When you have a funded project, people are already - literally and emotionally - invested in you. As with any investment, you want to make sure your supporter’s return-on-investment is maximized.
The other day, a friend of mine sent me an email to talk about crowdfunding. He had supported various projects on Kickstarter, but the overall experience had left him jaded (his word, not mine). He wrote that while he had essentially received what had been promised, a couple of nice surprises notwithstanding he still felt disappointed. He also wrote that he would not fund future projects by some of the photographers he had given money to because he felt he had been “treated like a cash cow”. (more)
I think crowdfunding is a great idea. I think crowdfunding has the potential to solve some of the financial problems so many photographers are struggling with. But crowdfunding is more complex than it would seem: First, you have to find the people who will give you money. And then, you have to make sure they’re going to be happy.
You’d imagine that if you give people what they give you money for that should be enough. But I actually don’t think that’s how this really works. Let’s say you need $1,000 to produce something, so you “do a Kickstarter,” and you say that if someone gives you $50 they’ll get whatever it is you want to produce. Let’s say you find all those people, you send out a thank-you email, spend some weeks on producing whatever it is you want to do, and then you send it out to your supporters. That’s my friend’s experience. It’s essentially just a slightly more unusual way of shopping, isn’t it? You prepay, and then you get your product. I don’t think that’s a good approach to crowdfunding.
At the very least, approaching crowdfunding that way is a lost opportunity. After all, if people are interested enough to give you money don’t you want to make sure that those same people might give you money again in the future? Wouldn’t that be nice? In other words, wouldn’t you want to give them the feeling that your project is not just some shopping experience?
Isn’t this problem essentially the same problem you face as a photographer with your images? There are thousands and thousands of other photographers out there - how do you differentiate yourself? Let’s be realistic, unless (until) you’re famous your photographs are probably not going to be enough. You have to do some PR. But you need to do the PR smartly so that you won’t be yet another person sending out an email that’s little more than “Hey, look at my website!”
Crowdfunding is more complex than that: When you have a funded project, people are already - literally and emotionally - invested in you. As with any investment, you want to make sure your supporter’s return-on-investment is maximized. Giving them what they paid for is good. But you want to give them more. Treat the people who supported your work not as customers, but as patrons - patrons in the old sense of the work. Think of them not as current supporters but as potential future supporters.
Thus, make sure to communicate with them about whatever it is you do. Send them updates, and make sure the updates are meaningful and don’t feel like a chore. The more engaged you are with your supporters, the more you give them the feeling they’re not just convenient cash cows for you.
In a nutshell, I see crowdfunding as bringing the idea of patronage to the web. There is an element of commerce involved, but the crucial aspect is not the commerce. Instead, it’s the relationships artists can establish with their supporters. Artists need those relationships. In the past, these kinds of relationships were usually established with wealthy collectors only. Now, crowdfunding offers the chance to establish them with a much larger, much more diverse, much more democratic group of people. Artists ignore this aspect of crowdfunding at their own peril!