Entrepreneur

Crowdfunding Confidential: How Kickstarter helped write the book on the Obama campaign

Two pages from the book Designing Obama

The following is an excerpt from Scott Steinberg’s new book, The Crowdfunding Bible. The book is free to download at www.CrowdFundingGuides.com, or in e-book form on Apple, Nook and Sony Reader devices. Check out the previous excerpt: How IndieGoGo helped fund a video game documentary.

Scott Thomas, Creator of Designing Obama

The design director for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, Scott Thomas was an early pioneer on Kickstarter with his Designing Obama campaign. At a time when few crowdfunding programs had caught the public’s eye, and raising six-figure amounts through online pledges seemed just a pipe dream, he managed to pull in an impressive $84,613 for a historical book chronicling the art and design that helped propel Barack Obama into office. Intriguingly, Scott was also one of the first to encounter issues that new crowdfunding campaigns still encounter today. Here, he offers greater insight into the project, and advice to others hoping to follow his lead.

Q.  What does a design director for a political campaign do?

A: The responsibility of the team and myself was to design the presence of the Obama 2008 campaign both online and offline. So we handled much of the user interface design for the BarackObama.com and my.BarackObama.com websites, as well as a lot of the branding materials such as posters and banners that were used at events. We managed a lot of the visuals that you saw coming out of the campaign.

Q.  How did you come to assemble a book out of all of those materials? And why turn to crowdfunding?

A: Well, obviously it was a fairly defining moment in American history, and I’m a firm believer that if you do something large that you should a little time to come to terms with it. I wanted to chronicle some of the work that we did inside the campaign as well as the coinciding art and design movement that was happening outside the campaign. I felt that it was a pretty remarkable point in history where artists and graphic designers rallied around a presidential candidate. Typically the design and art industry is fairly pessimistic of world leaders and it’s usually hard to rally them to a political cause.

As I began talking to publishers, I quickly realized that publishers suck. They were in it to produce their book and put my name on it. They weren’t all that interested in me controlling the process, including one publisher that (when I stated that I wanted to do the design of the book myself) asked if they could review my design portfolio! At the end of the day, I really didn’t see what benefit I would get from using a traditional publisher. I wanted to make an artifact; an object with my own spirit, and my own agenda. So I was toying with a lot of ideas as far as how to bring the book out, and luckily an individual from Kickstarter was in Chicago at that time. We ended up meeting up, and he told me what he was doing with Kickstarter and I thought it would be a perfect platform for the project.

Q.  That was pretty early in Kickstarter’s life, so there weren’t all that many campaigns to study, and none that were for high-end design books such as this. How did you go about researching how you would put a campaign together?

A: My project was a bit unprecedented for Kickstarter at the time. I wanted to raise $100,000 for the project, and one of the folks at Kickstarter actually talked me down, saying, “I don’t know that we can generate that much yet: I want you to succeed, I don’t want this project to fail.”   And then he explained that you could go over your goal, and that was probably what would happen if I set the goal lower. So that’s how we wound up at $65,000. But that was a hard decision for me to make, because I knew exactly how much the project was going to cost. (At least, I thought I did.) And I didn’t have a lot to work off of, other than the fact that a video was going to be a good way of talking about what the thesis of the book was going to be, and planned to try to connect myself to it and to the project as a whole.

There was also a point in time where I wasn’t sure I was going to have enough control over the platform. I wasn’t sure that people were going to come to this site and “believe” in this Kickstarter idea, so I set up a separate website, DesigningObama.com, just to be able to tell the story a bit more and to make it seem a little more official, because it was so new to people at the time.

cover of The Crowdfunding Bible by Scott SteinbergQ.  What sort of PR and marketing did you do around the campaign?

A: I was doing a lecture tour at the time, speaking about my experience on the campaign, and I coupled that with the launch of the books. I launched it in New York City at the School for Visual Arts, which turned out to be a great platform to launch the project. And then I reached out to a lot of my friends and folks in my network and let them know I was launching this project, and mentioned to them that it would be great if they told folks on Twitter, and helped me spread the word. And I think that several of the folks in the design community that I reached out to ended up starting their own project campaigns later on, such as Scott Wilson at MINIMAL and the TikTok watch kit.

A lot of what I did was reach out to my friends who I knew had large followings on social networks, and had them post or tweet about the project as well. For me, Twitter was pretty much the most fundamental part of the marketing that I did. I think it is what really powered the level of support we garnered for the campaign.

The rewards I created were primarily going to revolve around the book, and that was what I wanted to keep the focus on, rather than creating all sort of other incentives for backing the project. And at the time there really wasn’t all that much precedent for having a more complex ladder of rewards. The other thing that I knew and understood was that the more complexity in the rewards, the more cost and difficulty there would be in fulfilling them at the end. I knew the book was going to be a huge challenge just by itself. Even the three different books that I had proved to be too complicated: In hindsight, I wish I’d only done one version and left it at that.

Q.  How much time did you spend interacting with the community once the campaign was running?

A: A lot, actually. It was so early in the life of Kickstarter that people didn’t really understand how the whole thing worked. They assumed that the book had already been produced, already been printed, and were asking why it hadn’t shipped yet. Lots of folks didn’t realize that it wasn’t actually done yet. I had a few renders of the book, and a table of contents, and some of the writing was done, but I was nowhere even close to having the book finished.  There were many people who were backing the project, even when it was about to close, wondering, “Where’s my book?” So I spent a lot of time responding to messages about that, explaining what Kickstarter was, and how the platform worked. And then there was the problem of shipping and fulfillment.

Designing Obama was, for its time, unusual in that it had an unprecedented number of international project backers. And the book weighs five pounds. So when you walk into the post office in downtown Chicago and say, “I’d like to ship five hundred of these overseas. How do I go about doing that?” Well, let’s just say the folks there were not the most informative bunch when confronted with the challenge of shipping paper by the ton. So I had to go back to all of the backers and explain that the cost did not include shipping, and we’d have to settle that up separately when the books were done and ready to ship. This was a part of the process, that, in hindsight, I simply didn’t know enough about.

Fulfillment companies are fairly used to this, but I did it pretty raw, to the point where I was renting trucks, I was loading pallets, and I was packing books with friends and family. And I did it all to keep the shipping costs down and not upset my backers. I do not recommend this as a strategy, but this is what I ended up having to do.

Q.  What advice would you have for teams that are putting together a campaign now about how to get the word out?

A: I would strongly suggest that you reach out to your community. If you can convince them that this is a cool project and something of interest, then word about it just naturally spreads. And I think that is the fundamental way to involve people and to get them to back you and support your project.

Q.  After the campaign was over, how did you maintain contact with backers?

A: I predominantly used updates on the Kickstarter page to just let people know where we were at in the process, how fulfillment was going, and post the occasional “woe is me” update about the difficulties of writing a book. Sometimes it was challenging because commenters online have a tendency to comment in ways that may sound negative, and that can sometimes be a blow to your self-esteem, or your confidence in the project. Comments would include the likes of “Why is this taking so long?” And I’d have to post an update and explain that I was designing, writing, publishing and fulfilling a book myself. Just me. So there were some times that I just had to get away, go home, sleep, and then come back refreshed before I wrote a response.

Q.  Any last thoughts you’d like to leave today’s crowdfunders with?

A: With a lot of these projects, you don’t think to build in a salary for yourself. You think “I’m just going to do this project and it’s going to be cool,” and then you realize that you still have to work a day job on top of it. So I had to take on freelance work, but that ended up taking time away from getting the book done. When plotting a campaign, think through the process, from end to end, and all of the associated costs that go along with it. That way, when you have to move two tons of paper from your garage to points all over the world, you have a plan for how to do it. Also, if you can do the project as a part of a team, it’s far better than trying to do it yourself. This was one of my really important pieces of learning. I really wanted to do the project myself, but looking back I would have been far better off if I had involved more people in it.

Steinberg’s co-author, Jon Kimmich, will appear on a crowd-fudning panel at GamesBeat 2012.


GamesBeat 2012 is VentureBeat’s fourth annual conference on disruption in the video game market. This year we’re calling on speakers from the hottest mobile, social, PC, and console companies to debate new ways to stay on pace with changing consumer tastes and platforms. Join 500+ execs, investors, analysts, entrepreneurs, and press as we explore the gaming industry’s latest trends and newest monetization opportunities. The event takes place July 10-11 in San Francisco, and you can get your tickets here.

Scott Steinberg, author of The Crowdfunding BibleProfessional keynote speaker Scott Steinberg is a leading expert on leveraging new technology trends to enhance business strategy and family life. He is also a noted industry consultant and bestselling author.

Top photo: Designing Obama website



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