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Which came first: the donations or the Kickstarter success?

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Some ideas are better than others. But that doesn’t mean some ideas will do better than others. In a new study, researchers found that projects on Kickstarter and other websites can benefit from looking popular.

In their study, researchers looked at four websites: Kickstarter, Epinions.com, Wikipedia, and Change.org. Their objective? They wanted to see whether a good idea or review on any these websites was motivated solely by merit, which they call “fitness," or whether there are other, more subtle factors at work.

They chose to test the “success breeds success” hypothesis. This idea says you will receive more support from others if they judge you to already be successful. It’s the reason buskers put a few coins in their hats and cases at the beginning of the day: so that people will donate more. Too much and people will feel they’re not contributing enough, but the right amount might make them think they’re on to a winner.

To test this, the researchers gave early donations to certain random projects on their chosen sites—but not all. For Kickstarter, they began watching 200 Kickstarters and evenly distributed money over just 100 of them. For Epinions, where people earn money for helpful reviews of new products, they took 305 unrated reviews adm gave them the “very helpful” rating. And so on, for Wikipedia, giving an award to random editors, and Change.org, where they electronically signed a random selection of petitions.

They found that, yep, “success breeds success.” If a project had shown signs of earlier success, albeit manufactured by the researchers, it was more likely to find success down the line. For example, 61 percent of the nonfunded 100 Kickstarters received further funding. Meanwhile, a 70 percent of the other 100 Kickstarters saw additional donations. 

There were also significant results for the experiments in Epinions.com, Wikipedia, and Change.org. Across the board, people were willing to be more generous if they thought that the person, review, or project in question had already been well-received by someone else.

The researchers did found, however, that more success didn’t necessarily breed more success. The initial donation counted the most, while the return on donations after the first one was not as dramatic.

In practical terms, this means there is a possibility to game the system on Kickstarter if a product first receives funding from friends and family. Many people already do this, like journalists liking their own articles on Facebook to get the ball rolling. The researchers call this the “vulnerability of meritocracies”—or, how systems that are meant to be all about who’s best rising to the top are at risk at being reduced to popularity contests.

We’re social animals, and a “like”—whether on Facebook or in the form of an initial donation on Kickstarter—tells us what we’re looking at was good enough to be enjoyed by another person. We just need to be sure to take the time to check it out for ourselves, and come to our own conclusions.

Photo via Saundi Wilson/Flickr