Retrospective: Susan Wilson’s Kickstarter Success And Resulting PR Fiasco

keep-upNow that the dust has settled regarding the Kickstarter campaign to send a 9 year old girl to “RPG Camp,” I think it is extremely important to reflect on what happened, digest the events and see if there is anything to learn. To allow something like this to pass while writing it off as “just another case of trolling” is to ignore the facts at hand, plain and simple. Something obviously went wrong here.

The situation is unfortunate for all involved. It is unfortunate that the crowd didn’t feel like they had the full picture. It’s unfortunate that Susan Wilson had to answer to allegations (some warranted and some not), but most of all it is unfortunate that a few people decided that death threats and other forms of online intimidation were the answer.

Having said that, that is the last I am going to say about that handful of folks that took things a few steps too far. These folks are what I’d lovingly call “morons,” there isn’t much we can learn from them, they’ll never go away and they don’t deserve my keystrokes. They also don’t represent a vast majority of those seeking answers. Moving on…

The Crowd

I want to focus on the crowd first. I said it before and I’ll say it again, I find this weekend’s events truly impressive. Correct and constructive? We’ll get to that later, but I’m amazed at how quickly information was gathered, how much info was gathered and the amount of discussion that was taking place while a lot of us were watching March Madness (raises hand) or doing whatever people do on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

We're Hungry and We Have QuestionsIf you’re considering defrauding the crowd via a scammy crowdfunding campaign, this weekend should scare the hell out of you. All is well until 4chan and Reddit are alerted.

This campaign may also provide some vindication for those who believe “crowd power” will provide plenty of due diligence and transparency in investment crowdfunding, where deal throughput is certain to be a fraction of what it is in the world of rewards and donations. The crowd moves extremely quickly to perform due diligence, especially when they smell smoke. It only takes one interested party to “sell” his or her peers on the need for due diligence, especially on a platform like 4chan or Reddit.

This brings us to Susan Wilson.

What The Crowd Got Wrong

Courtesy ptmoney.comFirst of all, what Ms. Wilson went through wasn’t entirely fair. There were accusations (specifically that she is a millionaire, a rich entrepreneur) that she denies, and I am happy to take her at her word on this. Realistically, she doesn’t have an explicit motive to lie about something like that, and even if she is lying we can’t prove otherwise.

(No, a multi-million dollar acquisition doesn’t prove anything. 2008 actually did happen)

Yes, it was a leap to go from a four-year-old CNN article to the conclusion that “she must be rich.” It’s a shame that some were so conclusive in their statements regarding that matter specifically.

Full disclosure, it is a leap I am guilty of making myself. I wasn’t alone as far as journalists go but that doesn’t make me feel any better. That introspection is already taking place. It is difficult to balance objectivity, expediency and persistence in coverage when it comes to events such as these, but I don’t make excuses for mistakes and it is something I’ll continue to work on as Crowdfund Insider continues to grow.

Use of Twitter

When you market your crowdfunding campaign like a scammer might market it, you open yourself up to criticism like this and people may begin to assume the worst. Susan’s use of Twitter in marketing this Kickstarter campaign flies in the face of every best practice I am familiar with, crowdfunding related or otherwise. You just don’t do that stuff. You don’t @reply dozens of people on Twitter with the same message. It’s bad karma, it’s shady and it’s ill advised. Most of all, it warrants deeper digging into the validity of the underlying campaign.

Is Susan the only person that has ever done this? Of course not, but a thousand wrongs don’t make a right. That was one clear mistake that she can and should own, and it is something we can all learn from as crowdfunding enthusiasts. Do NOT make this mistake. If you want artificial reach on social media, buy it. If you want to pitch to the media, hire a PR firm or go through the typical private channels. Use social media for engagement, not your personal involuntary RSS feed.

Active Management

There is something to be learned from how this campaign was managed. We all know the campaign went viral last week and started racking up multiples of the targeted funding goal quickly. However, nothing was added to the page to state where the extra money would go. There was some alluding to Kenzie getting a new laptop, but I don’t know of any laptop that costs $19,000.

This is why crowdfunding stakeholders scream “active management” from the rooftops. The web is a quick-moving beast. Running a crowdfunding campaign is a full time job and can turn into an all-consuming entrepreneurial endeavor quickly if, say, 4chan takes notice. The action was happening on the weekend this time around and nobody was around to provide an answer quickly. The result was a PR fiasco.

Crowdfunders need to manage their online presence. Don’t let it manage you.

Disclosure

The biggest question that remains in my mind is as follows: Is Kickstarter only for those that can’t afford to make their dreams come true on their own?

There isn’t going to be a concrete answer to that question. It is subjective. I’m left thinking that the crowd does assume that a project creator on Kickstarter doesn’t have the means to create their project on their own. That seems a fair assumption, right? Maybe, maybe not.

Perhaps the better answer to this question is that Kickstarter is a platform for risk mitigation. I am more comfortable saying that the crowd that lands on a crowdfunding offering page assumes that their contribution is helping to mitigate an entrepreneur’s risk, and the potential for reward is helping to mitigate the contributor’s risk. Yes, the contributor intrinsically carries more risk initially, but that is largely unimportant. Some will do it for the feel-good nature of contributing or the thrill or being first to a new product or service.

I can be a millionaire and still be risk averse. Perhaps pre-purchasing 1,000 units of a new product I want to make at $100 each carries too much risk for me. You can be a millionarie and still be faced with that reality. $100,000 is a lot of money whether you’re relatively rich or not.

I think the crowd became agitated because although Susan Wilson may not be a millionaire, it seems that $829 shouldn’t carry huge risk for her. As soon as the assumption of risk is challenged things feel more nefarious.

UPDATE: A commenter left this note and I thought it deserved some merit. He offers the opinion that campaigns for charitable causes are different from other campaigns in how the crowd approaches them.

“Is Kickstarter only for those that can’t afford to make their dreams come true on their own?”

I think you’re missing the point here. Do one is suggesting that wealthy people/companies should not be be able to run crowd funding campaigns in general.

It’s just that with a very *specific* type of crowdfunding campaign, the financial means of the project owner themselves *are* relevant: Namely, if it’s a CHARITY campaign.

That is, a kickstarter to which people don’t pledge because of the beneficial return they expect for *themselves*, but rather because they want to be compassionate and help out a stranger in need. Like, say, giving a bright little girl the chance to go to RPG camp if it means a lot to her (and possibly her future career) but her family can’t afford to send her.

The project in question was pitched as such a charity campaign – people clearly pledged out of compassion. Even though the project page never expressly stated that the family couldn’t afford the expenses themselves, I think it’s fair to say that’s what it implicitly lead people to believe.

Thus, it *is* relevant if the mother is a wealthy CEO. If she really is wealthy, than running a “fund my live” charity campaign without full disclosure in that regard is immoral and possibly fraud (or should be, IANAL).

Protect Kids From Nanoparticles in Sweets IndiegogoChildren

A 9 year old child was at the center of this campaign, material was written from her perspective and she became the target of some of the vitriol after the fact. No more needs to be said. It stinks from any angle.

The “Wisdom” Of The Crowd

I have always been and remain intrigued and passionate about the power of the crowd! Why? Because it allows regular people to come together and do great things. Period!

This was part of Susan’s statement via her Kickstarter page. I take a bit of issue with this. She was the subject of a lot of crowd power, and the way she handled it didn’t seem to suggest that she was happy about the intrigue and passion at all. Instead of seeing an opportunity to be more transparent and forthright, she seemingly saw it as a nuisance and became defensive.

This is one thing I tend to disagree on with some of the power players in the crowdfunding space. I don’t equate what the crowd does to wisdom. True journalists (at least by the digital definition) display wisdom in their ability to show restraint when presented with assumptions, and in their desire to see the whole picture before coming to a conclusion. The crowd doesn’t do this. They assume at will, and worse yet those assumptions tend to spread like wildfire at times. Wisdom? Hardly.

What Susan experienced was still very much crowd power. I promise you that discussions are taking place today in large media outlets about this story, how it was covered and where things went wrong. Sure, Susan spent her day or two being dragged over the coals. That is the risk you take for $20,000 of someone else’s money.

From a PR perspective, I think Ms. Wilson should have addressed concerns and moved on. A long rant about her views on crowdfunding, “haters,” etc. is unnecessary and counterproductive. Rules #1, #2 and #3 of the Internet: don’t feed the trolls. If you are convinced you are dealing with trolls (and her statements suggest this is the case) address any valid concerns and move on.

“I’m not a millionaire, my daughter is real and extra funds are going to ______________.” That is all. Maybe even consider giving a nod to those that were concerned… let them know you can relate even if you may not agree with the methodology.

Kickstarter

Kickstarter What is Kickstarter?OK Kickstarter, it is official… your rules are completely arbitrary, everything happens at your discretion and you provide the final say. The most confusing job in New York? It just might be a campaign curator for Kickstarter.

It wouldn’t be a problem if..

  1. Your guidelines didn’t suggest otherwise
  2. Entrepreneurs with good intentions weren’t regularly rejected from your platform while some others inexplicably make it on
  3. Kickstarter leadership gave any nod to this being the case, even informally

Of all the crowdfunding platforms I write about and/or (try to) work with, Kickstarter is both the most important and the least transparent. I find it somewhat bizarre. I am going to go out on a limb and guess that eventually that is either going to become a problem or it is going to have to change. Yes, the 4chan and Reddit cultures are predisposed to being cynical, but they’re also driving the car.

Donation vs. Investment

I’ll close by saying this…

I can’t wait for investment crowdfunding.

I can’t wait for investment crowdfunding simply because I am admittedly growing sick of the nonsensical nature of some of the rewards-based world. Death Stars, RPG STEM camps and Tesla museums are all great fun… but they aren’t going to save our economy.

 


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