Five ways to build a crowd
If you’ve spent any time developing a game and getting it ready for a Kickstarter campaign, you’ve probably heard about the importance of building a crowd. Although you’ll get a lot of passing traffic during a Kickstarter campaign, you really need to bring your own crowd. Part of this is about getting the best possible start for the campaign – if you get at least half-funded in the first 48 hours, you have a significantly higher chance of funding by the end. But whatever your early days are like, you’ve got a better chance, the more people know and care about your game before you launch.
So how are you supposed to get that crowd together? How can you get people subscribing to your email newsletters, how can you make sure that people are anticipating your launch before it happens, rather than just hoping they’ll find it on the day? I’ve had two successful Kickstarter campaigns in the last six months and during that time have managed to build my ‘crowd’ from nothing to around 800 people. Here’s five steps you can take, and my assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of each step.
1. Give stuff away. Running a prize draw is a really quick and easy way to get people to subscribe. If you already have any kind of social media profile you can publicise it yourself, or you can do this through a site like boardgameatlas.com that already has a lot of visitors (and has a special ‘giveaways’ page. I tried this in October 2020 using a basic model of ‘subscribe to my email and get entered into the draw’. The prize was a pile of boardgames, although you can get a similar result by giving away just one good quality, high-profile game. I’d originally seen this done by Dan & Connie Kazmeier for their campaign for Chai, and it seemed to get a lot of interest (although at the time I hadn’t appreciated how much legwork they were doing at conventions and online as well). I picked up around 250 email subscribers in 30 days this way.
Pros – You can get hundreds of subscribers quickly, for a relatively small cost and almost no effort.
Cons – If people come for the free stuff, they may not be interested in what you’re developing or selling, and you may well find they unsubscribe as soon as they find out they haven’t won. But you do at least get their attention for a while, and many people will stay subscribed (especially the prize winners!).
2. Create content - Write stuff or broadcast stuff to inform and entertain people.
This is a great way of getting people interested in what you have to say. It’s a slow-burn approach but costs no money and just a little of your time. Writing is a habit and it can be easy to feel like you have nothing to say, but just start writing about something you’re interested in and you’ll soon get your flow. Just having a blog (like this one) is a great way to get started – don’t worry about how many people are reading it, but do assume that people will (so make sure you’re not saying anything that you might regret at a later date). Or if you don’t think you’re a writer, make videos. Record a podcast. Draw or paint stuff. And share it all on social media.
There are lots of great examples of individuals and companies that have done this to great effect – Exploding Kittens launched their game off the back of the very popular comic The Oatmeal; Edmund McMillen took a very similar approach for his game Tapeworm, which attracted over 12000 KS backers; Of course Jamey Stegmaier has built a huge following through his definitive guide to running Kickstarters (he’d already had some KS success which gave him something to write about, but he continued to build his audience by sharing his success and his lessons). And Gabe Barratt, who runs the Board Game Design Lab site and podcast, has built up a large following from his advice, network and listeners.
Content creation can be a great way to build a loyal and lasting audience as long as you’re prepared to put in sustained effort over a long-ish period of time, but you’ll learn a lot from it too.
3. The ‘loss-leader’ campaign. This is one of the ways in which you can generate a crowd directly on Kickstarter – by launching something at a very low price that people can’t help but back. Cardboard Alchemy did this really well with their initial campaign for drinks coasters and game trays, which didn’t make them any money but gathered over a thousand backers, which they were then able to carry into their next campaign for their full game Mission Catastrophe.
Perroloko Games did this with their Dirty Fridge campaign (a print & play game for just 1 Euro); Chilean company Nebrall Games did something very similar with their roll & write games. My own game Ukiyo wasn’t quite in this mould, but I did always have the intention of having Ukiyo at a no-brainer price (£7) so that people would be encouraged to take a look and hopefully give it a try even if they weren’t sure.
This approach can have some real advantages – people can try what you have to offer and you can build a good level of trust if you deliver successfully on that first project. You’ll also get to try delivering a campaign with minimal risk. Just make sure you’re not heading for a financial loss by doing this – something like a print & play can be a great way to get started.
4. Ads. Some people are put off by this because it feels a bit too commercial and if you’re starting off as a hobbyist designer, this might feel more like running a business. But ultimately, if you’re planning a Kickstarter then that’s exactly what you’re doing – you’ll be running a business with all the accounting, taxes, publicity, manufacturing and everything else that brings. Adverts are a great way to get to people that you know could be interested, with a budget to suit you.
There’s lots of different ways in which you can place ads, and there’s an option for every budget. You can get decent reach from as little as £20-30, or you can spend many hundreds over a co-ordinated campaign.
My personal favourite is Facebook ads, for two reasons – you can reach a large, targeted audience and be very specific about the stated interests you want to get to, and it’s really affordable. Even with an ad that costs less than £5 a day you can still reach thousands of viewers that you know have an interest in your subject. It’s also really easy to tweak and tailor your ads based on the detailed data you get back, so you can test and adjust what gets the best results in terms of clickthroughs.
Many other publishers swear by Boardgamegeek ads, which directly reach huge numbers of gamers, but they’re not cheap (expect around $500 for a campaign) and personally I’ve had very little success with them, but they are generally better for big games or campaigns that want to become even bigger.
5. Finally, the old-fashioned way, talking to one individual at a time. This is about getting round the game conventions (real or virtual), playtesting, helping others and building genuine community around your work (and their work). If you help people, they’re far more likely to be interested in you – plus it’s the right thing to do, you’ll feel better and everyone wins. This takes the longest, but gets backers and followers that will stick around through thick and thin – they’re there because they want to be there. This might seem like a lot of work, and it is, but it’s more scalable than you might think. Why not set yourself an achievable target of, say, two new people or connections a month?
If this all sounds a bit calculating and cold to you, then you’re feeling a common concern about what used to be called ‘networking’. But think of it more as ‘connecting’, or just plain helping, and you’ll find that your community will build, organically, before you know it, and you'll be adding a load of value to a lot of people around you.
In all of this, it’s really important to remember everyone’s right to unsubscribe – don’t force your content on people that don’t want it, and make sure you understand and respect the wishes of every individual as to how they want to be contacted. This is not just the right thing to do, it’s also a legal requirement. If you’re not sure if you’re leaning too heavily on your followers, put yourself in their shoes. Are you sending out comms too frequently? Is it really adding value to them? If you’re not sure, I would say err on the side of caution – you want people to look forward to your emails, not groan, and once you’ve lost a subscriber, chances are you’ll never get them back.
Ultimately, you can do any or all of the above – a giveaway and a few ads can give you an early boost of interest, but without the genuine community spadework, it’ll be hard to build an audience that are there for the long run. Take a long view – there’s no real quick wins in this if you want people to genuinely care about your work. But I hope with the above you can find the right combination to suit the amount of time and money that you have available. Good luck!
Do let me know in the comments if you have other ways of building a crowd.