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Observations on Launching a “Successful” Podcast Kickstarter

A few days ago, Joanna Robinson and I launched a Kickstarter for 10 episodes of our Game of Thrones podcast, “A Cast of Kings,” set to coincide nicely with season 3 of the show. We were both totally floored by the response, as we saw our $3200 funding goal reached within 48 hours. Before I go any further, let me just make sure to say: Thank you. To anyone who donated, to anyone who supported us spiritually in this, and to anyone who has just listened to the show. We are so grateful that you believe our endeavors are worth paying for.

This being my first successful Kickstarter, I thought it might be useful for me to share a couple of thoughts on the process.

I did not think we did a great job at creating an exemplar Kickstarter project – I am aware of the elements that go into a stereotypically successful Kickstarter project, and I am equally aware our project did not possess them. I actually got a lengthy e-mail from a concerned listener named Adam, offering ways to help improve the Kickstarter and set it up for success (I share some of his advice below). The reason the Kickstarter deployed as it did was because I was kind of interested to see how challenging it would be to mobilize our fanbase to donate for us. While some of my thoughts were proven true, others weren’t — again, more on this below. More than anything, this Kickstarter was an experiment.

Kickstarters should have videos – Kickstarter strongly recommends each project have a video, and statistically, projects with videos are more likely to be backed. Concerned listener Adam recommended “a short 3 minute video with you on camera talking about how much this means to you. People donate to people, not to projects. If you go on there and really let people know how much it means to you, then they will be far more inclined to donate.” I think the biggest reason for no video is because I would have felt weird making one without Joanna — we live many miles apart and I’ve never met her in person. But time was also a major consideration.

Rewards should be more incrementally spaced – It’s a pretty big jump from $10 to $150. I get that. But ultimately, I didn’t really feel like I could commit enough time to promise additional rewards. I realize that some projects have “stretch goals,” but I already think doing the podcast as currently planned will be a significant commitment. Beyond additional episodes, I wasn’t really sure what else I could offer. One suggestion that did strike me as a good one, which I now wish I’d included, was the promise of reading a listener e-mail on the air.

Explain more about you and your talents  – In an ideal Kickstarter we would have done more of this. But really, I was counting on a) the proof of concept of the past 10 episodes we did, and b) the fact that people would trust us to deliver a quality product, based on those episodes. Explaining more about yourself is necessary in a situation where you are marketing the Kickstarter to complete strangers. I did not think we fell into that category, although in the end, a lot of non-Cast-of-Kings listeners did end up donating.

Outline what the costs are – My single biggest regret is not doing a better job of articulating where the money is going. In this instance, there are a few fixed costs in terms of equipment (a replacement mic for Joanna), HBO subscriptions (which I don’t currently have), the domain name for the podcast, etc. Kickstarter and Amazon payments take a significant percentage of the total amount (about 8-10% between the two of them), plus Kickstarter funds are also taxable — how much is a little complicated and still unresolved, but it’s safe to say Uncle Sam will take a huge chunk. The biggest cost, though, is time and effort. Thus, the remainder of the funds will be divided up between Joanna and myself.

There seems to be a significant misconception online that podcasts take no time or effort whatsoever. They do take time. They do take effort. They don’t just appear on the interwebs like babies in a cabbage patch. Occasionally, some people who do certain podcasts may ask for money for the time and effort that goes into making a podcast. Why anyone would object to this is something that is beyond my ability to fathom.

My personal goal was not to extract as much money as possible from a single Kickstarter – This Kickstarter was really an experiment on my part, to see if people would be willing to pay for a single, limited run podcast. Many people asked things like, “Why not promise stretch goals? Why not offer more rewards? Why not offer more episodes for more money?” etc. But the goal was not to make as much money as possible. I’m far more interested in how sustainable this model is. How many podcast Kickstarters per year can be launched this way and successfully funded? How many times can you annoy people on Twitter to donate before they stop following you? What is the right balance? These are questions I’m really interested in because they go towards answering the ultimate question: can someone make a decent living off of doing podcasts?

In the days to come, I’ll be doing some more experimentation with Kickstarter and seeing if we can get to the bottom of this question.

The true dream of TRUE crowdfunding still eludes us, or at least, me – In my original podcast episode announcing the Kickstarter, I said that if everyone listening to the podcast donated $1, we’d have more than enough  to fund the show. In my dream, everyone donating a tiny amount could create a huge impact. Things didn’t really work out that way. As you can see in the header image, the average donation was closer to $15. The vast majority of people donated $10, and there were a couple extravagant donations (including some backers that chose the $150 reward option).

I’ve heard many theories for why so few people made small donations. Peter Sciretta from /Film opined that the pain of filling out all the Kickstarter info is not worth a $1-2 donation. Matt Singer explained he thought that people didn’t think a $1-2 would truly help. The caveat here is that by reaching the goal in 2 days, we didn’t have a long enough timeline to extract too many statistically sound data about user behavior.

But if it is accurate, this does force me to to recalibrate my expectations for future Kickstarters. If the average donation is going to be $10-15, then the value that we are delivering needs to be in line with that, as does the expectation for how many people we can expect will donate.

  • Dave, congrats on the successful Kickstarter.

    It can be a bit icky to get into the debate of wanting vs. needing money to do a podcast (and whether "we really want to keep doing this, but to do so we need x amount of money" really shows that you want to keep doing it), so I'll leave it there.

    Assuming this carries over into the other Dave Chen podcasts (namely the /Filmcast), I'll flip things around on you:

    Imagine thousands of listeners want a podcast, so they get together and create a Kickstarter, with the goal of finding a host/backer. The funding goal may seem a bit pricey, but the rewards include things like interviewing James Cameron, meeting Peter Jackson, and becoming friends with Stephen Tobolowsky. Would you back it?

  • Chris: I don't really understand your question. What you're describing is obviously my life, but i never asked for backing for it?

  • Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Dave. As a podcaster myself I appreciate your thoughts a lot. Keep up the fantastic work.

  • Dave: I guess what I was getting at is that doing a podcast can bring about non-monetary benefits, that might make dealing with the associated costs worth it (instead of expecting them to be covered by the listeners), and I hope that's not overlooked.

    Consider two scenarios:

    A) A guy spends his own money to produce a show about something he's passionate about.

    B) A guy decides he'll do a show because people paid him to do it, but otherwise he'd do something else.

    Ignoring that Person A might be foolish, which show sounds like the more interesting one to listen to? The guy with the passion, or the guy only doing it now because he's paid to?

    One thing I think is great about podcasts is that nobody is obligated to make them. There's an enjoyment in knowing that if these hosts weren't recording themselves talking, they'd still probably be sitting around talking anyway.

    Kickstartering a "season" of a podcast, with the risk of it not returning otherwise, seems like a deliberate way to more effectively induce listeners to donate (rather than just asking for them on a show) without having to start charging for the podcast directly (which, I imagine, would severely damage its iTunes ranking/presence).

    It's a smart idea, I just wonder how sustainable it is.

  • A few thoughts, Chris:

    1) I've spent the past 5 years producing about 300-400 hours of podcast content, all of which has been available for free download. You don't need to tell me about the benefits that come from doing podcasting for free. I've seen them and they are considerable, to be sure.

    2) With regards to person A or person B, yes, obviously a guy making something out of just passion sounds more interesting. Does your reasoning also apply to books and films? Should we only consume content in those media that were made by people who put up their own money? Or can books and films produced by people who are paid be equally compelling as their free alternatives?

    3) iTunes doesn't allow you to charge for podcasts (yet). So that was never an option.

    4) I agree with you in wondering how sustainable it is! Let's find out together, shall we?

  • Dave,

    I certainly disagree with the comparison drawn in 2), but I'll leave it at that.

    I don't wish for my criticisms/disagreements to be interpreted as attacks on you or what you do/are doing.

    Congrats again on the successful KS, and good luck on any future ones.

  • You can't fathom why people would object to this? You started a Kick Starter with the intention of collecting an arbitrary amount for "donations" but then proceeded to issue an ultimatum over twitter where you stated that you wouldn't do the show if you weren't compensated. Which, I should point out, is a violation of the Kick Starter guidelines. They do not fund your life.

    ResonanceCascade hosts 51 podcast sessions a year and listed his total cost at 600. That's a fifth of what you asked for for 5x the amount of work. So assuming you get taxed 20% you're still left with 2,560 dollars. Which, with your "legitimate" costs subtracted leaves you with 2 grand left over. Assuming an even split with Joanna, that means you've pocketed a grand for 10 produced hours of content – if that. In addition to the means to pay for a premium cable subscription which provides you with more content than just Game of Thrones. And you still don't see a problem here?

    Now the reason the argument "Person A vs. Person B" was made above is to illustrate a very clear concept – the person who is doing the podcast out of a love and enthusiasm for the material is more sincere than the person being paid to do it. This isn't speculation: it's fact. The only reason to maintain it for you is the mentality "hey, I got HBO for free out of this and a grand in my pocket."
    And the idea that your podcast somehow makes you as entitled to compensation as writers and filmmakers is offensive. They put their time, effort and being into making something creative, new and original. That's not what you do. Your podcast is nothing more than a conversation between two fans – no inside line, no exclusive interviews, no special guests with actual connections to the show. It's theory and recap. And we're supposed to like the idea of you taking the money of the more naive members of the site? You may have reached your goal but I'm going to be very surprised if Kick Starter actually cuts you the check. But the biggest problem here was you and your attitude. Because there's a very big difference between asking for donations and hustling. Allow me to use an actual comparison that makes sense: imagine you're a smart, funny guy and people like hearing you talk for days on end. You're passionate about the stuff and your friends love listening to you talk which is why they want to be around you. You think "hey, that's really something. They really like me for what I'm saying." Would you, in polite society, turn to your friend and ask them to pay you 10 bucks for every hour you talk to them about a mutual interest? No. Because that would get you laughed right out of that friendship. Which is pretty much what you've done here.

    Now I have no problem with you asking for donations – there is no justification for you to be operating at a loss. Given a list of costs and actual items that need furnishing, even more people would pitch in. But just because you shouldn't be operating at a loss does not mean you're entitled to be making a profit. It's a very clear distinction – especially since the comments by Peter have made it clear that side podcasts never made a profit to begin with.

    And if the KS money goes through and you get the check, it will change things – you'll operate on the assumption that you actually do deserve to get paid to simply talk about the work produced by other's hard work. And then you'll do it for the other side podcasts as well. That's what people were discussing when Peter went ahead and deleted those comments too. There's a legimate concern here and yet you paint yourself the victim. But I think it's telling that on twitter, a random person's congratulations is for pulling off a scam.

  • David,

    The "congratulations on the scam person (George)" later took back his words.

    Kickstarter is only a few years old. I don't believe there is only a "right way" to use it. Kickstarter approved the project after reviewing it so I find it unlikely that they will refuse payment, but if your concern is legitimate, then we'll find out together.

    As for Kickstarter "funding your life," virtually every single project on Kickstarter builds in some amount for people's time and effort, in addition to fixed costs. People can decide for themselves if they believe that is worth paying for. In our case, they decided that it was worth it.

    I never believed I was entitled to make a profit. I don't think I'm entitled to anything. I think if people want to pay me money to do a podcast, I will do it. That's about it.

  • Wow. I hate to burst your bubble but there's definitely not a correlation between the age of KS and how you should be using it. The "right way" is simple: it's the one that respects their guidelines and the people you're asking for money – neither of which were present in this KS.

    You reached the amount you posited on the KS – but it should be noted that you took advantage of the kindness and generosity of listeners who like the podcast: you misrepresented your intentions on the KS application and also mislead those who were kind enough to donate. And you did it through omission. You hid behind the terms "equipment, webhosting, etc." but you made NO mention of the fact that the amount would also be used to cover "your time and taxes" explicit mention of which would have resulted in the KS never being approved in the first place. And you can't say that you were upfront about your desire to be paid for your time as 1.) It was only mentioned after prodding on twitter 2.) Peter Sciretta removed all traces of it being mentioned on the /Film post. Hm, still not a scam? Ok, let me continue. You listed none of your fixed expenses except "an HBO subscription." – but in this post you make it clear that aside from webhosting the only equipment you need to buy is a mic for Joanna. Do you really have a delusion that if the list you posted here were presented upfront with the price tag you stuck on it that you would have met your goal? Absolutely not – because there is a VERY big difference between asking for assistance and taking advantage of your listeners. And you took advantage.

    Now let's jump into the status of your "compensation." You asked for HBO – a premium cable channel – to be covered by the fundraising costs. This is entirely inappropriate because you are essentially asking us to pay for a luxury good. Do you need it to do the podcast? Yes. But are you ONLY getting Game of Thrones in that deal? Absolutely not – you're getting access to a plethora of premium programming you aren't paying for – the listeners are footing the bill. But you know what? If that was all you were asking for and it was being funded by donations then that would be fair. But the minute you made that ultimatum on twitter, you made it clear that this KS wasn't collecting donations – it was collecting tribute. And the most damning part of this is that your very description on KS says that "David sat down and did the math" only to have your twitter contradict that as well with your confession that the number reached was arbitrary.

    I don't know how you can sit there and still say that you did nothing wrong when you absolutely did. The violent backlash is against your greed and attitude. Are you really going to say that you did nothing wrong? The biggest problem here is your attitude: you seem to think that just because you met the goal it's validation of the idea that people want to PAY you to do your podcast (further expression of an attitude of entitlement) – which is wrong. People may be willing to HELP you with your podcast but it's not the same as paying: the money donated was to help with the operation of the podcast. Not to line your pockets with the extra money for your time. And that's about it.

  • David,

    Thanks for your feedback. As I point out above, we'll definitely incorporate your suggestions (esp. in terms of itemizing the costs) into the next Kickstarter we launch.

  • StB

    Wow, David. You are quite the ass, aren't you? Wanting something for free and complainig for not getting it. Using the "guidelines" of how to do a kickstarter. But, apperently you are unfamiliar with the ways of the "media business". See, in the media a lot of time people aren't getting paid enough money to live. They do it anyway because it is their passion and they actually love what they do.
    I think this applies to this podcast. I only listend to it once, but I felt very entertained. So you'd think it's okay for the two hosts to get nothing for that? Yeah, the costs for equipment are fine with you, but you wont even grant them an HBO subscription? You know, the thing they need to review the show? What a dick move! I'm not even sure that you can get a subscription for only one show on HBO (pretty sure you'd need to buy the whole package), but even so, you stingy little brat… So you think their time is worth: no money. Nothing. They're supposed to do this for free, "cause they love the show"
    Guess what, smartass, they did it for free in the past! You've got your thing already – so be thankful. You want more of that thing? Well, give them some money. I didn't even pay anything cause I wanted to see how the project turns out and chime in later. And then I found out they've already reached their goal without me. Nice. Now I can listen to the podcast for free. JUST LIKE YOU.
    What if they hadn't reached the goal. Well, I guess I couldn't listen to it then and that's fine. That's what the fucking kickstarter thing is all about. You really want something, you pay for it (or invest in it). I am appalled that you believe you'd be financing "the big life" with a 3.200,00 Kickstarter fee. You have no idea what it means to "survive" in the media!

  • StB,

    Alright, I'll bite. Your logic is that I'm whining about not getting the podcast for free? Even though you're saying it can be enjoyed for free? Yea, ok buddy.

    Donations are not compulsory (i.e. in this scenario where the very return of the show relied on reaching the arbitrary monetary goal).

    I outline my problems here quite concisely. And with this KS there's a shift: they aren't doing it for the listeners or a passion, they are doing it for the money.

    But you think that it's a dick move to suggest that maybe – just maybe – HBO could be compensation enough? Or that it's too much in addition to the 1K they can each pocket after the fact? Again – I was never opposed to raising the funds but just for perspective: 1K can pay a month's rent and people put in far more effort working on minimum wage to make that than but pocketing money that is presented on the page as going towards the legitimate costs of production.

    Does this mean I think that their time is worth no money? No. I think that it's worth the costs. It is not worth a profit: they want to make a steady income off of what is, essentially, a hobby – then they should seek sponsorship from HBO to help with publicity instead of leeching off of the material HBO and George RR Martin have produced to make a quick buck. Because let me remind you – this is nothing more than observation, opinion, a speculation.

    And I have no intention of supporting this further. I've cut my ties with slashfilm – this is merely the last thread left hanging. There are plenty of alternatives that still have integrity and rely on actual donations to run rather than to profit. I'm not sure if i'm in a mostly silent majority or if I'm a vocal minority but as long as the blind keep lining their pockets with cash I guess it doesn't matter. The people who pay get what they pay for, the scam artists get their money in exchange for any shred of respect they had from quite a few people, and the moochers like yourself still get the product like nothing happen. And the people like me find something better.

    But I'm going to say this: it takes balls to call someone out and saying that D.C. here deserves payment for the services he rendered and acknowledging that you haven't given shit. I may absolutely hate the bullshit that happened, but I hate hypocrites much more than I hate liars. So cut him a check and then tell me he's earned the money I presume you work for. Because he's never getting mine.

  • First off, congrats on the successful KS! When I saw the campaign, I was curious how it would go. Totally impressed (and rather surprised) how quickly you got your goal!
    While I find the ethical debate above from David interesting, I don't agree. I see the output you produce (across several podcasts) and I don't see any problem with you getting some compensation for your time.
    I find the one question you raise in your post above the most interesting, though – can a person make a living podcasting? I've seen folks like Kevin Smith, Marc Maron, etc cover costs & time with advertising – but is there a way to cut out the middle man, keep the podcast clean and tidy (no annoying ads) and get fans to pay the podcaster directly? DC – I for one will be interested to see where you go with this!
    And to one of David & Chris's points – you could use Talking Dead (hosted by Chris Hardwick) as a fair comparison. He gets paid by AMC to talk about the Walking Dead episode that just aired. With the right connections, who's to say that A Cast Of Kings couldn't be picked up by HBO and you'd then be getting paid for your time another way!
    Keep up the good work!

  • Thanks derelicte! And yes, agreed on the cutting-out-the-middle-man portion.

    I don't know that we have aspirations to get picked up by HBO but who knows what can happen these days!