Mob mentality

Rachel Callander, Tymon, Super Power Babies Project

Adrian Hatwell explores the local options for crowdfunding photographic projects, and the clever creatives putting them to work

In the last five years the idea of crowdfunding has increasingly gathered steam. For many creative endeavours across the globe, crowdfunding is now the first and only port of call necessary to get a project up and running. Uptake has not been quite as vigorous in New Zealand as other parts of the world, but a slow and steady build in popularity has local crowdfunding platforms set to hit a tipping point soon. It’s something the world’s biggest crowdsourcing website, Kickstarter, seems aware of, having opened shop in New Zealand recently.

With its launch in November 2013, Kickstarter joins such local platforms as PledgeMe and Boosted as online destinations for creative Kiwis to float their ideas and vie for the public’s dollar. Internationally, such services have been a valuable tool for photographers in producing a wide array of products — books, exhibitions, films, tours, prints, collaborations — anything that might catch donor attention.

Things like video-game, film, and design projects have traditionally been the biggest successes in the crowdfunding realm, but Kickstarter reports having raised US$9.73 million for various photography projects to date. Our local variants don’t have quite such impressive numbers, but there have been a number of small-scale successes and a few rather sizeable ones too. Anna Guenther, founder of PledgeMe, says the site hasn’t had a huge volume of photography projects come through, but of those that have, 49 per cent have been successfully funded, and she sees New Zealand as particularly ripe for crowdfunding to flourish.

“I think we build communities and connections quicker [in New Zealand], because the degrees of separation are less. If a story is sticky, it’ll spread like wildfire through a community — like the photography community.”

Success stories

One recent local campaign certainly backs this up. As reported in Issue No. 197 of The Photographer’s Mail, Timaru-based photographer Rachel Callander launched a campaign on the PledgeMe website with the aim of raising $70,000 to create a photo book featuring New Zealand children with chromosomal and genetic conditions. It was one of the website’s most ambitious funding goals to date, but Callander’s worthy goal of “changing the way we in New Zealand see and talk about people with disabilities” ended up netting over $85,000 during its four-week campaign.

Rachel Callander, Romy, Super Power Babies Project

“We were very optimistic, we did a lot of planning before the campaign; a whole month of market research and figuring out how many people we could get involved,” Callander explains. “But it was a huge punt — PledgeMe said the average successful campaign was only around $3000.”

Callander was originally inspired to crowd-fund the project after hearing about the success of her cousin Chris Thomson and his business partner, Ben Ryan, at their Queenstown company, Syrp. Last year they managed to raise over US$636,700 for the ‘Genie’, a motion-control and image-capture device for film and time-lapse photography.

“When we began developing the Genie we always had Kickstarter in mind for launching our product,” Ryan says. “At the time Kickstarter was becoming very popular, and it seemed like every week there was a new highest-funded project. We thought it was a great fit for our project, since there are a lot of creatives on there and people getting excited for new products.”

Spreading the word

The beginnings of these two successful campaigns were very different — Callander was looking to pre-sell her book before going out to create it, while Syrp had already sunk a year and lots of money into developing the Genie before launching its Kickstarter initiative. Despite the differences, both took similar steps for publicizing their campaigns from the outset, with a hard emphasis on web-based promotion.

“The plan was to just hit every related blog and website that we could; social media also played a huge part in spreading the word,” Ryan says. “We also spent a lot of time just creating new footage with the Genie, and making films that would not only get shared among the tech sites but also more creative websites.”

Callander says Facebook was initially her main driver for publicity, but soon discovered the demands of constantly keeping the campaign in front of suitable potential backers meant a more diverse strategy was needed.

“We have this graph, and it plays out like a one-day cricket match. You go in hard at the start. We Facebooked all our friends and family and got heaps of pledges on the first day. Then it kind of waned a little bit. Then it waned a lot.”

With the initial momentum dropping off she turned to the more conventional media release, sending the story off to newspapers and TV stations, which proved very effective. When it came to marketing reach, the Genie campaign found most of its backers in the US, whereas the Super Power Baby Project had an extremely loyal local following, with people all around Timaru throwing fundraising events to pitch in.

Regardless of whether you want to take a very community-focused approach or are hoping for more geographically broad appeal, the advice echoed by the experts is to speak to your backers as a community, and engage them in on a more personal, conversational level.

“Crowdfunding backers are not your regular customers; they want to be a part of your project and come along for the journey,” Ryan advises. Similarly, Guenther says the biggest mistake she sees at PledgeMe is people not tapping into their own networks successfully. “Crowdfunding is really about engaging your crowd, and if they like what they see it’ll spread further afield.”

Which platform to choose

That is precisely why Mark Michel, Boosted’s manager, thinks the platform is ideal for photographic artists to launch projects from, despite its slow start in the medium.

“Boosted is about helping a project to raise money, but it is also about helping to nurture the artists, no matter what stage of their career they are in. We endeavour to sit down or at least talk to every single project that comes through.”

super power baby project

As part of The Arts Foundation, the website is a way for artists to benefit from the organization’s 13 years of experience of managing private funds, building partnerships in the industry, and leveraging sponsorship, which Michel would like to see more photographers take advantage of.

Callander, however, says she was very happy with PledgeMe’s community-focused vibe and website design, though when it came to advice she had to go outside the organization to a friend for business-minded mentoring. Kickstarter’s more global saturation definitely has its advantages, says Ryan, but the company itself will not help with marketing your project, and its size can also detract from its efficacy.

“There are a lot of projects on there now from large companies basically trying to pre-sell products — these guys don’t really need to raise the funds, they are just wanting to utilize the large audience to sell things, and I’m surprised Kickstarter allows it. It has sort of moved away from just a couple of guys in a shed trying to launch something for the first time.”

Regardless of which platform you’re looking at, there’s undeniable potential for local photographers to begin using crowdfunding more frequently. The concept is definitely gaining traction in New Zealand, and savvy photographers willing to put the work in will likely discover it to be a rewarding new avenue for funding in an environment where traditional opportunities are becoming increasingly hard to come by.

What is ‘crowdfunding’?

Anyone can attempt to raise money for a project by creating an online campaign on one of the many crowdfunding websites. These platforms provide a space where creators can pitch their idea to the world, along with a simple mechanism allowing interested backers to pledge money to the campaign, often getting rewards based on the amount pledged.

If a campaign reaches its funding goal within the allocated time frame, those pledges are turned into actual funds and the project is away; if not, then there’s no money for the creator, no money lost by the backers.

Different websites have their own particulars, but this is the basic concept behind them all.

Top five tips for successful crowdfunding

PledgeMe’s Anna Guenther gives us her best pointers for raising the money you’re after on a crowdfunding website:

1. don’t just promote the campaign, promote you

2. make it a journey, not just an ask

3. individual emails are gold

4. sharing photos works really well on Twitter, Facebook, etc.

5. get help, and make the promotion part fun (e.g. a working bee with beers)

Links of interest

Kickstarter PledgeMe Boosted Super Power Baby Project Syrp

Images: Rachel Callander