Guest Post: How to Think About Rewards

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Sarah A. O. is a repeat creator and consultant on many projects across the arts, including performance festivals, music venues, dance, and photography (here is her latest project, a sci-fi graphic novel in collaboration with 50+ artists). In short, Sarah has a pretty good idea of how to put a project page together. We asked her to write a guest post for us about how to plan and structure good rewards for your project.

I’m a big proponent of artists being experimental with their business approaches (one of the many reasons I’m a big Kickstarter nerd) and so when Kickstarter asked me to leave some thoughts on backer rewards, I was super excited. Rather than offer advice on specific rewards (besides, there’s a great list here), I wanted to share some ideas about how to think about backer rewards. 

Arguably, backer rewards are one of the most fun parts of creating a Kickstarter campaign — you can be creative, get your art or product out into the world, and encourage other people to share their excitement about your work. That being said, if they're poorly thought out or managed, rewards are an area that can drain your budget and energy and create ill will with potential supporters. While I don’t see a ton of reward-related fiascos (the most common is that project creators just lose momentum after a project and don’t get the promised prizes to their backers until years later... RUDE), I do see a lot of project creators not utilizing the usefulness of rewards to their full extent. 

Rewards are fun for the backer, but how can you make them really work for you? In my mind, your goal should be to think as sustainably as possible as you brainstorm rewards.

Art from ETLE ILLUS, offered as prints.
Art from ETLE ILLUS, offered as prints.

Think about how your rewards can serve multiple agendas. 

To start, think about your budget, time, and energy. Remind yourself that you'll be feeling stressed out and neurotic during the project, and exhausted once it's over. As an artist or maker, your priority usually isn’t to make millions — it’s to make what you need so that you can finish fundraising and spend your time and energy on your creative work. Great rewards for YOU: 

  • Are already in existence or take $0 to create. For example: access to existing footage or digital artifacts, the first chapter of a book, etc. 
  • Require no shipping (can be emailed, hosted digitally, or are experience-based. For example: attending a party or rehearsal, downloading a mixtape.
  • Exist towards the ratio of one thing serving many backers rather than needing a 1:1 thing per backer. For example: a party that all backers at that level can attend or a video that can be emailed to the group rather than a tote that needs to be sent to each backer.

Now (still thinking about yourself) think a little more strategically. Planning for the project is great, but playing the long game and planning for whatever work you're making three years from now is even better. Great rewards for YOU are:

  • Rewards that creatively fuel the work or process itself by giving feedback or interacting creatively. For example, an open rehearsal or pre-screening. 
  • Rewards that further your brand or product. For example, branded totes, insider information that educates about the product. 
  • Rewards that (if you're making a purchase like tote bags or products) will have a demand past the life of the Kickstarter and can be sold at events, on Etsy, on your website, etc, allowing for continued income. For example, physical merchandise that’s not just project or Kickstarter-related.
  • Rewards that allow for a direct, intimate cultivation and development of your donors and supporters. For example, a Skype conversation or taking a backer out for a drink, a special reception at a show, or creative access that lasts year-round.

This last one is KEY! Kickstarter is a great way to connect with folks who are truly interested in your work, and a prize that furthers that relationship (say, inviting a backer to a showing/open rehearsal, or giving them special access) go above and beyond the simple delivery of a prize. Getting face-time with your backers is good, as is facilitating a relationship where there's actual dialogue and exchange rather than just the handing over of a prize. This facilitates relationships that may outlast the life of your Kickstarter! 

Think about the backers you have and the backers you want.

Try to get as far out of your own head as possible. Before you even think about rewards your backers might love, you need to articulate who those magical future backers might be. In general, there are three types of backers:

  • Folks you already know who will most likely donate 
  • Folks you already know who are on the fence 
  • Folks you don’t have a personal connection to that you’d like to attract

The most important thing you can know going into a Kickstarter is that the core of the project’s momentum, both financially and in terms of buzz, is going to be people who are already in your inner circle: your friends, relatives, collaborators on your project. These people are your group A, who will most likely donate to your project regardless of the specific rewards (thanks mom!) Your mindset for this group of donors should be to get them to donate at a higher level than they were anticipating.

Then there’s group B, the folks in your community or slightly less inner circle who know you or your work, will be hearing about your project, and are primed to become backers — they just need that little extra push. Your mindset for this group of donors should be to make becoming a backer irresistible. Once that’s done, if group A’s logic of getting them to donate at a higher level than they were anticipating can also be achieved, that’s icing on the cake.

Then there’s group C. If you’re going to get a stranger to back you’re work, it’s all about your project’s narrative, and your project’s prizes. Think specifically for each audience group you’re hoping to woo. What would each group find exciting? What is each group’s financial capacity to be involved? Make sure you’re not assuming the best-possible response. If you can, find a few people in each of those groups to give you feedback.

Art from ETLE ILLUS, offered as postcards at a lower tier.
Art from ETLE ILLUS, offered as postcards at a lower tier.

Think about the rewards. 

After that's established, think about what might be most exciting to your backers. My general guidelines are:

  • It's great to have at least one thing that's physical, and one thing that's not. Some folks love tote bags, and some folks really hate clutter. Make sure you have a range of options that play to people across the spectrum. 
  • Access to the thing itself is always key. If it's something that you can't directly offer access to (such as a performance), think about other ways to give access: open rehearsals, preview performances, etc. 
  • Exclusivity is always exciting. Is Kickstarter the ONLY way for them to get this thing? Or is it signed/personalized? Is it available months or years of when it will be available through retail? 
  • The best rewards are things that someone would really want to buy anyway, at a price point for less than they'd buy it retail. These feel like a steal, and will generate the most buzz and excitement. Ideally, this would also be your $25-35 reward, the average donation point. 
  • It's great to have a reward that's all those things (awesome, exclusive, still a steal) but undeniably better at the backer tier right above it. 

For the backer-centric part of the brainstorming, if can be helpful to pull in some friends for outside opinions. Make sure you ask a range of different people both inside and outside your community, different ages, different income brackets, etc. and make it clear that you want honest feedback rather than just encouragement. Think as practically as possible (ie: "Would YOU buy THIS THING for THIS AMOUNT" rather than "Do you think this thing is cool?") It always great to ask open-ended questions here as well (ie: "if you could create any reward for yourself having to do with this project, what would it be?")

The name of the game is to kill as many birds with as few stones as possible. Of course, this isn't always possible, and sometimes it's definitely better to sacrifice something that benefits your process to wow backers with a really great reward. That being said, thinking creatively to create rewards that benefit all involved can create a more dynamic set of offerings, and one that will hopefully benefit you long after your project closes! 

In closing, remember that Kickstarter campaigns can be a semi-fluid improvisatory process. You can always add backer rewards as you go, and by listening to the response that you’re getting, both generally and in regards to specific prizes, you’ll be able to put that information to use as your project progresses, and in projects to come. 

Happy Kickstarting!

You can find Sarah A. O. at her website the AOMC, and on Kickstarter.  

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