Suggestions for improving Yorba's crowdfunding campaign

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 07, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

All through April, I watched Yorba's crowdfunding efforts for Geary, its new email reader. Sometimes, I checked the progress daily. Not only does Yorba have fresh ideas about application design, but the campaign was one of the first crowdfunding efforts for a standard application, rather than a new one. To the discouragement of future efforts, the campaign reached only half of its goal of $100,000, and people immediately started trying to explain why -- although often with suggestions that, although plausible, explain only part of the reason at best.

Joey-Elijah Sneddon at OMG! Ubuntu! explores five suggestions. The goal was too high, he suggests, and the idea of a new mailreader too commonplace. According to Sneddon, somehow the idea got started that Geary was designed for elementary OS, rather than GNOME. Other possibilities include that the campaign would have done better on KickStarter rather than IndieGoGo, and with more publicity.

On Yorba's blog, Jim Nelson replies to Sneddon's comments, and goes on to suggest two additional possibilities. Perhaps, Nelson writes, the campaign would have gone better if its goal had been to redesign Thunderbird rather than develop a new mail client, and a web mail client rather than a desktop client.

However, based on my experience with fundraising and charities as well as marketing free software, I would suggest an even simpler reason: for all its worthiness, the campaign was mediocre at best, slow at getting its message across, and giving few reasons for those not already familiar with Geary to care about its development. With these problems, the campaign was working against itself from the start.

How to improve the next campaign
What do I mean by this blunt assessment?

To start with, the campaign ran through April. Taxes are due in the United States on April 15, and on April 30 in Canada. Even if people don't have to send a large lump sum to their government, they're likely to be feeling concerned about money during April, and consequently less likely to donate to anything. Usually, October and November are the best times for fund-raisers, when people are thinking of their year end donations, but even August, the traditional vacation month, would be better than April.

There there are the thank-you gifts. Stickers and T-shirts? Just like every other crowdsourcing campaign? If I yawn, it's because I've seen these gifts too many times before. Then, at the higher levels the gifts are conference calls and visits to Yorba -- things I wouldn't mind as a journalist, but that in general appeal only hackers. Without meaning to, the campaign  seems to have discouraged non-developers from contributing.
Donors like to think they would contribute regardless of the gifts, but the fact remains that unique or unusual gifts do make a difference. For example, one of the few things that the Ada Initiative has done right in its frequently ill-advised interactions with the public is to offer limited editions prints in its fundraisers from Sydney Padua of "The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage" and a cartoon from Kate Beaton featuring Ada Lovelace. Not only do such gifts encourage people to donate who might otherwise refrain, but they also encourage donors to give more than they otherwise would.

Another weakness of the campaign was that a slowness in delivering the message. Although the arrangement of emails in conversations is mentioned as a superior alternative to threads, the campaign doesn't mention exactly what conversations are.

Moreover, only a few other features are mentioned in the video. Viewers have to scroll down to get a presumably complete list of proposed features -- and that is something you can't count on them to do. In any kind of marketing, it's always a good idea to plan as though your audience suffers from attention deficit disorder, and deliver your basic information as soon as possible and no matter how briefly.

That way, if they don't read or view everything you offer, they will at least get the essentials of your information. By contrast, on the Geary campaign page, viewers have to be already interested to have any chance of seeing what their donation might be supporting.

However, the biggest problem on the campaign page is also the most basic. Any marketer learns early that you talk about features to engineers work on the project, and benefits to potential buyers -- and that is something that the campaign page completely fails to do.

For example, why should donors want a conversation-based email reader? Does it make for easier scrolling through emails? Better search? Better understanding of context? All of these at once? I have no trouble coming up with probabilities, but as a casual viewer, I'm not likely to make the effort. If you want to keep my interest, you have to tell me what I stand to gain by reading on and deciding to donate. But instead, the campaign page and video only pile on the adjectives, implying that a conversation view is handy without ever explaining why.

The same is true about every feature the campaign page mentions for Geary. Why should I care about "transparent GPG integration?" Am I even right in my relatively informed guesses about exactly what that means? What about "calendar app integration"? "Auto/Saving of draft e-mail? The list of features is likely to mean next to nothing to viewers, and the result is that instead of being intrigued by Geary as it deserves, they are likely to leave the page uncommitted and undonating.

These weaknesses are hardly unique to this campaign. But I've detailed them because they are typical of many fundraising attempts that I've observed or participated in. Crowdfunding is attracting all sorts of people who fail to understand that fundraising is an exercise in marketing. You appeal to developers and free software advocates differently than you do a general audience -- for one thing, you need to appeal more to logic -- but unless you find ways to interest potential donors, your campaign is unlikely to be effective unless you have an extremely unusual cause. An email reader, as a concept, just isn't enough.

Notes for next time
Possibly, Yorba did nothing wrong in its campaign. Possibly, the campaign failed for no other reason than the fact that, with so many crowdfunding efforts being made these days, most of them have to fail. After all, donors have only so much money to give.

However, before Yorba or anyone else jumps to that conclusion, I suggest trying a more focused campaign. It can't be easy in the abstract to interest people in an email reader, but Geary seems to have the raw material to do so, if only that material is presented properly.

I hope that, before Yorba launches another fundraising campaign, it consults a marketing expert or two about tactics. There's no guarantees, but I suspect that a focused marketing perspective will make all the difference between success and failure.

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