Crowdfunding 101: “You need to get the PR machine going way before you launch”

Picture by Press Start: Jaroslav Valuch Project Leader of Press Start

Interview by Ana Ribeiro

In light of its recent launch and freshly funded projects, ECPMF has caught up with Press Start Project Leader Jaroslav Valuch to talk about what makes a successful crowdfunding campaign, how journalists from around the world can make use of Press Start, and a few other related topics.

ECPMF: What happened between the end of the Kickstarter campaign Press Start had engaged in and the Press Start launch in mid-July – how did you go about raising the funds needed which the Kickstarter campaign didn’t provide?

Valuch: After the Kickstarter campaign we were basically volunteering to make the project happen with the help of several unpaid interns. Luckily, we managed to get support from Google’s Digital News Initiative Innovation Fund. That gave us the necessary kick in June to finalise everything and launch.

What are some of the lessons you learned from your own crowdfunding campaign that you could share with the journalists using Press Start to improve the chances their campaign will succeed?

There were several lessons we learned. One of them is that you really need a strong database of contacts and networks ready. It’s a simple rule that only a certain percentage of people who learn about your project do visit your landing page and only a fraction of them donate. It’s simple math, the more you reach, the more you collect.

Same for social media promotion, unless you have your networks of fans and followers developed already, it’s difficult to have sufficient organic reach and engagement. Using paid promotion is not a solution at this phase. You need to generate organic buzz.

But the most important thing is to start getting some donors lined up days and weeks before you launch the actual campaign, who are ready to donate minutes and hours after you launch. Psychologically, people are more inclined to donate once they see the project already has some funding, 25, 50 percent. Launching with zero means you waste precious time reaching this initial psychological threshold.

And media coverage helps, but the same rule applies: you need to get the PR machine going way before you launch. We underestimated some of these aspects.

How does Press Start differ from a platform like Kickstarter, and why should those engaged in independent journalism choose it over other platforms to try to get funding for their projects?

There are some basic obstacles that prevent many journalists who are the target audience for Press Start from running their campaigns on Kickstarter.

For example, you can only create a project on Kickstarter if you live in Western Europe, the US, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia. You also have to have an address, bank account, and government-issued ID from one of those countries. That excludes basically all of the regions Press Start journalists are recruited from.

Also, Kickstarter or other mainstream crowdfunding platforms do not provide additional support. We learned that journalists who would be featured on PS often lack the capacity, skills (including English-language proficiency), and time to run the kinds of crowdfunding campaigns that, for example, businesses, marketers, or creative types do. This is one of the core principles of Press Start – to provide coaching, creative support, and an extended global network of contacts to journalists and their campaigns.

How many journalists applied to be included in the first round of crowdfunding through Press Start, and how did you select the five? How many journalists can you have for each crowdfunding round?

The Press Start nomination process is not open to everyone. While we’d love to support any and all journalists (especially those just starting out), we recognize the importance of maintaining a certain level of professionalism. The success of Press Start will be directly tied to the quality of work being published by Press Start journalists, so we want to ensure that each journalist we profile already has a solid track record. We do that by cultivating close working relationships with well-respected journalism organizations all over the world. These groups know better than anyone which journalists deserve support. With their help, we found the right kind of journalists to launch the site. Also, we wanted a topical, geographical, and gender mix for the first five journalists.

We’re ready to profile basically any number of journalists. But realistically, it takes quite a lot of time and effort to prepare the whole profile – video profile, text profile, project pitch. Our plan is not to have a certain batch of journalists for each round, rather to profile them on a rolling basis – whenever there is new profile ready, we publish it.

Can a journalist apply individually to be part of a crowdfunding round or does it have to be done via their institutions?

If a journalist applies to PS directly we can discuss how to get him or her profiled. We can connect them with our partner in the region, or we can look for a new partner in the region if there isn’t one, and then we can follow up with the standard procedure explained above.

How was the funding goal determined for each journalist – is there a limit?

Not really. We’ve set some limits at the outset because we don’t want to aim too high with the initial campaign amounts until Press Start gets big and famous (and has a lot more traffic). But other than that, we’re asking journalists to come up with their own budgets to cover the costs of their time and other relevant expenses to do their stories, such as travel. The result will depend on the going rate for journalism in their countries, the cost of living, the type of story (i.e., investigation vs. feature, video vs. print), and a bunch of other factors. In some cases, we might check with our local partners to ensure that the proposed budget is realistic for the pitch.

How do you make Press Start sustainable financially – do you charge commission or a fee from the participating journalists?

Yes, that’s the intended business model, to be able to run this as a sustainable business in three years. Ten percent of each donation will go to maintaining and improving the platform, as well as covering payment processing costs.

The interview was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)