Can the initial buzz surrounding a crowdfunding campaign guarantee its success?

An American study on the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon claims that the homestretch is a period that is as crucial, if not more, given it increases the sense of responsibility among backers. Two Canadian film directors share their respective experiences that present surprisingly similar characteristics.

Among the most unpredictable aspects of crowdfunding, how the backer behaves remains a top preoccupation for project initiators—given their success depends on it—as well as academic researchers whose work focuses on how altruism operates.

The backer’s behavioural dynamics are often taken into consideration in the field of social psychology, and more particularly with respect to the “reinforcement model” concept. Under that rationale, the more a campaign has accumulated contributions, the more it will attract new contributions. However, the bystander effect, from which stems the diffusion of responsibility process, offers an alternate explanation of the commitment, claiming that empathy takes precedence over the rippling effect.

Indeed, according to a major study conducted a few years ago by two researchers, Venkat Kuppuswamy and Barry L. Bayus, the final days of a campaign present a higher potential of attractiveness than the number of backers who have already donated to the campaign. It would appear that the count serves a mobilizing purpose by awakening a sense of personal responsibility among those who choose to donate in the homestretch, i.e., those whose contributions have the potential of changing the course of a campaign. Even though the study already dates back to 2013, it nevertheless has an essential purpose by helping to understand the dynamics that are at play in the decision to support a crowdfunding project.

The diffusion of responsibility: a familiar phenomenon

The bystander effect defines the helping behaviour by making the demonstration that personal responsibility is generally divided among the number of people gathered at the site of an accident or invested in a charitable project. Thus, the greater the number of people present in situations involving mutual assistance, whether urgent or not, the greater the probability that no single person intervenes because each person’s responsibility is reduced. That is what the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon illustrates.

The unfortunate story of Kitty Genovese, murdered in the middle of a New York street in 1964, is what triggered the first studies on the bystander effect. Even though her cries of distress had grabbed the attention of some thirty or so people, no one rescued her. In the wake of the murder, two American researchers, John Darley and Bibb Latané, worked to determine the causes of this inaction, and their research made it possible to define one of the most robust and reproducible effects of social psychology.

When the bystander becomes a backer: two examples of successful campaigns

In 2011, Venkat Kuppuswamy and Barry L. Bayus launched a vast study on the role played by social information (observing others’ behaviours) in the success of a crowdfunding campaign. This study was conducted on the Kickstarter platform during a two-year period and was followed by the publication of an analysis of the data on 25,058 projects.

This analysis allowed the two researchers to reach the following conclusion: campaigns that take advantage of the countdown have characteristics in common, also shared by two recent projects led by two Canadian directors: Leïla Audrey Pagès’ equestrian documentary Sans attache and Jade Bruneau’s short film Dolorès (written by Geneviève Beaudet). Let’s examine these closer.

First of all, the American study emphasizes the type of trajectory these campaigns follow, generally a “bathtub” shaped pattern. Most of these campaigns receive most of their contributions during the first days, slow down after two or three weeks and then register new gains during the last week. One thing is for sure: for both of our directors, the final moments were both exciting and reassuring. “The first two days of the campaign, we raised 25% of our target and then things fell flat. And then a boom occurred during the last four days of the campaign,” explains the director of Dolorès, who worked very hard to turn things around after the slowdown.

The Kuppuswamy and Bayus study reveals that campaigns that get off to a strong start are generally more likely to attract new backers at the end of the process. However, they must not reap too much success midway or that will contribute to increasing the diffusion of responsibility.

Is that to say that a successful ending depends essentially on the initial buzz? Not necessarily. For example, the campaign launched by Leïla, who produced the documentary Sans attache, did not follow a bathtub shaped pattern. In her case, it followed a discrete slope and ended with fireworks. Indeed, she surpassed her goal by 60% for a total of $21,563 (the initial goal was to collect $13,400). What happened? “During week 5 or 6, I received a major donation of $5,000. I instantly went from 50% to 90% of my initial objective and, from that moment on, people continued to donate to my campaign,” explains Leïla, who took advantage of this late buzz to add a new funding level.

A limited number of backers

Once again according to the findings of Kuppuswamy and Bayus, one characteristic to consider with respect to bathtub shaped patterns is the limited number of participants. Potential backers would be less inclined to commit to popular campaigns, tending to presume that others will contribute the required budget. That’s also what can be observed in the case of both campaigns analyzed here: they received the support of small groups. In the case of Dolorès, 104 and 242 for Sans attache. That’s not much considering the sums collected.

Both directors also received a certain number of donations without having to provide anything in exchange. “Because people wanted the film to be produced, they took the subject to heart,” explains Leïla, who received major support from the French equestrian community. Same thing for Jade Bruneau, who produced the short film Dolorès.

Video: the best possible calling card

The study shows that a high proportion of successful campaigns were of short duration (about six weeks) and were boosted by a presentation video. Dolorès and Sans attache share these same characteristics and their accompanying video proved to be their most efficient calling card.

In both cases, the artistic project was completed or close to completion and the campaign was launched to finance the postproduction, distribution or payroll. The directors were therefore able to provide the trailer of their film—or web capsules—to demonstrate the quality of their creation and the seriousness of their process. Indeed, the videos confirmed that a good part of the production had already been funded.

A video generally serves to attract visitors to the page of the crowdfunding campaign, but it can also sometimes inject new life into a project. Having racked up more than 17,000 views on YouTube to date, the trailer of Sans attache grabbed the attention of a few movie theatre owners who invited the director to present her film and exchange with the audience on site. Little did Leïla know that her film would be the object of a small European tour! Moreover, she intends to present it in Canada in 2019.

The importance of the communication strategy

Also, to explain the upturn of their respective campaigns, both directors claim to have worked on it full time in the final days, mainly on communications. It is interesting to note that both sent personalized emails to their friends and acquaintances. A winning strategy in their opinion seeing as it generated a good number of contributions. One can therefore presume that this mode of communication that is more engaging than public postings on social media contributed to awakening the sense of responsibility among those who received an email. May it be said that the study does not deal with the efficiency of this strategy, but that the researchers claim that those who succeed are those who communicate a lot.

Must creators adapt their communications to the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon? Other studies will need to be conducted to answer this question. However, the work carried out by Kuppuswamy and Bayus makes it possible to relativize one of crowdfunding’s operating rules according to which the first days are the most important ones. Interested in the backer’s behavioural dynamics, the researchers add that the final days may considerably change the initial predictions. The Sans attache project illustrates that eloquently.

A campaign’s home straight represents a crucial—and lucrative—step for as long as you are sufficiently prepared to generate buzz among potential backers. Maybe bet on the personalized email strategy, while emphasizing the sense of duty and commitment? There’s food for thought when it comes to developing a communications plan for a campaign.

Claudia Beaumont
Digital content coordinator, music programmer, radio producer, research assistant, community manager, columnist: Claudia Beaumont played many roles in the field of music broadcasting at Société Radio-Canada over a 10-year period. She then went on to work in the audiovisual industry, as a product manager for TV5 and Unis TV’s digital platforms. Over the past several years, she also developed an interest in the impact of digital technologies on artistic creation and its marketability. Her master’s thesis focused on crowdfunding and its role in cultural intermediation in Quebec.
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