Converging to a point we can’t see yet

In many ways, crowdfunding one hundred percent requires the internet. Using more traditional means, it is difficult to see the phenomenon working except in local face-to-face type grassroots affairs. A good comparison may be a political convention. In this case, having to run locally would be a disaster for most would-be projects, because the local nature limits the scope of possible attendees. Even worse from that point of view, crowdfunding relies on being able to accept funds from as many people around the world, in as many countries as possible.

So it’s a good thing the internet is a thing! Pledge campaigns have used, met, converged, split apart, and combined anew with all manner of other forms of media.

Today I am going to be looking at some ways crowdfunding converges with other media. For the purpose of this entry I will be using the two definitions of media convergence from my textbook:

  1. “Media convergence is the technological merging of content in different mass media. For example, magazine articles and radio programs are also accessible on the Internet. And songs, TV shows, and movies are now available on computers, iPods, and cell phones.”
  2. “…a particular business model by which a company consolidates various media holdings–such as cable connections, phone services, television transmissions, and internet access–all under one corporate umbrella.”

Welcome to the Order of the Stick
Order of the Stick is a webcomic that caters to particularly geeky interests. The characters: Stick figures. The subject: A Dungeons & Dragons, tabletop roleplaying… campaign. The comic began on the website Giant Playground in 2003, and there it has remained. It is characterized by a light-hearted tone (as well as a similar dose of irreverence), fourth-wall breaking moments, a knowing look at both the foibles and better parts of the game’s rule system, social commentary on gaming as a culture, and a well-written, steadily advancing plot.

Despite what might seem to be niche subject matter, Order of the Stick has consistently been in the top 10 of all webcomics according to site traffic reports such as this one from 2007 where it ranks 9th.

Like more traditional newspaper comics, this one too eventually branched out into the world of book collections of previous strips. However, despite being near-identical to the free content found online, the books sold out in 2010, which soon led to price inflation. Author Rich Burlew lacked the funds to order a reprint, and there things remained until January 22, 2012 when he began a single month Kickstarter campaign wherein he explained the situation and requested help raising the $57,750 he needed to fund a second print run.
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However, he ran into an unexpected problem: The campaign promptly proceeded to exceed its funding goal, which led to interested coverage from a number of high traffic blogs. Seeing that there was more than expected demand, and with the funding period not yet over, Burlew began trying things out. He added what are now known as “stretch goals”, further additional funding targets, each with an additional reward for backers if met. These new goals were also quickly met. So he added more. Which led to more media coverage including from the traditional press, more awareness from the general public, and eventually culminated in  the involvement of the actual D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast (albeit in limited fashion) as well as an actual D&D author who agreed to autograph a certain D&D book for backers who paid $200.

When it was all said and done, the campaign finished with $1,254,120 in pledged money (remember he had asked for $57,750 initially). A number of crowdfunding records had been broken, and possible pledge rewards were notable both for their mix-and-match nature and for how many there were. The number of possible pledges people could pick from had mushroomed to over 60. The rewards pledgers would receive from these pledges including all of the following types of media: The book reprints themselves, various other limited edition books, fridge magnets, digital PDFs of original stories, crayon drawings of any character, an art print, clothing patches, a coloring book, a tabletop game (and expansion pack) based on the comic, autographs, digital art commisions of customers themselves drawn in the comics’ stick-figure style, D&D sourcebooks autographed by their authors, holiday ornaments, and commisioned short stories. There were over 60 different mix-and-match pledge options pledgers could pick from the campaign.

The campaign was also noticeable for how Rich Burlew went about organizing (“conducting” may be a better word) the Kickstarter. Various actors whether they were fans organizing get-the-word-out drives, word of mouth, media blogs, curious onlookers, or comic activist groups, everything converged into a symphony of varying formations. Burley was at the heart of the storm, busily announcing records being broken on the Order of the Stick blog, responding to customer questions on the Kickstarter page itself, updating on the Kicskstarter campaign’s blog (finishing with 63 updates), and coming up with new funding goals.

It was a lesson that others would heed in the days that followed. Stretch goals, in particular, are now standard on many Kickstarter campaigns. And the Order of the Stick book reprints remain on amazon at a more affordable price.

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April, 2012. 2 months later.  An indie folk/pop band from Fort Collins, CO seemed to have been taking notes. While popular locally because of extensive touring, sunny dispositions, entertaining showmanship, and musicianship that was in many cases virtuoso, SHEL had been active for a number of years yet had only been able to release two limited run EPs. Still unrecognized, the goal of the four sisters (the name an acronym for the members’ first names: Sarah, Hannah, Eva, and Liza) was to break out and release an album.

So the band launched a crowdfund on Pledge Music. The goal was to raise enough money to record and release the band’s first album, and the structure was tailored to unique things the band members could offer anyone who was willing to give them money. This included: T-shirts, handwritten notes, hand-made and hand-delivered cookies, hand-made journals, customized top hats (somewhat of a trademark of SHEL’s concert appearances, often given away after a performance), “a box of 50 embarrassing facts about the band”, a poem, VIP treatment at a concert, lyrics sheets, cuff links, personalized songs, instruments, dinner, and house concerts.

The media was also paying attention this time, with Fox News immediately jumping on it as a story, and SHEL were not resting on their laurels either. The same day the campaign launched, they put out a youtube video promoting their campaign, which was spread on their social media accounts: Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and etc. as well as their website.

The band also continued playing shows and using that as a natural opportunity to bring up the funding drive to their audiences. Getting exposure on a big network on their first day, as well as having a natural grassroots movement of fans who already liked them, propelled the campaign to sucess, and the album has since come out.

A more accidental example of media convergence was Mailpile’s IndieGoGo campaign. Mailpile is a small startup company in Iceland. Concerned about Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA spying on, well, anything and everything, including email, the company sought to raise money for an encrypted email service.

In what seemed to be a major setback, the campaign was unexpectedly frozen by PayPal who processes the payments for IndieGoGo. This triggered the Streisand Effect and resulted in a storm of tech news and media coverage, leading to Mailpile’s funding going viral. However, it was a thoroughly unexpected convergence of those who dislike Paypal’s practices or had also had a bad experience with the payment processor, people concerned about NSA overreach, those who felt sympathy for Mailpile, anyone who thought, “hey, private email sounds neat, time to give them some money”, and many other diverse interests.

No one could have predicted it in advance, and, indeed, Mailpile barely had to do any of the work themselves. Mailpile only barely made their funding goal, but, in the end, they did make it.

Star Citizen
A final example, which I hope talk about in more depth later, is Star Citizen, a massive online space video game being developed by Chris Roberts plus the startup video game company he has built. Roberts has raised money from multiple sources: Traditional venture capitalist investors, a never-ending crowdfunding campaign on the Star Citizen website, and a second, crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter at the same time. The two crowdfunding campaigns have currently raised about $18 million, with the Kickstarter portion being about $1 million of that total. Having formerly been a famous video game maker before moving to Hollywood, Roberts took advantage of many connections in both industries he had built up throughout the years, as well as interviews with the gaming press.

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