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Five Lessons from the Top 500 Kickstarter Photo Campaigns

December 19, 2016


If you've heard me speak about fundraising for photography projects, you know that I'm a big fan of Kickstarter. When compared with fundraising from foundations, corporations or other sponsors, Kickstarter has at least three big advantages: 1) quick turn-around time: most successful campaigns reach their funding goal in one month; 2) when you're successful, you get both money and followers (something most foundations don't provide); and 3) even if you're not successful, if you've done things right you still have a group of new followers who are definitely interested in your work.


In the time since I wrote about the top 100 Kickstarter photobooks earlier this year, I've had a lot of questions about the various elements that help make a campaign successful. Ever the curious type, I decided to expand my research to the top 500 photography campaigns. Although this took longer than I'd hoped, I believe the data provides some robust insights into the world of photo crowdfunding. While there's a lot of details in the, um, details, here are the big takeaways.


Lesson 1: Books Rule


Books made up nearly three-quarters of the top 500 campaigns both in numbers and in dollars raised. Projects (such as self-assignments, trips, and archiving) took up the second highest number of campaigns, about 18%, with much smaller numbers for the remaining categories (included in "Other" are calendars, cards, posters, and trainings). 



Lesson 2: Photographers love their gear


Although there were only 15 campaigns for gear (cameras, lenses, film and other equipment), these campaigns dominated the top dollar categories. Gear campaigns claimed 5 of the top 10 most successful campaigns (according to total dollars raised), and the average amount raised per backer blew away the competition. The 15 gear campaigns averaged a total of $199,792, while the next highest average total was $31,210 per campaign for books. 


As you might suspect, individual contributions for gear were higher as well. Gear contributions averaged $230 per person while the average contribution for books was $115. In addition, gear campaigns brought in very high numbers of contributors: an average of 1,048 per campaign vs. 320 contributors per book campaign. If you're trying to develop or reanimate some tool that photographers might use, it could be well worth your time to create a Kickstarter campaign to help launch it.


Lesson 3: People love photography


Here are two big numbers: 160,043 and $16,642,744. The first is the total number of backers for these 500 campaigns. It's probable that some of these backers contributed to more than one campaign, so the total number of distinct individuals is most likely less. Since Kickstarter does not release the names of individual backers, there's no way of knowing an accurate number. Any way you count it, that's still a lot of people who have responded to Kickstarter photography campaigns.


The second number ($16.6 million) is total contributed to all 500 of these campaigns. A quick calculation shows that each backer contributed an average of $104 to each of these campaigns. The highest individual contribution was $2,500, and the lowest was $19. 


It's also worth noting that the #1 campaign brought in $793,266 (Meyer Optik's campaign for the Wonder Bokeh Lens), while #500 raised $10,075 (Katya de Grunwald's book Made in Spode).  Don't worry about that top number, though. The median campaign amount was $20,766, which is a much more achievable goal for most people. 


Speaking of goals, the average campaign reached 177% of their goal, and even the median number was 121%. 


Lesson 4: It doesn't take that long


The average length from start to finish for all of the top 500 campaigns was 34 days (median was 30 days).  In the fundraising world, that's a really short return on your investment of time and energy. Since the average campaign in the top 500 brought in $33,286, that's like earning almost $400,000 a year. Think how much work you'd have to do to earn that much annually, then apply that level of thinking and energy to a one-month campaign. The good news is that you won't have to do it every month. But some people have done it several times, and for the most part their success rates have increased each time.


Fortunately, there are some fairly simple tenets that will help you position your campaign for success. There are also some great tricks of the trade for those who want to really get into their campaign. 


Lesson 5: Women continue to be under-represented



Of the top 500 campaigns 429 were run by individuals. Men made up 70% (298) of that number, while women made up just 30% (131). While this is slightly better than the numbers I reported for the top 100 photobooks (75% men and 25% women), it's still a long way from the gender balance that should be there.


Since I don't have access to the raw data that Kickstarter maintains, I don't know if fewer women are running campaigns, if fewer women are among the top grossing campaigns, or both. What I do know is that men raised a total of $9,095,338 from 89,223 backers, for an average contribution of $102, while women raised $3,903,571 from 45,757 backers, with an average contribution of $85. Perhaps women can take heart that the top grossing of all the campaigns run by individuals that of Kirsty Mitchell, who brought in $464,496. Or perhaps they can try to top that with their own campaign.


In case you're wondering, the remaining 71 campaigns were run by companies, organizations or a few mixed groups of people (men and women working together). 


Bonus Lesson: The playing field is not that crowded


I was surprised that the number of highly successful photo campaigns run each year appears to have tapered off in 2016. Of course, the year is not over yet, and I would expect a small number to still be completed in the next couple of weeks. However, this is a list of the most successful campaigns, and not every completed campaign will make it into this category. I'll update this section in early 2017 and see if there is a significant year-end surge. Even if the number reach 2015's high, that's still not a lot of pressure when you're competing for such a great combination of funding and recognition.






All of the data I analyzed was collected and reviewed during the first two weeks in December, 2016. Since Kickstarter continuously runs campaigns, any data set is a snapshot at a given moment in time. Therefore, these numbers are accurate only for this snapshot; they will not reflect future changes as new campaigns are completed.


Kickstarter does not release bulk data about its campaigns except to academic researchers they authorize. In order to extract the data for this project, it was necessary to bring up each campaign individually. This is a time-intensive task, and it is possible that I might have made some errors in data entry or in calculations. If you find any numbers that are inaccurate or do not seem to add up, please let me know.


For all campaigns that were funded with foreign currencies ( a total of 72 of the 500) , I converted the amounts U.S. dollars based upon the approximate date of the campaign's completion. Since currency values fluctuate almost daily, some of the conversion rates may not be 100% accurate. I don't believe that these minor differences affect the overall quality of the data or the conclusions I've drawn from my analysis.


Finally, you should know that although I write about Kickstarter campaigns, I've never actually run one myself. All of my analyses and comments are based upon my conversations with people who have run campaigns, my 25 years of running a foundation that has funded photography projects, and from collecting and analyzing a lot of data about Kickstarter. If you've run a campaign and you feel I've mischaracterized any aspect of working with Kickstarter or that my conclusions are different from your own experiences, please let me know.


Tim Greyhavens

December, 2016

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