idea of just how many pledges you might need to hit certain targets. I knew for our Kickstarter to succeed, we’d need about 600 single-game pledges. This seemed possible.

The Kickstarter Page

Our sufficiently eye-catching banner image, a sample from the box cover art
Our sufficiently eye-catching banner image, a sample from the box cover art

I initially submitted the project back in January and put up a first draft, which was approved by Kickstarter, enabling me to launch whenever I wished from that point forward. Going through the process, thinking about the project from the prospective backer’s point of view, helps insure you cover all the angles you should. I shared the link first with close friends in the gaming community who were familiar with Hoard then in ever-widening circles to strangers who belong to the same Facebook groups for Kickstarter projects and board gaming. Many people gave good feedback, from both the macro and micro levels, so by the time we launched I was confident and raring to go.

Timing

Kickstarter project launch button
Houston we are go!

Although I knew we’d need many backers from overseas, it was important to try to attract as many New Zealand-based backers as we could. The 31-day period our campaign ran included two of New Zealand’s biggest board gaming events: Board Games by the Bay Auckland and Wellycon, so of course we attended those to show Hoard off, having ordered some extra last-minute prototypes from MakePlayingCards and the Game Crafter (should have done that sooner to save on shipping). It was an easy sell to get attendees to try a 10 minute per round game with a winning theme (and one quite familiar to Kiwis because of the Hobbit and LOTR filming here), and many of those folks became backers. There was a lot of appreciation that for once, Kiwis were not getting stuck with prohibitive shipping fees. Many of our 80 first-time-Kickstarter backers were Kiwis.
As far as the day of the week and time of day to launch, I was guided by the advice of Kickstarter guru James Mathe, but calibrated the dates and times he suggested with an American market in mind so that they would be sensible for New Zealand too: we launched at 7:00 AM on a Kiwi Wednesday (3:00 PM on an East Coast USA Tuesday). We ended at 9:00 PM on a Kiwi Friday (5:00 AM on an East Coast USA Friday).

A Big Launch
We knew if we could meet 20% of our target in the first 48 hours, the momentum would likely carry us through to target. Cheeky Parrot had been in business for about two years prior to launch and had established a presence on Facebook. I had the idea of creating a countdown + first 48 hours event to which I invited virtually all of my Facebook friends, since, for once, geography was no barrier, and Tim and Beck invited their contacts too. Although in the end, 38 people are said to have gone and a further 26 were interested, we invited an additional 556 so I’m sure it helped created buzz. I changed the banner and added comments, photos and links, and remembered to go back with an update when we hit the target, reminding people they still had a few days to make a pledge. Although Kickstarter couldn’t identify the source of about 20% of our pledges, we do know 12% came from Facebook.

Countdown to Kickstarter launch banner with partially awake dragon
The dragon waking in various stages lent itself beautifully to Facebook banners

We also had a MailChimp-managed mailing list of about 230 fans and retailers. So shortly after we hit the green button, we sent out a newsletter to let people know we’d gone live. About 30 people clicked to check out the campaign.
After 48 hours, we were at the 30% mark and feeling good.

Ongoing Hype vs the Plateau

It’s well known that even good campaigns go a bit quiet and the same was true for ours, though it was gratifying that pledges kept trickling in from about day five until we hit our target on day 27. We had many weapons up our sleeve to keep this interest in Hoard flickering along.Funding progress curve

Luck
Projects we love banner awarded Hoard by Kickstarter staff (blue oval with text and heart)Here I must mention our incredible luck at being selected as a Project We Love by Kickstarter staff. This happened about a day after we launched and although it is a process shrouded in mystery, I would credit our lovely main campaign image and comprehensive presentation, not necessarily our video, which I will address later. Kickstarter tells us Projects We Love resulted in 5.2% of our total pledges.
Another bit of luck was an unsolicited mention from fellow Kiwi publisher Shem Phillips, in an update for a game he Kickstarted and is in the midst of publication. At this point, we’d reached our target, but I am sure we attracted many buyers who might not have found us without Shem’s kindness.

Reviews
Well in advance of the campaign, I’d arranged for a review and paid ad from iSlaytheDragon, and I had them pass on the prototype to another reviewer I’d worked with before. I also got some local game enthusiasts to publish comments and in one case a review on BoardGameGeek. But just a few weeks out, I realized more reviews, and specifically video reviews, could help our case. I turned to a Facebook group called Boardgame Reviewers and put up a humble plea, as we were then less than a month from launch. I soon had requests from three continents and everyone was willing, if I reimbursed postage, to send their prototype along to someone else. This resulted in several video reviews available in time for launch, plus more arriving as the campaign continued.

Hoard character #5, Rowan (red hair, Celtic face paint, furs)
This new character generated a lot of excitement, as well name suggestions. We settled on Rowan.

Artwork and Interraction

At launch, we had some artwork up our sleeve to reveal; we also had works in progress that allowed us to get backer input. We made sure the options we presented were ones we could live with, however. Although our first poll wasn’t very controversial, from that point on we started getting more engagement with backers, in the form of comments on both the campaign page and in our updates. I made sure to answer any questions posed, either publicly in comments or via messages. Compared to bigger campaigns, the maintenance needed wasn’t overwhelming during this phase. I made sure to post updates every three or four days and I titled them carefully to reflect the evolution of the project, because once a project closes, the default landing page becomes the updates stream.

More Money Please!
Smaller-coin-bagI made a point not to beg backers to spread the word, as I find those sort of appeals a bit annoying personally. What we did do was add two pledge levels to the course of the campaign. The first enabled backers to get a second copy; fifty backers took up this option, and some of these were upgrades. As we closed in to our target, we also released a reward level that would include a signed digital print and a copy of the game. We only had eight takers there, but it was all gravy since the printer would charge the same price for those no matter how many copies we wanted to make, and we figured extras could come in handy for promotion, as prizes for events, for example.

Stretching

We were delighted to hit our target about three and a half days out, and saw a pleasing spike in new backers from that point on. Some people like to back a winner and there was also the excitement of seeing how many stretch goals we could attain.

Stretch Goal Management
Here is where my micromanagement skills came to the fore. I had decided early on not to commit to a list of set stretch goals, much less to attempt to assign targets to them, when we had no idea if we’d fall flat on our faces, raise a million dollars, or wind up somewhere in between. At launch, we had just one stretch goal revealed and priced it $1000 above target. But we made it clear we had others up our sleeve, including adding one to two more players (and commensurate new character pawns) and new interactive cards as well as component upgrades.

Graphic that was used in campaign to promote the second stretch goal
Stretch Goal #2

As we attained each stretch goal, I added new ones, no more than three ahead, complete with updated flashy graphics. This meant I needed to stay close to the computer, and I even woke up at 3:00 AM a day or two before the campaign closed to confirm we’d reached a target. We had, so I ran downstairs to post the next set of graphics I’d already prepared. The only financial target I revealed was for the current one we were trying to reach. Although it eventually broke down in the last hours of the campaign, Kicktraq was an invaluable tool in projecting how much we could conceivably raise, so that I could set targets that struck a balance between aspiration and achievability. And of course I was keeping a beady eye on the bottom line. Sneakily, achievement of our overall target actually covered the first three stretch goals, so that we didn’t fall into the trap of hastily-added stretch goals becoming a liability, but actually helping us raise additional funds we could invest in copies to release to the North American market. (These will lack some of the deluxe components and stretched bells and whistles of the Kickstarter rewards, to keep the MSRP a competitive $25 US there.)

hoard_stretchedIn the end we achieved eight stretch goals, plus a unique one I added for fun: achieving a target of 750 combined followers of the Cheeky Parrot Facebook and Twitter account plus Tim Kings-Lynne’s Artwork Facebook page by the day before we’d be submitting files to the manufacturer would mean a secret surprise included in everyone’s game: our lips are sealed!

In the final hour of the campaign, I also cleaned up the campaign page, to make it leaner and more relevant post-campaign, since it cannot be edited after the campaign closes. Though this was a little stressful, Tim said it was nothing compared to deadlines at Weta!

Choices and their outcome

Advertising or lack thereof
In all, Cheeky Parrot spent just a little over $100 US to promote the campaign. $75 went to iSlaytheDragon, which ran a banner ad on its site for the duration of our campaign, and the rest went to one Facebook ad and a few promoted posts. We’ll never know if it might have been worth it to spring for ads on BoardGameGeek, but we are satisfied with what we raised. It enables us to achieve our goals and still manage the project ourselves.
I will Shows some components of Hoardnote that some backers found us via BoardGameGeek on their own. I made a point of submitting graphics and a designer diary to Hoard’s entry during the campaign to try to attract attention there organically. I also devoted one update to explaining BGG to backers who might not be familiar with it and encouraging them and existing BGG account holders to interact with Hoard’s entry. I believe this was worth it because Hoard now has 37 fans and over 20 ratings and comments on this perennial gamer resource.
However, the BGG backers proved fickle and in the end there were only five that Kickstarter marked as originating from that site (from a high point of eight or nine.)

Media
Having been burned once before, I sent W. Eric Martin two politely spaced press releases about the launch of the Kickstarter campaign, to insure Hoard would be included in BoardGameGeek’s Crowdfunding Round-up soon after launch.
I had also been collecting other game-related people and places to send news, so I emailed a round of press releases to those and New Zealand media outlets two weeks ahead of launch. The release was posted on my website, so I was also able to share this link via Twitter.
Several bloggers did pick up the story but I’m unclear if this was a result of my efforts. Sadly, no New Zealand outlet followed up with me.

Cancellation prevention

Beck, Tim and Julia promoting Hoard at Wellycon
Beck, Tim and Julia at Wellycon

Thanks to the Stegmaier blogs, I was emotionally prepared when some backers cancelled their pledges. Others have chased these backers to find the reason is usually due to financial mismanagement or crisis. I decided not to engage with those who cancelled, but rather to personally message new backers in the hopes that making a connection might insulate us against cancellations. I personalized the messages as best I could, commenting with special thanks if they were a Kickstarter noobie, asking for advice to attract other backers from their country, etc. I started doing this at about backer #300 and continued through #510, when the campaign got too busy for me to keep up. (Tim was doing his own thing at this point, sketching a new dragon to celebrate each new pledge–though these weren’t matched up to pledgers by name, which would have been a tricky administrative feat.) Here are the results in blocks of 100 backers:

First 100 backers Unthanked 17 cancellations
Second 100 backers Unthanked 12 cancellations
Third 100 backers Unthanked 15 cancellations
Backers 309-410 Thanked 6 cancellations
Backers 411-510 Thanked 5 cancellations
Final 100 backers Unthanked 0 cancellations

It would seem thanking backers during the plateau phase, if not sooner, is an effective hedge against pledge cancellation.

By the way, another thing to anticipate is getting contacted by scores of individuals and companies, offering their paid services to help you promote or run your campaign. Unfortunately, there is no way to delete this spam from your cache of all messages.

EU Unfriendliness
We chose not to jump through hoops to make the campaign Euro-friendly. We addressed this topic in the FAQ section and explained that the game’s replacement cost was expected to be too low to trigger VAT taxes. It keeps costs down to have just two depots for fulfillment, and Send from China looked to be the cheapest option for everywhere but New Zealand and Australia, which we were planning to fulfill ourselves. It’s possible this decision cost us backers, but no one made an issue of it. (I did message back and forth with a Danish pledger until he was satisfied he wouldn’t have to pay VAT on his copy.) Our combined backers from the US (252), New Zealand (146), Australia (75), and Canada (29), assuming an average pledge of $35, got us beyond our target by themselves.

Video

Our stance was to lead with our strong suit. Tim and Beck are artists working for Weta Digital, so they put together a 1:22 minute theatrical-trailer-like film to convey the theme and purpose of Hoard. We loved it. We’re unclear if the backers did, as only about 35% played the whole thing. Possibly this is because of a long denouement, which might have caused backers to click elsewhere. We decided to keep the faith, in the video and in our project, and leave the video as is, though in response to feedback that backers like to see who they’re supporting, I did film a short introduction to preface the original how-to-play video (now swapped out for one without the intro and with professional narration) which was added the evening before launch day. When I was in Wellington for Wellycon, Tim and I also filmed a brief greeting for our backers, which we included in an update.

Final thought, courtesy of a backer (we couldn’t have said it better):

hoard_funded

Congratulations Julia! You really showed how a small company can run a successful campaign in the true spirit of Kickstarter. After backing a few large-company games lately that funded straight away, it was really nice to follow this campaign from the start, not knowing where it would end up.