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Lessons from Seth Godin’s Kickstarter Project

Like many of you, I am a fan of Seth Godin. This past week he launched a Kickstarter project for his next book, and today, I want to dig into what we can – and can’t – learn from it.

Others have lavished praise on every aspect of what Seth has done with this project, notably Fred Wilson and Mike Masnick. They certainly see the bigger picture of what Seth is doing here, but I want to get more granular.

I became aware of the project at around 8am Monday morning, soon after it launched, when he had 229 backers and $19,838 in donations. About an hour later, he had $51,833 with 657 backers. Another hour or two later, he was at $91,166 with 1,251 backers. By 1:30pm, he had $118,326 with 1,671 backers. At the end of the first week, he has $221,901 in donations and 3,251 backers.

It’s interesting to see which of the packages he offered gained traction first. There were 10 options, so if you donated a certain amount of money, you would get different things in return. Often, it was a combination of different books, and different quantities of them. There was an 11th option, which was really just a joke, and he later removed. Each level had a limited number of packages available. This is what it looked like throughout the early part of Monday, the columns represent each price level (from a $4 donation up to the $10,000 donation), and how many backers he had at each of four time slots that I checked. The pink color represents when each price level sold out:

 

Time $4 $22 $49 $62 $76 $111 $200 $360 $665 $1,150 $10,000
8am 45 226 19 17 4 41 14 5 1 5 0
9am 113 186 80 48 8 150 35 14 7 5 0
11am 258 300 180 81 16 307 50 26 12 5 0
1:30pm 441 300 200 117 32 459 50 32 16 5 0

 

Below are some thoughts on what we can – and can’t – learn from Seth Godin’s Kickstarter project:

ENGAGE PEOPLE WITH SUPPORTING A CAUSE, NOT BUYING A PRODUCT
There is a tone throughout the Kickstarter description that asks us to prove something to someone. That there is an “other” that we must fight against. Seth says:

“Please help me show my publisher, the bookstores and anyone with a book worth writing that it’s possible to start a project with a show of support on Kickstarter.”

This is a theme throughout the piece, that this isn’t just about publishing a book, this is about taking a stand. I am a bit surprised by some of this, because it seems to imply that maybe there was a heated debate where a world-renowned author and marketing expert (SETH!) went back and forth with his publisher about whether you could engage people via Kickstarter. That he spoke to bookstore owners who actually considered not stocking his books. Was it ever up for debate that someone with a loyal following such as Seth Godin could get donations from their fans, or that bookstores would stock his bestselling books?

Regardless, the larger theme goes beyond “buy my next book.” There is almost an “us vs them” attitude here, and certainly a focus that this is about supporting a cause, an ideal, not just buying a book. We see this again after the (really compelling) description of his book:

“My first new printed book in over a year is combined with two extraordinary bonuses—and the chance to send a message about how books and bookstores can still be part of the conversation. (Be sure to check out the no-brainer option).”

So two things are happening here. Again, this isn’t about how powerful his book is (although it does sound powerful in its own right), but this is about “SENDING A MESSAGE!” This is portrayed not as selling his book, but supporting an idea. That books can “still be a part of the conversation.”

But then we switch back from supporting an ideal, to buying his book as a symbolic act. Half a breath away from his rallying cry that we are sending a message, he encourages you to buy the 8th option, meaning there are 7 less expensive options. It’s $111 and called the “NO BRAINER” option to somehow make it seem obvious that we should buy EIGHT copies of his book months before it comes out. Now, this option is a good deal with all you get, 11 books (including limited edition books) for $10 each. But it’s always interesting when you are first encouraged to buy 8 of something as the obvious choice. This is, I suppose, meant to drive home the idea that by buying more of Seth’s books, we are “SENDING A MESSAGE” to someone.

Later in the post, he repeats this: “Did I mention the No-Brainer option is your best bet?”

A bit further down, he hits this same “US VS THEM” point again, positioning him and us as the underdog:

“Sink or swim–I’ll need your help. If this Kickstarter campaign reaches the minimum, then the publisher has agreed to launch a major retail campaign to introduce the book to readers in bookstores.”

Seth is right, Kickstarter only works if we actually get involved and donate. But seriously: is there any chance that Seth Godin wouldn’t raise $40,000 for this project within 30 days? He charges $800+ for a one day workshop to see him speak. His books are wildly popular. He is cited time and time again as a brilliant thinker in terms of marketing.

I could be reading this wrong, but it again seems to paint his publisher as folks who either don’t believe in his work or don’t believe in physical books. That ONLY if Seth raises $40,000 will they promote his book in bookstores? REALLY? Exactly which person sat across the table as Seth told him about his new book, and then said to him: “Gee Seth, I don’t know, can you PROVE to us that we should promote your book in bookstores?” Who? Who said that to bestselling author Seth Godin?

And since this is the crux of the campaign, I would love some clarity on what “a major retail campaign” entails. What will happen if he didn’t meet the $40,000 threshold? Would there just be a “minor” retail campaign? What would the difference be? To me, this seems to be a very important point.

There was also this line:

“Only my loyal, intelligent and good-looking Kickstarter backers can get the limited edition book.”

I only bring this up because if Home Depot said this in a Kickstarter campaign, they would be called out and held up as those who “don’t get it.” That blindly gushing about your audience in this manner can be seen as a marketing tactic to generate sales, not something a true tribe leader would do, but something a politician would do. I just didn’t want to overlook that because if a corporation did it, NO ONE would overlook it.

Seth goes on:

“Maybe this will help authors like me continue to make books by hand, and maybe this Kickstarter will outline a way other authors can rally a tribe, connect them, engage the early adopters and then reward them with an artifact they helped bring to life.”

Really? Without Kickstarter, authors like Seth Godin won’t be able to publish physical books? And what does “by hand” mean? This is not a letterpress book is it? Is there really any danger of Seth’s books not coming out in print form? Maybe Seth has lots of data here, lots of examples, but I just wish he would have shared it within the context of this campaign, to educate us about the issue. Otherwise, I am left guessing, and I am reminded again of a political candidate making a claim without backing it up. That we are asked to rally together to protect something, and the only way to do so is elect this person, or in this case, buy this person’s book.

The overall point he makes is dead-on accurate: Kickstarter helps creators, writers and artists. I LOVE THAT. And of course, I love how Seth is making such a big deal about supporting Kickstarter. He explains it this way:

“This project on Kickstarter is my way to organize the tribe, to send a signal to risk-averse publishers and booksellers (who have limited shelf space and limited paper). We can let them know loud and clear that this is a book that’s going to get talked about. Kickstarter coordinates and it amplifies.”

But again, it seems odd to lump Seth Godin into the crowd of people fighting for bookstores to consider carrying him. Is there really a chance that a bookstore wouldn’t make space for his physical books? If you go to his homepage, he describes himself immediately and exclusively as: “Seth Godin: best selling author.” When you click on each book on the homepage, he tells you how well they have sold, with phrases such as:

  • “Book of the year”
  • “An instant best seller”
  • “The classic named “best book” by FORTUNE”
  • “The worldwide bestseller”

And those are for just for some of his physical books. To me, I would guess that any physical retailer would stock Seth’s books because he is a known bestseller who is incredibly relevant to the conversation in many topics nowadays. But his campaign seems to be a rallying cry to “show them” that both he and physical books are not irrelevant. Was this in question?

What Seth illustrates so clearly is that people want to turn their belief into action. They want to support those who inspire them in deeper ways and they often want recognition for doing so. Every aspect of this campaign illustrates the power of Kickstarter, the power of his supporters, and Seth’s brilliant marketing mind.

SET AN ARTIFICIALLY LOW GOAL
Seth set the goal comically low for the Kickstarter campaign at $40,000. Given the size of his audience, was it really possible that he wouldn’t exceed his goal quickly? So why do this? Because it writes the headline for every article reporting on his project: “Seth Godin blows away Kickstarter goal by 500%!”

He talked about this as well: that the real momentum happens once you reach your goal.

This is meant to show immediate success, that we are sending “a message,” that his publisher was skeptical, but we would “show them.”

With Amanda Palmer’s fortune with Kickstarter, we are in the gold rush for already successful people to become Kickstarter media darlings. My gut is you will see this again and again throughout 2012. It’s great marketing.

VALUE MATTERS, NOT PRICE
The VALUE of each package mattered, not the price. Some of the 10 packages Seth offered had unique value in them, not just the commodity of a book that in a year’s time, anyone who wants one can have. Two packages sold out quickly: higher priced options where either Seth interviewed you or you received a limited edition art print.

When I first saw this around 7:30 or 8am on Monday, the only package that was sold out was the one I was most interested in… for $1,150:

“Your story, told. I’ll interview you and write at least a paragraph about something brave or powerful or remarkable you’ve done or built–and include it in all editions of The Icarus Deception. I can offer this without fear of being stuck or compromising the work because everyone has something artistic in their history (and their future). Also includes everything in the No-Brainer level. Also includes access to the preview digital edition.”

This is – by far – the best deal on the page. A chance to speak with Seth, have him craft your story, and actually include it in the final version of the physical book. That is easily worth $1,150, and I would have jumped on that opportunity. Why? Well, consider what it means to ensure that EVERYONE who reads his book reads about your story, told in the way only Seth Godin can tell it. What it means to get a positive testimonial by Seth Godin. Definitely worth $1,150 without even a moments thought.

He offered some limited edition books as well, but many of the other price levels were for multiple copies of the same book or packages with copies of books he has already published. Those took longer to sell out, or are still available.

THE HIGHEST PRICE LEVEL: DON’T WASTE THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY
Seth added a $10,000 package as a sort of joke. I see now that he removed this option at some point during the week, but this is what it originally said:

“The really silly high-level product that everyone always scrolls down to see, so they can chuckle at the insane thing the author is offering and the crazy person who bought it. This package includes signed copies of Catcher in the Rye and Shakespeare’s folio. Both signed by me. And whatever book of mine you like. And a milk carton. With Purple Cow in it.”

It should have been a personal appearance by Seth, a consulting session, a custom video, something meaningful. Something where he would donate the $10,000 to charity in exchange for someone taking the chance.

PEOPLE WANT TO BE INSIDERS
People like being the first to see something – the chance to be an early adopter, and therefore, an influencer and connector. The first to Tweet it. I did, it was my first Tweet Monday morning. It was clear this would be something special, which is why I also took screenshots of it right away.

People want to be insiders. They want to say: “I saw this early, and I backed Seth Godin.” It’s akin to saying “I saw the Pixies play live in 1986 before you even heard of them.” There is social cred in fandom. Kickstarter is brilliant at offering this to fans. It makes you feel special.

OFFER BULK SALES AND DISCOUNTS
As I mentioned, many of the packages offered multiple copies of the book, and for each higher level you bought, the lower the cost of each individual book would be. He says:

“Sometime after your copy is delivered in January, the Icarus book will show up (at a higher price) in bookstores and online. You can help me make the minimum by buying copies now, at a discount, to distribute to friends.”

Months before the book comes out, he is going for bulk sales, which is smart on several levels. And of course: it supports his overall goal to ensure that physical books are shared among friends and colleagues.

Overall, I hope I have conveyed that I am a fan of Seth’s work, and impressed at his ability to change people’s lives for the better. But I think the details described above matter for other authors considering using Kickstarter. Seth has clearly proven that Kickstarter is a powerful means to bring people together for a common purpose, and infuse it with financial backing. This IS important. Is it a powerful message to publishers? You tell me.

Thanks.
-Dan

  • Rab

    Oh, well done. I appreciate the critical eye you bring and the lessons you offer. Digging in, digging under, evaluating what you see, sharing this with others, owning your opinions, offering your appraisal—you do good work, offer us value, set a fine example. Thank you.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Wow – thank you so much! I found myself thinking about this all week, there is clearly so much to consider here. Have a great day!
      -Dan

  • http://twitter.com/thecreativepenn Joanna Penn

    Hi Dan,
    Great post and I was thinking along the same lines. I would have paid over $1000 as well for that chance to get in one of his books. I got the email at around 7am UK time so when you guys were all asleep. I immediately clicked over and that was sold out already. I wonder some specific people had advance notice.
    I got the $360 level as I can get my own blurb included in the ebook which goes some way to getting out to a lot of people. I’m not sure how it will work but it will be a link somehow – and given the number of people who will read the book, I thought it was worth a punt :) also, Seth will be reading those and hey, you never know what will catch his interest!
    I am a huge fan of his and have got way more than that in terms of benefit for myself and my business from him, so in a way, it’s about giving back but also being part of his next publishing project.
    We’ll see how the book pans out :)
    Thanks, Joanna

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Joanna,
      Wow, that is interesting how quickly the interview/mention sold out. You make a great point about the value in just being seen by someone like Seth – he is very good about learning about folks, and then spreading the word about their work. 

      Much appreciated.
      -Dan

  • http://www.carolinegerardo.blogspot.com/ Caroline Gerardo

    @DanBlank your analysis down to every meta detail is amazing.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thank you so much Caroline!!!

  • http://PimpUrBlog.com/ PRice

    Thanks for the analysis, Dan. Some things irked me when I first saw this, but I had too many other things going on to narrow it down as you have. Everyone is happy for Seth, yes, but what really are his messages?

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks so much. That is the same reason I wanted to pause and really consider the stuff between the lines. 
      -Dan

  • http://twitter.com/pushingsocial Stanford Smith

    Dan, amazing job on this post.  I’m intrigued and excited to see that Seth is still a marketer first.  He knows his audience and their motivations.  He also knows how to push those buttons.  His efforts would be crass and manipulative if he didn’t offer real value – which he does.  Thanks for taking the time to write a post that makes it easy to crawl under the hood of this Kickstarter project.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Stanford – well said! Thanks.
      -Dan

  • http://twitter.com/zeeenmedia Zeeen.com

    love the mix of criticism and admiration, great analysis Dan. Would love to see these strategies implemented by an author that actually needs fans backing to make an impact…

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks so much!

  • Anonymous

    Dan, I appreciate the questions you raise about the rationale behind Seth’s Kickstarter campaign. For all the glitz and glamour that anything-Seth engenders, one does have to wonder about his need to take such extreme measures in an “us vs them” way with traditional publishers. It certainly seems like he is presenting this in a way that will enable opportunities for  his massive tribe which, of course endears him even more to his tribe. I think it speaks volumes to  publishing’s current vulnerabilities and it will be very interesting to see how it all plays out. Lots to think about here. Thanks for your always informative and thought-provoking messages.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks Kathy. It causes me to consider the very nature of the word “tribe” as well, and where the boundaries may be in this context. Are those who work in the publishing houses and bookstores not a part of this same tribe?
      -Dan

  • http://twitter.com/chrisgoward Chris Goward

    Insightful thoughts here, Dan. I’m also a fan of Seth’s work, mainly his work in marketing himself. He’s truly gifted at positioning himself and his ideas as this kickstarter project demonstrates. 

    He has leveraged his early experience in book publishing and marketing to do the same for himself. Now that the book publishing model is being challenged, he’s positioning himself as leading the charge to cause a revolution. Brilliant.

    I also, incidentally, wrote an article a couple days ago commenting on Seth’s post about the unforgiving arithmetic of the sales conversion funnel: http://www.widerfunnel.com/marketing-metrics/goward-on-godin-response-to-the-unforgiving-arithmetic-of-the-funnel 

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Chris, thanks. Yes indeed, “getting in front of the parade,” much as we have seen some people do with self-publishing the past 2 years. Thanks for the link to the article!
      -Dan

  • http://www.facebook.com/jimkukral Jim Kukral

    Good analysis. And fair in criticism of it at parts. When someone like Seth does it, who already has a platform and huge tribe, it’s really not “that” impressive, is it? Now if a nobody could do it that well, then there’s a story, right?

    Once again though, proof that if you have fans and a platform to get news to them, you can pretty much do just about anything.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Jim,
      Thanks. It was nice that Seth pointed that out, that Kickstarter works best after you have built an audience. But I also wouldn’t belittle how much effort went into putting together Seth’s Kickstarter campaign. I found myself considering how I would have come up with the 10 package levels, how to determine what limited edition stuff to give away, etc. Clearly, this was not a simple thing to put together. 

      Hope all is well.
      -Dan

      • http://www.facebook.com/jimkukral Jim Kukral

        I know how hard it is. Last year I raised over $35k on my own, without Kickstarter, for a series of books I am writing now. So no, it wasn’t easy for me either and I am absolutely not discrediting it.

        He deserves the credit for doing it so well, and so fast. But he certainly wasn’t the first do it either.

        • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

          Indeed! And WOW, $35,000 is impressive! 

  • http://twitter.com/SheilaS Sheila Scarborough

    I’ve been wondering why someone with Seth Godin’s resources would use Kickstarter. I love the guy’s writing style and his Domino Project work, but this latest initiative didn’t make much sense to me. Thanks for your cogent analysis.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks Sheila,
      I think partly, Seth is a brilliant marketer and understands the headline potential of getting in front of the Kickstarter parade. Partly, the very idea of Kickstarter aligns with what he writes about, how communities/tribes form, about creating art, etc. And in his blog post about Kickstarter, he did mention that it seems to work best when you already have a following. Either way… it’s powerful and his use of it is another example of that. 

      Have a great day, thanks for the kind words!
      -Dan

  • http://laterbloomer.com/ Debra Eve

    Cogent analysis, Dan. The same questions occurred to me after reading Seth’s Kickstarter description. His publisher needs some proof Seth Godin can initiate a new project using Kickstarter? Hello? 

    In the end, I didn’t support him, because it seemed to me he’d lost touch with reality and with the “little people” of his tribe, like myself, who are working double-time when it comes to self-publishing — the day job that pays the bills and night job of writing and promoting. It also implied he trucked with an extremely thick publisher. If I were his publisher, I’d be a bit insulted, so I don’t think it’s a powerful message for that group.

    All in all, the whole thing brought him down a notch in my eyes. If Kickstarter becomes a vehicle for celebrities or their backers to avoid using their own seed money, where will that leave regular folks who are actually looking for a “Kickstarter”? Overlooked in the gold rush you mentioned, I suspect.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Debra,
      VERY interesting thoughts, thank you. What I think will be interesting is to see “celebrities,” those with an audience, use Kickstarter for exactly what you mentioned… to provide seed money to OTHERS they support. In all, Seth’s project will bring more awareness of how powerful Kickstarter is.
      Thanks.
      -Dan

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeremie-Miller/100002294498460 Jeremie Miller

    Thanks for putting these thoughts “on paper” so clearly Dan. I have been struggling with my feelings about this all week and tried to write about it a few times, but it never came out right.

    My big concern is that unknown or little known authors are going to jump on this and think that it will work for them because it worked for Seth. Some of his strategies that he talks about may be valid, but I don’t think his success provides proof that those strategies worked. The campaign worked because he is Seth Godin. I can see Kickstarter getting flooded with author campaigns over the next little while, and some frustrated people when they follow “what Seth said” and it didn’t work.

    I am also interested to see if a longer term strategy with this will be Seth writing a book or at least a few chapters in a book about crowd sourcing/funding, so he needed to do it, so he could write about it.

    What would have been more powerful to me is if Seth had of picked an unknown author, helped them with their campaign with his strategies, and then once that campaign was successful announce that he helped, the lessons he learned, the strategies that worked, etc.

    See, I start to sound a bit bitter and critical as I write this, you did a much better job! I have just worked with and been around a lot of struggling authors, and I just don’t know if this really has any meaning for them and their own work in the end.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks so much for the reply Jeremie. I think it was important for Seth to do this for himself, it is so much more personal that way. Yes, it will be interesting to see if those who have an audience can leverage Kickstarter to bring success to those who do not yet have a following. 

      Seth was pretty clear in his blog post that Kickstarter works best as a last step (after you build an audience), not a first step (to use it to build an audience), so that was nice. 

      Fascinating to watch it all happen, it’s empowering either way.
      Thanks!
      -Dan

  • Dmrheault

    This was an amazing combination of critique and analysis. Thanks for a great read, Dan.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/SeeleyJamesAuth Seeley James

    Great post, and great analysis of the most cynical Kickstarter campaign to date. But you missed the math for success here. And there is a great lesson in math and authenticity. How many people did Godin contact with his initial offering? The most outstanding, and serious, success of Kickstarter in 2012 was WOLLSTONECRAFT. Emailing ~300 people Jordan Stratford received 8500 likes on FB, 2900 backers and reached 23 times his goal. Mr. Stratford used the best marketing method of all: honest passion for his project.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks for the math, indeed, VERY powerful! 

  • Annie Zirkel

    Thanks for the depth of your contemplation. That is the concern of marketing, when it starts to feel disingenuous. Not that he didn’t give value for people’s donations but the underdog approach. And everything everyone else said below too. Appreciate your insights.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks Annie, I was a bit surprised at how much reaction I received to this. How others felt similar – that there is a fine line here.
      -Dan

  • http://twitter.com/dipikakohli Dipika Kohli

    Wow. This came up when Akira and I were driving Kush to day camp. 

    I was like, “Dude, I was all about Seth Godin, with Linchpin and stuff, but that Kickstarter thing–did you hear about it?” (Of course he had.) It left me feeling like someone was taking advantage–not of me personally, but of the platform. A gaffe, in my opinion.

    Something way cooler Seth could have done would be to pick up some unknown writers and match their Kickstarter projects, or something to show he’s really trying to help people add cool stuff to the world. But it’s purely selfish. He closed his video, “Thanks for letting me be a writer.” That rang really false to me. It made me squirm, actually, because I saw Seth Godin do something awkward, and I had kinda liked him. Really, I had. I even sent fan e-mail once or twice, but now I see that some of what I was reading was my projection of what I wanted to hear. 

    Did anyone else feel this way?

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Dipika,
      For me, it just made clear what I already knew… Seth is good at MARKETING and that is what this is. 

  • http://josephratliff.com/blog JosephRatliff

    Dan, you just carefully examined why Seth is one of the best marketers and business thinkers of our time.  I’m pretty sure this Kickstarter project could be a “template” for future tribe building and publishing projects going forward.

    Great article Dan.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks Joseph. What is so interesting about this is that many of the actual marketing tactics in play here are actually old-school, tried and true marketing stuff. But he puts a modern spin on them, leverages the with new tech in such a great way. -Dan

      • http://josephratliff.com/blog JosephRatliff

         It’s almost like the “tried and true” stuff never stopped working. ;)

        “Leveraging” technology instead of trying to use it to “replace” old-school marketing is actually the key as to WHY Seth is one of the greatest marketing thinkers of our time IMO.

  • http://www.concentricdots.com/ Stephen Bateman

    Great analysis Dan – just researching a talk I’m giving to a large European book publishing conglomerate – it’s helpful background to know that Seth has been explicit about the disruption in publishing for some time – best example of this is in his keynote speech at IBP http://sethgodin.typepad.com/files/publishinggodinkeynote-1.mp3

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks for the link Stephen!

  • http://pjrvs.com/ Paul Jarvis

    I think what Seth did was brilliant, but is it replicable by anyone but him? Probably not. Great article and in-depth look at things.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks Paul!