The Power of Stretch Goals: The Young Protector’s Careful Road to Six-Figure Kickstarter Success

January 26, 2016

There have been almost 6,700 launched comic projects on Kickstarter.

Of those, only half are successful.

And of the successful projects, only 1.5% raise six figures or more.

These campaigns are the vanguard for comics on Kickstarter – often defying expectations and changing how people approach the platform.

While impressive funding totals is part of what makes these campaigns worth studying, it’s not the only interesting aspect.

Most six-figure campaigns don’t set out with massive goals, instead swelling in size over the course of their campaign until they pass that threshold.

What unique advantages do they have that allows them to reach those levels?

And how can the experience that the creators behind these projects gain in running these large campaigns help other creators looking to use the Kickstarter platform as a launchpad for their projects and creative career?

Get the book, trading cards & more for The Young Protectors—a smart superhero tale featuring a hero who just happens to like other guys

To answer these questions, I’ve been speaking with the creators behind these success stories. 

This time, I spoke with Alex Woolfson, the creator of the massively successful comic “The Young Protectors.”

If you want to check out his campaign – you can click here.THE YOUNG PROTECTORS Vol 1 project video thumbnail

You first came to Kickstarter with a comic called Artifice. How did the decision to use the Kickstarter platform come about?

So with Artifice, basically what happened was that it had been going for about a year and it was sort of an experiment on my part to find out whether I liked working with webcomics – and part of the thing I did was make sure that it was short enough that I knew I could finish, because a lot of webcomics fail.

A lot of webcomics stall and fail. I didn’t want to do that to my readers but it actually took off, it was quite a success and I was very pleased with the results so I started following other webcomics including one from a creator called E.K. Weaver. She had a webcomic called The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal – which is a comic I really recommend to everyone – she had a Kickstarter campaign and she asked for something like $4,000 and she ran a very clever campaign.

I particularly appreciated her video. With my background as a video editor, I could see she did a really good job. It had humor, it gave all the important information, and so she winded up getting like $13,000 and put Kickstarter on my radar.

I had this project – Artifice – that I wanted to bring to print, but it’s pretty expensive to do so because I wanted to do offset printing. I tried releasing some of my comics using print on demand and was really disillusioned by that for lots of reasons, so I figured after seeing her success I was inspired and I figured you know I bet with my video knowledge of this I could come with a free good video and I think I can do pretty okay with it.

Yeah, that makes sense, especially having that additional background with video I think that’s usually one of the biggest hurdles for creators to deal with. So knowing that you could handle that part must have been reassuring.

It was. You know, I think it is intimidating to a lot of people, I mean frankly it was intimidating to me, in some ways because I knew exactly what to do so I had these high standards, and it did make it feel a little more daunting to me than it had to be.

You want your video to be entertaining, you want it to move along, you want to have some humor. You don’t want it to go on too long, but it doesn’t need to be a totally polished production either and a so a lot of what it’s about is letting it feel organic and natural an homemade, but even with that – yes – having the experience gave me the confidence and the video that I think you know makes a huge difference.

I forget – I don’t know if Kickstarter allows projects without videos right now, it seems like in the beginning they didn’t. In the beginning you could have a video or not that was your choice, then it seemed like through the period of time where you had to have a video you know where they’re standing on that right now?

I’m pretty sure you’re allowed to still not have a video.

Right, but earlier on they had this stat that showed that without the video people have like a 30% success rate and with the video it will be 50% successful.

Right, exactly. And from what I understand those stats still hold through.

It just makes so much sense. A video sort of introduces you in the best most entertaining way to kind of introduce people to your work and introduce people to what you’re trying to do with your Kickstarter.

So you had this preparation and you had this understanding of what you needed to go out and do – but were there any mistakes you made during the Artifice campaign that helped you run what we’re here to talk about, which is the Young Protector’s campaign?

Well, one of the mistakes that I made with the Artifice campaign, I mean one of the things they talk about is they talk about shipping being the silent killer of Kickstarter and crowdfunding, and I grossly underestimated how much it would cost to pay for international shipping.

In particular, the posters I had were 13×19 inches because I have this nice printer at home that creates these 13×19 prints that looked really gorgeous and professional, and bigger is better so I wanted to send this out.

What I was not aware of is that when you’re sending internationally, the difference between sending international first class and international priority has to do with the overall dimensions of the box and so just by choosing to have 13×19 prints instead of 11×14 prints (a standard size), I doubled my shipping cost internationally without getting any extra benefits.

It doesn’t get through any faster – priority mail international and first class international – get there at the same speed, they’re the same tracking same everything pretty much – it’s just twice as expensive.

So, there was that. There was also not allowing accounting for the fact that because I was going to be shipping after January, the post office also nearly doubled all the shipping costs.

So I got screwed by the shipping. Luckily with Artifice I asked for 7,000 and I got 36,000 which was a big bump up, but it wasn’t so incredibly huge that I couldn’t recover from that with my day job funds, but it was a mistake I definitely wanted to avoid with the Young Protectors.

I noticed that with the Young Protectors campaign you had separate tiers for your Canadian backers, did you do that specifically because of that same shipping reason, or why was that exactly? Was it related to what you learned during your Trial by Fire with Artifice.

It had been, but mostly it was a desperation device. Kickstarter had been making improvements to their interface, but at a glacial pace and so when I had done the Young Protector Kickstarter they were smart enough to allow you to have different shipping rates between international and domestic backers.

I think that was a new thing, but they didn’t allow any granularity there. They do now – now I believe you can divide it up by country and something that changed, which I think is kind of a nice thing is that the shipping is separated out so it doesn’t have to appear in the pledge level. So just from an optic point of view it doesn’t increase the size of pledges when you’re adding in shipping – it’s something that gets tucked on at the end and people are pretty used to that with online shopping.

So all those are things that will help mitigate the “shipping being the killer” thing. But when I did Young Protector’s there wasn’t a granularity and there really is a big difference between shipping to Canada and Mexico and the rest of the world, but mostly between Canada and the rest of the world.

I wanted to be kind to my Canadian backers and so I didn’t want to have to charge them Germany level shipping, because I was certainly not going to lower the Germany-level shipping down to Canadian level.

So my workaround was to create this separate Canadian tier. I think I saw a few other campaigns doing that and that’s one of the secrets of success to Kickstarter. Look at what other people are doing successfully and shamelessly steal from that.

Absolutely. So you’re pulling from all these different sources, you already had one successful Kickstarter under your belt, but you know you asked for $14,000 for Young Protectors and you made almost $140,000.

Right, $133,000, that’s right.

Yes way.

How do you go from a $14,000 goal to the six-figure level that Young Protector’s ended up at?

Well there’s a few ways that I made that happen. So let’s talk about the things that I think are really necessary to have that kind of success, and then I’m going to talk a little bit about some of the downsides of that.

The biggest difference – and this is something that I think is crucially important and when people come and consult with me about Kickstarter stuff it’s the advice the they don’t want to hear.

Usually, when people come to talk to me about Kickstarter stuff they’re ready to launch, ready to go, and my very first question is how big is your current audience right now? And do you have a way to be in touch with them on a consistent basis? It’s one of the reasons why I think webcomics are the best way to monetize – particularly in terms of crowdfunding, both with services like Kcisktarter and Patreon.

My first bit of advice is that if you’re wanting to do a campaign in the thousands of dollars then you should ideally know your stats for unique visitors, like who shows up for your updates. And that should, ideally, be in the thousands. It mustn’t be in the tens of thousands, but you should at least have I think three, four, or five thousand unique viewers on your update days.

That’s where I was when I started Artifice. When I launched my Artifice Kickstarter I think I had about five thousands uniques a days.

And the other factor is having updates – some way that you can contact people. An email list is the most effective way to reach out to your backers and to convert, but that seems to be a surprise for people. Building that email list is really, really important, and then there’s Facebook and Twitter, but it’s even better when you are a destination that people are wanting to go.

Especially when you have a webcomic that updates twice a week, which is basically a treat for people, and they get to see the new page and they look underneath it and the get to hear about this campaign.

It’s sort of the best way to keep people informed, and let people know about it. Have you read – I think his name is Robert Cialdini – his book called Influence?

No, but I’m familiar, actually.

You know I think his work is really ,really useful. In terms of being an ethical marketer I think it’s important to know you what kind of things motivate people to want to actually do something.

One of the things I think a web comic sets up is a sense of reciprocity because you’re putting this work out there for free and its consistent work, and it’s not hobbled in any way. It’s a premium model and its one of the reasons I think Mailchimp has the success it has where you put something out there is of total value and so that in itself you know people appreciate that and it creates a sense of reciprocity.

It also asks people to sample all the merchandise right upfront [chuckle], they get to know if it’s for them and then what it does is translating like for web comic into Kickstarter.

A web comic is almost the ideal thing to Kickstart because people get to enjoy the whole thing for free to decide if they like it or not and then to become fans and to become into it but if they want something special, they want to get the artifact, if they want to get the book which actually has a premium value.

I mean it’s more pleasant to read a comic in book form than its on the screen, all they have to do is contribute a little bit of extra money so it follows sort of the premium idea where you get to have the entire story for free but if you want a little something extra, you have the choice to pay a little bit more then you get something that really has some real value for you.

So I think that’s the second factor, there two, the fact that it’s a web comic that allowed me to contact people and be in touch with people on a regular basis, in fact have them to come to me and check in with me on a twice to week basis.

I think that was the factor there too, I think it’s also being the web comic that is something that converts into a physical artifact and I think in general with crowd funding campaign and with kick starter in particular, having a physical artifact you’re going to do much better than just offering digital only rewards but in terms of answering your question like what specifically do I think shot me from 14,000 of to 133,000?

You want to set audiences is in place and once you have a way to directly contact them and be in communication with them throughout the campaign, then I did a few different things. The biggest thing that I did that I think was most useful was coming up with a multiple stretch goals that were all within easy reach.

So the tricky thing with stretch goals is that you want to make sure they’re stuff that you really want to make. It’s a really hollow victory just to raise your number up you know if you’re going to be making stuff you don’t care about or that you aren’t into.

In particular, one thing I just want to be very clear and this something I’d want to be clear in your blog is that Kickstarter is not a pay day. For Artifice you know I asked for 7,000 I got 36,000, how much did I wind up spending? Probably about 38 or 39,000 but none of that Kickstarter money wound up in my pocket right, but what did end up in my pocket I was able to do the economy of scale which is what Kickstarter really allows you to do.

I wasn’t able to afford a big print run so from kick starter I pretty sold 800 copies of artifice but I printed 5,000, so that meant I had 4,200 copies that I could sell at $20 a book that were basically all paid for, that can make some money in the back end and it’s the same thing with the young protectors you know I asked for 14,000 I got 133,000.

I’m going to wind up spending more on that, on the merchandise and shipping. Shipping alone is $30,000 even with me being smarter about it than with artifice. I mean I knew we’re going to need $30,000 when I planned everything out ahead of time but I like to make that clear.

But in terms of making that happen what I did is, I want to do trading cards for my readers because the part of the deal that I have with my comic is that I’m looking to create the same kind of high quality professional full genre experience that says white straight boys have got to enjoy and forever from the mainstream companies. I’m kind of working to create that for the rest of us.

The secret of an exploding Kickstarter is evangelism.

Right, that’s something that I wanted to talk about because they’re not just genre stories. They’re also distinguished by the fact that they can appeal in a more pronounced way tot hat niche audience.

How important do you think it is for a creator of a book to have this kind of niche appeal regardless of what niche it is?

I think it’s important for you to be passionate about your work and I think it’s important to have your fans to be passionate about your work if you’re going to succeed.

The secret of an exploding Kickstarter is evangelism – and that’s going to be people who really believe in what you’re trying to do.

Do I think it needs to be something that’s going to change the world in a positive way?

Probably not, I’m not sure every iPhone gadget out there on Kickstarter that succeeds makes the world a better place, necessarily, but it does help when you’re communicating on your video, when you’re talking about your project.

In particular when I started out, there weren’t many superhero comics out there that look like professional super hero comics that have LGBT heroes and people of color being the primary featured heroes as the characters.

That need was not being met and therefore yes, when people saw it not only did they think I’d like to own it myself but there is also the halo effect that also connects – where they also think there should be more of this in the world.

I mean crowdfunding – ultimately – is about getting a group of people together to chip in to create something that would otherwise never be possible, and if you’re doing a standard mainstream comic, that you can’t just get on a regular comic book rack.

Crowdfunding is about getting a group of people together to chip in to create something that would otherwise never be possible.

Do you really need to go through the crowdfunding to make that happen?

I think a lot of people would look at that and say probably not. But if it’s a science fiction story that looks really high quality and has a really good story and it happens to feature heroes who just happems to like other guys, or superheroes who are people who just happen to like other guys, that’s something you’re not going to be able to get any place else and so that’s going to be definitely a bigger motivator in terms of them wanting to make sure the campaign succeeds.

That makes a lot of sense to me. There is something I want to dig into which is – you’re talking about how the most important hing is being passionate about what you’re doing and having your audience be passionate about what you’re doing, but there’s definitely a school of thought which recommends appealing to different niches just to leverage the appeal or the reach of your comic.

Do you think there would have been as much appeal for your comic if it didn’t come from an obviously authentic place?

Contextualizing that – given your own background growing up gay without seeing yourself represented in the heroes from your favorite genre stories, you had something real behind that aspect of your story.

What would you say to creators who are trying to leverage those things if it’s not as immediately or obviously coming from an authentic place?

Well, you know, I think authenticity is certainly important because crowdfunding is based on trust. That’s one of another advantage of the web comic thing. People who have been following my web comic know that I’ve done what I said I was going to do for a full year. I never miss an update, delivered twice a week on time every time and interacted a lot in the comments. That builds trust because people feel like they know you and that’s important.

Likability is another factor that you know likability and then similarity. These are the factors that Cialdini talks about in his book. So I think that if people smell that you’re cynical, I think that will work against you.

I also just think it’s hard, it’s sort of like people who write screenplays hoping to figure out what Hollywood would want or what audiences want. I mean we’ve certainly seen enough films coming out from Hollywood where teams are put together by committee and focus groups, and ultimately I think it’s difficult to make good work that way. So I think you’ve got a tough hill to climb climb if you’re planning at cynically going after this.

All that said, you know there advantages to appealing to a niche in addition to doing good work. If you’re independent creator, if you’re appealing to a niche that’s a much smaller, more targeted audience to market to that means you can direct your ad budget and by ad budget I mean not just money but your time, very specifically.

And being an independent creator you have very limited amount of those things so I can understand the appeal of appealing to a niche.

And, for example, if there’s a budding male creator out there who’s a hardcore feminist and wants to create comics with strong female leads in them, and that’s part of what they’re wanting to put out there I’m not going to fold my arms and say, “well you’re not a woman and you can’t do that.”

Let me just speak for myself civically like if some straight creator said, “Hi, look I really believe strongly that gay people are underrepresented in comics and I want to fix that with my own comics and they put that in their video and they sincerely put that out there, I’m not going to ding them just because they aren’t gay themselves.

What matters is do I think they’re going to deliver what they promise? And I think that if you’re doing it cynically that’s a tough road to go.

Bringing the conversation back to a positive place rather than exploring the cynical angle that I wanted to discuss…

Is there anything that you learned in this most recent Kickstarter that would influence how you do a next one – whether or not you’re planning one?

Well sure, certainly. I mean to answer your question from before about how did things get explosive. What happened in this particular case is in the first campaign I really picked up on the power of stretch goals and so what I did is I wanted to create this trading cards and so what I said is basically every $2,000 that we got beyond our goal, I’d create a new trading card.

The second part of that is I made it interactive, so I had a survey monkey account and people got to vote on which character would appear in that trading card. And so what that did is gave a stretch goal that was within reach, the $2,000 from where we were felt pretty within the reach to most people and because there were people still signing on from my main audience, we hit the stretch goals pretty quickly.

What it did is it set up a situation where people got used to hitting a stretch goal every single day. Part of my goal in this campaign or even with Artifice versus a lot of other campaigns is that a lot of campaigns stagnate in the middle, and I was able to avoid that in Artifice with my stretch goals. And I really wanted to avoid that completely in the Young Protectors, so I was able to create this very linear line between the first three days and the last three days.

It’s a pretty clear linear line between these points, because I had stretch goals that could be hit every day and when we hit day 15 which tends to be the day of death in Kickstarter – the midpoint – and it looked like we weren’t going to hit that stretch goal that day, people evangelized like crazy and we still wound up hitting it.

And you can look at my whole list of stretch goals, it wasn’t just trading cards. There were other things I had in there. And I was listening to my readers. For example, somebody said they wanted sticker sheets. I learned from somebody who really rocks the sticker sheet that people are really enthusiastic about it so I added and that became a huge motivator for people to get those sticker sheets, and I’m very pleased we got it because I like the sticker sheets we’ve come up with now.

Listening to the readers is important and then also, like I said, making it interactive so people can get excited about it and eep coming back to the Kickstarter campaign. So basically everyday there was a new vote. “Who do you want to be in this trading card?” or “This particular print you get to vote on who’s going to be kissing in it.”

It’s again, this premium idea where you’re offering something that they could not get any other way. For example, in my main comic I don’t show full nudity. We might get to be “soft R” in some pages, but that’s about as far as we go. But for this particular Kickstarter campaign I said okay, if we hit this higher level of stretch goals I will create some full Monty art.

It will be tasteful because that’s my whole deal – anything that I create is not going to be not tasteful, it’s all going to be art. But you want to see the whinny, you can hit the stretch goals and you’ll get it. And I had that sense of humor about it too. Because it’s funny for me that people value that so much, because my readers do and god bless them for that.

So those are all the things that kind of then snow balled into you know going from 14,000 to 133,000.

The fact that I had stretch goals that you could hit every day so people wanted to hit them every day, I was offering things they could get no other way, I was thinking of things that I wanted to make so I could be passionate about it and I made it interactive so people were showing up on a consistent level to check in on things and so when they saw something new like, “Oh, my gosh, we’re so close to getting this other thing and so we never get close to it and I really want it” they can then evangelize.

That’s the positive side of all those things.

Now, in terms of like what I would do differently, the downside of all that is it put a whole lot of work on my plate and yes, I knew what I was doing because I had had a Kickstarter campaign before, but it was so much extra work that what happened is something where I was hoping to deliver the book within a year and I figured that it was going to take me a year to get this book out with all these extra words, because of various things that happened outside of my control and now we’re two years from that date.

Not two years from the date of my delivery, we’re a year longer than I wanted to be when I’m delivering, I’m just about to deliver now and for – and this is essential – you have to keep communicating with your backers. You have to.

Transparency is everything because I do communicate with my backers, you know I would say 95% of them were totally cool with it. But over the past four five months, people have gotten pretty impatient. And it takes a good deal of time responding to those people, explaining what’s going on, and giving people options for what to do. And that’s been a bit tiring for me, and frankly I have all this inventory that I can’t sell because the Kickstarter backers need to have it first.

So, even though I’m delighted with all the merchandise that I’ve created, the next campaign its really going to be just about the book and if that means that I’m back to making $35,000 or $40,000 on the Kickstarter, rather than $133,000, I’m totally okay with that because I’ve plenty of merchandise from this Kickstarter and frankly, as I said, Kickstarter isn’t really a money maker for me. It’s a way to take advantage of the economy of scale with a merchandise purchase so I can make money on the back end, and I’d rather just have a quick turn around with the book than have to have my backers wait so long for next time.

And that’s the beast.

The interview actually continued past this point, if you can believe it.

I really appreciated the insights on Kickstarter Alex had to share and the careful and measured way he approaches campaigns. The advantage of webcomics on Kickstarter is also interesting food for thought.

Here are links to the past installments of the Six-Figure Kickstarter interview series if you want to check them out.

And another link to Alex’s campaign. Though it’s over now you can currently pre-order the book.

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