Crowdfunding is a right-of-passage these days, particularly for independent shows targeting niche, underserved audiences. The Guild was among the first to demonstrate that raising money from your audience bolsters your legitimacy, proving to sponsors you have a dedicated fan base. Since then, a number of shows about diverse groups have done it, including many represented in my dissertation/book, from The Real Girl’s Guide to Awkward Black Girl and Anyone But Me.
This month East WillyB became the latest show I’ve covered to run a successful crowdsourcing campaign. The sitcom chronicling a diverse and gentrifying Latino neighborhood in Bushwick raised just over $50,000 toward its first full season!
I’ve seen a lot of successful crowdfunding campaigns, but the dogged East WillyB team did a particularly great job of orchestrating theirs. I decided to talk to producer Julia Grob about how she and colleagues pulled it off. They did a lot because they set a high fundraising bar; the lower the bar, the less you’ll have to do, generally.
This post is focused on Kickstarter, but there are other options. Most significantly, Indiegogo allows fundraisers to keep whatever they raise, whereas projects on Kickstarter have to raise all or nothing. For the East WillyB the Kickstarter rule added stress but helped in the end. “It was a huge motivator for our backers,” Grob said, noting how in the final week a number of backers increased donations to help get them over the hump. Before Kickstarter and Indiegogo came around, shows like The Guild used Paypal or similar services. New sites are always cropping up, such as Mobcaster, which focuses on funding full-length independent television.
Almost all crowdfunding sites require fundraisers offer incentives to donors. The team had to come up with low-cost, high-cool incentives. Music from the show, shout-outs and downloads of media materials were cheap enough to promise donors who gave under $100, while more generous donors received walk-on roles (all 20 sold out), t-shirts, dinner with the cast and party invitations.
Perhaps the most important decision is how much to raise. The team knew they wanted at least $35,000, but when they got support from a significant donor, they decided they needed to challenge themselves. “We were also in conversations with a handful of distribution and co-production partners, we needed to raise enough to maintain creative control but also demonstrate the popularity of the show,” Grob said.
Having a “backup” donor is a smart move if you can manage it. A backup is someone you trust who has pledged a certain amount and can kick-in to get you over the edge — this is most important on Kickstarter, because it’s all-or-nothing.
Since they already had a pilot season in the bag, the East WillyB producers had a number of contacts in the press. In advance of the campaign they reached out to old and new press partners to make sure the campaign would be covered. They tried to schedule the coverage so it was spaced out, but reporters work on their own time and most didn’t follow it.
Every campaign needs a video plea, especially for a video series. It should be engaging. East WillyB benefitted from having already shot around 20 twenty minutes of the show, but many successful campaigns reach their goal with less. Clarity and conviction are key. Being lively, creative and funny (see above) never hurt. Yamin Segal and Grob found they also had to explain Kickstarter to their audience, since many potential donors in their niche weren’t familiar with how the site worked.
The team created a calendar for the campaign, both to keep them on schedule and allowing them to keep open marketing opportunities. They knew they wanted to do an event for Cinco de Mayo, for instance. They also could keep track of what other events — panels, parties, etc. — they were already participating in that they could use to drive support and do cross-promotions. In the beginning they tried to estimate fundraising milestones — weekly goals — but realized they couldn’t predict too much in advance.
One of the challenges the team faced was their long hiatus. The show premiered last year and they’d lost some momentum. “We knew we were going to have a big, uphill battle to get our fans back,” Grob said. The Kickstarter campaign itself was a big part of that push. During the campaign they had to be in constant contact with fans and be as creative as possible. First, they made sure every donor (and occasionally groups of donors) got a personal shout-out on Facebook and/or Twitter thanking them for their donation.They made sure to document (through photo and video) as much of the campaign as possible. “Videos and photos are what got clicked the most,” Grob said. The team posted a variety of things: YouTube music videos that were inspiring, articles about them, old videos they produced and challenges to reach goals (e.g., “let’s raise $XXXX by 5pm!”)
Their Kickstarter campaign launched when Grob was speaking at a live event, which create opportunities for media exposure. “Live campaigning played a big role,” Grob said. Attending industry events at places like the TriBeCa Film Festival opened up more opportunities to reach potential supporters. Some live events were planned and known — in the first two weeks the campaign gave tickets to the TriBeCa event to their 30th backer; that person eventually became a vocal supporter: “He became a mouthpiece for the campaign.” Many live events were unplanned. “We were constantly thinking giveaways and different ways to engage with fans…’Oh wait, we have an extra ticket. Let’s try this!’” Other events included tickets to a Latino comedy showcase, a pub crawl on Cinco de Mayo, a salsa event one of their actors performed in, and a dominos fundraiser at the bar in which they shoot the show. These events served multiple functions. A “cut-a-thon” — $10 haircuts (pictured right) — at a Bushwick barbershop was part of a larger effort to engage businesses in the community the show portrays, for example.
Coming up with structured ways for donors to participate can be a huge boon. The East WillyB campaign had a “Brand Ambassadors Program.” For donors who seemed particularly excited about the project, the team offered an associate producer credit to individuals who could raise a certain amount from their networks. If someone wanted to help but didn’t have much money, if they could get others to donate, they would get credit for the total sum. The team sent brand ambassadors tweet language and a form letter for why they should support the campaign. “We did it very targeted,” Grob said. Most brand ambassadors did not raise tremendous sums of money; of the 20 or so East WillyB reached out to, only two panned out, but both of those raised about $5,000, or 10% of their ask.
Press and Endorsers
Press is hard to predict. Some journalists did more than they promised — one outlet hosted a contest — and some did less (posting a press release). This is why it is very important to reach out to a large and diverse set of publications. “I still can’t tell you to this day whether all that press translated into donations,” Grob said. Looking at donations generated from clickthroughs from press sites, Grob said she could estimate maybe $500 was raised directly from press. But press helped momentum and perception: “At some point everyone was talking about East WillyB and everyone was involved.” Latino press was key: the campaign was covered in outlets like NBC Latino and Univision, but they also got covered in outlets like New Yorker and Tubefilter.
But the team members were also active participants among New York Web Series Creators, who were big supporters, including respected producers like Wilson Cleveland (Leap Year), Susan Miller and Tina Cesa Ward (Anyone But Me), and eventually The Guild‘s Felicia Day, whose Twitter endorsement led to nearly 2 million impressions.
Endorsements from Latino actors and producers helped as well, including Andre Royo (The Wire), Rick Gonzalez (Reaper, Coach Carter), Lin-Manuel Miranda (of the Tony award-winning In the Heights) and John Leguizamo. Getting celebrity endorsements boosts credibility. East WillyB released a “Latinos in Hollywood” video endorsement series during them campaign to showcase some of these supporters. Grob said the team had been in conversation with most of them (through friends) before the campaign; some are guest-starring in the show (Royo). Getting video endorsements required flexibility. Their video with Miranda happened because actor Caridad de la Luz (“La Bruja”) performed in a show with him and shot the video backstage.
Grob had some general advice for those looking to start a crowdfunding campaign.
It’s a job
The team got an office for the campaign and to write the next season. Grob said 12-16 hour days weren’t uncommon. ” Yamin and I were working full-time,” she said, though they also got an intern. Having an office also showed donors they were serious — they tweeted out photos of them writing and planning (pictured right) and getting interviewed by press (above). “We were showing that there was forward movement, to couch the campaign like ‘this was happening,’ to show that you would be contributing to a moving ship,” Grob said.
You can’t plan everything
Having a plan is key, but not everything will go according to plan. The East WillyB team started planning about 6-8 weeks before they launched. Being flexible is key, which is why it’s a full-time job. You should be constantly thinking of ways to engage potential donors.
Grob underscored the importance of following up on every lead you get. “You get contacted by everyone,” she said. Making connections can help boost the campaign — by creating brand ambassadors, for instance — but can be beneficial after it as well.
It may sound obvious, but Grob said a key contributor to their success was positivity, being resolute in your goal. “We had so much on the line because we had to do it,” she said, adding: “No matter what happened…we maintained that positivity.” There were highs and lows, she said, but she found that declaring you will be successful helped drive them to succeed.
Know the odds
Most estimates state that anywhere from 30% to 40% of Kickstarter campaigns are successful. My own small study of web series campaigns found 38% succeeded, and larger studies have confirmed that. Grob’s mantra was ” “90% that reach 30%,” or 90% of campaigns that reach 30% of their goal are successful, something I’ve found to be true. This helped them maintain a positive outlook.