Written by Carmelita Euline Ginting-Carlström
Every academic researcher knows the anxiety of submitting grant application. Oftentimes researchers are stuck in an application limbo where submission is followed with long evaluation period, resubmission, and yet another long waiting period (Gerster, 2013). The waiting may not be a great inconvenience if the grant is guaranteed, but the chance of receiving research grants has become increasingly difficult due intense competition and shrinking funding pot (Cha, 2015, Barker, 2013). As consequence, many researchers opt for alternative funding source with the hope to sustain their projects.
Many follow the steps of entrepreneurs and artists by venturing into the arena of Crowdfunding. The decision may be viewed as an act of desperation in academia, but it cannot be ignored that researchers has higher success rate of obtaining funding from Crowdfunding than research foundations. The success rate is as high as 64% at Kickstarter.com (Cha, 2015). It sure is impressive that academic researchers are performing reasonably well in public online fundraising platforms. Nevertheless, how can researchers improve their success rate in crowdfunding?
What is Crowdfunding?
Crowdfunding is “a collective effort by consumers who network and pool their money together, usually via the internet, in order to invest in and support efforts initiated by other people or organizations” (Ordanini et. al., 2011, p. 444). It is an emerging alternative source of funding for startups and small business owners who cannot access venture capital investment. Moreover, people from the art and music industries are no stranger to crowdfunding. Crowdfunding has allowed individuals to take part in realizing innovative ideas through financial contributions as small as $5 to as larger as thousands of dollars.
There are three parties involved crowdfunding, namely the proposer of the idea, the backers (the supporter of the idea), and the crowdfunding organization. At this time, we focus on the relationship between the idea proposers (the researchers) and the backers. However, it is worthy to note that crowdfunding organizations vary in the type of projects, funding model, fee structures, and geographical coverage (Murphy, 2014). Researchers could make use of large crowdfunding organization with broad array of projects, such as Kickstaters, or the ones that are targeted to small-scale projects and/or science, for example Indiegogo, SciFund, and Experiment.com.
It’s All About the Backers
The backers are the key player in crowdfunding since they make evaluative decision on which idea to support financially. The Web 2.0 further enhances the backers’ power as it enables them to “use, create, and modify content and interact with other users through social networks” (Ordanini et. al., 2011, p.445). Backers have more proactive roles compared to traditional resource pooling initiatives since they could not only choose which initiatives to support, but also influence each other by sharing information, knowledge, and viewpoints. (Ordanini et. al., 2011). For this reason, researchers should not take crowdfunding campaign lightly for the preparation is not easier than writing grant proposals.
There is a popular notion in academia that only panda science, which is a term for gimmicky and mass-appeal science, gets the public’s attention. However, a study on crowdfunding refutes the notion as backers are supporting unsexy and unpopular research as well. (Cha, 2015). Therefore, the challenge for researchers is not to come up with a mind-blowing research idea and state of the art methodologies, but to grab the backers’ attention and make them fully committed to the idea.
As in grant proposals, a crowdfunding campaign requires the researcher to provide details of the research project, which includes the outline, benefits, and funding aspirations on the project page (Voelker & McGlashan, 2013). The details, however, should not be as extensive as grant proposals. Peer review committees are ready to read a 15-pages document, but it takes less than 30 seconds to lose a backer’s attention. Researchers have tried to maintain potential backers’ interest by combining the use of texts, pictures, and videos. Nevertheless, solely relying on the project page may be ineffective when considering the limited time period for crowdfunding campaign (usually 30 days). The preparation for the crowdsourcing campaign should be done months in advance. Researchers should prepare themselves by building their personal brand online.
Building a Personal Brand
If we compare researchers to companies, institutional theory maintains that legitimacy is crucial for new entrants since low familiarity and credibility hinder them from attaining external funding (De Clerq & Voronov, 2009). Just as inventors want to be assured that the new entrant has the potential to produce worthy return on investment, the backers also want to be ensured that the researcher has the capability to deliver the research project. An engaging project page in a crowdfunding website may be able to get a potential backer’s attention, but a strong personal brand is the one that seal the funding deal.
Everyone that uses social networking sites of the Web 2.0 (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and blogs) has a personal brand (Khedher, 2014). Like everyone else, researchers may not be aware of their personal brand, thus subjected to the risk of having the their brand being poorly managed by someone else (Khedher, 2014; Labrecque, Markos, & Milne, 2011). This is possible due to the openness of social media that lead to the loss of content control. For example, a material is permanent and publically accessible once it is uploaded online, hence anyone with an internet connection could retrieve and modify the material. (Labrecque, Markos, & Milne, 2011). Therefore, it is paramount that researchers become their own marketers and take control of their own personal brand before someone else does.
Personal branding is a strategic impression management aimed to project a desired impression to a targeted audience, who then consume and affect the impression through social exchange (Chih-Ping, 2013). The development of personal branding starts with self-discovery since it is rooted on one’s own “values, personality, personal beliefs, and interests” (Poeppelman & Blacksmith, 2014, p. 114), motives and experiences (Khedher, 2014). These attributes then form a unique brand identity that is communicated to the targeted audience, which in this case are the backers (Poeppelman & Blacksmith, 2014).
Brand identity needs to be simple and unique in order to make a quick and lasting impact to the audience. Furthermore, a compelling brand identity is one with positive attribute being highlighted, thus differentiating one’s self from others, while upholding the expectations of the resepective research field and the target audience. This is in line with De Clerq and Voronov’s legitimacy theory, which asserted that new entrants should fit in with the industry’s expectation while standing out from competition in order to gain the support of external investors (2009).
Following the establishment of brand identity, researchers need to conduct a brand audit in order to regain control of the personal brand. Brand audit is done by analyzing the consistency of the messages communicated on each personal account/ profile (e.g. Linkedin, Twitter), as well professional website (e.g. organization website). Message consistency is important, as inconsistency causes the audience to question the authenticity of the brand. (Poeppelman & Blacksmith, 2014).
Determining the target audience for the personal brand follows brand audit. Since the audience has differing goals, researchers have to adapt their branding messages accordingly. It is also important to align the message with the missions and strategies of the respective research field in order for the backers to associate the researcher with the right field of research. Finally, it is of utmost importance that researchers consistently participate and be proactive in the social media due to the mass of brands competing for the attention of our targeted backers. (Poeppelman & Blacksmith, 2014).
Again, It’s All About the Backers
It is evident that developing a personal brand in social media is more than just creating and maintaining personal websites, blogs, and social networking profiles (Labrecque, Markos, & Milne, 2011). Everyone could adopt the strategy to project a desired impression to the targeted audience. However, the strategy does not take into consideration the influential role of the audience. The strategy treats the audience as a mere receiver of the brand, whilst the Web 2.0 has enabled the audience to play a part in enforcing or altering the impression (Chih-Ping, 2013), thus acting as co-producers of the brand (Berthon et. al., 2012). Researchers should therefore take social media strategies into account in order to fortify their personal brand.
According to Piskorski (2011), people use social media to satisfy two basic needs, namely to create new relationships and to strengthen existing ones. Social strategy is designed to help people to overcome the challenge in connecting and interacting with strangers and/or friends. Researchers could satisfy both needs and utilize the social strategy by building an online community surrounding their brand.
Building an Online Community of Backers
Online brand community is audience-centric because its existence and meaningfulness is based on audience experience rather than on the brand itself. A community has its own “cultures, rituals, traditions, and code of behavior” (p. 335) and it allows the members to co-create and negotiate meanings (Chih-Ping, 2013). We look at three social networking sites (i.e. Linkedin, Twitter, and Youtube) that researchers could employ in building the community.
Linkedin is designed to connect professionals and enable organizations to conduct online recruitment, but it is more than a platform for online resume and networking. Linkedin could be used to build personal branding by not only highlighting professional merits, but also by regularly updating and sharing skills and experiences. Since people within the network are notified for every update, updates increase the chance to be noticed.
Linkedin enables the members to connect with people within their extended network, as well as those in the same industry and profession. Therefore, researchers could make use of this feature to satisfy people’s need to connect and interact with strangers and friends with the same interests, especially if the interest is related to the research project. Researchers could then share their publications, presentations, and other materials to initiate discussion and establish themselves as experts on the field. (Poeppelman & Blacksmith, 2014)
Another social networking site that researchers could exploit is Twitter. Although messages in twitter are limited to 140 characters, it maintains to be an effective media for researchers to create awareness of their publications and expertise, since they could tweet an appealing introduction to the material while providing a link for people to retrieve the full information. Moreover, the most important feature of Twitter is that people could follow each other, thus building a community of similar interests. Researchers could then get more people to join their community by utilizing proper #hashtags and re-tweeting information. (Poeppelman & Blacksmith, 2014).
People oftentimes assess one’s competence based on self-presentation, nonverbal cues, verbal disclosures, and actions (Khedher, 2014). Youtube allows people to express and present themselves through the videos that they share, thus researchers could communicate their unique brand identity through a series of original videos in their Youtube channel. At first glance, it seems that researcher is having a monologue with the audience. In reality, Youtube has eliminated one-way relationship and enables consumer-brand relationship since the audience could give feedback to the researcher through the ‘like and dislike’ features, as well as initiating discussions with the researcher and fellow viewers in the comment box. Through these features, the researcher and the audience develop mutual belonging and commitment, which are needed in the formation of a community. (Chih-Ping, 2013).
Sealing the Crowdfunding Support
Successful personal brands have long lasting friendship-like relationship with the audience, as both the brand and the audience have developed sense of commitment and belonging (Chih-Ping, 2013). Just as companies continuously assess their brand performance, researchers need to assess their personal brand according to the goal. A brand fails when there is a mismatch between its goals and the audience’s perception of the brand (Khedher, 2014).
The goal of developing a personal brand in this particular case is to secure financial support through crowdfunding. Potential backers that visit a researcher’s project page may be interested in the project, but doubtful of the researcher’s capability to fulfill the tasks. These backers resolve to finding more information about the researcher through the search engine.
Imagine what is on the result page when the researcher has no strong personal brand. It will be a jumble of mismatched information that would only further enhances the backers’ doubt towards the researcher. It is essential for every researcher to regain control of their personal brand before starting the crowdfunding campaign. Therefore, a crowdfunding campaign not only requires a captivating project plan and benefits, but it also needs the support of the researcher’s personal branding.
If you are a researcher, the time to be your own marketer is now.
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