Tuesday, January 13, 2015

More Thoughts of Crowdfunding Citizen Science Successfully

Photo Courtesy:
Flickr User 401K (2012)
Last year I spent much time reading through hundreds (if not thousands) of crowdfunding projects to identify ones that support citizen science, and citizen science-like, projects.  This time was well spent and led me to a number of findings about citizen science in general.  But I also learned a lot about the crowdfunding process.

First off, as I've documented before, requesting funds based on the public's goodwill for citizen science has not yet shown much effectiveness.  There are a variety of reasons, including (in my estimation) that the term itself is still somewhat unknown to many people outside the field, and that it does not (yet) drive people to make contributions.  So project designers need to do more to attract funding.

A good example of this is the uBiome project. The designers certainly talk about citizen science a lot in the description, and (as discussed at length before) the project does indeed fall in the citizen science category.  But they offered a lot more to backers than just their thanks; they also offered an actual product and service to backers.  So by funding the project the user gained something tangible (the product) as well as knowledge (test results).  But what that really does is make the project interactive with funders and provides an interactivity that many other projects don't offer. That allowed them to catch on quickly, and then ride that success to allow selling even more after the initial funding period expired.

There is also another reason citizen science projects may have a tougher time than others...some people don't yet think they are as 'exciting'.  While we know citizen science is exciting the public may not always agree.  At least, not if we rely on project descriptions alone.  Because of this it is hard to ignite a passion in potential funders that will get them to open up their wallets.   In "Crowdfunding the Next Big Thing: Money-Raising Secrets of the Digital Age", author Gary Spirer repeatedly describes how entrepreneurs often have difficulty with crowdfunding while artists and other creative types have much more success.  In his words,

"Why can't the entrepreneur succeed very well at crowdfunding donations with rewards, but creative artists, game developers, and musicians can?  The reason is that the creative types have learned how to build audiences and fans.  They know how to entertain.  They know how to appeal to emotions.  They know how to tell compelling stories."

At a gut level I have to agree with some of this statement.  Looking over all the project descriptions many seemed to fall into the very trap Spirer describes.  The projects are written more for scientists or others in the field already, sometimes using specialized jargon or not fully describing advanced concepts.  This makes them less accessible to a lay reader.  Also, while they may state an excitement or describe a passion, the reader doesn't FEEL that passion; it doesn't come through in the writing.  That is in art form and not a science (no pun intended) and goes to show why artists may be initially more successful.

Admittedly this is just an observation. It is not a strict fact or rule of nature.  Potential project designers and crowdfunders can overcome this type of problem if aware of it and if they spend the energy to overcome it.  Fortunately the art of science communication continues to be recognized as an important skill and there are many resources for people who want to learn.  So this is a great place to start for people looking to truly take advantage of the potential for crowdfunding their research.

This ability to incite passion in their fans is also a key to their building networks of eager fans...networks that citizen scientists and professional researchers often don't have.  As the co-founder of Rocket Hub states (as reported by Spirer),

"...entrepreneurs often don't do as well with the rewards type of crowdfunding because they are not as experienced in building the needed networks or followers, as, say, a creative-type rock group.  Rock groups know that to survive they need fans to buy their records and tickets to concerts."

Again, this comment is focused on entrepreneurs and business people, but I think researchers and citizen scientists are in the same boat.  We don't have avid fans that follow us and give us their money based on our reputation. We are strangers to the public funder which sets the bar that much higher. We have to build trust, demonstrate the strength of our scientific idea, and prove we are the ones best suited to do it. Without an existing network that is very hard to do.

It should go without saying, but when starting a project it is imperative to convince your friends, family, and colleagues make donations early. Don't be shy about asking everyone in your contact list. If you believe in your research, you should believe enough to ask the people who know you best to vouch for it. It may not be easy, but acting shy will only hurt you. In "The Crowdfunding Book: A How-to Book for Entrepreneurs, writers & Inventors", author Patty Lennon writes,

"Many of us have been raised to believe that promoting ourselves is wrong.  So it is not surprising that so many "good" people struggle with marketing.  Promoting yourself is not about bragging.  Promoting yourself is about letting people know about the amazing gifts you bring to the world, so that if they need those gifts or know someone that needs those gifts, you can reach them."

Sadly I saw examples of this shyness in a number of the proposed projects I read through. Obviously not all proposals will be successful and meet their goals, especially when goals are optimistic. But projects with just a few backers (less than ten) or less than $500 in support seem to not be tapping into those networks. Some of those appear on the listing of projects but many others don't...as described in my previous post these are the ones that received so little funding (less than 1-2% of the total request) or such as small dollar amount (under $100) I couldn't even consider these "serious" attempts.

Starting with an existing network of backers is also crucial for gaining initial momentum.  A quick spurt of support when a project opens not only helps set a good pace, but also serves as an indicator to other people that the project is worth supporting.  In essence, that early support helps "vouch" for the project to future potential supporters who come across it.  They may not know who you are, but they like the idea and see that OTHERS like the idea as well.  So they choose to join the crowd.  Early support also helps search engines, the press, social media, and the crowdfunding sites themselves notice you.  These sites like to showcase winners, and demonstrating early support may help you get extra coverage and free publicity.   All continuing the virtuous cycle of increased funding that itself spurs more funding.

These are a few of the things I learned, and am continuing to learn, by going through these various projects and reading up on emerging experts in crowdfunding.  There is still a lot more to learn though, and even more to apply to citizen science business models.  So stay tuned to this blog as we continue researching, analyzing, and learning together.