The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (LBD) web series astounded many people, not only with its breakout mainstream success, but its record-breaking Kickstarter campaign to become at one point the fourth top successful campaign in the Film & Video category (to later be pushed into 6th place only by Zach Braff’s WISH I WERE HERE and Zane Lamprey’s CHUG campaigns).
The campaign had fulfilled its $60,000 goal well under three hours the first day and went on to earn close to 800% overall of what the team had originally asked. Whereas the campaign did bank on the huge success of the series, there were several genius strategies and tactics that are worth taking a special look at. Each suggests something greater: a paradigm shift in the relationship with content creators and fans, and it is prudent for content creators to understand these new dynamics.
[TO VIEW/USE THE SLIDE PRESENTATION FOR THIS CASE STUDY IN CLASSROOMS/ETC. VISIT THE TMC RESOURCE KIT]
Here are ten that stood out to me personally:
1) Build Your Hardcore Fanbase First
While it is not uncommon for new properties/projects in the Film/Video category to earn$20,000-40,000, this is often done with a lot of blood, sweat and tears for what is known as “the friends and family” rate. But not every campaign for a new project is so lucky: eleven percent of Kickstarter campaigns fail to earn a single dime, and saturation within industry circles is making it harder and harder to squeeze money from friends when all your friends work in the industry and have their own campaigns to worry about (and all your mutual friends are tap dancing toward you with tin cup in hand).
During his recent presentation on Kickstarter for Filmmakers, author James Cooper told Transmedia 101 that what many hoping to raise money neglect to understand in crowdfunding is that the “crowd” must come be put first before “funding”.
And LBD did manage to build quite the crowd. Just prior to the Kickstarter, LBD had a near total of 33.4 million views and 361,984 subscribers over the various channels on Youtube. The total twitter followers across all accounts was significantly lower for 350,000 followers total since many people followed multiple accounts and are therefore counted several times over. Don’t forget that LBD also had a large volume of videos distributed over a year’s time so while total views are impressive, it would be fair to say that the passive audience (as opposed to the rabid fans) who watched all the videos of LBD prior to the historic campaign was in the range of185,000-250,000 if not a bit more. Ultimately the producers of LBD did the song and dance routine FIRST before presenting the tin cup: NOT the other way around, as is the tragic mistake of most first-time entertainment property crowdfunding campaigns that insist on raising money in advance of building an audience.
While LBD’s passive audience was impressive and has rumoured to contribute quite a bit of ad rev share to the production, there is a disconnect between the large numbers of viewers and the backers of the LBD campaign itself. The total backers of the campaign was only 7158, roughly 3% of the more generously estimated 250,000 regular viewer audience base. Why is this distinction important?
While emergent hybrid monetization models for web series can include ad rev share from mass audience numbers,* developing a hardcore rabid fanbase packed with True Fans who are dedicated in supporting one’s project is crucial to the success of a crowdfunding campaign. These True Fans, not the mass audience of passive viewers, were the ones that desired to support the series so much they incredibly begged Pemberley Digital to allow them to buy DVD copies of a show that was available to watch online for free, and were in fact, the impetus for the campaign itself.
Developing a mass audience of over 250,000 is often out of reach or even the mission of many web series producers; however, developing a hardcore fanbase of say only 1000 True Fans is less daunting for most especially when creating content that appeals to an underserved and niche audience (to which it could be argued LBD did in fact serve).
*Keeping in mind that most prodcos do not enjoy Youtube’s little discussed rates for “special partners” that are not available to you and I as Joe Producer even when we do reach that mass audience.
2) Time Your Campaign Launch for Peak Of Fan Emotional High
Not only did Pemberley Digital build a sizeable audience for LBD first, it also timed the launch of the campaign very strategically. As Transmedia Producer Jay Bushman described it:
“We launched the KS campaign at the end of the show’s run – the day after the climactic episode ninety-eight when Lizzie kissed Darcy for the first time. The fanbase was in a complete uproar over the long-awaited kiss, and they were also beginning to grapple with the imminent ending of the show.”
The timing of the campaign rode the wave of the fans emotional high who were now keenly invested in resolutions – not only the fruition of Lizzie and Darcy’s blossoming relationship that they had been shipping for over a year, but also the emotional investment in the production itself – the personal connection to the creators, cast and crew and contributing to THEIR ongoing success. Launching a day after the end of the series also meant that the fans were eager for any new content, even devouring the content of the campaign itself to dissect any possible information of a continuing series or sequel that might contain their favourite actors or characters, and therefore more eager to drop coin on a boxed DVD set that promised precisely that: bonus content, behind the scenes material, and so on. The explosion of backers those first few hours of the campaign really demonstrated the fan fervour at that moment.
3) Don’t Use the Term Crowdfunding
Critical to the success of the campaign was how it was framed to an audience who would be likely unfamiliar with terms such as crowdfunding and who many likely didn’t even know what Kickstarter even was. Instead, if you note, the title of campaign didn’t hint at “raising funds” but rather treated the page as an avenue for presales for the DVD. In fact the term “fund” only appeared even once! This changed the whole dynamic of the usual relationship between creator and potential donators.
Instead of holding Tin Cup in Hand, the campaign simply directed audiences who desired to buy the DVD as a pre-sale pure and simple, thus altering the position of creator and the value exchange of the transaction. Yes, fans were supporting the prodco through the Kickstarter but there was never a sense Pemberley Digital was begging for money. Rather, the campaign was normalized in the lens of: media creators doing their job of creating quality content that is worth monetary exploitation.
Even in the video, Hank Green is sitting before a wall of DVD sets that can only serve to normalize PAYING for entertainment as just simply something fans just do.
4) Position Your Perks as Fan Service and Totems
Throughout the video and on the page of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ Kickstarter, the levelled rewards were situated as “perks” in a sales pitch form as opposed to a token/reward for simply donating. In fact the reverse was true. The perks were positioned as Fan Service. This might not seem to be much of a distinction, but since LBD creators and producers had an intimate acquaintance with fans, they had a sense of what the fans were demanding. In fact, some of the rewards even used the term: “BY POPULAR DEMAND”. The rewards, then, introduced scarcity for items (“only 50 will ever exist!!”) in demand by an established fan base who now felt THEY were the ones being rewarded by the creators and NOT the other way around.
A breakdown of the perks demonstrates this throughout but in particularly the most expensive reward which stands out: $1000 to have a co-created fictional character to be featured in Welcome to Sanditon, Pemberley Digital’s follow up project (more on this later). This is a clear demonstration of the exploitation of one’s cultural capital at its finest.
Jay further explained to Transmedia 101:
“Sure, as a creator, you get to get these items into the hands of the people who are going to care about the materials. And they seem just like posters or blank journals or a DVD, but what they really are: they really are physical embodiments of the emotional energy these audience members have put into the show. You are sending basically totems and there is an incredible amount of power to that.”
Once again funding was not the operative word here in the equation: but rather the crowd and the transfer of energy of emotional connection between audience and creator.
5) Honour Fans as an Ongoing Emotional Investment
Intriguingly, the call to action to raise funds for Welcome to Sanditon and further projects was almost situated as an “Oh by the way” side pointBuy. our DVD’s, posters, and book (which you asked for anyways) and we’ll reward our fans by creating EVEN MAWR content: Welcome to Sanditon and Hush Hush! a fully developed new project you will all love (NO SPOILERZ!).
Although the above was not stated directly, the attitude was implicit throughout the campaign. This adds to the idea of value exchange between fan and content creator in which the content creator is never positioned as “asking” for money but rewarding fans by producing more content through their monetized support. The positioning thus became not ‘We Need Money and Here’s a Token for Coming To Our Rescue’ but rather: “We Love You Guys So Much We’ve Created These Perks We Know You Want To REALLY REALLY REALLY Have (and P.S. when you buy these items, they will help us accomplish X, Y and Z which is MORE STUFF from US YOU’LL LOVE).”
This exemplary salesmanship CANNOT be overlooked, and those framing their own crowdfunding campaigns must understand how this sort of positioning can do so much to accelerate a buy-in.
As transmedia producer Jay Bushman told the crowd at Transmedia 101, Welcome to Sanditon’s inclusion in the crowdfunding campaign guaranteed an ongoing relationship with the fans. Pemberley Digital was NOT just going to abandon the fanbase and move on to the next unrelated thing. Instead it is necessary to train the audience after creating these relationships and this sense of communal hub that the production was one they could explicitly put trust in.
Jay explained how to engender this level of trust from fans by stating:
“You are going to give them something, and then a little bit later you are going to give them something else, and then you’re still going to keep giving them stuff, and unlike many entertainment properties you are demonstrating that this isn’t a thing you do or watch and it’s over and you forget about.”
With this attitude, content creators are demonstrating they have invested in their fanbase with the belief that it will return yields both emotionally and monetarily. Welcome to Sanditon and ‘promises of another full-fledged series’ was giving the fans a notary promise of the emotional investment the creators had with them and that that relationship would continue and be honoured, and not dropped in favour of the next thing.
6) Brand An Established Property as Your Own
While much has been said that LBD capitalized on the wild popularity of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, I for one feel that is a bit overstated. There are many adaptations of Pride & Prejudice that have met with varying degrees of success and I’m not convinced that many in this particular demographic that watched LBD were more familiar with the book as they were with popular Youtube vloggers such as Hank Green himself. In fact, one young women expressed to me she had discovered LBD and had never even heard of Pride & Prejudice before and was now keen to read the book for the first time. So not only did Pemberley Digital leverage the popularity of Pride & Prejudice with an established audience of Janeites, it capitalized on the monetization of the novel to a completely new audience now rabidly eager to read the book that their now favourite show was based upon.
Further, Pemberley Digital personalized the content with the promise of a new LBD inspired cover and a forward (written by Hank himself). Of course not all (if many) properties are based on public domain works with established fan bases. However, this reward level demonstrated a certain business savvy that other content creators should look to set the bar: monetizing content that was cheap to produce that can be bundled with the branding of one’s own property.
7) Trust Fans to Value Your Work
In being upfront with the timeline of how the funds would be used, the campaign explained:
“Loan against future revenue” is an interesting expression for several reasons:
First, it demonstrated Pemberley Digital had faith in the fans to come to fore and pony up so they could back pay the Welcome to Sanditon production and demonstrated this by declaring they would start production right away and not wait for the funds to be raised first with a wait-and-see attitude. The copy even says: “We won’t leave you guys hanging!” This is very much akin to the trust demonstrated by Louis C.K. that his True Fans wouldn’t pirate his content but understand the value of it.
Second, this added urgency to the campaign: “We won’t leave you hanging!” served to create a subtext of: This needs to be produced right away! We can’t wait to begin! (You shouldn’t either!)
Third, this framing instantly added value to all future work with an attitude of: Hey, we know we worked for free in the past, but moving forward we are seeing our production blood, sweat and tears as having a price tag that should be respected. We should get paid and so should our cast and crew, and you guys get that and we have such implicit trust you will come to the fore, we will start our work with the understanding it has monetary value and you’ll respect that.
It is true that Kickstarter has done much to shift people’s attitudes towards entertainment in understanding that production does cost and needs to be invested in, monetized and respected. However, Pemberley Digital’s mastery in understanding how to subtly educate it’s fanbase in this regard is great push to further that paradigm shift in the minds of audiences who were used to getting content for free.
8) KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)
When you break down the tiered rewards, you’ll notice it is a really a clever bundling of several base rewards in varying combinations, keeping production of fulfillment simple (despite the individual reward items for LBD’s campaign numbering around 15,000). The cheapest reward level at $10 was a simple nod of the backer in the DVD’s liner. The DVD was being created anyways for the mid-level reward so the cost of fulfillment of this actual reward was almost non- existent other than the labour of collating the names of all the backers together. This means an almost 100% return on that reward alone minus platform/Paypal fees (with 303 backers that is $3030 dollars).
Other reward levels were almost identical to each other with the exception of the value placed on the individual(s) on the production team that were autographing the items, cleverly valuating the cast that the fanbase had a higher emotional investment as a highly level (and therefore more expensive) perk. We see this with two almost identical reward bundles that included a personalized voice message by the actors who played Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy being valued by the popularity of each character with audiences. Energy devoted to fulfillment was then efficiently spent in assembling various packages with a few key similar items as opposed to wasting time and energy on producing an unwieldy variety of rewards (all with different manufactures and so on) for each tier.
9) “Anoint” Die Hard Fans with Exclusive In Story Reward
I mentioned previously how the campaign cleverly used reward levels as Fan Service. Pemberley Digital took this to a finite point. It’s worth noting that LBD had an extensive transmedia campaign throughout the production, steered by transmedia producer Jay Bushman, which encouraged the rabid fans to engage with the character’s twitter accounts and so on but also generated a lot of UGC (user generated content).
UGC is often positioned as “crowdsourcing” the marketing of your property by encouraging word of mouth maximizing social spread. The fans of LBD had been trained for these kinds of storyworld play activities and Welcome to Sanditon promised to take this to the next level. But the final perk set the bar.
Valued at $1000, it was going to allow up to two die hard fans to pay for the privilege of being crowdsourced. They would have access to the storyworld in ways no other fans would be granted access: a co-created fictional character that would be featured in the series and would advance the plot. For the ‘audience who has everything’, this particular reward level becomes an almost storyworld “anointment” of their fictionalized existences to be acknowledged by beloved characters to the envy of other fans keen on participating in the more active transmedia elements. This is akin to being pulled on stage at a music concert (but paying dearly for the privilege). These two rewards were both in fact snapped up in a day of becoming available.
10) Enable Fans to Allow You to Reward the Cast and Crew
Jay Bushman credits the overwhelming success of the Lizzie Bennet Diary campaign, not just on the success of the show itself, but also the promise that the talented cast and crew who had invested much of their own time, skills, expertise and money into the making of the project with little monetary payback, would now finally receive back royalties based on the success of the Kickstarter, IF if exceeded it’s goal. As Hank Green said in the Kickstarter video itself:
“You need to get millions and millions and millions of views to get enough money to pay just one person a living wage at all.”
The Kickstarter was a way to restore the balance and educate fans (who are used to consuming free content) that entertainers are skilled workers and their work and high level of craft should be appreciated and rewarded monetarily for the ongoing sustenance and survival let alone
success of their careers. And by contributing to the Kickstarter, the fans would enable Pemberley Digital to honour this amazing pool of people who created the content the fans absolutely loved.
Jay said this was really reflected in the comments of the backers who kept saying things like:
“I really want a DVD, the journal, the posters (or whatever perk they had backed for), but more than anything else please pay the crew and the cast. You have given us a year’s worth of really incredible entertainment for free, please take our money and pay the people who created it.”
By understanding the importance for the Cast and Crew to form personalized relationships with fans outside of their fictional characters, Pemberley Digital did much to ensure the fans would want to support the longevity of the careers of all involved.
The Paradigm Shift
Each of these ten tactics was clever in of themselves, but overall they represent a paradigm shift taking place between how content creators think of their relationship with audiences and how to activate their fans. Jay went on to summarize his thoughts on the historic campaign:
“This is no longer about funding, but this is about the crowd, this is about your relationship with them and this is about giving of yourself so they will give back to you and it is a complete inversion on how we (as entertainers) normally fund our projects.”
And I believe this inverse model, or paradigm shift if you will, of putting the crowd before the funding to be the touchstone of LBD’s phenomenal success.