Last week Rich Berlew's Kickstarter project became one of the top ten funded Kickstarter projects of all time, and the highest ranked one that's creative (not technical). Rich's goal was to raise $57,750 to reprint one of his web-comic compilations, and he received $400,000 in the first 12 days. As a comparison, of the top 10 comics-related Kickstarters in 2011, only one cracked the $100K barrier and most hovered around $25K.
How and why did this campaign go (comparatively) viral?
The usual elements for a successful Kickstart were in place: Rich's comic is high quality, with a solid base of long time readers (most of whom are geeky and thus more familiar with online fundraising). But he also has a design degree and prior self-publishing experience. He added extra elements to the usual Kickstarter campaign and those, combined with ongoing responsiveness to his target customers, are making the difference. Here are the distinguishing elements of user experience (ux) that helped this drive go viral:
Sponsor rewards are unique merchandise
Rich's self published books are sold in gaming stores. They contain significant extra content that has never been on his web site, and older titles are out of print. "Sponsoring" in this case is more like "purchasing merchandise" than with most Kickstarters.
Upbeat progress charts are linked by a narrative
Rich's updates are the heart of the campaign. His color-coded charts visually show how each new chunk of money will be used; they're the old "thermometer" progress graphics on steroids and mushrooms together.
The charts are linked by a story, which started with a comic on the project's home page (an opportunity to kick a character from the strip) and unfolds with developments on each new chart, so readers want to check the updates whether or not they've already signed up. (For the full effect, read from the back forward.)
Rewards are networked
Some sponsor rewards are PDFs of new stories that the fans want. As people kept donating, Rich added all the electronic rewards to EACH package. By now a person who bought in for the $10 "fridge magnet" level is getting a ton of special rewards that they didn't plan on getting, and the revelation of each new "Mystery Reward" also kept people checking back in and telling their fellow fans.
One of the latest rewards is a set of free downloads. Rich Berlew wrote, "That's my way of thanking all the fans who may be not be able to help out in monetary ways but are spreading the word and keeping it alive." To sum up, the networked-rewards technique uses swag to leverage the power of Metcalfe's law.
Kickstarter comments support viral behaviour
As various targets were reached, and more books are able to be reprinted, Berlew began offering full sets of the books, full sets signed, full sets signed with original art, and so on. And early sponsors switched to these better options. To quote Dave Freireich at approximately comment 1960, "Only 2 books? What was I thinking? I want all of the full color books. Pledge upped!"
Kickstarter doesn't allow projects to adjust or remove rewards that people have already signed up for. Berlew continually added various combinations of merchandise as requested by fans, so that now the list of sponsor packages is (a) mostly sold out and (b) an unholy mess.
But as people "managed their pledge" (which Kickstarter does support, quite elegantly), some of the early sold-out packages (rare Christmas ornaments, full sets of magnets that you would have had to attend three gaming cons to get, etc.) briefly "flicked on" as available. The comments list was a 24-hour party of fans around the world refreshing their browsers and trying to get the rare stuff. Then they praised Kickstarter's server capacity and decided to make a chart of where fans were geographically and showed all those other signs of a project going viral on the web.
Summary (at the half-way mark of 15 days)
To sum up, Rich Berlew was already taking good care of his target audience with high quality content and extras such as Christmas ornaments and fridge magnets. He took the basic Kickstarter template and added dramatic progress visualizations and networked rewards. His fans took this viral.
As of this posting (Sunday evening 5 Feb 2012) the drive is closing in on the #6 position (on the all-time list of Kickstart projects), but in his latest update Rich has also suggested that it will soon be OK to put on the brakes: "That should take us to a cool half a million dollars of OOTS products being created and shipped, which defies all logic and common sense." With 15 days to go, I can't wait to see where this ends up.