With the advent of myriad free social media platforms, there is no denying that Web 2.0 has grown by leaps and bounds. Web 2.0 allows users to create and publish content using various text-, photo- or video-based tools. Several blogging platforms like WordPress, Tumblr, Weebly, etc. provide text-based content creation tools. Though users are also able to upload photos and videos on such web-platforms, websites such as Flickr and Instagram enable users to upload and share photos, while YouTube and Vimeo allow users to upload videos.
The most popular social media platform, Facebook allows its user to create all types of content–text, photos and videos. The best aspect about all these social media platforms is that they are free to public. This particular feature is what led to a foray into the exploration of the world of crowdfunding, where fund-seekers use social media platforms to reach out to online publics. Crowdfunding is gaining a lot of traction, especially among smaller organizations with limited budget for outreach and fundraising, due to the free-for-all feature of most social media and crowdfunding platforms.
The Growing Phenomenon of Crowdfunding
According to scholars in the fields of business, finance and economics, crowdfunding occurs when a large number of online funders give small amounts of money or donation to projects, campaigns or ventures showcased through social media and crowdfunding platforms. Based on the principles of crowdsourcing where collective intelligence or wisdom of crowds occurs as a result of aggregated information based on the opinions/wisdom/answers of a large group of people, crowdfunding is different from the former phenomenon as it involves money. And of course, since crowdfunding is entirely performed online, it is different from traditional fundraising that employs techniques like fundraisers and charity events to raise funds. It is important to note that stakeholder groups involved in crowdfunding need to understand how different crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, DonorsChoose, GoFundMe, and so on.
Which platform should you use to crowdfund your campaign?
Before taking the online plunge to reach out to potential funders and raise funds, fund-seekers need to employ the good ol’ public relations R.A.C.E. model to duly carry our research and planning, take necessary actions and steps based on the research, have proper communication strategies in place, and finally execute and then conduct evaluation to see effectiveness of the crowdfunding campaign and whether objectives were met.
After carefully employing the R.A.C.E. model, fund-seekers need to pick a relevant crowdfunding platform to showcase their projects or cause and raise funds. The following brief information should help fund-seekers to use a relevant crowdfunding platform:
Kickstarter is a worldwide crowdfunding platform that allows users to showcase their creative projects to raise funds. This website is mainly for equity- and lending-based funds.
One of the forerunners of crowdfunding websites, Indiegogo allows users to solicit funds for an idea, charity, or start-up business. But this website charges a 5% fee on contributions and additional credit card and PayPal charges that range from 3.5% to 9%.
GoFundMe is a platform that allows people to raise money for life events like weddings and graduations to challenging circumstances like accidents and illnesses. The website charges 5% on each donations received.
Started in 2000, DonorsChoose was the first such website for collective online fundraising. The website allows individuals to donate directly to public school classroom projects, and for educators to reach out to the publics for funds.
Crowdfunding Success of Humans of New York Campaigns
Several Humans of New York (HONY) campaigns pertaining to social and humanitarian issues have been successfully crowdfunded.
HONY campaigns appeal to the publics due to their focus on relateable stories of common people. Simple, heartfelt stories narrated in the form of photos and short captions about the subject, draw in both fans and funders. HONY not only uncovers social stories but also makes concerted efforts to select the best social media platforms for them. The HONY campaigns highlight the importance of relationship management through relationship building and community engagement, using strategic communication tools, and encouraging two-way symmetrical communication to engage its stakeholders.
Humans of New York was started in 2010 by photojournalist, Brandon Stanton, as a way to document and publish stories of ordinary people of New York City through photos and brief captions. What started as a photoblog, soon gained widespread popularity and fan-following as the humanitarian stories resonated human resilience, relationships, camaraderie and the spirit of glocal community. Photos and stories were posted on Stanton’s blog & HONY social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Fans and followers could not only relate to the stories but were also moved enough to share among their social networks. This unhindered mass sharing further led to mass funding or crowdfunding of issues and causes that affected the publics. Following three stories are a testament to the power and successes of crowdfunding facilitated by HONY efforts.
The ‘Harvard Bound’ success story began in January 2015, when HONY created an Indiegogo campaign, raising Vidal Chastanet’s Brooklyn school over $1 million within a week. The video below tells the story of Vidal and his school principal, Nadia Lopez.
Critical Review of the Study
Understanding the levels of involvement and engagement of publics is key to finding out what truly motivates funders to donate money to HONY campaigns. As discussed above, there are four types of publics— latent (faces problem but fails to detect), aware (aware and recognizes problem), active (organizes to resolve problem) and non-public (not affected by problem). What types of publics have a higher tendency to fund campaigns and which ones would not display the tendency or motivation to fund? It could be argued that all the four types of publics may engage in crowdfunding. While aware and active publics may not need any nudging to share or fund campaigns, latent and non-publics may also provide funds as, with the former, even though they may fail to detect the problem they are facing, the social media campaigns would act as their virtual detectors that highlight the problem requiring their attention. And even though non-publics may not be directly affected by the problem or issue, they might still contribute funds as a result of empathy or sheer selfless altruistic reasons.
In the chosen case study, Grunig’s (1983) situational theory of publics could explain how and why are publics motivated to seek or provide funds online, their level of involvement, problem and constraint recognition, and the key type of publics involved in crowdfunding.
Takeaways for Professional Practice in Public Relations
One of the greatest advantages of crowdfunding is that the wider reach of the Internet ensures greater funds. Moreover, as opposed to traditional fundraising where organizing fundraisers and charity events require greater funds and labor, crowdfunding is becoming a viable source of fundraising especially for smaller organizations with limited funds and staff, as most crowdfunding platforms are free and easy to set up campaigns resulting in high cost-effectiveness and less labor-intensiveness. The aspect of time is a double-edged sword, as on one hand, crowdfunding requires less time commitment than traditional fundraising, on the other hand, relationship building and community engagement require long-term commitment.
Some crowdfunded projects and ventures also suffer as a result of the expectation of quick turnover, which in turn, impacts the quality of the projects. The other double-edged sword is technology—as even though crowdfunding benefits from technology, it also loses out on potential funders who might not be tech-savvy. Finally, scamming and phishing have adverse effects on genuine projects and ventures in need of crowdfunding.
Some salient takeaways for professional practice in public relations:
- Identify and measure levels of social media engagement. One of the fundamental public relations theories of relationship management manifested in relationship building and community engagement efforts to raise funds for various campaigns has been extensively discussed in this review. However, another vital aspect of crowdfunding, as it is performed online through social media platforms, is to identity and measure levels of social media engagement. Public relations scholar and practitioner, Hua Jiang has devised a four-pronged approach to identifying and measuring social media engagement: involvement, interaction, intimacy and influence. Involvement (awareness and presence) can be measured by analytics such as site traffic, page and link clicks, time spent, etc.; interaction (behavioral analytics) can be measured by signing up for emails/newsletters, commenting, and in the case of crowdfunding, donor behavior; intimacy (sentiment, affinity, tonality) can be assessed in terms of emotional manifestations of stakeholder groups in the form of conversations and actions; and lastly, influence (impact and community building) can be measured through the outreach and community building efforts of stakeholder groups, whether or not they engage in sharing links to campaigns in need of funds among their network.
- Reinforce and diversify relationship management techniques. Relationship management involving relationship building and community engagement are age-old tools and techniques used by traditional fundraising. They emphasize time commitment and are labor- and cost-intensive, at most times ensuring a long-term inflow of funds. The stakeholders involved reaps the benefits of respecting and managing shared interests and common goals. In the case of crowdfunding, there is not much scope for fundraisers to develop relationships with their funders or engage the community on a long-term basis. In most cases, the funders and fund seekers do not even meet face-to-face as most transactions are performed through online channels. Hence, public relations practitioners should devise effective and creative ways to apply traditional fundraising techniques to ensure sustained relationships, community engagement and inflow of funds.
- Uphold two-way symmetrical communication. Crowdfunding cannot succeed or sustain itself as a viable way to raise funds without two-way symmetrical communication between fund seekers and fund providers. Fund seekers need to be clear about their goals, objectives, target audience and timelines, whereas, fund providers need to clearly communicate their expectations.