Last week, Lomography announced their first instant film camera: the Lomo’Instant (a quirky name to match a quirky camera). And rather than outright launching the product, or even just announcing a shipping date, they chose to introduce the new camera through a Kickstarter campaign.
This isn’t Lomography’s first attempt at crowdfunding. They did the same thing when launching their Petzval Lens and their Smartphone Film Scanner last year. Given the trend, we’re likely to see more of their future launches taking the form of Kickstarter campaigns as well. But why?
A lot of unique photography products are launched using Kickstarter campaigns, but they’re normally being introduced by small companies or passionate individuals. We’re talking about products like the OTTO GIF camera and the 360cam (two current campaigns by small companies).
For the entrepreneur, Kickstarter offers a valuable way to build up the capital necessary to start up a product manufacturing line without needing to turn to huge loans or groveling to angel investors. But Lomography isn’t a startup.
They might not be some massive conglomerate, but there’s no reason to believe they would have had much trouble bringing the Lomo’Instant to market without crowdfunding. In addition to their online shop and their presence in a number of large chain stores (like Urban Outfitters), Lomography has stores in 34 major world cities on five continents.
They certainly had no problem introducing a long line of unique and often complex cameras without Kickstarter in the past. And even if they did have a larger need for access to capital, the $1.3 million they raised during their Petzval lens campaign would have covered their fundraising goals for all three of their Kickstarter projects nearly three times over. I’m not saying that the extra up-front cash isn’t helpful, just that it’s likely not the difference between the Lomo’Instant making it to market or not.
That means that Lomography isn’t turning to crowdfunding because they need to, but because they want to.
There’s a few good reasons for that. For one thing, a Kickstarter works as a great Pre-Order system for more established companies (even though Kickstarter really really really doesn’t want anybody to think of them that way). By the time Lomography starts shipping out their first units in November, they’ll have a good idea of how many people will want a Lomo’Instant.
More importantly, they’ll have a few months to examine feedback and customer reactions, which will help them tweak the product and advertising for its full release. They’ll also be able to gather all kinds of data on things like geographic distribution of interested customers, or perhaps the percentage of unique page visits that resulted in a camera order.
For another, Kickstarter pages are great for viral marketing. It’s a single page that will draw lots of eyes; a page they can stuff with graphics and videos and sample shots. Users can easily tweet or share the page, and it’s a good spot for interested news organizations to find all of the info they’ll need. That means more views, more buzz, and ultimately, more bucks.
Compare that to a more standard information page for an upcoming product like this one for the Leica T, which is beautiful, but also requires a lot more clicks to navigate, isn’t built for social media sharing, and generally feels a lot more corporate.
That last part, I think, is particularly important: Kickstarter campaigns create certain impressions about a company and how it sees itself. By releasing their product via crowdfunding efforts, Lomography is creating a feeling of community among its users. “We’re a team,” they’re saying, “and we’re making this cool thing happen together!” It’s customer engagement of the highest order, and the success of their three Kickstarter campaigns suggest that it really and truly works.
That’s exactly why you’re not likely to see this sort of tactic from larger, more established companies. Imagine if a giant like Nikon tried the same move and announced that they’d need a little help from the fans to build the D900. Not only would the campaign almost surely fail because it would be perceived as a grab at customer’s wallets, but the mere fact that they tried it would be a pretty nasty PR disaster.
That said, you do see some smaller photography companies using a similar strategy to Lomography from time to time. The Impossible Project did it for their Impossible Instant Lab, for example.
Not all Kickstarters are equal, and Lomography isn’t using the crowdfunding site because they’re critically in need of capital. Instead, for them, Kickstarter represents an effective way to gauge user interest in some of their zanier new products before needing to release them worldwide, while simultaneously buying a little underdog cred to help maintain their image as a community rather than a company (for more on that history, check out this neat hour-long BBC documentary on Lomo’s founding).
Perhaps that’s a strategy other small companies might also want to try, but the big boys should probably stay away.