We live in a world where many things have been changed with the creation of crowdfunding. Since its creation in the early 90s it has allowed the opportunity for niche creations to find their audience at less of a risk to their creator than normal manufacturing. It has also created a new, more targeted field in marketing as well, you have a limited window and resources to find and target your niche and to create a campaign that draws those on the fringe in. Over the last 2 and a half years we have been following, with interest, the story of and the marketing techniques used in one Crowdfunding Campaign in particular. This Campaign can be used as a bit of a what not to do when planning such a campaign, not just in marketing but also in the way to ethically treat your customers. Given this seems to be such an object lesson we thought we might write about it here.
In early 2016 many British people of a certain vintage were very excited to hear of a new handheld computer device being launched: the ZX Vega+. The Vega+ was made by the company and team behind the original ZX Vega, Retro-Computers Ltd. The original Vega had been released a few years previously and was generally well received amongst retro gamers. The new device described itself on its Indiegogo page:
“The Vega+ is a new low cost hand-held games console with a colour LCD screen and 1,000 licensed games already installed. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega+, to give the product its full name, is based on Sir Clive’s hugely successful Spectrum products from the past – the early 1980s – and incorporates all the features of the ZX Vega and more, including stereo output for great reproduction of gaming sounds and music. It is the only games console that exists with 1,000 licensed games already included and with both an LCD for anywhere use and the capability to connect to a TV for home use.”
For many those of us who spent many happy hours trying to defeat Eugene’s Lair this sounds brilliant. The campaign also had some great imagery of a really nice looking, slick machine. Add these factors together and it might explain why at the end of the campaign it had raised over £500,000. The company also made the claim that the Vega+ was almost ready to go, stating on the Indiegogo platform:
“The development of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega+ is complete, and we have a fully working prototype waiting to go into production in the UK. Production and shipping of the first Vega+ games consoles are planned for late summer 2016. Given the chance, and with encouragement from all our supporters, we will reach our funding goal quickly and perhaps be able to improve on this delivery date.“
In these early days from a marketing perspective it seemed like a well executed campaign, nice imagery, strong text and it looked like people would get their product soon. Sadly this didn’t happen.
In the early days just after the funding target was reached the company kept posting updates. These updates hinted at some changes at the top of Retro computers with new company directors being added such as Dr Janko Mrsic-Flogel and Suzanne Martin. Though backers were hearing some things, there were other thngs that they were not told at this point, such as that the two original directors who had created the original Vega had left the company just weeks after the end of the Indiegogo Campaign.
In April 2016, the company claimed:
“Four Weeks after Mammoth Crowdfunding Campaign Sir Clive Sinclair’s Second Crowdfunded Project – The Vega+ Pushes the Button on UK Production“.
Backers assumed they were well on course for their September Delivery.
Various posts came and went, but the launch date of the machine wasn’t mentioned again until September the 26th, where backers were assured:” The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega+ to give it it’s full name, will launch on the 20th October”
After that, posts started to talk of a launch party on October the 20th, but no mention of shipping on that date again. October the 20th came and went and no mention of shipping. On December the 23rd, Suzanne Martin stated: “New Improved VEGA+ Scheduled to Ship in February, 2017.“
February came and went and the console did not get released, and for the next year dates were given for release and ignored.
The strangest things about this was the way the company acted, they constantly made claims that were not only outright false but easily verifiable. Time and again they stated that the machines were ready to go when they weren’t. Their attitude towards refunding people varied from strange, to legally dubious. The way they acted, as well as being ethically dubious, was terrible from a marketing perspective.
Suzanne Martin claimed on Friday 10th March, 2017: “We have never refused to refund a backer.”, a claim she repeated on Tuesday 28th March, 2017: “We haven’t refused – but this isn’t the place to request a refund. If you have requested a refund through the legitimate channels we are working our way through those.”
This was good news to the increasing number of people who had asked for refunds, many of whom are still asking for those same refunds 18 months later.
One of the strangest things about the way this has been handled is that Suzanne claims that she, herself is a PR expert, and is in fact previous owner of Suzanne Martin and Associates Limited. For an expert in PR, most of their whole campaign and tactic seems to be blaming the directors who have been gone for over 2 years. They are still claiming this is the reason that they cannot get a product out.
I spoke to a number of backers who had been seeking refunds, some of whom had contacted the company over 50 times asking to be refunded – all are met by silence. One backer I spoke to had contacted them via indiegogo, their own website, twitter and facebook over 25 times each and never had a single reply.
This is definitely not how to run an ethical business, and as time went on the noise from backers grew louder. The company consistently blamed everything on trolls, RCL staff claimed they had been threatened. Many times posts went up stating, or hinting that the police were ready to pounce on the old directors. Hints and subtle references were made to insinuate embezzlement, lying theft and hacking according to the current directors. All of this happened under the very public gaze of the backers in public forums.
Facebook groups were set up including the bizarrely titled Retro Computers Ltd Vega Plus (Democracy !) – a truly ironic title because anyone who had anything negative to say about the company was instantly banned or their posts deleted. The person who runs that group is Jan Saggiori. Jan claims no affiliation to RCL, yet RCL themselves described him as a colleague in a tweet. At the time Jan claimed he never backed the project and in fact offered to buy the console off of one of the people we spoke to, but the person involved knew that the Indiegogo purchase was not transferrable.
This strange tit for tat continued on until just last week when miraculously some Vega+’s started to arrive. These were definitely not the Vega’s initially promised, not everyone who ordered got one, and they didn’t have the promised 1000+ games. The reason given for not having the 1000 games – obviously it was the fault of the Directors who left 2.5 years previously.
The initial reviews from the people who have received their Vega+’s have not, in general, been positive. All was not lost for RCL though, there was one very positive review from a backer – Jan Saggiori. Jan’s positive review seems all the more strange given he stated himself he was definitely not a backer and is not affiliated in any way with RCL.
The whole thing just gets stranger and stranger, the machines that did turn up, turned up with no instructions, no charging cable and in a plain black box, something that they claimed was for ethical reasons.
Later on this week the BBC reported that Sky – who hold the Sinclair rights – are removing the rights to use the branding. In a very unusual move even Indiegogo have hired a collection agency to get backers money back.
I apologise if this seems overly negative but a sign of how wrong this campaign has gone for RCL was given in the amount of people who offered to help with this article. I was inundated with further information about how unethical the company had been, and how shocking the marketing was. Over 50 backers contacted me offering stories on their experience.
I have reached out directly to RCL a number of times and despite them stating on Twitter that someone would email me to give their side, no-one did, when I approached them again they just sent me a link to a press release that blamed everything on the past directors who left in 2016, I explained none of that explained why they refused refunds after stating they didn’t and they just ignore it.
So I will just finish with a checklist of what not to do if you’re running a campaign like this and want to be ethical and good marketers:
- Do not lie
- Do not constantly air your dirty laundry in public; people do not want to see that,
- Do not state you never refuse a refund, then refuse to refund people hundreds of times
- Do not constantly state you will do something and then don’t
- Answer your critics do not call everyone who says something you disagree with trolls
- Look at who you’re working with – in RCL’s case affiliating itself with Jan Saggiori (in their own words, a colleague) does no-one any favour as his tenuous grasp of reality and some of his mad comments and various attacks online against people are ridiculous
- Constant, honest communication, tell people the facts even if you look bad
- Be honest about your own failings
- Be humble – the gloating this week that items were out and the haters were proved wrong are frustrating to those who still have not been given what they ordered and paid for, a machine with 1000 games!