The Kickstarter feedback loop [Updated]

After this post went live, a representative from Kickstarter reached out to clarify some of the points made below. I don't think it changes my basic conclusion, but when you're working with statistics, it's good to have all your caveats in a row, so I added a few more comments after the cut.

Unlike some people, Mike Dawson has no problem with Kickstarter, per se, and in fact has contributed to some other creators' projects. But he is reluctant to use it for his own work:

Simply put, I’d be wary of allowing my ability or inability to successfully fund the printing costs of a book to have any influence over whether or not I saw said project through to completion.

Pre-failing financially, would undoubtedly undermine any chances I have of succeeding creatively.

Allowing a kind of market to pre-determine if my project has value… that would alter my own perception about it’s worth, no matter how hard I tried to fight that.

Failing to raise funds would mean I’d scrap the story and try something else. And I think that’s a crappy outcome.

(Emphasis in the original.) It's not the same as getting rejected by a publisher — that, he feels, could be written off as the opinion of one or two people. If the entire market rejects your work, it's a lot harder to get up the enthusiasm to complete it.

But hold on a minute. After looking at the Kickstarter statistics presented by Jeanne Pi of AppsBlogger and Prof. Ethan Mollick of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, I wouldn't be so quick to scrap a project just because it didn't get a lot of pledges. Pi and Mollick present their findings in a handy infographic, but here's a quick summary:

  • Kickstarter tends to bury its failures, so it appears more successful than it is.*
  • Most projects that are funded make their goal by a small margin.
  • Projects that don't get funded, on the other hand, tend to fail by a large margin.
  • The exception to this is that small handful of projects that totally blow out their funding goals. But that's not the norm.
  • The more Facebook friends you have, the more likely your project is to get funded.**
  • Projects that are featured have an 89% success rate, versus 30% for projects that are not featured.**
  • Projects that have a video are more likely to succeed than those that do not.**

So, the bitter might say that Kickstarter is basically a popularity contest where you either win small or lose big, but really it's more like a feedback system, where likely projects get a boost and others that don't hit the right buttons get shunted to the side. If you go to the main page of Kickstarter and click "See all 125 comics projects," you don't get a page with all 125 comics projects. You get a curated selection of "Staff Picks," "Popular Projects" and "Recently Successful." You can click for more in those categories — and actually, clicking through on "Popular Projects" does give you the full list — but it seems like part of the design of Kickstarter is to make the casual browser look at their chosen projects before revealing the full range. In short, rather than presenting all projects on an equal footing, Kickstarter makes it very easy to find some projects and more difficult to find others. They load the dice.

Those staff picks (what I assume Pi means by "featured projects") have high visibility — one in each category on the front page, a handful more on the next. I'm guessing that the staff uses quality as a criterion for its picks, meaning these projects may be more likely to get funded to begin with, but the increased exposure has to give them a boost as well.

Still, failure, when it comes, is not absolute. The first Shadowbinders Kickstarter failed (well, the creators canceled it with less than $1,200 pledged toward their $10,000 goal), perhaps not so much because of the comic as a lack of focus, as this blogger implies. The creators picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and started another one, which is almost 80 percent there as of this writing. Lea Hernandez's Kickstarter for The Garlicks failed, but she promised in her farewell video that she will bring it back in another form in August.

So while failing to make your Kickstarter goal may be embarrassing, it is not necessarily fatal.

* I conflated two things here. I was referring to the point about it being easier to find better-funded projects in progress—the feedback loop. I stand by that conclusion, but it doesn't belong in the bulleted list. Pi had a different point, having to do with scraping the blog and finding more successes than failures, which led her to believe Kickstarter was making pages for projects that failed to make their goal harder to find. I'm not convinced of that, and my comment wasn't referring to that. FWIW, Kickstarter has a stats page that gives the exact number of successful and failed projects. The success rate is 44%, as of today.

** The data for these three conclusions was based on Kickstarter projects with a goal of $5,000 or over. The previous bullet points are based on a larger data set but not a complete one: Prof. Mollick eliminated projects with goals under $100 or over $1,000,000 as well as those not based in the U.S.

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