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How Can a Museum Use Kickstarter to Crowdfund?

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In 2016 the Science Museum London crowdfunded £51,000 to recreate Eric, the UK’s first robot. How can a museum use Kickstarter to fund the things that they really want to make happen.

Will Stanley, Senior Communications Officer from Science Museum shares his experience of running a successful Kickstarter campaign for a museum. How did the Science Museum team win the backing of 861 people and raise more than £51,000.

Will Stanley: So, I’m here today to talk about our Kickstarter project, which we ran last year, to rebuild Eric, who is the first British robot. As [Una] says, I’m Will, I work just down the road at the Science Museum and last year we built a robot. We used Kickstarter. For those of you who don’t know, Kickstarter is a platform to connect people that want to fund projects with the creators of projects. It’s also quite often used by backers as a shop. My watch is a Kickstarter project. It’s a way of finding stuff that isn’t available anywhere else.

There are 15 different categories that projects will go into, so a whole range from art right the way to technology and this helps backers and creators understand where their project fits. Funding on Kickstarter, it’s all or nothing. So either you reach your goal or you exceed your goal and get the money, or you don’t. The big benefit of Kickstarter is that there’s a massive audience there already. There’s 30 million people that have backed a project, there’s 3 billion dollars that have been pledged on projects and 125,000 projects that have been successful. However, 14 percent of projects finish without receiving any funding or any pledges at all, and only 36 percent of projects are actually successful. So there’s a real big risk with using Kickstarter that was one of the things that we were exploring as a museum.

To give you a bit of background, there’s quite a few museums that have run Kickstarter projects, so from the Royal Academy to the Smithsonian, to the Bowes Museum up north, and the Morbid Anatomy Museum. The reason that we as a science museum decided to do a Kickstarter was for a few reasons, so we’d been looking to explore crowd funding and were thinking about which platforms we should use. We’d also had one of the curators bring us this really great story and didn’t quite know what to do with it, and those two things managed to work themselves together.

My day job is in comms, so with my press hat on, I knew that there was a lot of interest from journalists in Kickstarter, I knew we had a fairly good story and I was hoping that we’d get a lot of journalists that would like what we’re trying to do.

We heard earlier talk about the Art Happens programme from the Art Fund. We did consider other platforms apart from Kickstarter, but the reasons we chose Kickstarter were, as I’ve said, the massive audience, the interest from journalists and because our project was very techy and I didn’t think it would go or be as successful as projects on the Art Fund platform. The one thing that we wanted to ensure was that we were doing something that was beyond what we normally do as a museum. We were quite worried that as a public institution, we get an amount of money from the government and we didn’t want to do a Kickstarter to raise money to do the type of thing that we normally do, we wanted to do something that was extra special and give our backers a reason for taking part.

So, I want to talk to you about why I think we succeeded and some of the things that we did that helped us exceed our goal. But first, this is Eric. Eric’s pretty terrifying. The original Eric was built in 1928, not far from London, by a journalist and a mechanic. The journalist had retired and was looking for something to do and around this time things like the film Metropolis had come out and actually the word ‘robot’ itself was first used in a Czech science fiction play. It’s means serf, or slave. So robots were really of that time, the late 1920s.

Eric went on a bit of a tour. He went around the UK and across to America and he was around for a couple of years and we’ve got a few – we worked really closely with the relatives of Eric’s original creators to – they’ve got a master archive of press cuttings and drawings, so it was really useful to see where he’d been and what he’d done. But then he disappeared. We don’t really know what happened to him after 1931. Quite often roboticists would take apart their robots to build new robots and we think that might be what has happened. There was certainly a later robot called George that we know was destroyed during World War 2.

We discovered this story, or the curator had discovered the story, and we wanted to bring Eric back. This a gift of the very grainy – about 15 seconds of footage that we have of the original Eric in action. We had no real idea what his insides were made of. What you can’t see here is that Eric was built to stand in for the Duke of York to talk at an exhibition for the Society of Model Engineers and the Duke of York had pulled out and the Society got together and was like, “Why don’t we built a mechanical man to replace him,” which is where we got Eric from.

For a Kickstarter to be successful you need a really good story, and I think that Eric was the first British robot and we wanted to bring him back, and that we had a little bit of archive of the original, really helped engage the public with Eric’s story. You also need an engaging creator, so this is Ben Russell, who’s our curator of mechanical engineering. Ben was really excited. He was the face of the campaign. He’d found Eric’s story and was really championing it. It was together that Ben and I drove the project forwards. Ben has a good mix of charm and curatorial eccentricity. I think together that went really well, backers really engaged with Ben and the story he was sharing.

The other thing that’s really important is having an achievable goal. Because Kickstarter is all or nothing, it’s really important to make sure you pick the goal at the right level. Obviously you’ve got to balance that with the amount of money that you think you need to do the thing you want to do against – if the goal is too high, you’re not going to succeed. If the goal is too low, you might succeed but not actually get enough to do what you want. This was the stats of our campaign. The dotted blue line is £35,000 which is what we were trying to raise. The green line is the estimate for what we’d do if we kept the same rate of pledges coming in every day.

As you can see at the beginning, when we got a load of press coverage, and then in the middle of the campaign things really slowed down a bit, and as we got towards the end the pledges picked up and eventually we massively exceeded our target. We were really careful in that choice of, “Do we pick 30, do we pick 35, do we pick 40?” We settled on 35 as feeling like we could get there and would give us enough money to do what we wanted to do. We were aiming – we managed to recreate Eric and also put him on display in the museum and then into an exhibition.

One of the important things for a Kickstarter – rewards, and it was really key to have a mix of digital rewards or physical rewards and Eric’s experiential rewards as well, and really key again to have a range of prices. People could pledge from £5 right up to £5,000. As you might expect the £20-30 mark was the most popular and obviously we’d put a lot of thought into the value to place against the different rewards, and making sure that lots of people could take part.

My main bit of advice for doing Kickstarter? Do research, lots of research. We actually met with Kickstarter staff over here, who were amazingly helpful and really useful in giving us lots of advice. At the first meeting, their advice was that it probably takes about three months to plan it. We had five weeks. So it was quite a condensed period of time to research what rewards to get, to look at shipping, how we actually get stuff to backers, thinking about the content we were going to share as the project continued, lining up press coverage. Yes, my one learning is spend far more time preparing than you think you’ll need because it will take a long time.

One of the really key things for Kickstarter is having a really engaging video. I’m not going to show you it now because it’s about three minutes long, but with the text on the Kickstarter page and the video, you’ve really got to tell the story and really engage people with why should they give you some of their hard-earned money to support the thing you’re trying to do. We had thousands of people that came to the page and watched the footage, and we spent a long time working on the video and I think that really paid off in helping people understanding what we’re about and what we wanted to achieve.

So we launched on the 10th of May last year, and we timed the announcement of the project to coincide with announcing a big exhibition about robots that’s currently on at the Science Museum until 3 September and you should definitely visit. Eric’s in there. We announced the exhibition and the Kickstarter at the same time. We had – the photo on the left is the curator with a different robot called Cygan.

So we wheeled out Cygan for the press announcement, and actually it was really – I thought it would be a good story, but I was really blown away by the global coverage we got for Eric and the exhibition. It really helped drive pledges and people supporting the project right at the beginning, and was really great PR for the museum. We didn’t do the Kickstarter to get really good coverage, but it was a definite benefit from having done it, and really lovely seeing so many people really excited about Eric and his story and wanting to bring him back.

We spent a lot of time – or I spent a lot of time encouraging other people to talk about the project. There’s a few Tweets I’ve picked out on the left-hand side, so everyone from the actor who plays Kryten on Red Dwarf to a few friendly museums. We also really spent a lot of time working with Kickstarter to help encourage them to promote the project. We were featured as one of their – as a Project of the Day, they were really helpful in promoting us on social media and a little bit later I’ll tell you how that translated into pledges. Getting lots of people to talk about the campaign and lots of people that aren’t you was, again, really key in encouraging people to explore Eric’s story and get involved.

The campaign ran from the 10th of May until the 16th of June, and three days before we finished we reached our goal, so we were super excited. Part of the preparation we’d done was looking at what we could do to encourage people to keep being involved after we’d reached our goal. After a bit of research I discovered that the conservation team were working on conserving another robot called Inkha. This is Inkha in bits. Inkha was a receptionist at Kings College London for about ten years and has quite a sassy personality. Inkha is also on display in our exhibition and you can sense how grumpy or obnoxious she is in responding to visitors. It was really wonderful to be able to bring not one but two robots back to life. As you can see from the Tweet over here, people were really excited that we were helping do more than just bring Eric back.

So, we made it. 861 people believed enough in our dream of bringing Eric and Inkha back to support us, and we raised just over £51,000, which was really quite incredible. I was actually blown away by the number of people that wanted to get involved. There were quite a few people called Eric who backed the campaign, and so I – it’s always an amazing moment any time anyone called Eric was like, “Yes, I’m supporting this.” It was absolutely brilliant to see. A huge amount of work had gone in to this point, but it was really just the beginning because now we actually had to build Eric. We had to keep providing our backers and supporters with updates on what we were doing and really keep them involved in the process.

We worked with an artist and robot builder called Giles Walker, who is based in South London, and I spent many, many, many weeks visiting his workshop under a railway arch to see Eric being created. So I’ve got few .gifs for you. We were sharing .gifs and images and videos with our backers so they could see the progress we were making. This is Giles acting and doing a bit of welding and grinding for us. The stages to build Eric – originally we were working just from the archive footage and images that we had. The insides of our modern Eric are very much 21st century technology, so we cheated a little bit, but the outsides are as close to the original as we could imagine.

Eric has a metal frame, and then the actuators and motors are inside it, and then an aluminium skin on the outside. This was halfway through. He was looking pretty terrifying there. As we switch the lights on you can see the painted metal frame there. Then this is Eric finished. So it took about four months to build Eric and we were sharing weekly or fortnightly updates with all our backers. We also had spent quite a lot of time encouraging the press to write about Eric’s story, so Wired and the BBC came part way through the build to see how we were getting on, and it was just getting that balance right between sharing exclusive stuff with our backers and then later sharing some content with the museum’s audiences and the wider world.

Also, one of the rewards was the chance to come and see Eric being built and that was really quite popular and really lovely to actually meet some of the backers that had bought it as a birthday present for someone, or just wanted to see Eric in pieces. The picture on the left there is Eric being carefully moved out of Giles’ workshop and into the museum. I’m not used to carrying a robot, but it was quite good fun. He wasn’t actually as heavy as I thought he was going to be. After Eric had arrived at the museum, the – we ended up building Eric earlier than we thought we were going to so we had about four months before the exhibition opened and we decided, and I really pushed for putting Eric on public display.

So Eric was available for anyone to come into the museum for free and see him. Although he is in the robots exhibition, which is ticketed, we wanted a chance for anyone to come and see him for a quite a long period of time without paying. It was also a great way for us to promote the exhibition and it was really wonderful seeing so many people come and see Eric. In fact there’s lots of, certainly lots of kids that are used to seeing on a phone and not really caring about older technology. The awe of seeing a robot move and come to life is really quite special to watch. It was really lovely seeing people’s reactions that didn’t even know about Eric’s story, but then came to.

One of the larger events we ran for backers was a chance to come and see Eric being unveiled, and that was really lovely to meet almost 100 people that had supported Eric, and also invited obviously the press to that as well. So all the way through, as well as working and getting really great content with the backers, we were getting a good amount of PR out of the project as well.

Just a little bit about the people who backed the campaign. So, unsurprisingly, a lot of people from the U.K., and the next biggest group were from the U.S. We had quite a few new backers that had never backed a project on Kickstarter before, but the vast majority were returning backers. So actually Kickstarter was a really great way of reaching this new audience for the museum that maybe hadn’t heard of us before or hadn’t been involved and we were sharing a project with people that keen to give money to projects. It’s really great to be able to tap into that audience.

So our backers – we ended up creating about 600 physical rewards. T-shirts and tote bags – I’ve got my Eric tote bag just down there – and we had to get these out to people. It was quite a lot of research into thinking about the best way to ship all these products. Kickstarter allows you to send a survey to the backers once you’re finished with a campaign where you’re asking for their addresses and the size of t-shirt that they want and that kind of thing. It surprised me about how much we had to chase people to respond. There are still people today that haven’t responded and said, “Here’s the address to send you the t-shirt that I’ve asked for,” which, I wasn’t expecting it to take quite that long, but it is – and again this is one of the areas where if we’d had more time to prepare, we’d have had maybe a wider choice of rewards. It was just something that we didn’t quite have enough time for.

I did explore using someone like Amazon to manage the picking and the packing and sending stuff out, but we ended up doing this within the Comms team at the museum and we had a couple of afternoons of stuffing a lot of envelopes and making sure the right address was on the right thing and getting them out to people. It was really lovely to see people sharing their Tweets of, “I’m wearing an Eric t-shirt” or the tote bag. We also – the image above me is the names of everyone who wanted their name to appear on the wall of the museum that had pledged £25 or more. This was a little bit of a struggle to get our development team to agree, but it was a really great way of showing how proud we were of the people that had supported and backed the project. My name is up there somewhere. You can’t quite see it here. I know there’s a couple of people in the room here as well whose names are up there, so thank you very much.

Talking a little bit more about where some of the pledges came from. We raised £51,000 in total. About £14,000 of that came through Kickstarter support, so either through their social media through their promotion on the site itself and Kickstarter gives you a reasonable amount of stats to be able to track where the pledges have come from. About £4,000 came from the museum promoting the Kickstarter project on our website. About £3,000 came from an email we sent to our subscribers with about six days to go that really helped push us over the line. Then about £4,000 came from the museum’s social media and other people helping promote it for us.

We worked quite closely with the development team, and there were a number of large pledges that came from people that contacted them. The museum had – there were also quite a few large pledges that were completely unexpected from people that we had no idea existed that are now really great supporters of the museum so there was definitely some bonuses to running this that we hadn’t anticipated at the time.

Here’s my list of what I think makes a successful Kickstarter campaign. Really it about having a good story and that is the biggest thing. We’ve talked in the museum about potentially doing another Kickstarter, but my advice has always been that we need to find a great story first because it’s just nowhere near as easy when there’s not something that people can latch onto and really want to help and champion.

Finally, I wanted to play – I’ve got a video of Eric talking, that we made just after we finished building him. We shared it on social media, but I thought you’d appreciate seeing Eric in action. We had quite a lot of discussions about what voice to give Eric. The original Eric had the voice of the people that built him and we decided that Eric should have the voice of the curator, which I think freaks the curator out a little bit seeing this giant robot talking with his voice, but I’ll play it for you now.

Eric: [Yawn] Oh, hello. This body feels different. I’m all full of wires and motors and fancy 21st century electronics instead of pulleys and gears from the1920s. Right. Where was I? Oh yes, hello. My name is Eric and I’m thrilled to be alive. My insides may have had a 21st century makeover, but I think my original creators would still recognise me. I look just as terrifying as ever. I’m delighted to be an ambassador for robotkind and I’m looking forward to seeing many of you soon at the Science Museum in London. Now, I’m about to be wrapped up, carefully I hope, and transported to the museum. You really must come and see me and my wonderful robot friends in the robots exhibition. Of course I’m the star of the show. Goodbye for now.

Will Stanley: And so here’s Eric in the exhibition with some of his robot friends. You can find more about Eric’s story on our website. Thank you very much.


Will Stanley talked about How Can a Museum Use Kickstarter to Crowdfund? at our CultureGeek event in May 2016. Interested in learning more about fundraising? Watch this presentation on digital fundraising in museums

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