We’ve been running TTRPG crowdfunding campaigns for almost a decade and we like to think we’re quite good at it. We’ve been gradually and organically growing our audience, but it gets harder and harder to connect with people as the TTRPG world fractures into zillions of little communities. We had dipped our toe in the water of advertising previously, but never had much success with it and viewed it as a waste of money. Enter Backerkit advertising – a service that proved very effective for us. In this article I’ll break down the experience and the outcomes we saw.
The TL;DR here is that we got a lot more money, both before and after taking out the cost of the ads. Wreck This Deck looks likely to have been unusually successful for a TTRPG zine even without the ads, but there’s clear evidence that the ads increased that.
I’m not affiliated with Backerkit, I’m not getting anything from them for doing it, I’m just sharing this because I think it might be helpful for fellow creators.
Backerkit’s advertising pitch is, they buy advertising on your behalf (mostly Facebook/Instagram ads) and improve the targeting using their presumably very impressive storehouse of data from all the millions of crowdfunding campaigns they’ve been involved with. You tell them a target return you want on your ads, and they then increase or decrease spend depending on how well they’re meeting that target. They charge you a commission on any resulting pledges. You don’t pay for anything until the campaign closes and you’ve received your pledge money.
By the way, this is in-campaign advertising. Backerkit (and others, probably) do pre-campaign advertising to build up followers on your launch page. We haven’t tried that, and it isn’t covered here.
We weren’t sure if this service was likely to work for us, but – spoiler alert – it absolutely did. We saw at least a 50% increase in our backers compared to our most optimistic expectations, and there’s very clear evidence to show that this was generated by the ads, as I’ll explain below.
Before going any further, let’s talk about the ick factor. If you’re like me, you probably don’t like the idea of advertising. It’s horrible, intrusive stuff that feels sort of spammy and slightly dirty. You just want to be left alone to enjoy the internet without this stuff, and you don’t want to be a part of it. You maybe feel like your product should be so good that it doesn’t need advertising. There was a definite emotional barrier we had to push through to get started with this. But the truth is, well-targeted adverts for a quality product are a way of finding people who want something and helping them to find out about it. They’re gonna see some ads anyway, so it might as well be for a cool new game. Provided the things you promise in your pitch are accurate, and your game is good, you’re not hurting anyone by using it.
What we did
We were pretty wary of pouring a ton of money into something for no return. The Backerkit model – tell us a target return on your ad and we’ll spend like crazy as long as you’re meeting it – was kind of terrifying to us. We set up advertising early on in our campaign, saw some fairly middling results, and told them to switch the ads off.
Later on in the campaign, for no reason I can articulate, we decided to give them another go. We switched them on again, at a low level of spend, and saw an immediate increase in pledges. Bumping the spend up a bit, we saw even better results.
Throughout the periods where we were advertising, we set a target return on advertising spend (ROAS) of 3 – meaning the aim is for each £1 spent on adverts to yield £3 or more of pledges. This is the amount we’d worked out, after costs, should ensure we made extra money rather than a loss. Although the ROAS jumped around a lot over the course of the campaign, the final ROAS was 3.04.
The graph below tracks our pledges each day of the campaign for Wreck This Deck.
The blue bit of the chart is pledges that Backerkit identify as not being ad driven. Orange is pledges that Backerkit identify as being ad driven. The tiny almost-invisible grey bit is pledges Backerkit identify as being driven by their newsletter.
You might ask: why should we trust Backerkit’s assessment of whether a pledge was ad-driven? They get a commission on the ad-driven pledges so it’s in their interests to round those up isn’t it? That is indeed an anxiety that we had. But in a way, the fact that we had a gap in the middle where we weren’t using ads was incredibly helpful, in that it clearly demonstrated that the ads were working. You can easily see the point that we turned the ads back on in the graph below, even without the big red arrows, and you could probably guess how much revenue was ad-driven even without the colour-coding.
The first few days of a crowdfunding campaign always see lots of pledges as existing fans and highly enthusiastic backers jump in. After day 3 or so, things naturally quieten down, and you see a trickle of pledges from folk who have only just heard about the campaign. During this mid-campaign period – days 4-20 on the graph – we saw about £200 of new pledges per day. Once we turned the advertising on this leapt up by a factor of 4, even excluding the last few days when, again, you always see a big increase in pledges.
Interestingly even the organic pledges increased by about 75% during the period we were advertising. Presumably some people were seeing the ads and then pledging on a different device or similar, hiding them from Backerkit’s tracking algorithm.
It’s a lot harder to feel confident about the impact of the ads during the last few days, because you’d expect a big spike anyway. Look at any successful crowdfunding campaign, there’s always a rush of pledges at the end. But it is possible to estimate the effect of advertising here. I looked at our previous campaigns and a few carefully-chosen third-party campaigns that I deemed to be similar to Wreck This Deck. The difference is fairly obvious.
We also asked our backers in the post-campaign survey whether they’d seen ads. Obviously the data here is subject to the caveat that people might not remember correctly, or might have thought something was an ad when it wasn’t, and so forth. With that said:
- 35.2% said they didn’t see any ads
- 13.2% said they saw an ad after they’d already backed
- 5.7% said they saw an ad after they’d already heard about the campaign
- 9.5% said they saw an ad but probably would have heard about the campaign anyway
- 32.9% said they came to the campaign because they’d seen an ad
Backerkit’s marketing stats claim that 57% of our pledges came from advertising. That matches reasonably well to the 61% above who said they’d seen an ad, though just under half of these had already heard of the campaign or think they would have done so anyway.
Did it pay off?
The above analysis seems to pretty clearly indicate that we raised a large amount of revenue from advertising. But of course, that’s before costs.
Based on Backerkit’s own analysis, the fees we paid them for the advertising – covering the cost of the ads themselves and Backerkit’s commission – added up to 39.8% of what the pledges that they identified as being ad-generated. So we got to keep 60.2% of what we raised.
Once you take out our own costs, that number comes down, but because we’d already paid off a lot of our costs (art etc) from organic pledges alone, it still leaves a decent % of money left over for paying ourselves for the work on the project.
The possible fly in the ointment here is what I term “wasted ad spend”. This is essentially my attempt to work out how many ad-driven pledges would have happened anyway, and are therefore wasted money. This is really really hard to know.
The survey data above suggest that only about half of our advertising driven pledges were people who hadn’t already pledged, hadn’t yet heard of the campaign and wouldn’t have likely done so anyway. If all that is counted as “wasted ad spend” then we came in very close to break-even – probably making a small amount of extra money, but just possibly making a small loss once all costs have been counted.
However, if you’d heard about the campaign before but not backed, maybe the ad was what tipped the balance, reminding you about this cool game and getting you to pledge. Only those who already backed can be considered definitely as “wasted ad spend”. If you only count these as waste, that’s only a 21.5% rate of wasted ad spend. That might seem over-optimistic, but if you compare what we made in the late stages of the campaign with what we would have expected, based on comparison with other campaigns, you’d guess that only about 19% of the ad-driven pledges were “wasted ad spend”. At any rate, at a 21.5% rate of wasted spend, the ads would have driven a healthy amount of extra money – meaning we would have kept about 23.5% of the ad-driven revenue after costs.
So we can’t ever really know how effective the ads were taking into account wasted spend. Indeed, there are other unknowns: could it be that the ad-driven folks would eventually have bought the game after the campaign closed? Might we be robbing our future selves? Conversely, might ad-driven backers have reshared the campaign a generated more organic sales from people who would never have heard of it otherwise? It’s all pretty hard to estimate.
What we do know is that this was our most successful campaign, in terms of number of backers, ever. Even though it was a small zine project, it was the most revenue we’ve ever raised from a crowdfunding campaign. And even if we can’t quite prove it, the overall trend in the data suggests that the advertising was well worth it for us.
A small further addendum to the above is that obviously a % of our ad-driven backers will come back and support future projects. We can’t know what this is worth to us, but in the scenario where we actually had very high wasted ad spend, and made a small loss overall, this would be the silver lining to the cloud.
What about you?
Before closing out, I want to pile in some caveats to the above.
First off, this was just one example. Wreck This Deck appears to already have been fairly unusual as zine projects go, with nearly 600 backers before the ads kicked in. It had low overheads, and indeed once you’ve got 600 backers the extra cost of delivering additional copies of the game is very low. This makes it easier for ads to be cost-effective. This might not be a representative example.
Second, we’re a relatively mature gaming company. We’re still absolutely tiny in the scheme of things, but we knew we could afford to take some risks with a relatively small project and if we made a loss then it wouldn’t destroy us. It’s wonderful that Backerkit don’t charge you until after the campaign, but they do charge you, and the bill can be quite high. You have to decide your own appetite for risk.
Third, your costs are an absolutely vital part of the calculation here. Not just the cost of the ads, but the cost of providing your product to all those extra people, including shipping and all the other horrible costs that notoriously turn out to be higher than you expected. We made a spreadsheet to add all these costs up, and work out how high a % return on advertising spend we’d need to turn a profit. We looked at nightmare scenarios where that % turned out to be too low, and how much that would cost us. I strongly recommend you do that too, if you’re thinking about using ads.
Fourth, advertising can be a bit anxiety-inducing. You get real-time data about advertising spend, including how effective it’s been today, and sometimes the numbers can be quite alarming. Returns on spend zigzag around. If you’re in the UK like us, it’s doubly alarming as you can’t communicate with West Cost US-based Backerkit until they get to work in your late afternoon. This goes back to your risk appetite – are you comfortable watching your money being spent, and sometimes feeling unsure if it’s worth it?
Obviously I wouldn’t think to tell anyone “go and spend a pile of money on ads” – that has to be your decision, based on your particular circumstances. All I can say is: it worked well for us, and we will likely be doing more of it.