Project Title: Secrets Of A Kick*ss Kickstarter
Short Blurb: By now you may have heard the story of Zack Brown, an Internet-savvy entrepreneur from Columbus, Ohio.
Having never made potato salad, Zack wanted to give it a try, and in less than two days, his $10 Kickstarter campaign gained viral attention. Now, Zack will be making thousands of dollars' worth of the popular picnic staple.
Potato salad might be one of the strangest food campaigns ever conceived –– it's raised plenty of eyebrows (as well as cash) –– but when it comes to the history of the popular crowdfunding site, Kickstarter's 50,000-plus campaigns contain quite an eclectic variety.
In 2011, for instance, artist Michael Barrett raised $854 to build the world's largest jockstrap. Earlier this year, Noburo Bitoy's $8 campaign to "graph the deliciousness" of a Chipotle chicken burrito met its goal 131 times. Other weird-yet-successful forays include a life-sized monument of RoboCop that will stand in Detroit, and Bronycon, a $300,000 documentary about the adult male fans of the television series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
So why are people supporting these peculiar pipe dreams?
To flourish, a Kickstarter must tap into a particular slice of the zeitgeist.
Although crowdfunding campaigns can be capricious, says Ethan Mollick — a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania who has authored multiple research papers on crowdfunding — the fact that thousands of people can easily support something they find worthwhile indicates a shift in power. "They represent the democratizing power of the Internet."
A Kickstarter's success depends on its appeal to a specific online community, Ethan says.
"What Kickstarter does is translate things that are interesting to you into financial action."
And it doesn't cost an investor that much to see the translation unfold: "If it's five bucks, then it's five bucks. You can raise a lot of money without people actually caring a lot about it."
Kickstarters give people a sense of belonging
"The Internet is this incredibly cluttered space," says Deborah Small, "and advertisers are spending tons of money to capture the attention of consumers." Like Ethan, Deborah is a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research areas focus on marketing and psychology.
Then along comes this random guy "with a silly campaign," Deborah says. "We know that unusual things grab attention — and humor is part of that."
Deborah also attributes the odder crowdfunded successes to a sense of wanting to belong. "It's like how people wear certain clothes to fit in with certain groups," she says. "It's kind of ironic, because usually we think of conformity as being normal or mainstream, and yet these people are conforming to this strange phenomenon."
Remember the Pet Rock?
Ellen Langer, a social psychologist and professor at Harvard University, studies mindfulness and decision making. She says there's a long history of society funding offbeat ideas, such as the Pet Rock.
Stones packed in boxes like live animals, Pet Rocks were conceived in the 1970s by advertising executive Gary Dahl. They became all the rage, and the fad made Dahl a millionaire.
Ellen believes the same thing is happening with some Kickstarter campaigns. They could be the Pet Rocks of this decade.
She suggests several different motivations for this type of financial sponsorship.
"Sometimes it's a lark," Ellen says. "People see it as a small amount of money for enjoyment it could bring."
Sometimes it's encouragement of the entrepreneurial spirit. Ellen says these campaigns can be points of interest for people who like to give money but don't have the deep pockets of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.
"It feels generous and something larger than yourself," she says. "That's a very strong motivation."
Last, Ellen says that people sometimes make decisions mindlessly. She offers this anecdote: "Someone once put an ad in the paper, saying mail $1 to this address." The result, she says, was more than $20,000 in donations.
Alexander McCall is the social media intern at NPR. You can follow him at @awmccall.
The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers – of NPR. @NPRtpj